Guest Contributor: Zainab Almutawali
These tips and guidelines are meant for instructors and volunteers who are new to the field of literacy and intend to work with adult literacy learners. What makes this document different is that it is not based on research papers and teaching theories. Rather, it is based on my experience teaching literacy students from diverse backgrounds and various levels of literacy. It is also based on other teachers’ experiences and my learners’ feedback, which I always consider when planning my lessons. Despite the challenges, I find that teaching literacy is very rewarding and fulfilling.
Understanding the background of literacy learners and their needs is the first step to a fruitful learning experience. Most literacy learners are individuals who have never been to school before, have had limited education (one to two years of schooling) in their home countries, or quit school many years ago (received up to nine years of education). As a result, besides lacking knowledge of English, they may lack reading and writing skills and learning strategies in their first language, which leaves them with no transferable skills to refer to when learning a new language.
Many of the learning strategies that we take for granted are not familiar to literacy learners and these need to be taught alongside the language itself. Such skills may include answering comprehension questions, matching words to pictures, filling out a form, unscrambling words, and even forming letters by writing on a line.
Understanding the background of literacy learners and how they are different from mainstream learners helps both teachers and learners; for example, teachers set more realistic expectations and goals that learners are able to work up to, like the number of new vocabulary words introduced, taught, and reviewed in a certain period of time. For learners, acknowledging their literacy background results in them becoming more patient and understanding of the time needed to show progress in English. Indeed, many of my learners realize that fact. They would say, “so- and- so can learn English faster than me because they went to school in their home country.”
Despite literacy students’ limited education, they decide to come to school. Why? For many reasons, such as getting a job, communicating with their children’s school, and becoming self-reliant in order to solve practical problems in everyday life. The lack of English skills, especially reading skills, creates obstacles in these learners’ daily lives.
To encourage regular attendance, one good practice is to remind students of their objectives in attending English class. It motivates them to remember their ultimate goals and the better future they are working toward. Another useful exercise is to ask them when and where they use English in their daily life. Sharing success stories helps learners realize how much progress they have made, which encourages them to continue learning English. It also informs educators of the context for which students need English.
I appreciate the fact that these adult learners attend class, and to show my appreciation, I try different ways to help them benefit from each hour they spend in the class. Accomplishing something every day, whether it is learning a couple of new words, answering a question correctly, or reading a short text by themselves, motivates students to continue attending class regularly because they see achievement happening immediately. On the other hand, if literacy learners are overwhelmed by too many new words and longer texts, they will feel helpless. If they cannot see that they are making any progress, they become discouraged and attendance slips.
In my next blog post, I will list some of the best practices I have found to be useful in teaching English to adult literacy learners.
Zainab Almutawali has been working in the field of ESL teaching since 2010. After working with students with a wide range of skills in English, Zainab has come to fall in love with literacy. Its unpredictability and challenges intrigue her and bring out her creativity. Zainab hopes readers find her posts useful and practical.