Lessons learned in an ESL Literacy Class

image source: bigstockphoto.com


During the fall term, I was privileged to teach a group of 10 ESL Literacy students. Although in the past I had volunteer-tutored a literacy student and had taught various computer literacy classes, teaching a whole class of beginner ESL students with literacy needs was a whole new challenge. I have to say it was thoroughly rewarding to see the eagerness in my students. Their grateful and hard-working attitudes inspired me and it was so thrilling during a lesson to see the “lights come on” at times when a student would have a breakthrough in understanding some aspect in reading or identifying our language symbols.

It was also a steep learning curve for me, but thankfully I had lots of support from other staff members.

Ideas for student success

If you are starting on the journey to teach ESL Literacy, here are seven things to consider for the success of your students in the classroom:

  • Start new lessons with speaking and listening. This will come more naturally for Literacy students.
  • Teach new vocabulary and ideas orally and using pictures, realia, and even pantomime before introducing the words in print.
  • For literacy learners, repetition and routine is good. Begin every class with the same or similar information on the board. Read it out loud together and have students write it down in their notebook. For example, I always began with the day and date, the weather, and maybe a simple question. I also wrote a daily agenda on the board. Make a habit of having daily routines in class.
  • Literacy learners need concrete examples to draw on their own experiences in order to understand more abstract concepts. Help them connect objects and experiences to textual materials. For example, you could present a map of the neighbourhood before and after going on a tour of the neighbourhood. Have them relate some of their own past experiences to more difficult abstract ideas.
  • Be sure to incorporate technology in the classroom when possible. Don’t be afraid to introduce them to using computers, the keyboard, the internet, and even their own phones in the context of the lessons.
  • As with any ESL class, show your students the value of their skills, knowledge, and culture and empower them with the knowledge that they have much to offer in our literate society.
  • Above all, be patient. One team member that I worked with gave me this tip – whatever your expectations as the instructor are for the lesson – cut it in half – and then in half again. Teaching ESL literacy can be a slow process, but it is extremely rewarding.

Online resources

In addition, you can check out the following online resources that have been helpful to me.



Tutela has some wonderful webinars on various aspects of teaching ESL literacy students:

  1. Online with low level learners – Catherine Porter https://tutela.ca/ViewEvent?itemId=18682
  2. ESL Literacy – Oral Language first and flashcard use – Valerie Baggaley   https://tutela.ca/ViewEvent?itemId=6807
  3. Orientation to the CLB Literacy Document – Shelagh Lenon https://tutela.ca/ViewEvent?itemId=18479
  4. Supporting ESL Learners with interrupted schooling – Dr. Ranya Khan https://tutela.ca/ViewEvent?itemId=19100
  5. PBLA Part 4 – Strategies for Literacy Teachers – Jean Campbell https://tutela.ca/ViewEvent?itemId=19225

Bow Valley College has a webinar about using the CCLB publication, Adult Literacy Learners (ALL) as a resource.


What tips do you have for teaching ESL Literacy? What online tools do you use?


Hello TESL O members. I'm Beth Beardall. I manage the TESL O Blog website working alongside an amazing team of editors and bloggers. I truly enjoy working with the TESL Ontario Blog Admin Team and have been volunteering with the TESL O Blog since 2016. I am OCELT certified and have a master's degree in Adult Education. I work in the LINC/ESL program with adult learners. I enjoy learning from others, teaching or tutoring ESL and getting to know people from around the world, and, of course, copy editing and proofreading.


6 thoughts on “Lessons learned in an ESL Literacy Class”

  1. Teaching ESL Literacy Class – It is of the most importance to repeat, review and demonstrate listening skill to literacy students. This must be done on daily basis and copying from the board and various charts prepared by the instructor is a great asset.

  2. Thanks for your comments Jean. I agree, it is rewarding and gratifying to see learners develop their understanding of literacy even as they learn English. It’s truly amazing when you think about it!

    1. Great tips, Kelly! Thanks for sending the link and offering concrete and practical examples from your classroom. You mentioned how you spend the week going back and forth between the whole and the parts. I can’t agree more that is an important aspect of teaching ESL Literacy. I’m going to try out the sentence scramble game on vocabularyspellingcity.com!

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