Quick Tips for Teaching Literacy – Part Three of Three

Colourful Letter Tiles
Photo by Surendran MP on Unsplash

Guest Contributor: Zainab Almutawali

In Part One and Part Two of this series I’ve talked about issues that may affect attendance for literacy learners, as well as some best practices I’ve picked up over the years.  In this post, I’ll pass along some more effective teaching practices for literacy learners and tips on PBLA.


I can’t stress enough how important repetition is at this level. New language learners need to encounter newly-learned vocabulary seven times to retain it. For literacy students, lack of educational background and other factors like age, stress, and family commitments, result in retention becoming more challenging. I find that it takes about two weeks to teach a topic, which means that we go over the same vocabulary for about 10 days. By the end of the second week, the students have retained the key words and are able to read, write, and use them in speech. For instance, when teaching about family relations, choose no more than 10 vocabulary terms and design numerous activities and tasks around these words. My students appreciate repetition tremendously, as it allows them to see themselves progressing.

Build on Prior Knowledge

Instructors need to build on students’ prior knowledge to help advance their learning. Introducing new concepts that don’t relate to students’ lives will easily confuse literacy learners.

Address Challenges Right Away

Don’t let challenges accumulate. There might be something that hinders the student’s learning, such as family problems, vision issues, difficulty with class materials, pressure from peers, etc. It’s important that learners are open and share their feelings about learning and coming to class.

Limit the Amount of New Information

Due to their lack of educational background, words and script don’t carry any meaning for illiterate individuals. Presenting loads of vocabulary and handing out many worksheets will just overwhelm them, and they will go nowhere with their learning.

Some tips on successfully administering PBLA

Needs Assessment

When a student first arrives in the class, I assess their needs by asking them the following questions:

  • Have you ever been to school before? How many years?
  • Have you ever studied English before? What did you learn?
  • Do you know the letters of the alphabet?
  • Can you read or write in your first language?
  • Why do you want to learn English?
  • When and where do you use English in your daily life?
  • What topics do you want to learn about?

I then show them pictures of 12 themes they can choose from

Class Expectations

After completing the needs assessment, I introduce the class expectations.

I explain that:

  • In this class we will learn about different themes and topics that will help them integrate into Canadian society.
  • We will practice four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
  • It’s very important to be able to complete tasks independently. While it’s okay to ask for help from their classmates, at some point during the session, they are expected to transition from using help from teachers/volunteers/peers, to completing assignments and tasks independently. They will be assessed based on their ability to complete worksheets with minimum help.
  • Attendance and participation are required to fully benefit from the English classes and to show progress in their English skills. Absences are allowed only for legitimate reasons.
  • Assessment is based on daily attendance, class participation, ability to follow classroom instructions and complete work independently, as well as assessments that are given throughout the session.

Throughout this three-part series, I’ve attempted to recap my fruitful experience teaching literacy.  Although working with literacy learners can be challenging, it is a rewarding experience and one that is unforgettable. As literacy instructors we need to understand students’ needs and capabilities, and use level-appropriate materials and assessments for our learners to progress. Following these guidelines has made my classes enjoyable. No matter how long the day is, my students and I always look forward to our next learning experience.

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 fell in love with teaching literacy learners. Its unpredictability and challenges intrigue her and bring out her creativity. Zainab hopes readers find her posts useful and practical.


One thought on “Quick Tips for Teaching Literacy – Part Three of Three”

  1. Thank you, Zainab, for sharing your experience. I enjoyed reading your blog. It’s simple and right to the point. I will definitely use these tips in our literacy class.

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