Strategies for Low literacy learners, Alan Williams

Shaping L2 and literacy acquisition:
Teachers’ strategies for low-literacy
background learners
Alan Williams
The context
• ESL/EAL in Australia (Melbourne), over 30 years of working with different
groups of low literacy ESL learners, in schools and in adult education
• Research has focused on needs and experiences of particular groups, eg
Oliver, Haig & Grote (2009), Miller, Mitchell & Brown (2005),
• This has found mismatches in expectations between schools, and families
and students
• Some specialist teachers within ESL programs with accumulated experience
• Some teaching materials, but never enough!
• How do successful and experienced teachers work with low literacy students?
What are their insights that inform their work with these learners?
The study
• Investigate the teaching strategies used by experienced teachers of
ESL low-literacy background students
• See how these teachers see low literacy students compared to
‘regular ESL’ students, and how their needs compare
• What has informed these teachers, and how have they learned to
work with these students?
• What are the teachers doing? – as the classroom is the most
significant second language environment for these learners
- How may this shape the learners’ SLA and literacy development?
Data: Classes
• Teachers selected through knowledge of schools with experience teaching
low literacy ESL learners – approach school, provider/ teacher recommended
by principal or curriculum leader
• Secondary, long-term not yet collected
• Adult recent arrival learner group based analysis of PD video (AMES 2006)
Recent arrivals
Longer term residents
NAP English language school
(ESL VELS Companion stages BL
– B1)
Composite grade 3/4 in low SES
high immigrant community (VELS
Stage 2 and ESL Companion stage
New Arrivals English Language
school (ESL Stages SL - S1)
Not yet collected
Video of AMEP class, and
Community-based, neighbourhood
comments of teacher (Pre-CSWE- learning centre, in Inner urban area
(ESL Framework, Certificate 1)
Data collected
• Observation of one class (1-2 hours), notes of class activities in terms
of focus on :
- language learning,
- literacy learning,
- other learning.
• Content of learning more than learning processes
• Interview with each teacher:
- their view of the needs of low literacy background learners ,
- the teaching strategies they use,
- how the lesson observed compares to other lessons
- how teachers learned about working with low literacy students
Focus of the classes
Recent Arrivals
• States and Territories of Australia,
Capital cities
Long-term residents
• ‘Literacy block’:
- Vocabulary
- Reading a text on Puffer fish
- Strategies to use in reading and
• Recent excursion to the central
• Reading a story about a disabled
student joining a basketball team
• Health and illnesses, a sick
student, writing a note to a teacher
• Addresses, and completing an
address on an envelope
language focus
Recent arrivals
Long-term residents
• Question structures for asking about factual
information eg ‘Are there..?’
• Sentences for providing factual information
eg ‘There are…’
• Yes/No answers
• Prefixes and suffixes eg ‘dis-..’ ‘un-..’
• S-V order, and use of adverbials eg ‘We went
to….on Friday’, ‘On Friday we went to…’
• Past tense marking of verbs
• Adverbials of time
• Greetings
• Vocabulary of parts of the body
• Narrative about someone who is ill and
unable to attend school
• Text: note to teacher about an absence from
• Numbers eg 140 said as ‘one hundred and
forty’, local postcode (3065) as ‘three-oh-sixfive’
• Pronunciations of ‘envelope’
• Word stress patterns
• ‘/’ pronounced as ‘slash’
Literacy focus
Recent arrivals
Long term residents
• Nothing explicit
• Word recognition
• Attention to stages and strategies in writing (writing as
a process)
• Reviewing and revising the mechanics of your own
• Strategies to use in reading – especially relating prior
knowledge to what you read
• Parts of books, especially non-fiction: sections, and
contents page and what it shows
• Drawing gist from a complex text
• Nothing explicit
• Using and identifying initial consonants in word
• Grapho-phonic relationships ‘f’ = /f/ ‘ch’ = /tʃ/
• Letters and words, copying accurately
• Format and layout of a formal note /letter to a teacher
• Copying activities,
• Repetition
• Recognizing words beginning with (letter) ‘a’
• Students following text read by teacher
• Recognizing consonant cluster sounds (blends) eg
/str/ in ‘street’, /st/ in ‘state’
• Graphophonic awareness – number of syllables in
written words
• Awareness of upper and lower case letters
Other learning
Recent arrivals
• Classroom rules (one person talking at a time, hands
up to answer, no calling out)
• Speaking to whole class from front of the room
• Features of Australian capital cities
Long-Term residents
• Collaborative and team work
• Puffer fish
• School routines and behaviour (eg student not to sit
right next to heater!, hands up, no calling out )
• Explanation when one student leaves class to fulfill
duty as school roll monitor for the day
• How to speak to the whole class-projection of voice,
eye contact etc
• Learning as fun
• Physical basis to learning
• Personal basis of stories and written texts
• Explicit instruction on classroom activities, eg reporting
to the class (where to stand, eye contact, volume of
• Conventions related to addresses in Australia –
marking different house types, eg houses and
• L1 forms of words students have been learning in
• Stamps and costs of postage in Australia eg 60 cents
standard item anywhere, international depends on size,
weight , destination
Observations: Summary
• A lot of attention to expectations of classroom routines and behaviour in
recent arrivals, especially in the school sector (strong emphasis on ‘doing
school’, statement and re-statement of expectations)
• Personalisation of learning for adults
• Attending to processes of learning; organising, relating learning to prior
• Language and literacy focus around non-linguistic meanings/content
• Long term primary: teacher juggling several levels of literacy development,
low-literacy background ESL one of a number (less sharp focus on this group)
• Language focus less explicit in school group than in language programs
• Often slow pace to complete tasks for low-literacy background classes
Interviews: What the teachers say about learning needs
• Slow pace of learning of low-literacy background learners, need for
constant repetition
• Different prior knowledge to schooled ESL learners; less congruent
with the prior knowledge assumed in schooling
• Learning needs are centred on learning-to-learn skills and
development of self-awareness of themselves as learners
• Need for concrete, activity base for learning activities
• Need to learn important assumed content knowledge and skills for
participation in mainstream school
• Low-literacy background students need to experience success
• Huge perceived gap between current skills and mainstream
Interviews: teaching strategies
• Extensive modelling of classroom and learning activities
• Need for students to achieve and be challenged
• Highly structured activities and texts, frequent repetition, revision
• Spend a lot of time working with a limited amount of learning material
• Control of texts, which are kept basic, in order to focus on essential
features (less ‘naturalistic’ texts)
• Low literacy ESL learners exposed to limited range of input, in highly
structured activities with strong visual support, and mostly meanings
related to experience and needs
• Non-linguistic content learning sets context for explicit focus/noticing
of elements of the language-literacy system
• Strong emphasis on learning about learning (including thinking about
themselves as learners) and school/classroom routines.
AMES Victoria (2006) Into Learning, Melbourne, Australia (Video).
Miller, J., Mitchell, J. & Brown, J (2005) African refugees with interrupted
schooling in the high school mainstream: Dilemmas for teachers, Prospect
20(2), p19 to33.
Oliver, R., Y Haig & E. Grote (2009) Addressing the educational needs of
African refugee background students: Perceptions of West Australian
Stakeholders, TESOL in Context,19(1) p23 to 38.
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