Tips for ESL Literacy Teachers

by Heide Wrigley from Bringing Literacy to Life

notes from Heide Wrigley

My strongest recommendation for teaching classes with mixed literacy levels is to collect a set of evocative pictures and use those as spring boards for conversation, vocabulary development, beginning writing and critical thinking - . Simple questions, such as "What do you see?" can allow students to respond with whatever language they have -

I also ask students to bring in pictures of their families and their homes and talk about them in pairs and in small groups. I'll take some of my pictures of family and of friends, home country and home, enlarge them on a colored printer and put them on the overhead as a starting point for very basic English comprehension, reading (language experience), and conversation (what's *your* name? Do *you* have a dog? Do you like dogs or cats?) and then move on to greetings and introductions (without putting much on the board at all since it gets in the way of students' going with the language flow.

I also bring in different kinds of drinks, cookies, and fruits to introduce language functions such as "making offers", "responding to offers" (would you like some cola or some water?) to get things started. The better students can be the hosts, while all the shyer ones need to do is to respond non-verbally (pointing) or saying "water, please" or "no thanks". This can go on for quite a while and requires no literacy.

My favorite is a book of wonderful photographs from around the world, called "Material World". National Geographic also has some wonderful pictures on their web page.

By the way, we are working right now with CLESE, a coalition of immigrant and refugee providers serving seniors in Chicago to develop multi-media materials for ESL and civics (Aliza Becker is a consultant on the project). So I would love to share information and bright ideas with any of you who are doing similar work (e.g., working with beginning students with little formal education; using multi-media for these levels; connecting immigrants to their communities and to other ethnic groups to share information about themselves and their history; connecting the ESL curriculum to civic rights and responsibilities (with a special emphasis on universal Human Rights; community mapping; virtual visits etc).

Tips for ESL literacy teachers

Heide Spruck Wrigley, Aguirre International

How can teachers provide a rich literacy experience for their students? The following suggestions, based on the educational principles that shape rich language and literacy development, may provide some guidance. These guidelines are not meant as "teacher-proof' solutions to ESL literacy; rather they are meant as a basis for reflection and discussion with other teachers (or just with yourself).

Strive for genuine communication between yourself and your students.

Design activities that tell you who your students are, what their experiences have been, what they care about, and what literacy means to them. Share information about yourself, your joys, and your sorrows, and invite your students to talk about themselves. Treat your student as you would any intelligent adult and do not spend a great deal of time asking questions to which you already know the answer. After you have just written the date on the board, saying "Su Ma, could you please read the date on the board?" is more respectful than asking "What's the date today?"

Make your classroom into a community of learners where everyone feels welcome and all views are respected.

Provide opportunities for different groups to work together, share information, and be a resource for each other. Ask learners to read as a group, share their ideas about a piece they have read, and write collaboratively. Invite contributions that do not depend on language and literacy, such as illustrating a story the group has written. Provide opportunities for sharing experiences across cultures by asking learners to talk about their lives back home and share significant cultural customs (e.g., weddings, funerals, or births) and family traditions. Discuss differences in literacy practices as well as commonalities. Learn to be a facilitator who guides the group, instead of a general who controls all interactions.

Link literacy with visual information.

Provide information in the forms of visuals and realia (objects such as phones, staplers, machines, food, and signs) to get a point across. Choose photographs, posters, slides, and videos whose message can be understood without language (e.g., Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant," the grape stomping scene from "I Love Lucy").` Use these visuals to create an atmosphere, illustrate a point, demonstrate a task, elicit a feeling, or pose a problem. Encourage learners to respond in many different ways, allowing them to smell, touch, and manipulate realia and to respond to visuals in both verbal and non-verbal ways (classifying signs or developing strip stories by moving pictures around). Provide opportunities for learners to illustrate their writings with illustrations and photographs and give them a chance to interact without having to depend on language and literacy (e.g., sharing food, organizing a potluck, dancing at end-of-cycle parties).

Publish your students' work.

Make room for your students' writing on your walls and in the hallways. Involve them in making signs, labels, and posters. Write their ideas down on large newsprint, tape papers on the wall, and refer to them often. Involve the school in publishing end-of-semester yearbooks, autobiographies, and collections of student writings. Use hallways or places where students congregate as a gallery for displaying student work, photos, poems, etc. Encourage learners to invite family and friends to visit and admire their work.

Don't let learners get "mired in words."

Instead, provide opportunities to get the "big picture." Ask learners to bring in literacy materials they find puzzling, have them explain the context, and enlist the group in guessing what the materials might say. Highlight key words and ask learners to fill in the rest using what they know about the real world. Watch an interesting video with the sound off and have learners create their own stories or predict what the actors might be saying. Turn on the sound and ask learners to repeat the phrases they catch. Talk about the way adults learn to listen and read in a second language by linking what they already know about the world with what they hear and see written.

Make literacy learning fun and focus on things that matter.

Students learn best when they have something to say and a reason for paying attention to others. Present a variety of options and then let learners choose what interests them, so they will enjoy their work. Give them opportunities to respond in a variety of ways in class, such as quiet listening, group recitations, non-verbal reactions, and written responses. Encourage and support your students, but challenge them as well.

Focus on meaning while helping learners see how language works.

Recognize that ESL students need opportunities to use language and literacy for their own purposes. Sometimes, that purpose includes understanding unusual phrases, idiosyncratic pronunciation, or simple grammar rules. At other times, students may wonder what language is appropriate in certain situations, such as what kind of note to write if a teacher's mother has died. Make room in your students to write down the topics that concern them and the questions they want to have answered. Let them predict what the speaker might say. Help your students make connections between what they know, what they are curious about, and the information they expect to receive. Ask your students to respond to the session and evaluate the speaker (e.g., what they liked and didn't like, understood and didn't understand, their favorite new words, etc.).

Connect literacy to life.

Ask students to tell their stories, share their pictures, and recite their favorite poems or sayings. Give them the opportunity to observe literacy use in a variety of contexts and ask them to listen for interesting language wherever they go. Turn your students into researchers who ask family members, friends, and acquaintances about their experiences with schooling and learning. Ask them to find out about other people's views on language and culture and compare them to their own. Encourage learners to examine the role of literacy in their life and in their communities and help them see how literacy can be used to shape and alter the world.

Assess success.

As you observe your learners, ask yourself "what is really going on here?" Find ways of recording "literacy incidents," events that show you whether your students are fully engaged in a particular activity or are just "going through the motions." Share your notes. Collaborate with others in your program (coordinators, teachers, and learners) and decide "what really counts." Define what you mean by success in language, literacy, and learning for the program and develop strategies for capturing small successes along the way. Categorize, analyze, and summarize until a rich picture of your literacy class emerges. Congratulate your students on their achievements. Share your success.


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