for EAL Literacy

This section includes descriptions of what the Best Practices might look like when applied in a variety of contexts.

Vignette 1: Emergent Readers

The learners in my class are emergent readers. They have between 1 and 3 years of prior education. They are eager but need the tools to maximize their potential to learn and develop their skills. I’ve found that classroom activities must help learners connect meaning with print; it’s also crucial that literacy activities build on real-life experiences. Here are some of the tools in my toolbox of teaching strategies:

  • Before starting class, I gather the resources I will need to create a print-rich environment that appeals to different ways of learning. I bring in materials that connect visual images with printed words, such as flashcards, pictures, and posters.
  • As well, I prepare a small package of learning supplies for each student. Each pack contains crayons, glue, a pencil, an eraser, a pair of scissors, a highlighter, and cut-out card stock with no writing on it. These supplies create teachable moments as students identify the items and describe their use. We maximize the use of these items when learners cut out pictures and words, write letters and numbers on card stock, and use highlighters when identifying letter sounds.
  • My students and I make extensive use of body language. If you visit my class, you’ll see me using gestures, movement, facial expressions, and sound effects to demonstrate meaning. I encourage my students to make full use of body language to express the things they see, feel, hear, and wish to communicate. As they do so, I provide them with spoken language to express those ideas, and they gain confidence and start to communicate with words.
  • I use themes related to my learners’ everyday experiences, such as food, transportation, home activities, and hobbies. Examples of activities that we do in class include the following:
    • Using a picture dictionary to create a food vocabulary list
    • Filling out a customized grocery list
    • Examining realia, such as bus/train schedules, tickets, and passes
    • Writing simple sentences to describe their activities at home
    • Labelling pictures or objects related to their hobbies and interests
    • When possible, we visit a museum or attend a festival in our location. During the trip, learners engage with artefacts, stories, and celebrations. As a follow-up, we may label pictures, write short sentences under pictures, or write language experience stories.

These activities aim to build opportunities for learners to connect the printed word with real-life, relevant meaning.

Vignette 2: Building Routines in an EAL Literacy Classroom

I teach ESL literacy learners who have just a few years of prior education. I find that I spend a lot of time gathering materials and planning a large number of activities to develop their language and literacy skills. Setting up a series of predictable routines helps me focus my efforts, keeps the class from feeling scattered, and provides a sense of stability for my learners:

  • I have developed a warm-up routine related to pictures I post on the walls. I rotate the pictures depending on our class theme. As learners arrive in class, they roam around the classroom and look at the pictures they see on the walls and boards, identifying which pictures are new. We gather together, and I elicit words for the latest pictures they have found. I then hand out cut-out words that students use to label all of the images (both old and new). Every day I take the labels down and hand them out the following day for learners to re-label the room. This routine is motivating and helps learners connect print to meaning.
  • Once most learners have arrived, we have a regular “morning meeting” where we check in with and greet each other. We then negotiate together the plans for the day. I write the plans on the board or flipchart paper, adding in suggestions from learners.
  • As learners are introduced to and become familiar with the alphabet letters, I give them a set of cut-out letters to manipulate. They work in groups and help each other create simple words from the theme-related picture–word flashcards on their word rings. As they collaborate, they generate more terms and expand their vocabulary.
  • I schedule a regular period during each lesson to develop the motor skills and muscles learners need for writing. They use pencil grips as they trace letters and numbers in free downloadable worksheets from Boggles World and Live Worksheets (search “letters” or “numbers”).
  • I schedule a predictable time for sustained silent reading every day. I have a collection of level-appropriate books designed for adults that learners can choose from. In addition, learners know that they are welcome to (and expected to) pull out their book and read if they finish an activity early.
  • I also regularly schedule kinesthetic and tactile activities to promote motivation and teamwork. For instance, I might divide my class into teams and give each team a poster board and cut-out words, pictures, and glue. Prizes of school supplies (provided by my school) add to the fun. The learners’ excitement is palpable as they collaborate on meaningful tasks that combine learning and fun.

Vignette 3: A Balanced Literacy Approach

Over the years, as I’ve attended professional development workshops and read articles about teaching EAL literacy learners, I have learned about the benefits of a balanced literacy approach. Balanced literacy ensures that meaning-making and discreet skills (e.g., phonics) are contextualized within a broader lesson or theme. I generally follow the Whole-Part-Whole model (see this video by Andrea Echelberger: combined with a language experience approach.

Begin with the Whole

Together as a class, we choose a module or unit with a topic that is meaningful to learners.

  • We draw on learners’ existing background knowledge and life experience as we work to develop both schema and oral language. We talk about the topic; watch videos; read stories together (e.g., CIWA’s Health Literacy Partnership resources); invite guest speakers (e.g., a community police officer, or a public health official); or go on field trips (e.g., to the local library, to learn how to use an ATM, to get to know the public transit system, to a festival).
  • When learners are familiar with the topic, and have developed their oral language related to the topic, we then create a learner-generated text. That is, the learners generate the text using their own words, and I write down their words (e.g., in a projected document or on flipchart paper). For example, learners might re-tell what they saw in a video or heard in a story. Or I might project a series of pictures from the field trip in a Word document; learners tell me what happened, and I write down their words.
  • We read the projected story together. I also print out the story they created so that they each have their own copy, and we read that version together. The words are their own, so they are familiar with the words that they now see in print.

Move to the Parts

We then do a number of activities that develop some of the bottom-up (phonics) skills that learners need.

  • I might pull out words from the text that have a similar spelling pattern. For instance, I might write on the board all the words with long vowels that end with an –e. We’ll explore what the words would sound like without that final –e.
  • I may project our story onto the whiteboard and have learners take turns coming up to circle all of the words with a particular initial sound. We practice sounding them out: onset (i.e., the first letter) and rime (i.e., the remaining letters in a single-syllable word).
  • I may write all of the long multisyllabic words on the board, and we clap with each syllable as we sound out the syllables and words.
  • I may pull certain words from the story, and put them in a worksheet with only the initial and final sounds included. Students consult their story to fill in the missing vowels.
  • I may have students highlight all of the past tense verbs in their story. I’ll write the present tense verbs on the board, and students consult their stories to tell me how to write the past tense verbs.
  • Often, I project a Quizlet on the board and ask learners which words from the story they would like me to add. Together we create the Quizlet, and they help me select appropriate images. Learners then review the words on their own time using Quizlet flashcards, matching, and spell modes to connect meaning (images) with print. I will also flash the words on the screen quickly, asking them what the word is. My goal is to help learners increase their repertoire of sight words (words they can recognize on sight, without having to decode).

Go Back to the Whole

When learners have mastered targeted skills in the Parts, we move back to the Whole, focusing on increasing fluency and making meaning. I give learners lots of opportunity to read and re-read the story.

  • Sometimes we do running dictations where learners work in teams. They take turns coming to the front, reading short sentences from the story, and then returning to their team to dictate the sentence. Their team members write down the sentences. They then compare their sentences to the printed story.
  • I may give each group a set of sentence strips, and they put the strips in order to reconstruct the story.
  • I might orally ask the class comprehension questions and have learners work with a partner to point out the place in the story that has the answer.
  • I might create a cloze activity from the text, with the Quizlet words removed.
  • I might create a guided writing activity based on the text. For instance, if we have written a story about what we all did during a field trip, I might write portions of an email telling a friend about the field trip, and students fill in the missing pieces.

Vignette 4: Moving Online in EAL Literacy (and MALP)

I teach a workplace-oriented ESL class. Most of my learners are ESL literacy learners with have 5–9 years of formal education. They are learning English while strengthening their literacy skills. They are also learning how to “do school.” I read an article by Andrea DeCapua about the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (or MALP), which made sense to me, and I found this short infosheet on MALP. Here is how I try to apply the MALP recommendations:

  • First, I make sure that whatever we do is directly related to my learners’ immediate needs, and I help my learners make connections with each other. In 2020, when we had to transition to online learning, my learners’ most immediate need was to be able to use the online platform Zoom. They also needed to learn how to connect with each other in a way that was very different from anything they had encountered previously. During the first week of class, I focused on the Zoom features that would help my learners connect with me and with each other. They learned new words and phrases, like “audio,” “video,” “chat,” “participants,” “poll,” share screen,” “reaction,” and “breakout room.” They muted and unmuted their audio and turned their video on and off. They developed the ability to use the thumbs up, clap, and heart icons to respond to their classmates. I showed them where to find the participant list so they could learn their classmates’ names, and I showed them how to use the gallery view to see each other’s faces in class. We made regular use of the breakout rooms. They even learned to use the share screen button to share pictures and websites that interested them.
  • Second, I help my learners move from working collaboratively to working independently. For instance, in my customer service unit, I assigned one of the following topics to each of 3 groups: greeting/welcoming customers, making suggestions, and customer complaints. Each group worked together on a Google slide presentation, with one slide with a list of tips and a second slide with a list of useful language. Learners talked about how they would present the information. Then we re-grouped so that there was one “expert” on each topic in each new group. That is, groups were now composed of “experts” on different topics. Each expert worked independently to share their screen and present their tips and language to their new group. In this way, learners had both shared responsibility to generate ideas and put those ideas in writing, and individual accountability to present those ideas using the slides.
  • Third, I try to make sure that when students are working with unfamiliar language, they have a chance to use it in familiar contexts; similarly, I make sure that if they are working with unfamiliar concepts, they are using familiar language. For example, when I teach my learners how to use modals for making polite suggestions, they first use these suggestion forms to role-play very familiar interactions with family and friends. When they have some control over those modals, the learners then use this language in less familiar customer service role-plays.


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ATESL Best Practices for Adult EAL and LINC Programming in Alberta by Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language (ATESL) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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