Approaches to Adult ESL Literacy Instruction
Were you taught how to teach adult ESL literacy? Many undergraduate and graduate programs largely ignore this part of the ESL teaching field. Many of us were taught to teach in environments where the students are typically well-educated. Many teachers who end up employed in adult education find that they must play "catch-up" in order to come to grips with this new (and very different) classroom. The first book that anyone new to adult ESL should read is Approaches to Adult ESL Literacy Instruction, a collection of essays edited by JoAnn Crandall and Joy Kreeft Peyton of the Center for Applied Linguistics. Each essay has been written by an expert in the particular approach it covers, and the book is the primary source for all instruction in this area.
The first chapter covers attaining literacy through a competency-based educational approach (CBE). K. Lynn Savage describes CBE as "a functional approach to education that emphasizes life skills and evaluates mastery of those skills according to actual learner performance" ( p. 15). Through this approach students learn those basic life skills associated with survival in a new country, such as language associated with how to obtain food and shelter or how to ask for directions. In Savage's use of this approach, it can also include how to take notes for a lecture or how to function in a work-place situation. She describes it as having four components: assessment of student needs, selection of competencies based on those needs, instruction targeted to those needs, and evaluation of student performance in those competencies (p. 16).
Savage does a good job of providing a rationale for the approach. She also provides a comprehensive history of the approach, including the objections made by some people to the sometimes too-narrow approach that can occur. Her response, in essence, is that it is not the approach that is too narrow, but rather the application of that approach by some practitioners.
The topic of chapter 2 is the use of a whole language approach to teaching adults. In this chapter, Rigg and Kazemek provide the theoretical underpinnings for whole language as well as a sense of how it is used in the classroom. It is important to understand that the originators of this approach do not view it as a method, but rather as a way to view language. They provided several assertions concerning language: language is whole; written language is natural; there are cognitive, emotional, social, and personal differences [-1-] among students; and language is social. These are the tenets of the proponents of a whole language approach.
One flaw in Rigg and Kazemek's presentation is that they do not address the many criticisms of this approach. In order to better understand whole language, one must also understand what many see as drawbacks to this method. There are certainly at least two other "camps" on this issue. In one camp, you have the "phonics only" people. In the other camp, you have the "balanced approach" people. It would have been helpful to the reader if this information had been included in the text.
The third approach discussed is the language experience approach (LEA). Marcia Taylor describes it as a "whole language approach to instruction that promotes reading and writing by transcribing a student's experiences, with the transcription then used as reading material for the student" (p. 47). The basic premise behind the approach is that students can create stories even if they are not quite ready to write their own stories. LEA was originally developed as a response to phonics-based programs and is primarily a top-down approach to reading.
Taylor provides a competent description of LEA. She discusses the two basic variations of it; the personal experience story and the group experience story. One particularly helpful tool that Taylor provides is explicit, step-by-step instructions on how to utilize either variation of this method.
The fourth approach is the publishing of students' writing. The premise behind this approach, as postulated by Peyton, is that it provides students with the opportunity to not only express their lives in writing, but also to provide a source of reading for other students. Peyton offers a format for implementing this approach in the classroom, providing specific steps: encouraging students to write, pre-writing, drafting, sharing and responding to writing, revising, editing, and publication and distribution (p. 62). This gives the reader the sense that this approach will actually work and could (and should) be adopted. Peyton also includes a list of organizations that have published student writing.
The value of this approach is clear. Although most writing instructors are now concerned with process, students are still mainly interested in product. To be able to show other people what they have written in a published format can be an empowering event.
The Freirean approach was developed by the late Paulo Freire to provide literacy skills to the poor of Brazil. Adapting his problem-posing approach for immigrant and refugee students in the United States was a relatively smooth transition, although not without some problems. The Freirean Approach, according to David Spener, is a "fluid, philosophical approach to the organization and discussion of [-2-] the thematic content of language study" (p. 75). Because it is more a philosophy than an approach, ESL teachers have used it with many different methods and techniques that they have found to be compatible, such as LEA stories, oral histories, Total Physical Response, jazz chants, strip stories and sentences, cloze dictation, paired reading, and dialogue journal writing (p. 83). The basic premise is that the teacher provides a code, usually a picture, to elicit discussion concerning a particular topic which is typically related to the students' lives.
Spener also discusses problems with utilizing this approach. It should be remembered that this approach was developed for people who knew a great deal about their culture and who, although non-literate, were clearly able to speak their own language. This is certainly not the case for our ESL students.
Although perhaps somewhat short on concrete, classroom-ready ideas, this article does provide a solid overview of Freire's approach and how it is being utilized in western society.
Whichever approach you select, and you might select them all, this book is a valuable asset to the field. It provides a coherent and cohesive introduction to the major approaches used in adult ESL literacy instruction. This book should be handed to all new adult ESL instructors upon being hired. It could also serve as a valuable resource for more experienced teachers, or as a text for a credential or graduate program.
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