The Pen is Mightier than the Sword


In 2015, the Government of Canada released a supplementary document to the CLB, entitled “ESL for ALL.” The document describes three types of Adult Literacy Learners (ALL):

Semi-literate and non-literate learners live in literate societies, but respectively possess little to no literacy skills (broadly, the ability to read and write).
Pre-literate learners “come from oral cultures where the spoken languages do not have current written forms or where print is not regularly encountered in daily life. They may not understand that print conveys meaning or realize how important reading and writing are in Canadian society.”

Pre-literate learners may not understand that print conveys meaning.

That description of pre-literate learners absolutely blew my mind. “Well of course print conveys meaning…” I thought to myself. I was aware of illiteracy as a social problem, either due to lack of access to education, or failure at an institutional level, but I had no idea there are entire cultures where written forms don’t actually exist.

I had so many questions. What challenges do literacy learners face? What strengths do they bring to the table? What do their brains do differently than ours from a neurological perspective? But most importantly, how are we to teach literacy learners who come from societies with strong oral traditions?

Well, as I recently found out, we use their oral skills to support their written skills. This week, a classmate introduced me to a classroom approach for literacy learners where learners create stories that you transcribe and then all work through together. In the Language Experience Approach, the instructor elicits a story about a personal experience from the learners (perhaps about a shared experience, like a recent field trip). The instructor asks the students to speak aloud: what the experience is about, what happened first, what happened next, how they feel about the experience, etc. As the students are speaking, the instructor writes down the story on the board, without making any corrections. (To immediately correct the learners only serves to frustrate them and belittle their efforts.) When the story is finished, the instructor and the learners read the story aloud (through paired or echo reading). Oftentimes, the learners will go back and correct plot or grammatical elements of the story themselves. The success of the approach lies in its ability to help pre-literate learners make connections between the spoken and written word.

Colleen Shaughnessy offers eight techniques and methodological suggestions for teaching pre-literate learners. Her suggestions can be viewed here, and, for another interesting read, her master’s thesis can be viewed here.

Photo courtesy of Green Chameleon from Unsplash.



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