How do you deal with students with low levels of literacy (even in their L1)? #ELTchat summary 04/05/2011 Part 1 of 2

A PLN for ELT Professionals

How do you deal with students with low levels of literacy (even in their L1)? #ELTchat summary 04/05/2011 Part 1 of 2

This summary (Part 1 of 2) was contributed by Mike Harrison – @harrisonmike on Twitter – on his blog and is reproduced here with his kind permission.

Many thanks Mike and we look forward to Part 2!


Summary Part 1


Finally, I got my topic for #ELTchat! I had proposed the topic of dealing with learners with low levels of literacy for previous chats, but it had never got picked up. That is until yesterday!



Here was my tweet call to chat:

So who has ever taught a learner who couldn’t read/write in their own language, let alone English? #ELTchat

I initially thought that the issue of having pre-literate students in the English language classroom might be limited to English-speaking countries. The first few to answer me did little to challenge this assumption: @SueAnnan, @esolcourses, @teflerinha all replying, all UK-based (Sue’s actually in the Channel Islands). But then reponses in the affirmative from @vickyloras and @ShellTerrell, telling us about her experience with refugees whilst on a CELTA course with @Marisa_C in Greece. That told me! However, reponses from @sandymillin and @Shaunwilden told of their (relative) lack of experience with such learners. It does strike me as an issue that you are far more likely to deal with in a native-speaker, ESOL environment, rather than a traditionally EFLy one.


Some difficulties that were identified were

  • if learners are not literate in their native language (L1), then teaching about the language (using metalanguage to categorise vocabulary, grammar, etc.) is not helpful
  • in multi-lingual contexts, the use of L1 by the teacher as an aid is not really possible (but use of L1 in class may be helpful, see more later…)
  • if you have a class with one learner with such problems, there can be issues where this learner may be discriminated by others in the group because of their ability
  • such learners may use an L1 that does not follow Roman script, so basic motor skills can be an issue when writing/reading
  • there can be underlying problems that may be related to a low level of literacy – such learners may have missed out on schooling due to situations in their countries like war or persecution, or they may suffer from conditions such as dyslexia

So, it can be quite a challenge!

Here are some pieces of advice and questions to consider shared during the chat:

@pjgallantry: #eltchat we have to be careful not to regard ss with low literacy as being somehow deficient – easy trap to fall into for some

It can be challenging to deal with such learners and give them our attention in bigger groups, so smaller groups are better, and…

@ShellTerrell: @bethcagnol I found stations worked well. When they broke into stations I could do individualized work!  #eltchat ?

Stations being separate areas in the classroom where groups of students work on different things

Dyslexia was mentioned above, but remember

@pjgallantry: #eltchat how can dyslexia be diagnosed if the ss cant even write in their own language??

The issue of L1 use came back, albeit with a slightly different focus than the translating-method I was thinking of:

@seburnt: How about use of L1 in their learning? #eltchat

@harrisonmike: Would be helpful but I know I can’t do it – don’t know Farsi, Pashto, Turkish, ..RT @seburnt: How abt use of L1 in their learning? #eltchat

@vickyloras: @seburnt They want it and sometimes it is necessary, but that’s what I found most difficult as my German is very low-level #ELTChat

@Marisa_C: @harrisonmike Using L1 difficult in a multilingual class – tended to use google translate – Students laughed a lot  #eltchat

@vickyloras: RT @hoprea : @seburnt I guess L1 can be used, but also carefully if they have low literacy level even in L1. #eltchat

@ShellTerrell: RT @seburnt: There are some suggestions for using L1 to facilitate learning (mono or multilingugal) in this book: [Using the Mother Tongue – Deller & Rinvolucri] #eltchat

@sandymillin: RT @seburnt: How about use of L1 in their learning? #eltchat <depends on if class is monolingual / multiling and Ts skills

@springrose12: @Marisa_C @harrisonmike Yes, but maybe you can use 1st language buddies to explain the instructions. #eltchat

Shelly hit the nail on the head on the attitude we should always have:

@ShellTerrell: Really important that Ss w low literacy have teachers that are very patient & willing to work with them & have the heart to #eltchat

A point echoed by @boyledsweetie

@springrose12: RT @boyledsweetie: #ELTchat always show enthusiasm and that you believe in your students a ‘personality’ and exuberance goes a long way

I certainly agree here; these students need more of our time, and we have to be fully invested in helping them and inspiring them in the face of the challenge that learning a language may be.

These were some of the suggestions as to what we can best do to help:

  • Try to find out ‘how’ these students best learn (not always obvious, and they can’t always tell us). As dubious as learning styles may be, considering our approach is really important
  • Use of visuals can really help in class, for example as flashcards or Google image search for vocabulary. Using flashcards to drill the word orally/aurally and then show them the written word was one suggestion
  • Adapting materials from different sources (e.g. literacy materials for native speakers) but these NEED to be adapted, especially if originally intended for children
  • Using a language experience approach to collaborative writing to produce a text (which could also then become a reading resource) which is not too childish [Language Experience Approach at Wikipedia]
  • Using pair/small group work can help, particularly if there is a good group dynamic in the class [summariser’s note – I generally find such learners to be supportive of each other] as students can help each other to progress
  • Developing motor skills for writing is important, especially if learners do not use a Roman script
  • Drilling can be very useful with these learners, but wherever possible should be meaningful
  • Using realia, images, mime, drama techniques can be useful
  • Teaching the names of letters is as important as teaching their pronunciation
  • Teaching general knowledge (especially about expectations – cultural, behavioural, traditional – in the country where you are) as lack of this can lead to misinterpretation/misrepresentation

OK, blimey. That is from just half of the #ELTchat. You can see the whole transcript here. If anyone wants to mention something I haven’t got to yet you could

  • continue the summary by commenting below, or…
  • maybe even someone else could summarise the second half of the chat, alternatively…
  • wait a couple of days and I’ll tackle the rest!

Useful links

By Mike Harrison


#ELTchat is a twice-weekly Twitter discussion that is all about English Language Teaching (ELT). It  takes place on Wednesdays at 12pm and 9pm London time (currently British Summer Time/Greenwich Mean Time +1). Every week, hundreds of English language teachers and other professionals dedicate their tweets for an hour each #ELTchat to a topic about ELT. #ELTchatters propose topics for discussion and these are chosen before the chats by means of a twtpoll. More about following and joining in #ELTchat follows this summary.