Teaching Emergent Students and SLIFE

As an ESL teacher of pre-literate and non-literate ESL students, I’m often asked, “Where do you begin?” I always start with a smile and introduction. I usually begin with, “My name is Rebecca. What’s your name?” If there is no response, I place my hand on my chest and say, “Rebecca,” Then I point at the student and wait for a response. If this fails, I introduce another student and myself again. Eventually we all learn each other’s names. If I know the student's native country, I ask which languages they speak. (Swahili? Telugu?) This assures the student gives them recognition. Saying a few words in their language helps to build a level of comfort.

NON-LITERATE. Students with interrupted or limited education (SLIFE) students can be divided into two groups, non-literate and pre-literate. Non-literate students come from a concrete, 3-dimensional world and are unfamiliar with 2-dimensional symbols such as numbers, letters, and words. Using  tangible objects is essential. This gives students time to adjust to the flat, 2-dimensional world of reading and writing. Eye strain is an issue for them, so a mixture of speaking, life skills, vocabulary, grammar, and reading / handwriting exercises is necessary. 

PRELITERATE. Pre-literate students have lived in a literate world and observed people reading. They are familiar with a written script and some of its uses. This knowledge gives them a great advantage over non-literate students. They are more comfortable with letters and the concept of reading. They often learn letter/sound correspondence quicker than nonliterate students.

VOCABULARY is essential for multilingual learners. Book, paper, pencil, table and window are easy words to teach because they are present in the classroom. Using miniature objects is a great way to teach about objects which are too large to bring into the classroom. Color pictures are the next best option. Black and white sketches are usually difficult for these students comprehend in the beginning. New words are practiced by using speech, physical actions, and writing. Singing helps to lock new words into memory.

GRAMMAR. Most teachers begin with the "to be" verb sentences for speaking practice. (I am a student. He is my friend.  It is a book.) Teaching questions and answers is also crucial. (What is your name? My name is ___.  When is class? It is at 9 AM.)

LIFE SKILLS. Every day, we identify the date and the day of the week with its abbreviations (Monday, Mon., and M). Every culture that I have encountered has seven days. One fun and welcome technique I use is to have my students teach me their words for the numbers and days. Often days are translated as first day, second day, and so forth. Students enjoy watching me struggle to pronounce their language correctly. This reduces their fear of mistakes and  demonstrates that mistakes are O.K. It’s all about trying! They rejoice when I pronounce their words correctly, as I also rejoice when they learn new English words. This technique also reveals insight into how their language works.

COUNTING. Numbers of 1 to 12 are taught first with their unique names. Almost every language and people group counts. Most counting systems use base ten or base twelve. Using real objects such as buttons, paper clips, or whatever is handy makes counting tangible. Flash cards, dice and dominoes are great tools to teach numbers. Don't use hand gestures to indicate a number because these vary widely throughout the world. After the first twelve numbers are learned, move on to the teens and tens.

LETTER/SOUNDS. Learning the name and sound of letters takes time. It is good to sing the ABC song every day. I review the whole alphabet and tell students I want them to know two things: the name of the letter and the sound of the letter. Students volunteer other words that begin with the same sound (G- grapes, good, god, go, get, give, etc.). This teaches letter/sound correspondence and prepares them for reading words. We do focused work on one letter every day.

HANDWRITING. I teach manuscript handwriting by strokes. This is a quick and easy method. All the letters and numbers can be learned in 7 lessons. This method begins with letters that a simple to write and progresses to more difficult letters to form. Some students get confused because this is not in alphabetic order, but understand when we put all of the letters together. We chant strokes, letter names and sounds as we write to reinforce and connect these concepts.

My emergent adult students come to class for only 6-12 weeks because they get jobs. They learn basic vocabulary, grammar, life skills, phonics, and handwriting. Adults are also taught about jobs, paychecks (taxes), money, shopping, and banking. Many will learn how to read beginning words in English.

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