As an ESL teacher of pre-literate and non-literate ESL adults, I’m often asked, “Where do you begin?” I always begin with a smile and introduction. I usually begin with, “My name is Rebecca. What’s your name?” If there is no recognition, I place my hand on my chest and say, “Rebecca.” Then I tap the student’s shoulder with my right hand. If this doesn’t work, I introduce another student and myself again. Eventually we all learn each other’s names.
Once introductions are complete, I teach numbers 1 to 12. Almost every language and people group counts. I often begin by using real objects such as buttons, paper clips, or whatever is handy. Flash cards, dice and dominoes are great tools to teach numbers. I don't use my hands because using fingers to indicate a number varies widely throughout the world. After 1-12 are learned I move on to teaching the teens, time (o’clock) and money (penny, nickel, and dime).
The SLIFE / pre-literate students come from a concrete, 3-dimensional world. They are often unfamiliar with 2-dimensional symbols such as numbers, letters, and words. Often, they speak only their native unwritten language and no lingua franca, which means no translation. Eye strain can also be an issue for pre-literate students, particularly for those over 50 years of age. Non-literate students have the advantage of having lived in a literate world, They have seen people read and are familiar with a writing script. This knowledge alone gives them a great advantage over pre-literate students.
It is important to use real objects to teach initially. This gives students time to adjust to the very flat, 2-dimensional world of reading and writing. Book, paper, pencil, table and window are easy to teach because they are present in the classroom. Using miniature objects like a doll house with furniture 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 too difficult for these students comprehend in the beginning.
In addition to numbers, I teach the days of the week first. 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 called first day, second day, and so forth. Students enjoy watching me struggle to pronounce their language correctly. This helps to reduce their fears and builds their confidence. They learn 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 gives me some insight into how their language works.
In addition, I teach the names and sounds of the alphabet and date every day. We focus on one letter sound each day and one vowel per week. There is also a weekly topic such as family, home, personal information, work, etc. In addition, I teach handwriting beginning with printing. My students come and go randomly, but they learn numbers, letter sounds, vocabulary, and eventually how to speak, read and write in English.