Assessing and Teaching
Adult and Adolescent NESB Students
with Very Low to Non-existent Levels
of Print Literacy
by Hazel Davidson
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This paper discusses the interlinking problems encountered by NESB learners with very low print literacy levels in L1: listening, pronunciation, sentence structure, decoding and encoding, transfer of knowledge and skills. It also touches on the higher order problems of skimming and scanning, print media format conventions and genre. It outlines a quick, straightforward method of initial assessment which provides teachers with a logical starting point in programming for these students.
It discusses the establishment of a suitable learning environment and proposes a detailed programme which encompasses mastery of the basic sound-symbol relationships of English, aural discrimination exercises, reading whole texts (both decoding and reading for meaning), guessing techniques, writing (from the encoding of single words to the writing continuous text).
This paper grew out of many years teaching NESB students who had arrived in Australia with very little or no print literacy in Language 1 or in any Roman alphabet language. In particular it was sparked by an encounter, during a formal case study, with a 16 year old Spanish speaker from Central America who had spent 4 years in the Australian education system before anyone recognised that she was functionally illiterate in Spanish as well as English. Understandably in this situation the frustration levels of both student and teachers were extremely high and discouragement was the order of the day.
The author spent the following nine months working once a week on a one-to-one basis with this student. The three most significant comments to other teachers by the student at the end of this period were: Why didn't someone teach me this alphabet stuff before? Everyone must understand that it takes a long time to learn to read. and Can this school guarantee me the same tuition next year?
This student, whom we will call Carmel through the rest of this paper, had, in common with many others, an interrelating set of problems, each of which impinged on the others to form a classic vicious cycle.
Assessing the Problem
As teachers, when we meet an upper primary or secondary student or an adult who claims to have had X years of schooling in their home country, we assume at least a basic level of print literacy in L1 and a subsequent, more or less smooth, transfer of reading and writing skills into English, parallel with the learner's growing expertise in listening and speaking. And, of course, in most cases we are right. However, from time to time we encounter students who do not seem to progress in reading and writing as we think they should.
The following is a quick, fairly rough and ready assessment procedure which ordinary classroom teachers can use to check whether or not students have a grasp of the most basic tools for decoding. These tools, of course, are not the end of the reading process, but they are the beginning of it.
Here we have the usual aim of finding out what the student already knows. Since we are starting with the most basic of skills, some tact is necessary. So it is generally useful to start with an apology of the sort, You probably know most of this but I need to check in case there are some gaps.
By now, the teacher should have a rough and ready picture of reading skills and can probably assume similar strengths and weaknesses will occur in encoding, but in all probability the problems will be more pronounced.
Establishing a programme
General learning environment. The aim of this programme is to try to introduce rational predictability into (from the student's viewpoint) apparent chaos. Consequently there is a need to establish a predictable, quiet, uninterrupted routine. Depending on what was discovered in the initial rough assessment, a routine should be established, preferably of short periods often. This routine will start with the most basic skills and work progressively towards the higher level problems. Initially it will probably include some or all of the activities listed below. The simpler parts of the routine will ultimately be eliminated and higher level activities will be introduced progressively.
Teachers cannot assume any transfer from the reading activities above! It is vital to refer back constantly and explicitly. Again a routine must be established to help bring order to the chaos which the student perceives in any writing situation. The routine will start with the most basic and progress towards higher order activities.
Pronunciation & Spelling
Words with letters omitted
Jumbled letters in words
Spelling errors (proof reading)
Other words with same sound and spelling
Singulars and plurals
Supply verbs - present simple and continuous, simple past
Words jumbled in sentence
Grammatical errors (proof reading)
Words omitted from sentences
Words used in sentences (using student's and family names)
Errors in meaning (proof reading)
3. Writing continuous text.
a) Choice of text type. Initially texts attempted should be short enough not to bog down and discourage. At first, it is better not to distract the student from the encoding task by introducing the concept of genre. Any topic is suitable: simple recount, description of friend or family member, followed later by highly modified school assignment, writing for family members or some domestic writing task which interests the student.
b) Guided writing from pictures. A set of pictures representing a story, preferably with a humorous ending, can be supplied. These need to be discussed with the student. Then some key vocabulary can be provided, including relevant verbs. The verbs can then be conjugated in present simple, and continuous, as well as the simple past. Then the teacher provides a tense cue: What is happening? Every day... Last week... and the student can select the relevant tense from the table already constructed. (see Appendix) The story can be written more than once to give practice in different tenses. At a later stage, the structure of a narrative can be discussed and analysed.
c) Planning. Generally students like Carmel have no planning skills which they can use in their writing. They can sometimes talk fluently about what they want to say and then will be at a complete loss when it is time to start writing. The teacher need to discuss a plan with the student. At first the teacher may need to help the student simplify and shorten what s/he wants to say to match what s/he can encode. Sometimes it is helpful as a next step to ask the student to speak into a tape recorder. After that the tape can be played back a few words at a time and the student can attempt (with assistance from the teacher in spelling) to write from his/her own dictation. Finally it is crucial that the student read back what s/he has written. This not only gives a sense of achievement but also checks that the transfer from encoding to decoding is in place.
At a slightly more advanced level, planning can take the form of discussing general headings. Then the student can be encouraged to write down key words to prompt memory. From these notes, full sentences (and later still paragraphs) can be written. At this stage, the concept of topic and concluding sentences can be introduced. Even at this slightly more advanced level, it is still necessary for the student to read back what has been written to ensure that s/he can in fact decode what s/he has written.
d) Final presentation. It is a good idea to ensure that there is a clean, attractive version at end; if the student writes too slowly, the teacher can type the text after each session and present it to the student to reread at the beginning of the next session. In some cases, the work completed by a single student over a number of weeks or the collective work of a number of students, can be illustrated, laminated and spiral bound for the student or class to keep, or for presentation to a family member, visitor or other important person.
There has been a tendency in recent years for teachers to emphasise one set of skills and one teaching angle over all others. This paper proposes that NESB students with very low levels of print literacy need all the tools which native speakers have at their disposal (consciously or sub-consciously) in their dealings with print text. These learners need a sound knowledge of English phonics, good auditory discrimination skills as well as the higher order strategies to analyse and manipulate print text. They need, as native speakers have in their childhood days of learning to read, access to a great volume of short texts within their level of current competence.
These learners need thorough mastery of each stage of the process of learning to read and make sense of print texts. They cannot be rushed from one stage to another before they are ready. Particularly for adult learners, the learning process generally takes a very considerable amount of time. There will be phases of startling progress, generally followed by set-backs or plateaus where no learning appears to be taking place but where, in reality, necessary consolidation is under way, or where other influences in the student's life are impeding concentration on study.
For both teacher and student progress is generally slower than either would like but the rewards are great: there is a real rush of adrenaline for a teacher who is privileged to witness the power and freedom which print literacy brings, however tardily, to an adolescent or adult student.
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