How to help preliterate students learn English

How to help preliterate students learn English

by | Dec 21, 2018 | Blog

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How do I help her?

I realized I did not know how to help her. I was a new teacher, and in front of me was this beautiful Sudanese refugee. She did not know how to hold a pencil or write, and was not able to make any connection between a figure on a paper (a letter, word, picture) and a sound, and spoke and understood no English at all. My text-based lesson was of no use. How could I help her? Worldwide, there are many like her. One in five adults are preliterate, that is, they do not know how to read and write in any language due to culture, war, displacement, poverty, etc. (Vinogradov & Bigelow, 2010). Here are some basic principles I wish I had known.


It is important to comprehensively assess for reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Some learners may have strong oral skills in English, yet not be literate at all. This affects their learning, as preliterate learners process sounds and words differently. They may lack decoding skills, ability to distinguish phonemes, and the understanding of a connection between a symbol and a sound. Research has shown they struggle to perceive oral corrections. Learning tends to be slower (Bigelow & Schwarz, 2010). Thus, a separate class is essential for these students, both to lower the affective filter, save face/honor, and for instructional purposes.

The intake should also understand the students’ needs, goals, and background to help teaching connect to their lives. Understanding their background also helps us see their strengths. Especially as Christian teachers, it is important to see our students through a strength-based, rather than deficit-based, lens. See what they can do, not just what they can’t do.

Learn how they learn

While lack of a common language may make this difficult, try to understand through research, translators, or English-speaking members of that people group how oral learners learn (Lado, 1990). Many oral cultures have rich oral traditions and these skills can be used to teach EnglishÑutilize songs, chants, rhymes, poems, memorization (Burgoyne & Hull, 2007). Understand how your students learn, and draw upon that in class.

First steps

It is helpful to start with oral conversations, just helping them speak some words and phrases. Then, when a text is introduced, understand that reading and writing skills may be completely new to them. Do not assume they know how to hold a pencil, or that we read English from left to right in a straight line, or that words are sequential. Often, their brains have not been trained to make the connection to understand that a photograph represents a person, place, or thing, or that a symbol represents a sound. Use realia whenever possible. Teach classroom routine, explicit studying and reading and organizing skills, and representations, such as by pointing to a person, then a photograph, then to a drawing, and then to a stick figure (Shaughnessy, 2006).

Do not be afraid to use their first language or let students together discuss in their native language to understand. Research shows this supports English acquisition (Condelli, Wrigley, & Yoon, 2002), as well as builds community.

Conversational and relevant

After explicit teaching of reading, use learner-generated texts. It is imperative that what is written must be connected to their lives and more conversational in style (Bigelow & Schwarz, 2010). The communal aspect of this is also important for adults and many oral cultures (Schwarzer, 2009).

Help students grasp the overall meaning of the text first, then move to a smaller analysis of the sounds and grammar, and then back out to wider comprehension. It can be helpful to start with word recognition skills first, and then teach decoding. Do not be afraid to repeat and recycle material using different learning styles and activities. Varied practice is important (Vinogradov & Bigelow, 2010; Condelli, Wrigley, & Yoon, 2002).


Our preliterate students are just that: pre-literate, who will be able one day to explore a world of reading and writing. They have a wealth of wisdom to offer us as we get to know them and can understand them, and it is a joy to offer them the wealth of literacy through proper intake, incorporating their goals, teaching them explicit literacy and study skills, and using appropriate content.

What’s Next

The Christian TEFL 120 hour Classic TEFL course or 250 hour Worldwide TEFL course will help equip you further!


This is a guest blog from Gillian Ferwerda 


Gillian Ferwerda is pursuing her M.Ed in Teaching English Language Learners. She has taught English in Honduras and to a variety of students in the United States, from professionals to college-bound to refugees, by God’s open doors.


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