Monday, July 4, 2011

Teaching Adults to Read and Write English

I’ve always wanted to teach but somehow never really had the opportunity. Both my kids are at University and live in another city so I guess I do have free time now.

Okay, I decide, it’s now or never. Let’s seriously think about it. Why do I think I qualify? Well I speak, read and write the language don’t I? As I soon discover, there’s more to teaching adults to read and write than just that.

My first port of call is the volunteer centre. They inform me there are courses for would-be tutors. That sounds good to me. I'm glad I'd have some training before I am let loose on poor, hapless learners. Armed with an address I make an appointment with one of the organisations that runs these courses. After a few initial hiccups (my foreign face and different accent has led them to believe I want to learn to read and write and I have to clarify I want to teach) they enrol me for a teacher's training class.

The course is to be a total of eighty hours – forty theory and forty, the practicum. Happy that things are finally moving in the right direction I land up for my first class.

There are six of us in the class and a young teacher. She introduces herself – she’s been teaching this course for eleven years. Impressive! As the classes progress all of us trainee tutors realise there's more to teaching English to adults than we've suspected.

Here are a few pointers. First, adults come with a life time of experiences and cannot be taught like kids – with no reasons given as to the relevance of teaching them certain things. And no! “You need to know this” doesn’t work. They lose the incentive to learn unless things are contextual or of relevance to each individual learner.

Say, a learner wants to apply for a job or wishes to learn driving.  Her main worry is that she won’t understand what the driving instructor tells her to do or that she won’t be able to fill in the forms or pass the written test. How do you teach her to speak, read and write English with this in mind?

You certainly don’t start with “A is for apple, B is for ball” You teach her the language with relevance to her final goal. Road signs, the road code, filling in sample forms are good places to start. Ask her if she likes the idea. It is essential to discuss what will be taught and why - to have the learner's buy in. These are adults we are dealing with, remember? For each learner, depending on his or her goal, depending on his or her initial degree of literacy, we hammer out different learning plans.

There are many tutoring strategies for reading, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation, technology and numeracy. As a trainee tutor, one feels grateful that all these methods are discussed and are therefore made available to each of us as resources we could use for teaching. We are told our ultimate goal should be to ensure the learner becomes independent and feels fulfilled; that he or she can learn anything they set their mind to; that they can contribute to society and express their points of view with confidence.

One of the most original methods we are taught is “language experience.” The learner is encouraged to speak something contextual – for example a little about him or herself. As the learner speaks the tutor writes down what they say, word for word. (The learner already knows why you are furiously taking down every word he or she utters or like Eliza Dolittle they’d be extremely alarmed!) Then pointing to each word you’ve written you read it out aloud. Next, you ask the learner to read it out. Each learner uses different methods to figure out the words and if you are a clever or an experienced tutor you are able to point out their preferred style of reading to understand. If the learner consciously understands his or her own way of unscrambling what’s written, they notch up another skill - that of understanding their favourite style of learning or unscrambling. This helps them in whatever they undertake to learn in future.

I am half way through my course. I'm looking forward to teaching although I am not as confident as I was before I started this course. What is even more humbling is that what I am doing is only an entry level course. There obviously is so much more besides what I'm being taught to teach. And there is the other unspoken fear. Will I be a good teacher? I'll keep you posted.

One final word. There are a lot of free resources available online for whoever is interested in finding out more about teaching adults to read and write.

Part ii.

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