Thursday, May 10, 2012

Teaching Adults to Read and Write - II

When I decided I could spare a couple of hours a week to volunteer I thought I would enjoy teaching. But teaching whom? And what? Through a roundabout route I finally decided that teaching adults to read and write English would be most rewarding.

I went through 6 weeks of training and this post is about a few strategies I learnt in those six weeks as I feel one or two would be useful to anyone who wishes to teach adults to read and write a language.

A qualifier before I start - this post can never replace proper training from an experienced tutor. It can, at best, give a few pointers or strategies for teaching.

In Part I, I talked of the tutor's mindset and approach - how to make the course relevant to the learner's goal, break down the goal into do-able chunks and to make the learner feel relaxed and motivated.

Microsoft free clipart
And now, a few teaching strategies. 
  • First, assess initial knowledge, skills or understanding required by your learner to  decode (or recognise) letters of the alphabet and the sounds associated with them, and encode (or write) them. 
  • If your learner needs to know the language from scratch, don't start teaching the alphabet. Why not? It doesn't tell them anything contextual to their goal. If they can't see the purpose, adults lose interest and drop out. Here's one strategy in such a case (and there's a lot you could think up yourself.) Write down your learner's name, ask what you've written and then read it out. Everyone is interested to see their own name on paper. One word of caution - if the name is long a pet name will do. The rule? Four or five letters maximum.
    • Show your learner each letter of that word and the corresponding sound. Tell them - this is the letter, for example "s" and this, "ssss", is the corresponding sound. Let them understand the difference between the words "letter" and "sound".
  • Following through on this introduction build your course.
    • Show learners the sounds of groups of letters as in "sh, ch, ing, tion" with two or three examples. Ask them if they know any similar words so they are not just taking things in passively but using their own brains actively. Tell them these groups of letters and the sounds they make together (as opposed to the sounds each letter makes individually) are useful to know because they form parts of many words, for example "tion" sounds like "shun" but separately each letter makes different sounds.
    • Sometimes a short vowel sound, for example //a// sounds different as in "fat" to a long vowel sound, as in "fate" That is because of the silent "e" at the end. Give them lots of relevant examples - dot, dote or cut, cute. 
    • Over time, work on various word families as you come across them. (for example, ing, ate, ack, ed, all, unch...)
    • Puntuation is also important. I came across this here - a telling example. "Let's eat, Grandma" versus "Let's eat Grandma".
Reading Strategies: It is easy to get impatient with new readers and just so we don't lose patience here's an exercise for tutors. Read the following passage: Uans oppona taim, ues tri berrese; mamma berre, pappa berre. a bebi berre; live inne contri nire foresta; Naise Aus; No Muccheggia; Unna doi, they go gudia bice....

Was it a struggle? We had to go through a full A4 sheet with the story in our tutoring class. It was a lot of laughs but it was obvious that it was to show us how first time readers struggle. What's letters to us are lines and squiggles to them.

How do we read? Take this example. Dogs love to sw-m. It is easy for most of us to fill in the blank letter. The word is "swim" not "swam" We guess this because the surrounding structure of that sentence gives us a clue. We also guess this accurately because it makes sense.  Here are two more examples. D-nner; E-it.

The coded association of letters and sounds (as described above) and the sentence structure that connects these words is an important strategy.

The meaning of words, phrases, certain signs and symbols is also important. It your learner has prior knowledge of their meanings (if you've picked the topic to read carefully, it will be contextual to the learner's interests)) he or she will learn much faster as they are interested in the topic. Punctuation needs another mention. If they see a comma, show them how to read the pause; a question mark? Let your voice end the sentence a couple of notches higher.

Do you instinctively jump in with a correction if your learner makes a mistake? That isn't helpful as you aren't giving the learner enough time to work things out for themselves. The strategy is to pause and see if the learner self corrects. If not, prompt (give clues). For example, does that make sense? Did that sound right? Which sound does that word begin with? End with? Try reading the sentence again.

The above strategy is known as "Pause, Prompt and Praise." Praise for every little milestone achieved. An example - If the learner spells lady as lad-e, say that is three letters correct out of four. Don't overdo the praise either. Just a quiet "good" or a smile is usually enough.

One last strategy - if the learner is reading and makes mistakes, jot down the words and without interrupting the flow of the story, leave it for now. At the end of the story ask questions about the story for comprehension. The whole object of teaching reading is to ensure your learner comprehends and eventually, is able to discuss what was read. Make an extra effort to make this part of the lesson enjoyable and not something that evokes anxiety. That has to be the tutor's ultimate goal for each and every learner. Finally, go to the words your learner had difficulties with. Teach strategies to recognise these.  Perhaps they fit into a word family, for example, words ending in "y" as in baby are mostly pronounced with a long //e// sound.

A few words of caution - the story should have about 4 - 6 new words maximum. It is a good idea to have the tutor do part of the reading. The learner learns a lot by listening to a reasonably good reader. Ensure your finger points to each word as you read. This is the "Look. Listen" strategy.

For every learner, what's interesting is that the course is built around their individual capabilities and goals. And yet, our ultimate goal for each learner is the same - that they become independent and feel fulfilled; that they feel they can learn anything they set their minds to; that they feel they can contribute to society and express their points of view with confidence.


  1. I started learning French online and somehow could not understand why I was not taught the alphabets first. I guess you are right. I would have dropped because that would have taken a long time.
    I dropped anyways because of paucity of time but it was fun while it lasted. :) I think it's difficult as an adult to learn a new language.

  2. What I've described above is nothing carved in stone - just a few helpful strategies and there must be a milliion more. Hope you are able to put your smattering of French to good use someday.

  3. lovely!! very educative !! thanks for this ...

  4. Most people who wish to teach adults the 3 Rs don't really want to go through any training. Hopefully they find this useful. Thanks, Flying High. Very gratified.

  5. A nice post on strategies of teaching adults:)

  6. Thanks, Rachana.

    Thanks, Rahul