What Works in ESL Literacy?
Heide Spruck Wrigley
Aguirre International
Immigrants and Refugees
90s higher than any other decade in 20th C.
Over 30 million foreign-born
8 m. don’t speak English well or not at all
43% from Spanish speaking countries
30 % from Mexico
2/3 of immigrants from Mexico don’t have a high
school education
 26% percent – Asian Pacific Islanders
 Of those 43% - report limited proficiency
Who Are ESL Literacy Learners?
 Immigrants from Mexico
(and Haiti)
 Refugees
 Hmong (150 000 in the U.S.)
 Somali Bantu (10 000)
 Sudanese (death and
displacement; “lost boys”)
Characteristics of
Adult ESL Literacy Students
 Able to navigate systems without relying
on print (are able to build conceptual
 Have store of sight words and “language
gambits” that they depend on
 Use compensation strategies to make
up for lack of experience with print
(knowledge of how the world works allows
for “informed guessing”)
ESL Literacy Students
 Six years or fewer of schooling
 Pulled out or pushed out of school in the
early grades
 Schooling interrupted by war or civil strive
 Low levels of native language literacy
 Difficulty succeeding in a regular ESL class
as teacher moves from oral language to
Barriers to Language and
Literacy Learning
 Print is seen as a secret code, not
accessible – takes time to “break the code”
 Low levels of confidence in their own
ability to learn and remember
 Acquiring English language skills while
trying to master the print system is
cognitively very challenging
Learners’ Views
 Reading means reading aloud fluently and
 Writing means copying and having nice
 Reasons for wanting to acquire literacy
differ (Tenants’ rights, Catalogue)
 Want to know every word before they
attempt to make meaning
Students in the Study
 500 Literacy students defined as having fewer than six
years of formal education and little or no literacy in any
language (verified with a writing sample)
 Over 20 languages represented but most students
 Spanish speaking from Mexico (58%)
 Spanish speaking from other countries (10%)
 Hmong (7%)
 Somali (8%)
 Average age 41, most students female (74%)
 Average formal education of 3.1 years, but Hmong
and Somali had almost no education (0-1 year)
Things We Know For Sure
Literacy is Multidimensional
 Emergent literacy (for non-literates, print is like
 literacy for self-expression (refrigerator poetry)
 functional literacy (create functional print)
 literacy for “self-defense” (legal issues)
 “I lost 20 lbs in 3 weeks” (critical literacy)
 literacy as a tool for social change (civics)
 literacy for “new times” (technology)
Language, Literacy & Learning
 The brain is not pre-wired for reading and
 Reading and writing are school-based skills
 You need to learn to read just once
 Learning takes
 Engagement
 Focus
 Practice
What it takes to read & write
Bottom-Up Skills
 associated with decoding
Top down Skills
 Associated with meaning making and
 The mind recreates (or constructs) a message
or text – it does not remember “as is”
Bottom-up and top down skills work together. Both
are necessary. Neither is sufficient.
They are all over my house!
Most are little, but some are huge.
The baby loves them.
I hate them and wish I could get rid of them.
But it’s not that easy!
Components of Reading &
 Alphabetics
 Phonemic Awareness
 Fluency
 Accuracy
 Rate
 Rhythm and expression
 Vocabulary
 Comprehension
Capturing the
Teaching/Learning Experience
Learning opportunities
 Do students get a chance to
express their own ideas
solve problems
practice new skills
see patterns and understand “how things work”
Instructional strategies
 Does the teacher
 link classroom learning to students’ lives
 give clear instructions and provide feedback
 Offer multiple opportunities to “get it”
English Language Development
ESL Focus, including
 Controlled practice and open-ended
 Vocabulary development and idioms
 “How English works”
 Connecting oral and written English
 Language functions
 Socio-cultural knowledge
 Learning the language of math
Elements of L2 Reading
 Initial or emergent literacy (focus on “enabling”
skills, related to phonemic awareness or fluenc)
 Literacy for school (structured school-based tasks)
 Literacy for self-expression (personal stories;
 Functional literacy
 Critical literacy (to question; to challenge)
 Literacy for “new times” (technology-mediated)
Learn German in Five Minutes
My Brother Harald
Mein Bruder heisst Harald. Er wohnt in
Heidelberg. Er hat drei Kinder, Judith,
Simon und Gabriel. Seine Frau heisst
Gisela. Jedes Jahr, im Herbst, gehen sie
auf’s Octoberfest. Sie essen Wurst und
Sauerkraut und Rotkraut und trinking viel
Bier. Dann tanzen sie.
Alle freuen sich!
Methods to Capture Literacy
Methods to Capture Literacy
Observation Guide
 Class is described
 Observer keeps running record
 Observer codes, using glossary and
examples as guide
 Monitor double checks
 Background variables and codes become
part of the analysis
Key Findings – Attendance
 Students attend about 2/3 of the time
(average), even if class is mandatory
 If class meets more often per week–
associated with positive growth
 Students who enrolled during the first
three weeks of class attended more hours
per week and attended longer
 In terms of outcomes, rate of attendance
(% of time) makes a difference – rather
than total number of hours
Findings: Basic Reading Skills
Growth in reading basic skills (WJR-BRSC)
 “Connection to the outside” strategy
 Younger students have higher growth
 Years of formal education (proxy for native
language literacy), but fades over time
 Initial English oral proficiency (BEST score)
Findings: Reading
Growth in reading comprehension skills (WJRRCC)
 Use of students’ native language in instruction.
 Rate of attendance (proportion of hours student
attends weekly by hours offered weekly).
 Initial basic reading skills (BRSC score) – effect
emerges slowly over time (quadratic effect).
Findings: Oral English Skills
Growth in Oral English Skills (BEST)
Use of students’ native language in instruction
Oral communication instructional emphasis
Varied practice and interaction strategy
Higher rate of attendance
Student age (younger students have higher
 Initial basic reading skills (BRSC score)
Summary: Instructional Findings
 Bringing in the Outside – growth in basic
reading skills.
 Direct connection to students’ lives makes
instruction meaningful.
 Use of Native Language – growth in reading
comprehension and oral English skills.
 Removes comprehension barriers.
 Comfortable learning environment.
 Allows critical thinking skills.
Implications for Practice
Bringing in the Outside
 Connect the classroom to the community
 Highlight links between learning and living
 Provide a context (using visuals to set the
Bringing in the Outside
 Use of realia (real foods; household items)
 “Environmental print” (flyers; inserts;
labels; signs)
 Mailbox items (bills; notes from school;
letters from the INS)
 Tasks for neighborhood contexts (visit to
store; laundromat; fast food place)
Varied Practice and Interaction
 Don’t try to do too much – but vary
modality; layer instruction
 Give students a chance to try out English in
different ways – help them gain confidence
and competence
 Use (some) direct teaching – draw
students’ attention to patterns and rules
(discovery grammar)
 Allow sufficient opportunities for practice,
particularly for those new to literacy
Use of the Native Language
Short explanations
Focused tasks in English or L1
Extended opportunities to ‘think in English
and use English
 Opportunities to discuss a topic in L1
 Opportunity to ask questions in L1
Implications for Programs
 Provide staff development on ESL literacy
 Find ways to assess for levels of native
language literacy, not just English
 Offer shorter, more intensive classes and
consider managed enrollment
What About the Men?
“Education is not
the filling of a
pail, but the
lighting of a fire.”
William Butler Yeats
See You Next Time

What Works? Heide Spruck Wrigley