Teaching pre-literate learners

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Teaching pre-literate learners

Author: Miranda Howell, EAL specialist

I will never forget the ‘feelings’ I experienced during my EAL teacher training, when I sat in a class with a tutor who entered the room with a basket of goodies and greeted us in Swedish. My immediate reaction was one of confusion, which then led to frustration and finally a sense of hopelessness, before I even realised that I was actually expected to experience learning some Swedish without a single word of English allowed in the classroom. Many years later when I did post-graduate studies in EAL teaching, I was once again put in a situation of analysing the construction of language – this time ‘double dutch!’ so I could problem-solve the meaning of words. This practical approach made me acutely aware of some of the challenges our EAL learners face when learning a new language by total immersion.

Go one step further, and imagine that you are the learner and are pre-literate in your mother tongue or you have a script which is totally different from our English alphabet. Preliterate refers to “Learners who have had no contact with print in their native language.” (Brekke P5). Naturally, this creates added challenges for both the learner and the teacher. 

The pre-literate learner perspective

Preliterate learners are most likely to have acquired their prior education orally, so they have probably developed good oral skills and will feel most comfortable when introduced to English via the spoken word and supporting visual aids. They make connections by listening and repeating and finding meaning through images, props or mime.  “Nichols and Sangster report that preliterate learners have extreme difficulty using reading and writing to support or reinforce what they learn orally.” (retrieved from Brekke, P8). Therefore, adjusting lessons to ensure that language comprehension is consolidated orally, before introducing written communication becomes very important. 

Another impact on learner experience is their cultural background. For those who have grown up in rural areas, a traditional print-rich classroom will be intimidating. Whereas traditionally educated refugees, who are uprooted from their familiar culture into a totally alien one, facing a new language with a new script, may experience a threatened sense of security.

Developing confidence by learning through hands-on experience employs Jean Piaget’s theory of language development. She observed that learning is a result of the learner’s interaction with their environment, resulting in finding meaning through exploration. (Bailey)

The teacher’s consideration

Teaching pre-literate learners involves 3 considerations: knowing about the learners; adjusting lessons to optimise their learning strengths; and scaffolding a print-rich classroom with a large range of visual images, realia, flashcards and games.

As teachers, once we have identified the learner’s educational and cultural background, recognising and acknowledging their attitudes towards learning English, we can begin to plan a programme. Initially start by building confidence through oral language. For absolute beginners, introduce a small chunk of language or vocabulary which can be easily understood. For example, mime actions such as stand, sit, come, give using hand gestures. Put some items on a table and acknowledge if they give you the correct item with a nod or shake of the head. Repeat the language multiple times for the learners to listen and respond. The next stage is speaking the words and memorising them, before moving on to written language.

The first step in teaching writing to preliterate learners may need to involve developing initial concepts and skills such as distinguishing shapes and patterns, understanding directionality and how to hold a pencil and paper.

There are two main approaches to teaching reading. The “bottom-up” method is when learners begin by learning letter-sound correspondences, blending and segmenting them to make words and then sentences. Another approach is the “top-down” method or whole language approach, which reverses the process. Research on which methodology is most appropriate for preliterate learners varies. In short, there are pros and cons for both. Whichever the method, it will take time before you can teach them how to read. Nevertheless, providing simple written words and associated flashcards which learners can match together will aid the recognition process. Consider highlighting the first sound in the word so that learners can build up their phoneme knowledge. 

With regard to content, it is best to start with personal information such as reading and writing their name followed by basic high-frequency vocabulary such as numbers, classroom objects, the date and common instructional words which allow learners to familiarise themselves with their environment and so develop confidence.

One further consideration – a preliterate learner does not mean teaching at a preschool intellectual level! Ensure that your resources are age-appropriate. 


Andrews, H. (August 2005)  Tips for Teaching ESL Beginners and Pre-literate Adults The internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 8,  //iteslj.org/ 

Bailey, A.  (29 November 2023) Cognitive Development Theory: What are the stages? Very Well Health. Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory: Stages of Development Explained (verywellhealth.com) 

Brekke, C. (Spring 2009)  Tutor curriculum guide for teaching adult ESL preliterate learners Adult basic education institute for extended learning community colleges of Spokane, 

Magrath, D.  (6 February 2023) Assessing and Placing the Preliterate ESL Learner in Tesol Career Centre  Assessing and Placing the Preliterate ESL Learner | TESOL Career Center

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