Students in an ESOL class with teacher.

Working with ESOL learners with basic literacy needs

Are you working with learners who have great difficulty with reading and writing? In this article, I look at who the learners are, the skills involved, and some practical ways in which you can help them – not starting with the alphabet!


Who are ‘basic literacy’ learners?

Spiegel and Sunderland (2006:15) define a basic literacy learner as “someone who is still learning to read a short simple text and struggles to write a simple sentence independently.”  These learners are by no means a homogenous group:

  • They may be learning to read and write (in any language) for the first time when they join an ESOL class.
  • They may be literate in another language which uses a different script, e.g. Bengali or Chinese.
  • They may have very limited spoken English.
  • They may be fluent English speakers.


What skills are involved in ‘reading’?

  • word recognition processes (i.e. recognising whole words such as ‘the’ ‘‘Stop’ ‘some’, and patterns within words such as ‘tion’ ‘ing’)
  • phonic skills (i.e. making connections between the written alphabet letters and the sounds of letters/groups of letters)
  • interacting with the text, using context and knowledge of the world to understand and make sense of what you read

Reading is a highly complex process in which competent, fluent readers use: visual clues (recognising whole words and parts of words), semantic clues (meaning and context), syntactic clues (grammar and word order) and phonic skills to make sense of what they are reading.  Re-reading, looking forward and backwards in the text, and drawing on schema (background and cultural knowledge) all play essential parts in the reading process.


What skills are involved in ‘writing’?

  • handwriting skills such as letter formation (upper and lower case), writing on the line or within a space, handwriting fluency
  • composing skills, including knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, genre, register, etc.
  • knowledge of punctuation and spelling


Teachers need to provide a balance so that learners can develop their skills in all these areas.  However, writing is not a linear process: learners need to have a purpose for writing, know the audience, decide what to say and how to say it, draft and redraft, perhaps several times.


What strategies and approaches can you use to teach reading and writing at this level?


  1. Whole word recognition

This is a beginner-level strategy which involves learners looking at and remembering words without sounding out individual letters.  It is a good idea to print each word clearly (in lower case) on a piece of card and encourage the learners to notice the shape and length of the word. The cards can be used in a variety of activities, e.g. word-picture matching and forming sentences.


  1. Phonics

Also at beginner level, ‘Synthetic phonics’ is currently the preferred method for teaching reading in British schools. It is based on teaching  letter-sound correspondences in a structured, systematic way.  ‘Analytic phonics’, on the other hand, is a method which involves ‘analysing’ phonemes within the context of whole words.  A note of caution - using a phonics approach relies on learners being able to discriminate sounds, which some ESOL learners may find difficult. For more information on how to use phonics in teaching reading to adults, see


  1. Language Experience

This is a method of teaching reading and writing skills which uses the learner’s own words. It can be used with individual beginner-level learners using very simple texts of just a few words as well as higher-level learners who are working on composition skills.  The teacher starts by scribing the learner’s words as s/he dictates, for example, a story, description or factual account. The teacher helps the learner develop their language through suggestions and asking questions. The sentences and/or words can then be re-written onto pieces of card for the learner to work on sequencing, sentence structure, word recognition and phonic skills. The text can then be used for handwriting practice, spelling, punctuation and gap-fill activities. The same method can be used with groups who can jointly compose a text about a common experience.


  1. Choral reading

This technique involves the teacher and learners reading a text aloud together, usually from a large text displayed on the screen. This method helps learners follow the teacher’s intonation and phrasing and takes the pressure off the individual.  It builds learners’ confidence and fluency, and they can practise reading the text again on their own or with a partner.


  1. Paired reading

This is a method where learners work in pairs and read simple texts aloud together. It gives them an opportunity to collaborate and support each other in making meaning and decoding whilst at the same time building confidence and fluency.


  1. Writing activities

A good starting point is to discuss the kind of writing the learners need to do. It is important that they write texts which are meaningful and of interest to them. Initially, this might be filling in a simple form with their personal details.


Some classroom strategies for teaching writing at this level:

  • Create a class book – each learner writes one page
  • Use a model – learners work with a very simple model and substitute some of the words to create their own text
  • Use structured questions – by responding to a series of questions, learners create their own text
  • Provide a writing frame – an outline of a particular text type – which helps to raise learners’ awareness of features of very simple texts and gives them support in writing their own
  • Encourage creative writing – acknowledge the cultural and linguistic resources learners bring with them and provide opportunities for simple, creative texts, e.g. acrostic poems
  • Spelling – start with words the learners need to write and use the ‘Look, Say, Cover, Write, Check’ method
  • Punctuation activities – count the number of sentences, circle or put in full stops and capital letters, match sentence halves
  • Handwriting – check writing position and materials, and use tracing and copying activities to develop automaticity


Remember that although learners may be beginner readers and writers, they are not beginners in life!


Further reading and links

Spiegel, M. and Sunderland H. (2006) Teaching Basic Literacy to ESOL Learners. London: LLU+

Spiegel, M. and Sunderland H. (2000) Teaching Basic Literacy to ESOL Learners, Video 1. London: LLU+

Spiegel, M. & Sunderland, H. (1999) Writing Works. London: LLU+

ESOL learners with basic literacy needs – Where do I start?  Judith Kirsh (2011) British Council English Agenda Seminar

ESOL Literacies: Access 2 Learning Support Material (Scotland)

Karlsen, L. The ESOL Literacy Resource Pack (2006)


The author of this article is Judith Kirsh. She has worked in the field of ELT for over 25 years during which time she has been a teacher, teacher-trainer and external examiner.  She worked at LLU+ as a teacher-educator/consultant (2003-2011) and developed new ESOL professional development materials and courses. She now works as a freelance teacher-educator and is co-chair of NATELCA.

Copyright - please read All the materials on these pages are free for you to download and copy for educational use only. 

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