Happy New Year! As we begin a new session with our beginning ESL students, we wonder: How many new students will I have? What languages will they speak? What kinds of academic skills will they bring to class? How will I know where to start with them?
This month, I'll discuss briefly the impact of L1 (first language) literacy on becoming literate in an additional language. I'll also share some ideas about figuring out where your students are in terms of their L1 literacy skills, which may affect their acquisition of literacy in English. You'll also find links to free downloads for two formal assessments of basic English literacy. I have included a photo; if you don't see it, click on "view this email in your browser."
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I welcome your comments and questions!
Shelley Hale Lee
Author, At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers firstname.lastname@example.org
Does L1 (first language) literacy help when learning English as an additional language?
Yes, oftentimes even a low level of literacy in a student's L1 will help them acquire literacy in English more quickly than their nonliterate classmates. Why? If the L1 is a phonetic language, the student may already understand the concept of sound/symbol correspondence, which will help him or her acquire English sounds and symbols more quickly. Also, the student may understand some print concepts such as: front and back cover of a book, page number, directionality of print, and table of contents. Students who have some L1 literacy may have already developed the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil and write. Also, even a few years of formal schooling provides a framework for academic ways of learning and may give students confidence that they can learn. All of these aspects will make it easier for them to adjust to your classroom.
Informal Assessments of L1 Literacy
1. Observation: Observe students as they copy from the board. Are they copying the English words and then translating into their L1? Are they taking additional notes in their L1? This indicates that they have some facility with reading and writing in their native language. On the other hand, are some students only copying the English, never writing in their native language? This may indicate that they cannot write in their L1. If a student isn't copying the English, or writing in their L1, this may indicate that s/he doesn't feel comfortable holding a pencil or may lack the confidence to try.
2. Ask the student to write his/her name. During a break, when there aren't many people around, ask your student if she can write her name in her native language. If she can't, then she probably lacks even the most basic level of literacy in her L1. If she writes her name and then volunteers to write some other words in her L1, this indicates some basic L1 literacy. If she writes her name in her L1 and also writes your name in her L1, this shows that she has some knowledge of sound/symbol correspondence in her native language.
3. Look at L1 alphabets. Display all of the alphabets represented by the languages in your class. Use www.omniglot.com to find the alphabets. Ask if anyone would like to tell the class about their alphabet. See who volunteers to recite the letters or to explain some sounds. These students obviously have some literacy in their L1 and the confidence to talk about it. Take note if someone doesn't react to his own alphabet, or tries to avoid the situation. This students may not have any L1 literacy.
4. Go easy and be patient. Don't put anyone on the spot to read or write their native language in front of the class. I've done this by mistake, assuming they could do it, and it creates a really uncomfortable situation for everyone. Wait for students to reveal their L1 literacy skills as you work with them in class, and over time, you'll see where everyone is.
Formal Diagnostics for ESL and Phonics
Check out these links for free formal diagnostics you can use in class.
1. www.emergentreaders.org: Phonics for ESL Diagnostic. Find it on the Resources page of the site. The document includes diagnostic oral and written quizzes for short vowels, single consonants, and consonant digraphs. It was created for use with At the River but can be used with other beginning reading materials as well.
2. www.englishcodecrackers.com: BATT (Beginning Alphabetics Tests and Tools). This is a series of ten assessments of the following: upper and lowercase letters; letter names and writing letters; short vowels and single consonants; consonant blends, digraphs and trigraphs; long vowels including silent e, vowel digraphs, vowel-r and vowel diphthongs. Thanks to Kristin Perry and Marn Frank for developing and sharing this resource.
Alphabets in the photo above, clockwise from L to R:
Thai, Burmese, Tigrinya, Arabic.