* Assessing and Teaching Adult and Adolescent NESB Students

Assessing and Teaching Adult and Adolescent NESB Students
with Very Low to Non-existent Levels of Print Literacy

Paper delivered at ACTA-QATESOL National Conference Reclaiming the ground in TESOL, Brisbane July 2000


This paper discusses the interlinking problems encountered by NESB learners with very low print literacy levels in L1: listening, pronunciation, sentence structure, decoding and encoding, transfer of knowledge and skills. It also touches on the higher order problems of skimming and scanning, print media format conventions and genre. It outlines a quick, straightforward  method of initial assessment which provides teachers with a logical starting point in programming for these students.

 It discusses the establishment of a suitable learning environment and proposes a detailed programme which encompasses mastery of the basic sound-symbol relationships of English, aural discrimination exercises, reading whole texts  (both decoding and reading for meaning), guessing techniques, writing (from the encoding of single words to the writing continuous text).


This paper grew out of many years teaching NESB students who had arrived in Australia with very little or no print literacy in Language 1 or in any Roman alphabet language.  In particular it was sparked by an encounter, during a formal case study several years ago, with a 16 year old Spanish speaker from Central America who had spent 4 years in the Australian education system before anyone recognised that she was functionally illiterate in Spanish as well as English.  Understandably in this situation the frustration levels of both student and teachers were extremely high and discouragement was the order of the day.

 The author spent the following nine months working once a week on a one-to-one basis with this student. The three most significant comments to other teachers by the student at the end of this period were:

Why didn't someone teach me this alphabet stuff before?
Everyone must understand that it takes a long time to learn to read
Can this school guarantee me the same tuition next year?

 The Problem
This student, whom we will call Carmel through the rest of this paper, had, in common with many others, an interrelating set of problems, each of which impinged on the others to form a classic vicious cycle.

 1.    Listening . Carmel did not hear accurately what native English speakers said to her and often misunderstood even when both she and her interlocutor thought she had understood.
She had not developed an ability to analyse individual sounds (phonemes),  or the order of phonemes within words, especially when they occurred in clusters (e.g., stress). She also missed most unstressed function words, particularly in contracted forms (e.g., I'm going; isn't).

2.    Pronunciation. As a result of her listening problems, Carmel had parallel pronunciation problems because it is not possible to imitate what is not heard. While her pronunciation problems did not overly hamper casual spoken communication, they had a significant impact on her ability to encode.

3.    Sentence structure.  Again Carmel could not imitate what she did not hear.  In particular, her verb forms were very largely habitually defective (e.g., I going, he go) and her understanding of the English tense system was inadequate. This severely limited her ability to predict when she tried to read.
It is also interesting to note here that, even when students like Carmel reach the stage of being able to decode, they generally substitute their own normal grammatical errors for what is actually written in the text so that in fact the text does not provide them with a correct model to imitate in their own speech and writing.

4.    Decoding. Students in Carmel's position generally have a belief that written English is a completely irrational system. They believe that you must learn by rote every single word in English and they see this, of course, as a hopeless task.
Almost invariably they have an incomplete or non-existent grasp of the common regular correspondences between sound and symbol in English. They do not know all the letters of the alphabet and their most common corresponding sounds, nor are they familiar with the common digraphs (e.g. ee = [i:])
Very frequently, their experience leads them to an expectation that print matter will not make sense. As a result, they make no effort to obtain meaning from text.
They cannot guess when they meet unfamiliar or forgotten words: they are familiar with too few words within most texts to provide them with sufficient context to guess;  their English (and sometimes L1) vocabulary is  often startlingly limited which, of course, also reduces their chances of guessing; because of their limited general education, their restricted and inaccurate listening skills and their lack of access to print texts, they also often have a very limited general knowledge which again impinges on their ability to guess at meaning.

5.    Encoding. The Carmels among our students do not hear words accurately; they have little or no grasp of the sound-symbol relationships of English; and they have no bank of sight words (commonly used, irregularly spelt words (e.g., you, come)). Therefore, when they are asked to write, they are at a complete loss. Indeed, often because of their very limited decoding skills, they find it very difficult even to copy a text which has been provided for them: they work excessively slowly, they lose their place in the original text, they cannot read back what they have written.

6.    Transfer of knowledge and skills. We who have been in formal education environments for many years, assume that our students will do as we do: that they will remember some piece of information or skill learned in one context, see its relevance and transfer it to a new context as appropriate.

However, this is rarely true of students like Carmel. They may have learned to produce the sound represented by a particular symbol but often cannot reverse the process to write the symbol when their hear the sound. They may be able to spell a word (e.g. mother) and not recognise the word a few minutes later in a written text, or vice versa.

As teachers, it is our task to make repeated, overt connections for these students until they can make them for themselves, unaided. We cannot assume they will automatically make the transfers for themselves.

7.    Higher order problems. All of the above are very basic problems but at least a start must be made towards their solution before we can usefully approach the higher order issues on which these basic problems seriously impinge. At some stage (earlier or later, according to the progress and confidence of the student and the professional judgement of the teacher) attention will need to be paid to: scanning and skimming techniques, strategies resulting from an understanding of the conventions of text layout, summarising and paraphrasing as aids to obtaining meaning from text, understanding and imitating the various written genres in English.

 Assessing the Problem
As teachers, when we meet  an upper primary or secondary student or an adult who claims to have had X years of schooling in their home country, we assume at least a basic level of print literacy in L1 and a subsequent, more or less smooth, transfer of reading and writing skills into English, parallel with the learner's growing expertise in listening and speaking. And, of course, in most cases we are right. However, from time to time we encounter students who do not seem to progress in reading and writing as we think they should.

 The following is a quick, fairly rough and ready assessment procedure which ordinary classroom teachers can use to check whether or not students have a grasp of the most basic tools for decoding. These tools, of course, are not the end of the reading process, but they are the beginning of it.

 Here we have the usual aim of finding out what the student already knows. Since we are starting with the most basic of skills, some tact is necessary.  So it is generally useful to start with an apology of the sort, You probably know most of this but I need to check in case there are some gaps.

1.    Alphabet. Use alphabet cards  in random order to ask the student for the name and the sound of the letter.

2.    Digraphs. Start with a version accompanied by pictures (but watch later to see if the student remembers without the aid of pictures)

3.    Read continuous text.   Use a  series of increasingly difficult books. Start at a very, very low level (Apologize and let student see pile of books. Move through them very rapidly, not bothering to read more than a sentence or two if the student can clearly cope.)
              Watch for the types of errors the student makes:
              Can s/he sound small regular words?
              Can s/he cope with digraphs without the prompting given earlier by means of
              Does s/he know v. common "sight" words?
              Can s/he divide into syllables with/without teacher help?
When the student reaches a comfortable reading level, start to ask about the meaning of the text.

 By now, the teacher should have a rough and ready picture of  reading skills and can probably assume similar strengths and weaknesses will occur in encoding, but in all probability the problems will be more pronounced.

 Establishing a programme
General learning environment. The aim of this programme is to try to introduce rational predictability into (from the student's viewpoint) apparent chaos. Consequently there is a need to establish a predictable, quiet, uninterrupted routine.  Depending on what was discovered in the initial rough assessment, a routine should be established, preferably of short periods often. This routine will start with the most basic skills and work progressively towards the higher level problems. Initially it will probably include some or all of the activities listed below. The simpler parts of the routine will ultimately be eliminated and higher level activities will  be introduced progressively.

1)   Phonics
a) an alphabet sheet with a word and accompanying picture for each letter - say/repeat each sound and word

There is an appropriate alphabet sheet in  English Spelling CD Vol. 1
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site.

b) short/long vowels - say short vowels, then long;  repeat each short and long vowel with their exemplar words; contrast those which your student regularly confuses (e.g., short a & e, short a & u, short e & i)

There is a useful chart for this purpose in  English Spelling Vol. 2
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site.

c) un/voiced consonants - put your hand on your throat and demonstrate that you can feel the vocal cords vibrate in the production of the voiced consonants

There is a useful chart for this purpose in  English Spelling Vol. 2
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site

d) confusing pairs l/r; v/w, a/u etc depending on individual or group

There is a useful chart to demonstrate the difference between l & r in  English Spelling Vol. 2
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site

e) alphabet cards  - student gives the  name and sound in random order. Then  the teacher gives each  sound which the  student writes

There are alphabet hand cards in  English Spelling CD Vol. 1
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site

f) individual words - start with regular 3-letter words, say and sound and the student writes what s/he hears; then you write the correct version and discuss confusion in sound/meaning; progress to regular 2- or 3-syllable words as student's competence and confidence grows

See Appendix below

g) minimal pairs - for some students this is very useful. For example, Spanish speakers who habitually confuse short a and u . Make yourself a list of words (e.g., cat, cut; fan, fun ); read some to the student who must identify the relevant sound in each

See Appendix below

h) digraphs - gradually build up the student's knowledge; start with examples accompanied by pictures ; then progress to examples without pictures in sound groups; finally work in alphabetical order.

There are illustrated digraphs in  English Spelling Vol. 2
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site

Aural discrimination
Rosner's exercises are excellent if the student can understand what is wanted but some students find this very difficult. In that case it is better to abandon the attempt than cause anxiety in the student.
A simpler alternative can be found in Catts and Vartiainen's Sounds Abound.

See Bibliography below.

2)   Reading texts
It is important to start with texts which are at a low enough level to boost confidence. However, teachers must use their discretion to push and challenge as the student progresses.

A lot has been written over the last decade or two about what texts are appropriate for literacy students. In the case of NESB students, the overwhelming, explicitly stated need is to learn to read. Therefore an  appropriate text is one which the student can read. In the overwhelming majority of cases, teachers will not encounter the psychological impediments found with native speaking adult literacy students. NESB students will generally accept with enthusiasm any text which satisfies their purpose, which is learning to read.

That said, the teacher needs to show some tact. If children's books are being used, a degree of flippancy is often productive, as is a discussion of the possibility of reading with any young children in the learner's family (children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, younger siblings etc).  Moreover, especially when dealing with adolescents, it is necessary to find a quiet, private place to read to avoid embarrassment and/or  distractions from peers.

Note: Since 2000 when I delivered this paper, Dorothy & I have published five sets of reading materials suitable for adolescent and adult students. 
See Current Publications / Reading Materials on this site.

A lot of very short books/texts are needed to start with so that the learner can gain a sense of achievement very quickly. It is important to avoid getting "bogged down" in a longer or more difficult text, even if that text appears to be appropriate to the reader's age and interests. After all, these learners have often spent quite long periods trying to grapple with texts beyond their competence level  and  the only thing they have learned from that experience is that they cannot read! (Many have also concluded that they are stupid.)

It is important that learners have a lot of practice reading.  (You can liken this to football/netball training.)   At school, with the help of the teacher or other competent reader, once some confidence is gained, the threshold can been pushed and gradually more difficult and  challenging texts can be attempted. If necessary, the student and teacher can read alternate passages to gather speed and prevent the feeling of lagging.

It is necessary for the student to continue reading at home as well.  Here the teacher can provide slightly easier texts to read alone.

Whatever the text,  always encourage some discussion of the meaning  since it is crucial for the student  to learn that texts do/should make sense.

3)   Higher order reading activities.  Some students, particularly those who have arrived in their mature years, are unlikely to reach this level.  However, some will and at this point, additional students may also benefit from the activities described below, particularly those learners who have adequate levels of literacy in L1 and who can decode competently in English, but who come from educational philosophies which place great emphasis on rote learning and translation using bilingual dictionaries. Outlined below are merely a few of the possibilities which may not be familiar to all teachers.  It in no way purports to be a comprehensive list of suggestions.

a) Comprehension exercises. In these standard, time-honoured activities, it is crucial that the questions should not repeat words from the text so that students cannot merely copy sentences containing the key words . If they do this, the teacher cannot judge whether or not any understanding of the text has taken place. (Students from some cultures are very adept at this type of copying.)  It is also helpful in some questions to ask students their opinions and insist that they do in fact give their own  opinions rather than just copying parts of the text. At first some students will find this very strange and daunting.

There are comprehension exercises at three levels in the Workbooks accompanying our reading materials.
See Current Publications / Reading Materials on this site.

b) Summarising and paraphrasing.  Many students at first find it surprisingly difficult to explain the main idea in a text in, say 6 words, and then list the main events or facts from a text in note form with a maximum number of words prescribed for each entry.   When this can be achieved, the notes (but not the original text) can be used to paraphrase

There are exercises of this type in the Hard level in the Workbooks accompanying our reading materials.
See Current Publications / Reading Materials on this site.

c) Guessing unknown vocabulary.  This technique can be used  only for higher level students  who can read and know the meaning of approximately 90% of words in the text.  A tabular format can be constructed following Paul Nation's principles; this lends itself to constructive discussion about what students already know or can deduce about the unknown words: Is the word important for overall understanding of the text? What part of speech is it? Does it have a positive or negative meaning? Does it have the same or opposite meaning to some other word in the sentence? What can you guess from the general meaning of the text? Do you know any words which look similar?

There is copy of the vocabulary guessing table in Conference Papers & Journal Articles / How to choose an outstanding text on this site.
See also Bibliography for Paul Nation's work.

Teachers cannot assume any transfer from the reading activities above! It is vital to refer back constantly and explicitly. Again a routine must be established to help bring order to the chaos which the student perceives in any writing situation. The routine will start with the most basic and progress towards higher order activities.

1)   Letter formation. Some students will need training in holding a pencil and forming the letters of the alphabet.  It is important that good habits are formed right from the beginning so that students are not later hampered by awkwardness at a time when they should be starting to increase the physical speed of their writing. In most instances junior primary teachers will be able to provide a sample of the printing & cursive styles used in your area.

Fonts used in each Australian state are available at a very modest price from www.schoolfonts.com.au
They include dotted and outlined letters and a version with lines to teach letter formation and position.

2)   Encoding
a) Single regularly spelt words. Teacher and student together can build up lists of families of words to reinforce alphabet/digraph work. These words need to be analysed for sounds and meanings and then regularly tested. The testing gives both teacher and student feedback on progress and establishes that progress has in fact been made. (Testing, however, must never appear to be punitive.)
b) Sight words.  It is necessary to build up list of "sight" or "stupid" words and  rote learn them.  (The teacher will need to demonstrate how to rote learn.)  These words need to be tested regularly and  cumulatively.
c) Manipulating a small group of words.  The teacher can take a small group of words containing the same sound and spelling pattern (e.g., map, cat, pat, cap, wag, van, slam, plant, fan, clap) Some should be nouns and some verbs. The teacher and student should sound and say each word, discuss meanings at the beginning of each session of this activity. Then the words can be  manipulated over and over and over to reinforce meaning,  the relationship between pronunciation and spelling, and sentence structure, especially correct verb forms.

There are manipulation exercises suitable for these learners in English Spelling CD Vol. 1
See Current Publications  / Spelling Materials on this site.

3. Writing continuous text
a) Choice of text type. Initially texts attempted should be short enough not to bog down and discourage. At first, it is better not to distract the student from the encoding task by introducing the concept of genre. Any topic is suitable: simple recount, description of friend or family member, followed later by highly modified school assignment, writing for family members or some domestic writing task which interests the student.

b) Guided writing from pictures. A set of pictures representing a story, preferably with a humorous ending, can be supplied. These need to be discussed with the student. Then some key vocabulary can be provided, including relevant verbs. The verbs can then be conjugated in present simple, and continuous, as well as the simple past. Then the teacher provides a tense cue: What is happening? Every day... Last week... and the student can select the relevant tense from the table already constructed. (see Appendix)  The story can be written more than once to give practice in different tenses. At a later stage, the structure of a narrative can be discussed and analysed.

There are examples of this type of exercise in the Medium level of the Workbooks of our reading materials
See Current Publications  / Reading Materials on this site.

c) Planning. Generally students like Carmel have no planning skills which they can use in their writing. They can sometimes talk fluently about what they want to say and then will be at a complete loss when it is time to start writing.  The teacher need to discuss a plan with the student. At first the teacher may need to help the student simplify and shorten what s/he wants to say to match what s/he can encode. Sometimes it is helpful as a next step to ask the student to speak into a tape recorder. After that the tape can be played back a few words at a time and the student can attempt (with assistance from the teacher in spelling) to write from his/her own dictation. Finally it is crucial that the student read back what s/he has written. This not only gives a sense of achievement but also checks that the transfer from encoding to decoding is in place.

At a slightly more advanced level, planning can take the form of discussing general headings. Then the student can be encouraged to write down key words to prompt memory. From these notes, full sentences (and later still paragraphs) can be written.  At this stage, the concept of topic and concluding sentences can be introduced.  Even at this slightly more advanced level, it is still necessary for the student to read back what has been written to ensure that s/he can in fact decode what s/he has written.

d) Final presentation. It is a good idea to ensure that there is a clean, attractive version at end; if the student writes too slowly, the teacher can type the text after each session and present it to the student to reread at the beginning of the next session. In some cases, the work completed by a single student over a number of weeks or the collective work of a number of students, can be illustrated, laminated and spiral bound for  the student or class to keep, or for presentation to a family member, visitor or other important person.

There has been a tendency in recent years for teachers to emphasise one set of skills and one teaching angle over all others. This paper proposes that NESB students with very low levels of print literacy need all the tools which native speakers have at their disposal (consciously or  sub-consciously) in their dealings with print text. These learners need a sound knowledge of English phonics, good auditory discrimination skills as well as the higher order strategies to analyse and manipulate print text. They need, as native speakers have in their childhood days of learning to read, access to a great volume of short texts within their level of current competence.

 These learners need  thorough mastery of each stage of the process of learning to read and make sense of print texts. They cannot be rushed from one stage to another before they are ready. Particularly for adult learners, the learning process generally takes a very considerable amount of time. There will be phases of startling progress, generally followed by set-backs or plateaus where no learning appears to be taking place but where, in reality, necessary consolidation is under way, or where other influences in the student's life are impeding concentration on study.

 For both teacher and student progress is generally slower than either would like but the rewards are great: there is a real rush of adrenaline for a teacher who is privileged to witness the power and freedom which print literacy brings, however tardily, to an adolescent or adult student.


Regular Three-Letter Words

















 Regular 2- & 3-Syllable Words

















Minimal Pairs

















Sight Words


















































































1.    Catts, H. and Vartiainen, T.: Sounds Abound, Listening, Rhyming and Reading  1993 LinguiSystems, East Moline IL 61244, ISBN 1 55999 394 4

2.    Clarke, D.F. and Nation, I.S.P.:  Guessing the meaning of words from context: strategy and techniques in System, Vol. 8, pp.211-220

3. Rosner, J.: Helping Children Overcome Learning Difficulties 1979,Walker & Company NY , ISBN 0 8027 7178 5

Subpages (1): * Phonics for Teachers