Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: literacy training for young learners

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article talking about the problems encountered when teaching English when Roman script is not known.


We have been working in the Prai tribe in Thailand for 27 years and English is now becoming an important part of Thailand. The group we teach barely know how to read and write Thai but the school we are at wants us to teach reading and writing. Can you maybe give us some suggestion for how to teach English when Roman script is not known.

Larry and Sandy Miller

Dear Larry and Sandy,

Your question opens up a number of contentious questions related to the desirability / practicability of teaching English. Unfortunately, you do not say whether your learners are young children or adults, and that clearly makes a difference. What I'll do here is deal with both cases. Then I'll offer a few suggestions about where you might get some practical information.

Case 1. The learners are children.

Popular opinion has it that children learn a foreign language better than teenagers or adults. This belief is largely based on the fact that children effortlessly acquire their first language by age 5. It fails to take account of the fact that children learning a foreign language are in a very different situation from those learning their mother tongue. In fact, there is no reliable research to show that young children are better at it at all. In fact, all the evidence points to the fact that adults and teenagers are vastly better learners. If you want to check this out, take a look at Chapter 3 of 'How Languages are Learned' by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada (OUP 1993.) This sets out pretty clearly the research evidence available. If you can't get hold of that book, which is by the way an excellent companion for anyone teaching English, then try an article by Carol Read in English Teaching Professional magazine, entitled 'Is Younger Better?'.

Even if you can set up favourable conditions for kids to learn English, there is a further problem, to do with literacy training. Learning the language system is one stage, but learning to read and write that language is a second, and very problematic, stage. Even kids who speak their first language will find the process of becoming literate in it a very slow and painful one. And many do not get very far in the process. (There is a lot more concealed illiteracy around than is commonly acknowledged.) When we consider literacy learning in a foreign language, the problems are compounded ~ especially when the kids' own language has a non-Roman script (or no script at all.) Many people take the view that trying to become literate in a foreign language before becoming thoroughly literate in your own language is educationally inefficient, and potentially damaging to the learner's self-esteem and cultural sense of belonging.

Case 2. The learners or adults or adolescents.

In this case, there may well be advantages in acquiring the foreign language itself. But the situation you describe sounds more complex than many others. For Thai nationals, for example, they have only their mother tongue to contend with, alongside English. In the case of your Prai learners, they are already struggling with Thai, which is functionally much more important to them than English, but are also struggling to become literate both in their own language (albeit using Thai script) and in Thai. On the surface at least, it looks as if expecting them to make much progress in English might be imposing an excessive burden.

I realize, of course, that there is a good deal of pressure to teach English, and that it may be difficult to resist this. It may not be a bad idea however, to consider just what the purpose is in learning English ( not just a vague feeling that it is a 'good thing'), and to ask whether the benefits of learning it outweigh the potential disadvantages. How many people actually need English, and what are the potential effects on their lives if they succeed in doing so?

Where can you find out more?

There is a series of very practical books on teaching with low resources called The Oxford Basics by Jill and Charles Hadfield. OUP 2000 onward). These books are not expensive, and are based on some very tough teaching experience in places as varied as Tibet and Madagascar. The titles on 'Simple Reading Activities' and 'Simple Writing Activities' would certainly be worth looking at.

In addition there is a book called 'Writing with Children' by Jackie and Vanessa Reilly which will shortly be published in the Oxford Teachers' Resource Book series. This begins with pre-writing activities and goes right through to the writing of complete texts.

You may also find it worth taking a look at 'Teaching Languages to Young Learners' by Lynne Cameron (CUP), and 'English for Primary Teachers' by Mary Slattery and Jane Willis (OUP). But the literature on teaching English to young learners is vast, as you will see if you key in 'English as a foreign language young learners' to www.google.com . Whatever advice books give you, it will always be preferable to trust your own experience and intuition. You know your students better than anyone else can ever do. With respect for the difficulties you face, and good wishes for overcoming them.

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