Chris Speck gives tips and advice on how to teach ESOL adults to read and write.

Photo to illustrate the concept of teaching adults to read and write.

Source: Ariel Skelley, Getty Images/Blend Images


There is no stereotype for ESOL/ESL students. Some can speak English, but can’t write it (perhaps they have a different script for their L1; perhaps they are illiterate; perhaps they have no idea of English spellings). Some can write but are poor speakers. Some can neither read, write nor speak, and others can do a little bit of everything. In this respect then, there’s no one way to go about teaching them to read and write. Given below are some general tips to consider.

Set targets

Be realistic about what they are going to learn. ESOL students at this level are probably not going to be doctors or lawyers in English anytime soon. Even if your main target is teach them to read and write English, that's far too broad; concentrate on the basics first, like reading and writing their name and address or filling in a simple form. Stick to achievable goals each lesson.

Use things they need to read and write in everyday life. These will be forms, payslips, letters, signs, calendars, phonebooks, maps and so on (see the ESOL lesson plans).

It almost goes without saying, but teaching students at this level takes a lot of time. You need to keep your motivation up as well as theirs. Targets can help with this. Make sure you share them with the students and remind them of what they have learnt and achieved.


Avoid the phonetic alphabet – normal letters are confusing enough. Try not to use children's reading or spelling books; not only are they not suitable for adults, but they have lots of confusing words. Try ‘the cat sat on the mat’, for example; it's very hard to explain to a non-English speaker (past tense sit-sat) and fairly useless in everyday life.

For reading, you can use a picture dictionary or google images. Stick post it notes on various objects around the classroom.

For writing practice, use a three-line system on lined paper like you used at school. Capitals go all the way to the top and small letters only go half way (to the middle line).

Have a look at the materials here in the ESOL section; the Absolute Beginners course is excellent for complete beginners, and includes options for students who have no knowledge of the English alphabet – you can also check out (mainly for basic skills students so not always relevant). It’s also worth remembering that unlike people who teach EFL in non English speaking countries, we have access to a huge amount of authentic material in the target language.

Vary the tasks

Repetition is the name of the game, so use different activities to aid motivation. A whole class about writing your address is bit stale. Short activities include slip tests, flashcards, simple dictations, very simple cloze tests or listening tasks. You can cover the same area by doing different topics – take writing numbers, for example: you can do this by writing the time, writing telephone numbers or dates and writing addresses.

Keep a notebook

Encourage students to keep a notebook that they look at everyday. In it they can write words or phrases, or even just practise letter writing. Students who can write in their own language might like to record words in three columns, the first in English, the second phonetically written in their language and the third the meaning in their language. Take this example from French to English:

oui     we       yes

It’s not enough for students to simply come to class every week; they need to study at home in their own time.

Suggested first lessons

The pace and speed of these lessons very much depends on the learner/learners. You might get through these quickly or they may take a few months. Whatever the timescale, make sure that students are comfortable with the material you are dealing with before you move on.

  • Lesson 1: Fill in a simple form (name and address). Numbers one to twelve (simple bingo, simple slip-test).
  • Lesson 2: Review form and numbers. Telling the time: spoken (toy clock) and written (write words under clock faces).
  • Lesson 3: Review name, address and time. Days of week. Months of year (arrange post-it notes in order).
  • Lesson 4: Review days of week and months of year. Writing and saying dates.