Pre-Literate Learners

by Katie on December 21, 2007

by Katie | December 21st, 2007  

  • Of the 380 English spelling rules, only ONE has no exceptions – no English word ends with the letter “v”.
    Source: The American Literacy Council. (All quotes taken from
  • Most U.S. adults who learn to read well enough to be functionally literate require at least two years of reading instruction to become literate, while students in more than 98% of all other alphabetic languages learn to read in less than three months.
    Source: Welcome to the Solution to English Illiteracy.
  • The United States is ranked 49th among the 156 United Nation member countries with regard to literacy.
    Source: United Nations
  • George Bernard Shaw created the word “Ghoti” which he suggested was pronounced like the English word “fish” if some of the precedents of English spelling were used. He pointed out that the “gh” was pronounced like “f” as in “enough”, the “o” as in “women” and the “ti” as “nation.”
    Source: REY, D S., 2006. Language In Use [online]. Cambridge, UK.

As if that isn’t enough to scare your typical learner away, imagine that you’d never learned to read or write in your own language.

That is exactly the situation facing a portion of the students in ESL classes throughout the US, and a class in Kansas City Missouri is described in Programs focus on illiterate immigrants.

The reason is not totally clear from the article, but it’s described a problem that pre-literate students are often in classes with others who can read and write in their own language. One explanation is that there are not enough pre-literate students to make a full group, and another is that there is a disincentive to do this because funding is tied to test results. My experience in for-profit language schools leads me to believe the the lack of funding in general is what prevents a non-profit organization from forming a class specifically for those pre-literate students and paying an appropriately-qualified teacher to teach them. Community organizations aren’t looking to make a quick buck off of their students, but rather to spend the funds they do have in a way that benefits the most people.

If there is a direct comparison, I have to say it eludes me, but it is interesting to compare this to a recent article about ESL classes for immigrants in the UK. There, critics assert that a new workplace English class or program – developed for those who come to the UK for a short period to work – is just too short. They ask whether those who use English “only” for the workplace really don’t need to learn as much as those learning English for general use.

Of course there are many differences in the respective situations in the US and UK, and I believe one is that most immigrants to the UK must take and pass language classes. In the US, knowledge of English is necessary to, for example, take the citizenship test, but classes are more on an “if you’re lucky” basis.

It’s also interesting to note that in the article from the UK, the question of “how much are employers responsible for paying?” is raised, and it is my impression that – again, while there are certainly different circumstances – this question is mostly absent in similar discussions in the US.

I did tutor an individual student in Chicago before going abroad to teach. However, she was bilingual (not in English) before she came to the US, and literate in those languages. I don’t have any experience at all with pre-literate learners, but I have come across a couple of resources which might be useful for those who do:

If you have links or tips or experiences to share connected to teaching pre-literate learners, let me know in a comment!

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Teaching English Language Learners
February 5, 2008 at 12:58 am


Larry Ferlazzo December 21, 2007 at 9:05 pm

Hi, Katie,

You’re raising some very important points. I have several good links related to teaching pre-literate and illiterate English Language Learners on my website at:

I found them helpful when I started teaching Hmong refugees several years ago.

Katie December 22, 2007 at 10:05 pm

Thanks for the link, Larry!

It occurs to me that I may not even be using terminology correctly. There is an explanation, but a long one which I will not go into at the moment. I hope it still makes sense though.


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