Students with no previous experience of learning learn differently

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For migrants who have not been able to experience education at all in their countries of origin, or only a minimum, the acquisition of a foreign language begins with literacy, in other words learning to read and write. Teachers working with literacy courses need special skills and methodical approaches in order to teach these learners successfully.

How can learning be successful if reading and writing can't be used as a teaching tool?

Imagine that someone is reading out the ingredients of a medicine from the package leaflet to you, for example butylscopolaminiumbromide, and you're supposed to write them down with your hand that's unaccustomed to writing. Like most people unable to link the specialist terms with a context, you would keep asking and then finally write the word down split into its syllables. You will see from the handwriting that it's difficult for you to write on the line, and that individual letters such as b, p or even s may be mirrored.
What's happening here is absolutely normal: for one thing it helps tremendously if we know the words we're reading and writing. For another the unfamiliar graphomotor coordination can zig-zag unexpectedly. Writing fluency is a matter of practice - a bit like riding a bike.
However, adult learners who have never attended school before in their lives face even more challenges. Language awareness and the fundamental understanding of the written form haven't even been developed in their native language. But pre-existing literacy skills are hugely important for the acquisition of written language. It's less likely to be successful if learners unaccustomed to writing are immediately confronted with the introduction and synthesis of letters - in other words putting letters together to form syllables and words.

Speak first, then write

 The basic principle is that oral skills should come first. Speaking and demonstrating are the relevant activities. Boardwork or reading texts to support learning come practically at the end of the learning chain, not at the beginning as is commonly seen. The aim is to equip learners with oral skills in the language to begin with, so that they are then in a position to learn reading and writing.

Learning to listen

 If you can't hear it, you can't say it. This is why such great importance is attached to phonological awareness. With low-threshold GFL teaching, the premise of visualisation applies universally, so that work with images, letters and flashcards is an appropriate choice for training phonological awareness.
Examples of word-picture cards

Vowal Cards

Example: differentiating between the ich and ach sounds
Blank cards should be used as well, to visualise the concept of "word". This allows you to take a simple sentence such as "Ich komme aus Deutschland." and put down one card to represent each word as you speak. The learners can mimic your speech, or point to the word "komme".

Learning through movement

 Apart from that, learning becomes more visual if it's possible for learning to take a "practical" approach. In literacy teaching, this "practical language scenario" starts by getting learners to hold up, find, sort or stick an appropriate picture or letter card. 

The Total Physical Response blog post

Consciously linking learning content with gestures supports the learning process as well. It starts with gestures for vowels and includes strategies such as writing in the air or on a partner's back, as well as conscious use of mime. Even the room with its corners and walls can be used as a learning tool.

Drawing the wiggly line

 Writing in itself is a highly complex movement process. To achieve it you need well-developed dexterity and functioning hand-eye coordination. The writing process starts way before the letters for learners who aren't used to handling a pen.
Finger exercises, holding a pen and painting can also be incorporated into the course in an adult-friendly way, particularly at times when learners are creating their own lesson material.
Exercises for practising writing fluency and the basic forms of the Latin alphabet can be linked together with line training. There should be step-by-step training of the fine motor skills, which must above all offer variety. The hand muscles become cramped very quickly.

Exercises for writing fluency

Learning in "chunks"

 With learning in chunks, it's all about economical variations of information uptake. Useful chunks include syllables, sight words and fragments.
Sight words are when the word meaning and written form of the word become anchored in the learner's memory, or mental dictionary. The word doesn't need to be sounded out anymore, it's treated as a whole unit. Suitable words are ones that have personal relevance (their own name, children's names), written words in their environment, brand logos, or even short words like mit, und, aber.
Chunks on the other hand are frequently used formulations, sequences or language patterns, such as "Wie geht es Ihnen?" or "Es regnet." Learning in chunks involves the learner developing the skill - often to a high level - of memorising, retaining the information. Admittedly - and it's a common theme throughout this area - this only works if the learner can relate personally to the learning content.
For teachers of literacy courses, it’s important that they are constantly aware of the special requirements of their students with no previous experience of learning. For this reason it's a good idea to work with everything the learners bring with them: right at the beginning that would be their own name, carrying on to cover family and day-to-day life. Students with no previous experience of learning should always be met on their own ground - in the sense of ensuring that the learning content is directly relevant to their daily routine. In other words - a practical language scenario is preferable to swotting up vocab.


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