Are You Teaching Your ELLs These 8 Literacies?

Those of us who aren’t in adult ed most often think of literacy as a noncount noun. But in adult ed, we’ve long since moved beyond literal literacy (from littera, the Latin for letter, meaning “able to read”), and we now think of literacies, countable and plural, as life skills essential to survival in a particular place. Because these skills are so essential to life in a new country, many adult ESOL programs choose to incorporate these nonlanguage skills into ESOL curricula. In this post, I’m going to give a quick rundown of some literacies you might want to consider addressing in your adult English classes.

1. Visual Literacy

Just like texts, we decode images. We identify the focus and action of a photo, identify how it connects to the text that it illustrates. We look to charts and graphs to recognize meaningful patterns in data sets. All of this constitutes visual literacy, and it is a vital way that we extract information from our surroundings: advertisements, subway maps, street signs, IKEA assembly instructions.

2. Numeracy

We may not be great at math, but if we’re functioning independently in day-to-day life, paying for our groceries, calculating the time we need to get to the airport for our flight, figuring out how far our paycheck will go, then we are at least numerate. Many students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) lack some of these competencies, and we don’t necessarily need to be good at math to teach them.

3. Digital Literacy

Spanning a broad range of devices and platforms, digital literacy refers to the skills required to use computers and mobile devices, software and apps, and the Internet. It probably goes without saying that such skills are more and more important to survival in English-speaking countries with each passing year.

4. Financial Literacy

Personal money management, budgeting, investing, saving, understanding and using credit cards and checks are all skills essential to life in a new country, and they fall under the header of financial literacy.

5. Information Literacy

There is in fact a U.S. National Forum on Information Literacy, and it defines information literacy as “… the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.” As the Internet further and further monopolizes the flow of information, misinformation abounds, and it’s increasingly important for students to be able to distinguish good information from bad information.

6. Forms Literacy

I’ve only heard this term from a few agencies near me, but I find it to be a very useful one. Immigrants, especially those seeking to advance their careers and education, are going to have to fill out reams of paperwork, much of it designed with no thought of accommodating nonnative English speakers. Forms literacy is the ability to decode often seriously abbreviated instructions and to accurately complete all variety of forms. This includes recognizing which labels apply to which fields, which fields are required and which are optional, what to do if a field doesn’t apply to you, how to complete checkboxes, and so on.

7. Health Literacy defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

8. Civic/Political Literacy

There is no consensus as to precisely the skills and competencies that make up civic literacy, but they are those which allow immigrants to be informed, civically-engaged residents or citizens. This usually involves understanding the structure of government and the voting process, as well as evaluating candidates and the impact of their proposed policies. Demonstrating a certain degree of civic literacy is a requirement for citizenship in some countries.

You may be thinking, But I’m an English teacher! I can barely do long division myself, and you want me to teach math!? Here it’s important to keep in mind that we’re really only talking about the most fundamental levels of each skill. With just a little research of your own, you can easily teach many of the skills we are talking about, and this can have a serious impact in the lives of your students.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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One Response to Are You Teaching Your ELLs These 8 Literacies?

  1. Joan Wink says:

    Thanks for this article. The notion of “form literacy” is interesting. I wonder if its name won’t change as we move forward: Immigrants literacies? Just musing….

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