They Canít Read but They Can Learn: 3 Essentials in Teaching Illiterate Kids

They Canít Read but They Can Learn: 3 Essentials in Teaching Illiterate Kids

If you are teaching ESL/EFL to 5-10 year old children in a developing country, or to immigrant children in a developed one, you might find that they are functionally illiterate.

Most children globally do not learn to read until a few years later than developed country kids, and immigrant children or children of immigrants have probably been moved around quite often and have received little to no formal education. Young children love to learn, however, and they learn fast. Teaching English can even help them learn how to read and write. If you find yourself tasked with teaching enthusiastic illiterates, read these 3 essential tips to reach your learning outcome goals.

Approach Illiterate Students in an Adequate Way

  1. 1

    Amend your Materials to Talking and Listening

    Most ESL/EFL documents available on the Internet and in guidebooks, or that you already have developed for other classes, are reading and writing intensive. Convert them to talking and listening activities. You can use a little bit of writing to emphasize points, but focus on the sound of the words connected to their meanings.

    For example, if you have flash cards for fruit, either convert them to pictures or table them for real fruits and repeat each word 5 times. Go around in a circle with your students and have them repeat the words over and over. Then make a game of it: have them compete for who can pronounce the word first after just showing the food or card. You will see that they cannot write the word or read it, but they know it and can say it just from talking and listening!

    For grammar do the same – show, do not tell. When teaching to be, make a game using “I, you, he/she/it” and one or two simple adjectives, like colors or “skinny”. If a lot of students have blue or red on that day, teach what blue and red are if they do not know, and then ask “Am I red?” (you are wearing blue pants and a black shirt). They will look at you confused. Then say, “No, I am blue!” pointing to your blue pants. Then point to a students’ red shirt and say, “You are red!” or “He is red!” They will just catch on after a few and you can take turns.

  2. 2

    Design All Tests as Oral

    You will need to amend all tests to be oral exams. If you can make them fast and do one-on-one evaluations, great. An oral test is better because they should practice their speaking back to you. If you do not have time for one-on-one evaluation, create a hand out accompaniment to an oral test where they have to match pictures to the words you are saying. For emotions use smileys. For action verbs show action pictures of people or animals doing things. You can design a test with a PowerPoint alternatively, asking them to pick A or B for the right answer to your questions.

  3. 3

    Get Parents Involved

    These kids do not read because their parents either did not teach them or cannot teach them. Either way, you want to get them involved. Children of this age might learn to read and write in elementary school, but if they are not receiving support at home they will probably struggle. Here are a few ways to get parents more involved:

    • Make them come to class every once and a while and participate. Chances are these parents could benefit from learning English as well and might be interested! It will actively get them involved with practicing at home.
    • Give homework that involves reading and writing and tell them to ask their parents for help. Homework that involves interviewing family members is good as well.
    • One day in class make books that they can take home and share with their families. A great resource for free downloadable and printable color-in books is
    • Be explicit. Tell parents on the first day of class that they need to be involved!

Teaching kids can be an extremely rewarding experience.

Their natural exuberance for learning and their boldness to try new things, ask questions, and probe without shyness gives them a tremendous student potential. Don’t let their inability to read and write and hence learn traditionally scare you away!

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