English Language Learning Blog

Elder Literacy Initiative

  • Elder Literacy Initiative

The ESL Literacy Network welcomes Lisa Vogl to the blog. Lisa recently launched the Elder Literacy Initiative and developed an ESL Literacy curriculum designed for low-literate elders.

The Elder Literacy Initiative is a worldwide grassroots effort to help connect low-literate elders with effective literacy programs.

I started this while I was the Adult ELL Program Coordinator for CommonBond Communities, an affordable housing non-profit with housing sites in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The Elder Literacy Initiative had small beginnings in 2012 - just myself and a group of volunteer tutors within CommonBond Communities, who found ourselves really enjoying the work of tutoring elder learners. In 2013, I was joined by Burgen Young of the Minnesota Literacy Council and Missy Staloch, an M.Ed. student at the University of Minnesota.

We began the Elder Literacy Initiative's curriculum development project, which is free, licensed for distribution, and shared with educators and agencies working with elders and low-literate adults of all ages, all over the world.

Why did you develop a curriculum for low-literate elders?

As the Adult ELL Program Coordinator at CommonBond Communities, I found myself in a really unusual setting for ELL programs. We were not a school; there were no teachers, or texts, or materials. But as many program coordinators know, transportation can be a huge barrier and so our biggest advantage as a housing organization was that ELL programs could operate right in the building where students live.

Many of our programs began at Skyline Tower, an affordable housing high rise in St Paul with over a thousand residents-- mostly from East Africa.

As you might imagine, our ELL programs had great attendance. But most surprisingly, we had such high numbers of elder learners-- far more than you would find in a school-- precisely because we were so conveniently located. Clearly, we were reaching an underserved demographic in adult education, but we didn't have the right tools. What's more, most of the elders in our programs were not literate in their first language. Somali, the first language of many of our elder learners in Minnesota, did not have an officially adopted writing system until 1972. Somali elders today were already adults by that time. Teaching someone to read for the first time in another language is extremely frustrating when you don't have the right materials!

I was determined to develop materials that could be used anywhere there was 1 elder and 1 tutor. Because our programs were taking place in non-traditional settings and instruction was delivered by volunteers, the curriculum needed to be all-inclusive, reusable, and easy to use. It also needed to be in-line with best practices and informed by the latest developments in low-literacy instruction. Ultimately, the curriculum is something that anyone can sit down and start using right away with low-literate English language learners.

What has been the response to the curriculum so far?

I began sharing the curriculum in June of this year, and so far over 180 agencies and individuals have requested copies! I’ve been really excited to see the wide-range of requests, too—from senior housing organizations in California to literacy agencies in Canada. In fact, the most recent request came from an aboriginal community educator working with elders in isolated rural communities in Australia.

I have to say I'm encouraged by the positive response thus far—people are happy to find that the activities are leveled, detailed, and don’t require a lot of prep time.

What are some best practices that tutors/instructors should keep in mind when using the curriculum?

  • Speaking and listening first, reading and writing second. At this level, it's very important not to focus on writing, even though students often want to start writing right away. Focus on building vocabulary orally, and then teaching students to read those words they already know how to say.
  • Don't be afraid to review, review, review! The CommonBond Communities Literacy Curriculum makes it easy-- each of the 13 units only works with about 6-12 words, on average. The activities give you plenty of ideas to work with the same material in new and creative ways. Repetition is very important, especially with elder learners who may not have as many opportunities to review on their own. It's not boring, and it's not patronizing-- it's best practice, and it's fun!
  • Take your time. I advise tutors that each activity can take up to 30 minutes. Just as tutors are sometimes hesitant to review material because they're worried it's boring, or too easy, or that the student already heard it once before, or even that the tutor themselves already knows it and is getting bored-- remember to slow down! The curriculum includes extension activities so that you can easily build on the work you've already done, and give the learner plenty of time to hear and practice the language.

In next week's blog post, Lisa will share about the specific learning needs of low-literate elders.

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