ESOL is English for Speakers of Other Languages. Migrants and new community members in Ireland come from a wide range of cultural, linguistic, educational and social backgrounds. In any English language or ESOL classes across the country, you can find learners who are highly educated with professional and skilled backgrounds who are attending classes to learn English or improve their English. However there are also a significant number of learners who are learning English who may have missed out on formal education in their country of origin and who lack the basic literacy skills to participate fully and benefit from ‘standard’ English language classes.
What is the difference between ‘ESOL literacy’ and ‘ESOL language’ classes?
ESOL language focuses on English language development for students who do not have literacy difficulties in their native language.
Many ESOL language learners may be familiar with the Roman script, that is, the alphabet we use in English. Other ESOL language learners may be familiar with writing systems such as Chinese, or a non-Roman alphabet such as Arabic or Cyrillic, but have limited knowledge of the Roman script and the conventions of written English.
However, learners who are literate in the conventions and script of any language transfer the skills and knowledge they already have to the learning reading and writing in English. While the majority of ESOL language learners do struggle with the fact that English is not phonetically regular, that is, it does not have a one-to-one sound letter pattern, this does not mean they have literacy difficulties.
ESOL literacy (for students who are new to English) refers to teaching and learning that focuses on both language and literacy development in English for students who have literacy difficulties in their mother tongue to an extent that creates significant, additional challenges for the learning of English as a second language.
Generally, these learners have low levels of literacy in their native language (in some cases, they may be new to reading and writing and may never even held a pen before). Many of these learners are also very new to the English language and require additional support to acquire the literacy skills essential to the acquisition of English in order to actively participate in the workplace and wider society.
If learners are unable to read or write in their own language, they may experience significant difficulties in acquiring reading and writing skills in English. They do not have prior knowledge of writing conventions, may not understand the concept of a letter to sound pattern and may have profound difficulties with different handwriting, fonts and prints.
The lack of basic literacy skills in any language will also hinder these ESOL learners in learning English in a formal structured setting where there are no tailored and literacy specific supports available.
International learners with spoken English who have literacy difficulties
Some students may be proficient in spoken English having come to Ireland from countries where English is used as a ‘lingua franca’ that is, as a common language of communication in an area where there are a number of national, regional or local languages. Or they may be self taught in English and have only needed to speak and be understood in English.
These learners, as Spiegel and Sunderland (2006:9) point out, may come from regions with a strong tradition of oral literacy but have very few written literacy skills in any language and may be approaching the formal learning of reading and writing for the first time. Though these learners may have high levels of spoken English, their low levels of print literacy in English could make it difficult for them to participate fully in Irish society.
Teachers and tutors working with ESOL students with literacy difficulties need to have a thorough grounding in literacy acquisition, development and teaching methodologies.