Basic Literacy vs. ESL
Basic Literacy and ESL: This is a distinction we apply to our students to determine the context of their literacy education. What is the difference between Basic Literacy and ESL?
A Basic Literacy student grew up speaking English, but needs to build more skills so they can reach their goals, whatever these may be. An ESL student--ESL stands for English as a Second Language--grew up speaking another language and English is, as the name suggests, their second language. Within these categories, there is a lot of variety of skill and understanding.
These distinctions can be one jumping off points for understanding your student--especially their cultural background. While not always the case, an ESL student typically immigrated to the area from another country whereas a Basic Literacy student is from here. But it is important that you get to know your student’s culture, beyond what these terms tell you, so you can make the most of their existing literacies as you guide them toward the English literacy skills they desire.
In this module, we will look at how one’s culture creates multiple forms of literacy and how these literacies can be instrumental to the acquisition of English literacy. As with all the modules in this training series, this will be a general introduction. We expect you will want to seek out specific techniques and tools to meet more particular needs of your student. RAALP will be updating its training modules regularly with shorter, follow-up trainings to help you acquire these techniques.
Culture is the organic life inside the mechanical structure of language--it lends the vitality to meaning and context. But culture is also very difficult to pin down. On one hand, there are aspects of culture that are obvious. Artistic practices, manners, norms. But why do these aspects exist in the first place? That “Why” is a much bigger topic.
Just take a look at one of the practices unique to your own culture. Why do you do that? Take a minute to think about it. Pause the video, identify a cultural practice you participate in--it can be something small, like how you greet someone--and give a list of some of the reasons behind why you do it in the way you do. Pause and take two minutes to write down these reasons.
How did that go? I bet you could have gone on and on, giving reasons for your reasons, doing research into ancestry and history. Culture goes deep.
Culture Shock and Code Switching
Let’s look at how that depth can impact a student’s experience of English literacy. We’re going to look at two phenomena in particular: Culture Shock, and Code Switching.
Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation or confusion that occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. This is particularly pertinent with ESL, as the student has, recently or in the more distant past, come to the United States from a different culture. The literacy implications are clear: the ESL student needs not only to understand the words and phrases we use in the United States, but also the reasons why we use those particular words and phrases in context, otherwise they will not be able to understand these words.
But there isn’t just one culture in Rio Arriba or the U.S., so it’s also possible to experience cultural disorientation or difference if you’re a Basic Literacy student who is from here. Cultural norms and the reasoning behind certain behaviors can vary from space to space--whether you’re at the MVD, at WalMart, at a community event, with family, or in school. To move between each of these places requires some amount of what is known as Code Switching—the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your interactions.
There is an equity element to these terms, because someone from the culture with the most power and privilege in a society does not usually need to code switch, nor experience culture shock, to survive in that society. The United States has a complex hierarchy of privilege, which puts someone with my cultural identity--that of a white man from a protestant background--into one of the most privileged positions. This is not to say I don’t code switch or experience culture shock, just that most of society’s life-support systems have been built with a cultural language I can understand pretty well.
Think about this topic in your life. How often do you need to code switch or explain your culture in your life? In what spaces do the cultural norms match with your own, and in what spaces are they different, and how does that impact your effectiveness in these spaces?
Pause the video and ask yourself these questions. Write for five to ten minutes on this subject.
When you get a student, you can use this exercise to empathize with your student’s experience, asking yourself how often and in what situations does your student code switch and navigate culture shock?
Code switching 2
When you think about the amount of work required in code switching and navigating culture shock, you can imagine that all this work helps to build a unique set of skills. ESL students have had to navigate an incredibly complex international immigration system, take calculated risks in moving between countries, and find their place within this nation. Basic Literacy students have learned how to achieve many goals without relying on some of the literacy skills most of our society takes for granted.
But your students’ skills don’t just come from their challenges and frictions with society. Your student’s existing culture, interests, and life path has taught them many forms of language, many literacies. Take some time to learn--and learn from--your student’s literacies.
If you’re confused about what I mean about other literacies, take some time to think about the literacies you use in your own life. Think about things you could not do if you didn’t understand a language specific to that task--but this language is not inherently English. For example, there is a Starbucks literacy: you need to know what “Frappuccino and Grande and Half-Caf” mean. There is computer literacy where you need to know how to operate the software and use the filing system. Yes, these can involve English, but English is not inherent to them. Pause. Make a list. See how many of your literacies you can identify in five minutes.
Maybe you found a lot of literacies. And you may note that these literacies often coincide with culture. Maybe, however, you had a hard time distinguishing where English Literacy ended and this other literacy began. If so, that’s fine.
Your English Literacy informs and supports all those other literacies, which all blend into your culture--just as your culture informs those literacies and your English Literacy. The same can be true for your student. As you teach, you can use your students’ existing literacies and cultural understanding to support the development of their English literacy.
Bring and construct meaning
Let’s look at how the understanding of your students’ culture and literacies can support their tutoring. Listen to this passage and prepare yourself to answer a comprehension test.
“Four xupps in common use for pabbing the wabbing power of parta mediums are the basic parta curve sieg, the interval sieg, the hot breek sieg, and the zee sieg.”
What is the purpose of the siegs in the passage?
Why do you need to pabb the wabbing power of the parta mediums?
How do you perform the basic parta curve sieg?
Pause the video and see if you can answer these.
I hope you didn’t spend too much time on that, because...how can you? You don’t know over half the words! This is what happens if you just teach phonetics. Your student can read the sounds, but still doesn’t know the words. That isn’t to say phonetics are irrelevant--they can be really helpful with dyslexia and early-stage learning--but this exercise demonstrates their limitations.
What if you teach your student all of the words they don’t understand? That helps. Here is the same passage again but with real words in the place of the nonsense words.
Second try: Teaching words
“Four methods in common use for evaluating the cooling power of quenching mediums are the basic cooling curve test, the interval test, the hot wire test, and the magnetic test.”
And here are the same comprehension questions as before.
Pause the video and see if you can answer these.
You probably did better than before, but I don’t expect you to have enough context for anything more than the most superficial answer.
What is the purpose of the tests in the passage?
Why do you need to evaluate the cooling power of quenching mediums?
How do you perform the basic cooling curve test?
Of course this is just a short excerpt, so maybe you’d understand more if it was longer, but I want to ask you why you would be reading this text in your session? Why would you choose to read a chapter in a textbook called “Heat Treating, Cleaning and Finishing Metals” in your tutoring session?
Pause and take a second to think of some possible scenarios when this text makes sense.
Maybe your student is in a class on metallurgy. Maybe they have a strong literacy surrounding the processes of metallurgy, and all they need from you is some phonics and vocabulary support. Or maybe you have metallurgy literacy and they want to understand metallurgy. Then your tutor session will include extended discussions about metallurgy, in addition to reading support.
Just like culture, a text is so much more than what you see, the words on the page; you have to have literacy and cultural awareness of what those words are about. This is why, when teaching your student, it is important to understand where your student is coming from, what their interests are, what they already know. If you start with what they have, you won’t have to start from nothing.
‘Hi-interest, Low-level’ Resources
The previous slide is an imperfect example, however, because you probably want to avoid collegiate textbooks--even if your student is a metallurgy fanatic--because such texts assume their reader has an expansive set of literacies. You want to find books and resources that meet both your student’s interest and their literacy capacity. This type of text is called “Hi-Lo.” As in, high interest, low literacy.
If you can’t find a Hi-Lo resource, you can always adapt a reading--say, the textbook your student brings you from their metallurgy class--to a more suitable reading level. This is hard to do, and imperfect because you are not an expert. As such, you probably want to look at the following resources first.
Luckily, we have several resources for you.
First, you can check out our lending library. We keep this library updated with great Hi-Lo resources on a variety of subjects. You can browse our library online at https://rioadult.libib.com/ and email us with the books you’d like to reserve. You can also, of course, come in person to the office and explore the books in person.
Second, you can check out Newsela--a free resource that allows you to adapt news articles to multiple reading levels. Let me show you how it works.
Third, you can use rewordify.com to automatically simplify some of a website or text. Let me show you how it works. It’s not extensive, but it can get you started.
Finally, you can ask us to buy a resource for you. If you find something that will suit your tutoring sessions perfectly, send us the link and nine times out of ten we’ll be able to buy it for you!
As we conclude this module, I’m curious: what literacies did you draw upon, besides English literacy, to understand the content in this module? Anything surprising? For myself, I drew upon the experience of living in another country explain culture shock.