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Defining Literacy for Newcomers & SLIFE Students


SLIFESecond language learners are present in increasing numbers in U.S. schools. Educators are entrusted with the responsibility of providing opportunities for these students to develop English language proficiency, as well as the skills they need to learn content-area material (Hudelson, 1988). The challenge here is that not all students have the literacy skills needed to meet content-area standards, or to participate in the standardized measures required for academic advancement. Many newcomers entering US schools have little to no experience with formal education, and some have interrupted education for extended periods of time due to circumstances in their home countries (DeCapua & Marshall, 2023; Peterson, 2020). Identified as “students with limited or interrupted formal education” (SLIFE), these students need assistance in acquiring literacy skills in English while still being allotted respect and acknowledgement for the knowledge they bring with them from their own home languages and cultures. SLIFE      Another group arriving in US schools with increasing numbers is students who come from cultures where their home language is based on oral literacy, with no written component. According to UNESCO (Clinton & Erland, 2003), at the beginning of the century there were approximately 6,900 languages in the world. However, 95% of the world’s languages are spoken by only 5% of the world’s population. Meaning that a good portion of world citizens speak individual or indigenous languages that are not part of the mainstream. Many of these do not have a writing system, and therefore depend on oral literacy skills.


But the questions here are:

  • What is literacy? Is it possible these students bring with them a different type of literacy?
  • Can we as educators assume that just because some of our newcomers cannot read or write, they are totally illiterate and incapable of learning content concepts?


Traditionally, literacy is defined as the learning to communicate, read, and write as a means of expression to gain knowledge (Escamilla, Olsen, & Slavick, 2022). But is that all there is to it? In actuality, the term “literacy” covers much more than just the ability to read and write. According to Olsen (2022),

Literacy develops within a larger frame of language. It builds the capacity to engage with and use       language (productive and receptive) for learning, interaction, discourse, voice and expression,                     as well as for social and academic purposes in and for all of a child’s linguistic and cultural worlds.


This means that the term literacy covers much more than just the two modalities. True, reading and writing are central to literacy, but literacy also encompasses the ability, confidence, and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct, and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living. That includes academic and complex content. It is a part of a socially and culturally constructed system of communication (Alberta Education, 2020).


Oral literacy is the system through which individuals use spoken words to express their knowledge, ideas, and comprehension of the world (Lesaux & Harris, 2015). Developing and utilizing English learners’ oral literacy skills means promoting the abilities and knowledge that go into listening and speaking in order to foster a strong relationship to content-reading comprehension, writing, and academic concept development. For example, Karina arrives in Mrs. Sandoval’s fifth grade classroom from Guatemala. Her home language is Q’eqchi’, and she speaks some Spanish. Karina cannot read or write in either Spanish or English. When Mrs. Sandoval covers the water cycle in Earth Science, she asks the class how the cycle affects their daily lives. Karina gets very excited and through drawings, her oral Spanish, and another student who speaks her dialect, she is able to describe in detail how the water cycle affected the crops on her parents’ farm. With assistance, she is able to use the vocabulary that was taught that morning to describe the process. Karina had the ability to cover the content at a higher level, but lacked the written literacy to communicate her knowledge. Another example is seen with tenth grader Alix. SLIFEHe speaks fluent Arabic, but because he has spent so much time in a refugee camp, he missed his last four years of schooling. His reading and writing capabilities in Arabic are very low. Alix has listening and oral language capabilities in English at about grade level due to his experiences in the refugee camp and social and commercial media exposure. His reading and writing skills in English are almost nonexistent. During a recent classroom debate on immigration reform, Alix took the lead and expressed his knowledge of US policy and possible changes he would suggest to his representatives in Congress. His teacher video-recorded his discussion and used it on a school podcast activity. In the case of both Alix and Karina, it was their teachers’ flexibility, support, and acceptance of their students’ oral literacy skills that allowed each student to succeed.


So what can a classroom teacher do to support their own newcomer/SLIFE students? First, change the paradigm. Teachers need to accept that lack of reading and writing skills does not mean that students cannot comprehend content-area concepts. Students bring with them life experiences, comprehension of the world, opinions, and  ideas. Accepting this opens doors for students to move forward, rather than live in a deficit model. Second, teachers should use listening comprehension and expressive language skills as a scaffold to introduce reading and writing in a systematic format (NYSED, 2011). Use home language literacy skills as a foundation towards language acquisition. Listen, read, and write for specific purposes. When given a specific purpose, students have a goal towards academic improvement. Finally, teachers should listen to their students, accept what they know and believe, and build on these as building blocks towards English language literacy.



By Marybelle Marrero-Colón, Associate Director of Professional Development, Center for Applied Linguistics


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