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Tips for Addressing ESOL Beginning Literacy Learners within a Multi-Level Classroom

by Melanie Siteki

This spring, I participated in the Beyond Basics: ESOL Beginning Literacy course offered by VALRC. Although I currently teach advanced English language learners (ELLs) with the REEP Program in Arlington, over the years I have also taught emerging readers and writers in intermediate level classes. In both of these cases, I found myself trying to meet the literacy needs of a small group of dedicated learners within a larger class. The practical notes that follow, based on experience and what I learned in the Beyond Basics: ESOL Beginning Literacy course, apply mostly to this kind of multi-level scenario. 

Literacy pull-out groups plus in-class support: In my intermediate level classes, I pulled out 3 or 4 students for literacy instruction once a week while the rest of the class was working in the computer lab with a lab assistant. This was effective, but after participating in the literacy course, I would also provide additional support within the larger class according to Universal Design Learning (UDL) and best practices for a multi-level classroom. Examples would include planning an objective for each learner, additional scaffolding, homogeneous and heterogeneous groupings depending on the task, modifying materials, and providing multiple means of representation― with the help of volunteers if possible. 

Spelling cards: In the pull-out groups, I had learners make custom work-related spelling flashcards to study for the following week. For example, one individual chose words from his restaurant’s special-of-the-day which he had difficulty writing and another used vocabulary related to her daughter’s school. This practice is something that could benefit all learners in a class. 

Dialog journals: Learners responded in their journals for homework and also had them on-hand during class as an alternative activity if they felt it was a better use of their time than a given speaking activity. While this activity can be time-intensive if used on a large scale, dialog journals, like word-related spelling cards, are individualized and can be used as one of several various stations to choose from for the whole class.  

Language Experience Approach (LEA): The basis for this approach is a story that the ELL relates orally and the teacher transcribes. This story is then used as the text for any number of activities, including copying, reading aloud, cloze activities, picture-word or picture-sentence matching, and more. Drawing on learners’ life experiences and expertise is a rich source for both content and motivation. 

Whole-part-whole approach to lessons: The literacy needs of my current (advanced) students are different, but the whole-part-whole approach can be used when planning lessons for any level, with big-picture activities coming first, in context. Then, the “part” portion of the class can be differentiated, where groups of learners can dig into whatever is most helpful for them, with those learners who are newer to the Roman alphabet working on literacy activities while others may focus on discrete aspects of grammar, before coming back together again to apply what they have learned in a real-life context. 

No matter the level of the learner, we can increase confidence about their literacy goals and progress by doing needs assessments and regularly checking in about progress. Being able to participate in a professional learning community focused on sharing instructional strategies to best meet the needs of beginning literacy learners is well worth the time and effort spent.


Melanie SitekiMelanie Siteki is an instructor who has taught a variety of levels with the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington. She started teaching online during the pandemic and currently teaches an advanced online class using REEP’s Advanced Culture, Civics, and English Studies (ACCESS) curriculum.


Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center logo

The Beyond Basics: ESOL Beginning Literacy facilitated online course offered by the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC), is an in-depth follow up to our popular ESOL Basics course. 

Teaching adult English language learners who struggle with reading and writing—perhaps because they never went to school in their home country and are not literate in their native language—may seem like an intimidating prospect. It is true that it’s not always easy. However, as anyone who has taught such a group of students knows, working with literacy learners is also very rewarding.

Beyond Basics: ESOL Beginning Literacy gives participants the tools needed to work with literacy learners. VALRC specialists have culled the latest research to familiarize those enrolled with what literacy learners bring to the classroom, provide the best approaches for working with these students, and help instructors better prepare for classroom time. Participants share activities and lessons with each other and receive feedback. In the end, all will have a repository of strategies, activities, and lesson plans to use with beginning literacy English language learners.

Lessons and resources included in the course:

  • Understanding Literacy Learners and the Literacy Classroom
  • Print Awareness, Sound/Symbol Correspondence & Emergent Readers
  • Orality & Literacy & Standards Alignment
  • Multilevel and Balanced Instruction Strategies
  • Assessment and Technology
  • Preparing for the Literacy Classroom