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How should I Teach a Language Course to an Illiterate Student?

Emily Smith

Teaching a language with teaching materials written in the student’s native language and the language he/she desires can be quite helpful. But what do you do when the student you are teaching is illiterate? Is it possible to teach someone a new language when he/she cannot read or write in his/her first language? Of course it is! In fact, it could be the perfect opportunity to teach a student to write.

There are a few reasons why a student may be illiterate to begin with. He/she may have never had a formal education and thus do not know how to read. They could also have a learning disability that was either diagnosed or never treated properly. Your teaching technique will vary depending on which is true.

Is it possible to teach someone a new language when he/she cannot read or write in his/her first language? Of course it is!

If your student never had a formal education, then illiteracy is the result of lack of opportunity rather than lack of ability. Luckily, now your student has a chance to learn! You can progress with your language class by teaching spoken language skills and written language skills simultaneously. Your student’s speaking ability may quickly surpass his/her writing ability; that’s perfectly okay! Remember, when you learned your first language, you didn’t know how to write until much later. In fact, some language teachers believe that language classes should be completely based on speaking and listening for the first 1-3 years. Then, written language should be introduced.


If you don’t prescribe to that methodology, that’s fine. You can start teaching your student how to read by introducing the alphabet or characters. Since this will be your student’s first time reading and writing, it’s important that you place necessary emphasis on phonetics. That is, of course, unless you are teaching a language that is not based on a phonetic system. Make sure your student understands the sounds made by individual letters and then progress to the sounds of combinations of letters. In English, for example, letter combinations such as “th”, “sh”, and “ch” can be taught at the second step. It may also be a good idea to introduce the concept of prefixes and suffixes. This will help your student spot and identify sound patterns to quickly solve the problem of the pronunciation of each word.

If your student is illiterate as a result of a learning disability, then you have a bigger challenge ahead. The first step would be to get an expert to test the student and appropriately identify the kind of learning disability that he/she has. As learning disabilities are still relatively unknown in countries outside of the west, you will likely have to encourage your student and his/her parent to allow for testing. You will have to reassure your student that once he/she knows and understands the disability, there is a chance to move forward. Without diagnosis, it is very difficult to progress in either the native language or the desired second language. Once the learning disability is identified, the licensed professional can help you and the student to prepare appropriate teaching and learning methods that will help with the particular learning disability.

If you believe your student has a learning disability, but it is unwilling to see a professional, you will have a very hard time teaching the student. You could try to focus entirely on listening and speaking rather than reading and writing. It is completely possible for your illiterate student to become a fluent speaker and listener of the language you are teaching without learning how to read or write.

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Don’t shy away from teaching a student who is illiterate. It may be the greatest challenge you have as a teacher, but once you see that student progress, it will be your greatest reward. With a little patience and the right methods, you can teach an illiterate student a second language.

Have you had any experience teaching illiterate students? Tell us about your experience, we would love to hear about it!

About the author

Emily has taught English to ESL learners in four Asian countries. Although she taught students from 3-60, she has a definite affection for preschoolers and college students. She has also worked as an ESL curriculum writer and is TESOL certified. When she is not teaching, she loves watching and making films.