Editor’s Note: I invited Luis Javier Pentón Herrera to write this guest post. You might also be interested in The Best Online Resources For Teachers of Pre-Literate ELL’s & Those Not Literate In Their Home Language.


Luis Javier Pentón Herrera is a high school ESOL teacher and an adjunct professor in TESOL at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and Spanish at University of Maryland University College (UMUC). He is currently serving as MD TESOL’s President (2018-2019). His research focuses on Bilingual Education, Spanish, ESL/ESOL, Literacy Studies, and Problem-Based Service-Learning (PBSL). For more information about his work, see his website.


Students with interrupted or limited formal education (SLIFE) are a relatively small but growing population in U.S. classrooms. According to a recent book by Custodio & O’Loughlin (2017), approximately a 10% to 20% of arriving immigrant English learners (ELs) are considered SLIFE; however, these numbers cannot be verified because many school districts around the nation do not evaluate first language (L1) literacy. Something to consider about SLIFE ELs is that they often arrive to U.S. classrooms with at least two grade levels below their peers, with emerging or no literacy in their L1 and numeracy skills, and with critical social and emotional needs. In addition to this, most SLIFE ELs arrive from third world countries experiencing war, civil unrest, and/or other difficult events. Lastly, the biggest number of SLIFE immigrant ELs arriving to U.S. classrooms presently are Latinx students from Latin America, specifically Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (Custodio & O’Loughlin, 2017).

In this blog I share four practical tips to consider when teaching literacy to SLIFE ELs based on my own personal experience.

  • Tip #1: Be patient. This first tip might sound redundant, but it needs to be explicitly stated. For many SLIFE ELs, you will be the first educator who will teach him/her in a formal setting. Basic concepts such as holding a pencil, writing the date on top of the notebook page at the beginning of each class, or raising the hand to ask for a question might be completely new to these students. When teachers become impatient with SLIFE learners, these students might become frustrated and feel helpless, which will demotivate them and blockade their progress. Instead, know that the learning process for SLIFE will be slow at first (especially for adolescent and adults) but, with confidence and support, students will progress.

  • Tip #2: Use Repetition. When SLIFE ELs arrive to U.S. classrooms, time becomes their greatest challenge. In very little time, they will be expected to perform at the same grade level as their English-speaking counterparts. However, many of them do not know how to read or write their own names yet. For this reason, repetition of writing and reading activities is necessary. Non-SLIFE students have had many years to practice reading and writing. On the other hand, SLIFE ELs need to practice as much as possible and as often as possible reading and writing to build the basic literacy foundations their counterparts have built throughout the years. At times, repetition might become boring for SLIFE ELs. To avoid boredom, present the same information using different activities. For example, if the student is practicing his or her name, an activity might be tracing his/her name, another activity might be finding his/her name in a puzzle, and another activity could be writing the students’ names with numbers according to the alphabet (A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.) and having them find the letter for each number. See below for an example:

4  1 22 9 4 = D a v i d


  • Tip #3: Use Literacy and L1 Support. If available and possible, SLIFE ELs should be enrolled in an L1 class and in a literacy class in addition to their ESOL newcomer class in their first year. Being enrolled in three literacy classes could be difference of whether or not SLIFE ELs succeed. When enrolled in the literacy, ESOL newcomer, and L1 class, it is important for these three teachers to coordinate instruction that is supported in all three classes. More important, the L1 teacher needs to guide the literacy and ESOL newcomer educators on the best teaching approaches and steps to follow when educating their student. For example, last year, I was teaching three SLIFE ELs who spoke Spanish as L1. I was their literacy and ESOL newcomer and I coordinated with their Spanish teacher for the two of us to teach the same content to them in the same classes. We started with reading and writing the alphabet in English (in my literacy and ESOL newcomer class) and in Spanish (in their Spanish class). After five instructional days, we progressed to teaching how to write their names, their native countries, and write basic sentences in English and Spanish:

    My name is Mario and I am from Guatemala.
    Mi nombre es Mario y soy de Guatemala.


          The article Pentón Herrera (2018) was the result of this year-long collaboration.

  • Tip #4: Do not rush. One of the most important things to remember when teaching SLIFE ELs is to not rush through the information. When you are teaching SLIFE ELs, you are building their academic foundation from the ground up. For this reason, it is important that ELs feel comfortable with the information they are learning before they move up to another topic. Similarly, because they are also learning how to learn (metacognition) and process information, jumping from one topic to the other abruptly might trigger frustration and demotivation as they do not know how to manage these sudden changes yet. Something I have learned when teaching SLIFE ELs is to be realistic, which might not align with what is proposed in the curriculum. I expect my students to progress academically, but I cannot expect them to arrive to 9th grade with no prior schooling and, in one academic year, be up-to-par with their literate EL counterparts. Take your time and remember that any progress is progress; slow but steady is always better than fast and shaky.


Custodio, B. & O’Loughlin, J.B. (2017). Students with interrupted formal education: Bridging where they are and what they need. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Pentón Herrera, L. J. (2018). La alfabetización de adolescentes hispanos con educación formal limitada o interrumpida en Estados Unidos: Un exordio. Glosas, 9(4). pp. 37-49.