For those who are not familiar with the Language Experience Approach (LEA), it was created as a way to develop literacy for native-English-speaking children. In time, the approach found application in the ESL classroom as well. The basic idea is for a teacher or aide to transcribe an oral account as told by the learner and turn it into a readable text. The process integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is characterized by a high degree of personalization: the content and the language are chosen by the learner. This ensures engagement. How can one’s own story not be of interest to the learner?
I am hardly the first to consider experimenting with the LEA in order to develop the language skills of more advanced adult learners. From one-on-one (as is the tradition) to a group format, and from oral readings to forms of publication, there are probably a dozen or so possible variations of the LEA. Let me offer this one:
ACTIVITY: Story Scramble and Retell
STEP 1 – Place students in groups of 3 (or 4 if necessary). Write two topics on the board and ask the group to initiate a conversation about ONE of them. Choose topics that have broad appeal but are specific enough to quickly inspire personal stories. Examples: (1) Pets I’ve Owned / (2) Bad Food Experience. Allow groups about 5 minutes to converse freely. Give them a 1-minute warning before you tell them to stop.
STEP 2 – After this initial period of conversation, ask each group to choose one student to retell a BRIEF story from his/ her past (less than a minute). If it’s difficult to choose one student, have them flip a coin or draw straws (slips of paper). Tell them each person will have a special role. Student A tells the story. Student B sits next to Student A and transcribes the account exactly as it is told. Student C (and D if there are four) listens and asks questions either for clarification or to prompt Student A.
STEP 3 – The roles change slightly. Students B and C now look at the transcribed text suggest corrections. Student A must give his/ her approval for changes to be made. Student C rewrites the text starting each new sentence on a new line with wide spacing. Ideally, there should be about 8-10 lines. Model (based on a true story):
My family had a cat while I was growing up.
It was an outdoor cat, and it liked to hunt.
It usually brought home whatever it killed.
One day it brought a chipmunk.
The problem was that the chipmunk wasn’t dead.
It was hurt and scared.
The cat chased it into our house.
It took my brother and his friend and two hockey sticks to get the chipmunk out of the dining room and back outside.
I stood screaming on a kitchen chair the whole time.
STEP 4 – The text is now cut out line by line to create strips of paper. Ask each group to shuffle the strips and hand them over to another group of students.
STEP 5 – With their set of strips, each group must assemble a story in what they believe is the correct order. Once they feel that the order is logical, they must rewrite the story in paragraph form. Editing and revision are allowed.
STEP 6 – Using the final drafts, the groups read their assembled stories to the class. The original story-teller may comment on the accuracy and quality of the final version. Final drafts can be handed to the teacher for additional corrections.
STEP 7 – (Optional) – Independently, each student may write a short account on the other topic that was not chosen by their group and submit it to the teacher. Once revisions are made, these stories may be shared orally in a later lesson.
While unique on its own, the above activity still respects the basic characteristics of the LEA. The content is student-generated. The language is chosen by the students. The level of skills integration is high: it embraces a whole language approach.