Language Experience ApproachBy: Kelly Vriesman
History of LEA:
There are two people most credited with what is now knows as LEA. The first was Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1963) whose book Teacher (New York: Bantam Books) outlined her "organic" approach to teaching based on the recognition of what she saw as the opposing human forces of destructiveness and creativity. Her ideas were developed teaching in a Maori school in New Zealand for 24 years. The second significant person was Roach Van Allen whose research and teaching led him to develop similar approaches in the early 1960s.

What is the Language Experience Approach?
The philosophy of LEA is it allows students to build their language and literacy skills through what they know. Students need language with which they can talk about themselves, giving them pride in their ability to articulate what they have done and who they are. If done correctly, LEA should promote both language and dignity for ELL students.
LEA brings together oral language, writing, reading, and art, building the oral-language capacity of the students and developing their ability to distinguish print. It extends the learner’s creativity in storytelling through writing and develops a sense of authorship. It helps learners understand that what they think and say can be written and that their thoughts and language are valued. LEA ultimately provides reading material that is predictable and readable because it uses the learner’s natural language.

This is a wonderful way to get all students, especially ELL students, interested in reading and writing. This can be beneficial for tutors, parents, and especially teachers to use. In addition to providing enthusiasm for reading and writing, the language experience approach helps students make the connection that words on paper are really just "talk written down." When Professor Roach Van Allen first described this approach in the 1960's, he showed how it creates a most natural bridge between spoken language and written language:
  • " What I can think about, I can talk about."
  • " What I can say, I can write."external image Slide9.JPG
  • " What I can write, I can read."
  • " I can read what I can write and what other people can write for me to read."

General Process:
1. Find a story starter to get the student talking.
2. The Instructor writes down the story as the student/s share it.
3. The Instructor types or recopies the story as a reading.
4. The Instructor and student use the story as lesson text.
5. The Instructor develops follow-up exercises and lessons to reinforce that student's particular literacy needs.

Uses for LEA in the Classroom:

A. LEA may be used as one lesson unit incorporated in an overall curriculum approach, or at the center of a student-based curriculum. The extent of LEA use depends upon the instructor's comfort with the technique, as well as the extent to which he or she wishes to employ it.

B. LEA for ELL students is especially effective in teaching situations where conversation catalysts are sought. An additional function of LEA is that it may be employed to sharpen students' ESL literacy skills.

C. LEA for ELLs may be used in advanced classes as well as among students at formative, if not threshold, levels of English ability. Psychologically, it can serve to open students' confidence in conversation at various levels of the ESL learning spectrum. LEA can bond a tutor or teacher to the student with whom he or she is working. Used in a classroom setting, it can be an aid in reducing barriers between students when many ethnic groups are present.

The Process:

Part I. Here are some story starting techniques to get the ESL students to begin talking:
  • Use of picture cues: The teacher can either provide a student with pictures from magazines or books to get them thinking, or if the students are willing, they can bring in their own pictures. Bringing in their own pictures gives the students more talking points.
  • Use of word or subject cues that are special to the student and their country that will spark a story.
  • The 'first bloom' trick: The teacher listens to the common conversations that the students have during the day and jot them down. Any reoccuring topics among the students' conversations would be great to use for LEA.
  • Follow the lead trick: After beginning a specific story, students tend to lead their stories to another great topic that could become the story for the next LEA experience.
  • Be positive: Students are generally excited to share information about the positive aspects of their culture. Oftentimes they will provide the teacher with new surprising information.
(Quick reminder! It is important to remember to avoid having the students share stories about negative or sad life events.)

Here are other ways to find a topic for LEA or use to promote language:
Shared Experiences – There are endless experiences that might lead to rich language stimulation, including:
  • hunting for insects in the garden
  • cooking
  • growing plants from seeds
  • hatching and keeping chickens
  • setting up an ant farm
  • keeping and caring for animals and pets
  • going on an outing to the beach or the movies
  • making crafts (perhaps stimulated by a story, television, an outing etc)
  • a book (literature or non-fiction) that has been stimulating or could be a good springboard to other language (e.g. Janet and Allen Ahlberg's 'Jolly Postman')

Part II. Questioning Techniques as the story and lesson get going:
  • Be a Journalist: Ask "Wh..." questions that help the students expand on their stories. Also, the teacher can draw out information from the students by asking them questions.
  • Avoid opinion questions.
  • Keep it short and not too complex.

Part III. Correcting mistakes:
Instructors may want to focus on certain errors and model others by correcting them. Another approach is to underline or bracket errors in the original version, then pair it with a 'correctible' version which the student and instructor can work on in follow-up exercises. A third strategy is to adapt the story and use the corrected version as the model for ESL Literacy readings and follow-up exercises which more than one student can use.

Part IV. Copying the writing story to a worksheet or booklet for the students to read.

Here is one example of how a teacher can use the Language Experience Approach with ELL students:
  • Ask about a subject (be it a television show, video game or a recent experience) that the student enjoys. Encourage him or her to talk about what interests him or her most, in whatever manner is comfortable.
  • As the student speaks, neatly write down his or her experience IN THE STUDENT'S OWN WORDS. If the student says "don't" where they would say "doesn't", the teacher should still write "don't." This is the time for the student to express his or her own thoughts in his or her own way. Of course, the teacher will want to write with printed letters, not cursive.
  • When the student has finished his or her description or narration, review his or her "writing" and read it together. The teacher may be surprised how easily the student can read his or her own words--even words that might otherwise be considered difficult.
  • The student's creation will be important to him or her and should be treated as such. Encourage him or her to illustrate it and/or staple it into the form of a book. (Although older students may not be interested in this last step, the language experience approach is useful at any age.)

LEA Strategies for ESL and ELL Students:

A. For ESL students, conversation in and of itself poses an additional learning challenge which native English-speaking students do not face. Foreign students are more reluctant to express themselves in their new language. The instructor working with ELL students can expect to be more assertive than those doing LEA with native English speakers.

B. LEA incorporates more extensive vocabulary. During the LEA sessions, be sensitive to those moments when the student seems to be avoiding a certain word. Help the student grope for words which may be provided for them. Use the new vocabulary in follow-up exercises.

C. Similarly, grammar problems will come up as students try to express themselves in their new language. For example, problems of word order (e.g., reversal of noun and adjective) and verb tense usage often show up. LEA forces language limitations to reveal themselves. Again, these limitations can be addressed in follow-up exercises.

D. Pronunciation becomes an additional learning aspect in the LEA technique. As with vocabulary and grammar, make a note of those pronunciation patterns which give the student trouble. Focus on these pronunciation patterns through word families (bat, cat, fat) and simple phonics drills (hat/hate, fat/fate) in follow-up exercises.

Advantages and Benefits of LEA:
  • Facilitates oral composition and a simplified writing process.
  • Involves prewriting, drawing pictures, scribbling, or invented spelling on their ideas.
  • Encourages sharing stories with others.
  • Creates awareness of printed words and sentences as a representation of an event and/or thought.
  • Confidence as language users
  • Growing vocabulary
  • A growing awareness of text genres (e.g. the difference between narrative and recount)

LEA is ideal for children ages 4-7. As well, it has great usefulness as a method for children experiencing difficulties with reading and writing or who have delayed language. It has also been an effective strategy for adults learning English as their second language.
Here is a video of the Language Experience Approach used with two adult Engligh Language Learners: