A Cognitive Toolkit for Adult Literacy

Kieran Egan
Faculty of Education
Simon Fraser University

Practical uses of the cognitive tools of orality

For these examples I will more or less randomly take practices that might form the focus of lessons any time during the first year or so of a learner’s literacy work.

The story

There are endless ways the story can be integrated into teaching literacy, so here I will touch on only a few examples. The central feature of the story is that it engages and orients our emotions, not necessarily in any dramatic way, but always at least a little. Stories, also, can be true as well as fictional. I will begin with a very general use of the story, picking up from the idea of welcoming students to the wide community of literates. Then I will give examples of how even the most basic exercises can be made more meaningful and engaging by drawing on the story form.

I think it is useful to begin by telling students the true story of literacy itself, in which they are to become participants. Adults coming first to literacy instruction will, of course, have ideas about what literacy is and, even, how they will go about learning it. But few will know much about how it developed and reached the stage that they are entering. The teacher might begin by talking about how people began writing as a way of keeping a record of quantities, making an icon for one barrel or sack or sheep, and two of the icons for two, and so on. One might demonstrate this by marking on the board or in the sand. The teacher could then discuss the problems that occur when one has a large number of marks—stylized sheep, for example, that might look like a roundish box with legs. Some brilliant person decided that instead of marking an icon of a sheep for each sheep, one could make the icon mark for sheep and then put next to it a simpler index mark for each sheep. So we might have a sheep icon with twelve lines next to it, for twelve sheep. By simplifying the indexes, people invented signs for numbers, so it was possible to record quantities of objects quite compactly in writing. And so on. One can, that is, bring the students up to the present in the story of our moves from icons to symbols.

That is, one needs to tell the story in such a way that the ingenuity of the alphabetic or other system is brought out. There seems to be an intuitive sense among illiterates that each word represents a thing. One may see this intuition among children learning to read today. If one writes “Three little sheep” and tells the children what the writing says, then rubs out any word and asks what the writing says now, many children will spontaneously say “Two little sheep” (Olson, 1994).

The remarkable story of literacy can be told in all its intriguing ingenuity in a manner that should be engaging to the students. The purpose of the story-form is to engage their emotional commitment to that ingenuity, and for them to see themselves as becoming a part of this remarkable adventure.

But this is just using the story as a general introduction. One can use it equally effectively for the simplest and most detailed practical activities as well. Usually, teaching basic word features is taught mechanically, but it requires only a little thought to recast those activities into stories. If we want to show how plurals are formed, for example, instead of giving the learners a list of singular words and asking them to write the plural forms, we can take the list of singulars and write them into a brief story. The stories do not need to be riveting, knuckle-whitening thrillers, but can be quite simple accounts of people engaged in everyday activities. Obviously, the more entertaining we can make them the better. The students can then be asked to rewrite a particular simple story using plurals. So, for example, if our list of words includes woman, stone, my, friend, boy, pencil, brother, paper, and plant, instead of putting the words in a column, with a blank space in which to write the plural, we might write a story in which we underline the words we want the students to write in the plural. But they will do so by writing out the story with plurals where we underlined the singulars.
“A woman went down to the river to get some water for a plant that looked too dry. A boy sat on a stone with a pencil and paper. The woman asked the boy what was going on. “I am writing to my brother,” the boy said. “But you can’t write,” the woman replied. “That’s all right,” said the boy. “My brother can’t read.”

Similarly, when we want to get the students to select from a set of words the best one to fill in a blank, we might find students more readily engaged if the blanks appeared in a simple story rather than in disconnected lists of sentences. Well, that’s an example of how one can make a list into a story in a simple way. The form of the story I have used here, of course—drawing on another of the characteristics mentioned in Chapter One—is the joke. One obviously need not use jokes all the time, but they do lighten the learning load a little now and then. It will be obvious how any of the routine exercises of early literacy that are usually presented by some drill method can be made more engaging and meaningful if put into a story context. Again, the teacher need not feel that all activities need to be story-shaped, and teachers might also feel a little intimidated by the challenge of inventing stories for all activities. Two points may be made with regard to this last fear. First, with even a small amount of practice, it becomes easier to think of activities and exercises in story-forms. It is, after all, an older and more basic form of human thinking than almost any other we know of. Second, if these principles are found persuasive, no doubt many more materials will be published for teachers with examples using story-forms.
Any teacher can invent a stock comic character who has come from another country or another planet and is trying to learn about the local language and its written form. Whenever anything complicated is to be introduced, the teacher might begin by reintroducing the comic character to the students and describe how he or she goes about learning it. Take the common English word ending “ough”. Our comic character sees this written in the word “through,” and asks someone how it is pronounced. “Oo”, she is told. She feels confident that she has learned this odd set of letters, until she hears someone talking about the bough of a tree. She asks how “bough” is spelled. “But that must be “boo!” She is bewildered, and walks towards a noisy demonstration where someone is carrying a sign saying “We have had enough!” We have had “enoo” or “enow”—she wonders. When she asks a friend which is right, she is told the word is pronounced “enuff.” And so one can go on, with our character becoming gradually crazier as she begins to wrestle with the thoroughly confusing English orthography, in which she still has to discover bought, cough, dough, hiccough, slough, etc.

The story here is simply a matter of having an invented character, a series of related incidents, and the character’s emotional responses. One can—in cases where there is a rule, or a more common pattern (as in “i before e except after c”)—have the character discover the rule or pattern, and so avoid suicide. It would be important, of course, not to make the difficulties seem insurmountable! The character can be made to suffer the same difficulties the students are to encounter, and can be shown to exemplify success by recognizing in minor dramatic ways the particular rule or regularity one will then go on to reinforce with the students.


Metaphor is such a protean topic, and the range of its uses is so enormous, that I will focus for my examples on that kind of metaphor we call the simile.

It’s not that preliterate people’s minds have some additional power that is lost with literacy. Rather, literacy encourages forms of thought that rely less on metaphor. We continue to use metaphor, of course, however literate we become, as it is a fundamental feature of all language-use. But these explicit similes following “It is like . . . ” invite us to see things in terms of something else. I referred in Chapter One to research indicating that pre-literate children are better able to generate and recognize metaphors than literate adults. While I am not aware of research comparing this ability between literate and non-literate adults, I would anticipate its greater deployment by the non-literate, if only because they are less influenced by the “literalness” that literacy can encourage. And even if there is no significant difference, the fact that metaphor is a universal feature of language points to grounds for more explicitly using it in literacy programs. As I argued earlier, a literacy in which metaphor remains lively is better than one in which it does not.
Students might be asked to complete sentences beginning “My home is like a . . .”; “Where I live, people work like . . .”; “My friends can sing like . . .”; “The end of the work-day is like . . .”. One might choose many more appropriate examples related to the context of the particular students’ lives. The aim would be for the student to find as many words as possible to fill in the blank. Depending on the stage they are at in the program, they could write them or the teacher might write them. Some of the examples could be utilitarian, related to the students’ daily activities. Others might explore their emotions. For example, “When I am happy (sad), my heart feels like . . .” The students might be encouraged to use phrases as well as words to fill in the blank.

Earlier in their program, students can be given set of words and be invited to choose those that they thought worked best in such examples as: “I am as happy as . . .” The students can indicate all that seem appropriate: a camel, a postcard, a nose, a song-bird, a fish, a new gown/shirt, a tree. Discuss the students’ choices—the teacher might be surprised. Then the students might be asked to add their own words, which the teacher could write for them and they might copy.

What a focus on metaphor does is expand the activity and the students’ minds away from the routine and literal. We will not want to do this all the time either, of course, but for an enlivening change of pace, it can be valuable. It can also help to expose something important about language—that we can use it in our own ways to express our unique view of things. There is no right answer to “I am as happy as. . .”; there are an infinite numbers of right answers, and each student can be encouraged to find her or his own.

Binary opposites

One might begin using binary oppositions in the form of many early exercises. Have two lists of words and invite students to draw a line linking the opposites. So we might have one list made up of ‘good,’ ‘big,’ ‘brave,’ ‘black,’ ‘high,’ ‘out,’ ‘rich,’ etc. and another with ‘white,’ ‘in,’ ‘poor,’ ‘bad,’ ‘cowardly,’ ‘little,’ ‘low,’ etc. But we can then explore more fundamental oppositions, perhaps taking the ten that Pythagoras considered fundamental to the structure of the world. We can give one of the pairs, and ask the students to supply the opposite: limited/unlimited, odd/even, unity/multiplicity, right/left, masculine/feminine, still/motion, straight/curved, light/dark, good/bad, square/rectangle. One could write them up for the students initially, and discuss their guesses at the opposites. Then the students might be asked to generate similar very basic oppositions that they have observed, like rich/poor, happy/sad, wet/dry.
One might use the attraction of patterns and oppositions in helping recognition of the letters of the alphabet. The students might be asked which letters can be divided in half into equal parts, and which cannot. Is there a change in the number of those equally divisible when capitals are considered?—as in “h” to “H.” How about if the letters are sliced horizontally as distinct from vertically? How many letters can be successfully sliced into equal opposites both ways? Such activities help the eye begin to take over some aspects of recognizing language from the ear.

Students might enjoy exploring how many opposites they can find together in common terms, and reflect on how they work. What do we mean by old news, civil war, inside out, voice mail, industrial park, half naked, loose tights and tight slacks, criminal justice, etc. One might give them the task of keeping a list of such terms. This helps the students notice language in a new way, and they can be encouraged to consider the meanings behind terms they may hear, like non-working mothers, or military intelligence, or peace offensive and war games, or random order, etc.

The use of binary oppositions can come into greater play in the overall planning of lesson or units, and I will show how they are central to one of the frameworks I will describe later.

Rhyme and rhythm

Nearly all literacy teachers use rhyme and rhythm to some degree. Most common perhaps are those exercises where the teacher provides a word and invites the students to say, or later write, rhyming words. One might write “pill” and give spaces for two or three words like “till,” “spill,” or “drill.” Such exercises work on an important feature of language, but we might look for ways to elaborate uses of rhyme and rhythm is the classroom.

One way to begin is to help students to feel language and its rhythms as tied closely to our body and its rhythms. One might play with musical words, like “sing, sang, sung” or “ring, rang, rung.” Have the students place their thumb and forefinger on their Adam’s apple as they sound these words aloud. As we move from present “sing,” to past “sang,” and to continuous past “sung,” the vowels follow the pattern back in the throat. As the students write the words, the teacher might ask them to reflect on the shortness of the vowel in the present tense, the longer vowel for the past, and the longest for the continuous past.

Echo rhyme can be found everywhere in language, not just in verses. It is used for many purposes, sometimes for emphasis (“hurley-burley,” “claptrap”), sometimes for humor (“boob-tube,” “drunk as a skunk”), and commonly for abuse (“namby-pamby,” “hoity-toity,” “local-yokel,” “nitwit”). Students might be encouraged to find rhyming terms for words they are given, but they can be asked to think of them under various categories like the above—for emphasis, humor, abuse, etc.

Many of the routine exercises of adult literacy classes that deal with sight-words and phrases, can be enlivened by introducing elements of rhyme into them. Adding prefixes, suffixes, making plurals, using synonyms, and so on, can all be done with rhyming terms, and can often be made quite funny as a result.

Rhythm is not only a movement of sounds in a phrase or sentence, of course, but exists at the deepest levels of our consciousness. We develop a sense of the appropriate rhythms of expectation and satisfaction, hope and realization, fear and nemesis. These may derive from our earliest experiences of hunger and feeding. For the everyday activities in the literacy class, we can try to draw on the patterns that have become established in our consciousness, and that of our students. We might draw on our recognition of rhythm to support early word recognition tasks. The old practice of singing or changing “rounds” can be adapted to engage each learner in repeating a sentence in overlapping turns. The ear can support the eye, and vice-versa. To take an old English example, the teacher can write out and point to the words as he or she chants or sings:

London bridge is falling down,
Falling down,
Falling down,
London bridge is falling down
My fair lady.

The first student, or group of students, begins when the teacher reaches the fourth line, and they chant that together, and then as they go on through the verse, the second group picks up when they reach the fourth line, and so on. For rounds to work well, a little practice is required. But the rhythm is a strong one, and students soon learn the constantly repeated words. They have to recognize the pattern and attend to the words in order to know when to come in. Usually the community of rhythmic chanting is most enjoyable.

Then a second verse might be introduced:
Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay,
Wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

This particular example will be inappropriate for students around the world, of course. But local examples will no doubt be available, and the teacher can adapt any popular rhythmic verse to a Round.

It is hard to think of any of the usual practical activities of adult literacy classes that cannot be enlivened by introducing rhyme and rhythm. Again, one will not want to use these readily accessible resources all the time, but recognizing that they are capacities already well developed by our students, we would be unwise not to draw on them quite frequently.

Jokes and humor

Perhaps I need say very little about this topic. While many adults approach literacy classes with appropriate seriousness, often with very particular vocational motivations, all human being are amenable to the value of humor. Humor and seriousness of purpose are not in any way at odds with one another. A classroom within which humor is commonly used in exercises is a pleasanter place to be than one in which it rarely appears. One of the great gifts of literacy is access to pleasures that are available only through texts—and introduction to literacy, even if the motive is purely utilitarian, should show that as well as that utilitarian benefit there is incidentally another that might, over the course of a literate life, far outweigh it.

I have already in the earlier examples indicated how humor can be incorporated into lessons, and the range of uses of jokes and humor is too great for an adequate account in a small space. But there are endless ways in which one can help make even the very basic level of letter recognition humorous. Again, these examples are not intended to displace all usual forms of teaching, but can be drawn on to supplement them. The following are examples that work in English, but similar uses of the idea can be found in other languages.

One might use a number of variations on the old:
YY 4 me.

This will no doubt puzzle the students. “What is the first letter?” the teacher might ask. “Y.” Why, why? No, two Ys = “too wise.”
Too wise you are
Too wise you be
I see you are
Too wise for me.

If this works, one might use the conversation in the restaurant.
“F U NE X ?”
“S V F X”
“F U NE M?”
“S V F M”
“OK L F M N X”

A clue to interpreting this, apart from knowing and sounding out the letters, may be given by slowly “reading” the first line as F = have, U = you, NE = any, X = eggs. The customer in the last line happily orders ham and eggs.

When teaching abbreviations, one can help lighten the learning by using a few examples like the following from Mark Twain. If “Co.” is an abbreviation for “company,” then, he playfully suggested, any word ending with a full-stop after an “o” should be similarly extended. So, combining humor and verse, he composed the following:
A man hired by John Smith and Co.
Loudly declared he would tho.
Man that he saw
Dumping dirt near his store.
The drivers, therefore, didn’t do.

The teacher could use this or similar examples, or even compose something like this, though likely in a much simpler form. It doesn’t take much to inject a little humor into learning.

When doing exercises on punctuation, the teacher might help students understand the effects of certain forms of punctuation by giving them examples of sentences whose meaning changes radically (and funnily) depending on the punctuation used. “Private! No swimming allowed!” means something quite different when punctuated as “Private? No. Swimming allowed.” Similarly “I’m sorry you can’t come with us,” means something different from “I’m sorry. You can’t come with us.” Or “the butler stood at the door and called the guests’ names” is radically changed, by a tiny difference of punctuation, to “The butler stood at the door and called the guests names.”

One can introduce simple reading tasks as puzzles whose interpretation reveals the humor. Take this sign that was next to a rail to which one might hitch an animal!

Even the most literate might have some difficulty with this, and it can be used in the story of the history of literacy. It illustrates how writing commonly appeared soon after the invention of the alphabet and before the introduction of that basic item of punctuation—the space between words. Once one sees it as “To tie mules to” one can appreciate the humor of how the simple meaning was so easily disguised.

Apart from these letter jokes, most literacy tasks can be put into the context of a joke as into a list or other contextless exercise. The joke, of course, is a story, and the comments made above may refer to jokes as well. The literacy teacher might find one of those jokes books a useful resource when planning exercises.


Sylvia Ashton-Warner some years ago developed educational ideas for children that built on the idea that each child had her or his own particular concerns at any one time, and one could find “key words” that would reflect these concerns (1972). She was very successful in encouraging learning, and particularly literacy-based activities, by building them around the students’ key words. I think one might similarly draw on images that are important for adult students—powerful images from their own childhood, or of loved relations, or important events. Nearly always, vividly recalled images are connected with strong emotions. The teacher might spend some time with each student, perhaps while the class is working on some lengthier exercise, and discuss images that are particularly powerful for them. From the images the teacher and student might identify key words that help capture them to some degree. These words can then be written for the student. Further work on literacy skills might be based on those key words, elaborating them by searching for synonyms, adding prefixes and suffixes that add to their flexibility in usage, ordering them alphabetically, and so on. One’s own keywords, derived from one’s own powerful images, provide a motivational factor and meaning often absent in contextless terms.

The first prose writing exercises often, of necessity, refer to simple features in the environment of the student. So they may write their name and their current job, if they have one, or what they hope to do, where they live, and so on. One might try to augment such writing tasks by encouraging students to incorporate their key-word images also. They will have words, and will have the challenge of incorporating them into forms they may have learned for “I live in _______.” The greater challenge of incorporating their images is supported by the greater motivation the image itself provides. “My grandmother died on a sunny day;” “I won the race in the rain;” “The chickens ran into the road and the dog ran away;” “He broke my cup against the wall;” “I sit by the river and listen to the small brown birds sing;” and so on.

Human imagination grows by exercise in generating images from words. The mind is usually much more passive when observing images, particularly if they are TV images. One can make a lot of exercises into image-forming activities. If dealing with the color words, for example, one can evoke an image of a man and woman talking on the street, and ask the students to “color” their clothing. “What color is the woman’s skirt/slacks?” “What color are the man’s eyes?” “What color is the man’s shirt?” “What color is the woman’s necklace?” etc. The students might be encouraged to close their eyes as the scene is set up and to keep them closed as they imagine the colors. Then they will write the color words, and the name of the objects. They may have a pattern, such as “The ____ ____ is ____.” Depending on how advanced they are, one could provide them with the color and clothing words, allowing them to select and copy. They could compose the sentences themselves if more advanced.

Often when we provide students with terms and contexts for exercises, we could get greater motivation by encouraging students to imagine them and draw on their own images. As students discover how literacy can be used both to capture their images and also to elaborate them, they develop some sense of the unsuspected, incidental pleasure literacy can provide. Our students all bring with them to class a wealth of mental images, many of which hold great affective importance to the student. It would be a pity to try to teach literacy while ignoring this massive resource—which, in the end, literacy is going to influence and be influenced by.



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