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Time to Revisit an Old Classic: Making Thoughts Visible Through the Language Experience Approach

By Amy Spiker
 | Jan 11, 2022

The tutor’s exasperated look was clear in my monitor. Her first-grade student had disappeared once again to seek out a toy to share and her literacy tutoring session had become another episode of show and tell. The tutor was looking to me, her coach, for help. It was up to me to lead and guide.

How could we engage this student in a meaningful learning activity in this new online world?

A pandemic challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a rapid transition from face-to-face to online teaching for most educators. Our Literacy Research Center and Clinic at University of Wyoming had become accustomed to one-on-one tutoring in a physical space in triads: elementary student, undergraduate tutor, and literacy coach. When we had to move tutoring to an online environment, it brought many challenges.

The largest of these challenges was how to teach writing. Our traditional approaches to supporting young writers were no longer possible, at least not without creative adjustment. When a student wrote and showed their writing, the text would often appear backward on the camera. Keyboarding for some students was laborious, and students limited their production because typing was a slow process and they lost their train of thought or lost interest, frustrated by their inability to produce a text in a timely manner.

For the youngest of students, the challenges were numerous. They were now learning how to negotiate the online platforms while learning literacy skills. They also were not in physical proximity, so keeping them engaged and focused on the tasks became problematic. They learned to turn off their sound and their camera, and distractions were numerous as they worked in their homes. One of our first graders even began to ask her Alexa device for spellings, which brought a moment of brevity. This particular first grader is also the one featured in the opening who turned each tutoring time into a show and tell session about her toys. It became clear that we were going to need to work with her interests if we were going to engage her in reading and writing.

Let’s try an old approach

The tutor and I met to debrief after a particularly challenging tutoring session, and we discussed how to work with writing in an online environment. During our conversation, I found myself discussing a language experience approach (LEA) to writing for this student. This approach was one I’d used with young students earlier in my career, and I thought it might work in our new reality.

Could we take her stories about her toys and turn them into a dictate story, typing them live as she dictated, and then use them for a text to practice reading? We decided to give this a try during the next few sessions.

Success celebrated

When the student appeared on camera for her next session, she had three dolls with her and was poised to tell her tutor all about them. Her tutor explained that she was going to create a story and type what was shared on the screen while the student shared. The student began sharing and the tutor typed her words.

The student could see the words appearing and was reading along. She began making corrections and adding to what was typed. She was excited to see her story appear on the screen, and she began to elaborate and add description. She reread and added key details that were missing. At a stopping point, the tutor read her story back to her and then promised to email it to her parents so she could read it to them. The student was highly motivated, and her parents reported that she read the story about her dolls several times throughout the next few days.

If you are interested in learning more about rethinking writing instruction, we recommend checking out our ILA Intensives hosted by Steve Graham, the 2021 recipient of the ILA William S. Gray Citation of Merit. There are two separate Intensives, one for educators who teach students 4 to 8 years old and the second for educators who teach students 9 to 12 years old.


A good reminder

LEA has been around since the 1960s. Some references even say it has been used since 1920. It has been used most recently to support adult learners and English learners. As a literacy teacher, I hadn’t thought about using this approach with young readers and writers for a very long time. This use during a tutoring session was a strong reminder of its benefits. The student saw her thoughts and story appear in written text in real time. She saw oral language become written language. She successfully authored a text that could then be used for reading practice. She was engaged and motivated and produced a text that served as a model for further writing.

Of course, the student also engaged in her own physical writing over time in the tutoring sessions and that aspect of writing development is important. Beginning with this approach, though, served to build confidence and modeled the writing process for her, keying off her oral language and interests.

Even though it was used out of necessity when transitioning to an online environment, the success experienced was a good reminder that this type of approach can work in any learning environment to create and support the authoring of text and to allow students to begin to form an identity as a writer and reader.

Instructional tips

  • Find opportunities. When students seem disengaged or frustrated with writing, this can be one method for engaging them. It makes their thinking visible in print and uses their authentic language to produce a text for reading practice.
  • Connect reading. You are creating an authentic text. Encourage students to read the text for a variety of purposes and audiences.
  • Support all students. This approach can be adapted for a variety of student needs.

Amy Spiker is the newly appointed executive director of the Literacy Research Center and Clinic at the University of Wyoming. She teaches literacy courses to preservice and inservice elementary teachers.

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