While most references to the language experience approach (LEA) (Allen, 1976; Coate & Castle, 1989; Hall, 1978) include in their definitions use with young students, it can also be used successfully with older students in grades 3 through 8 who are struggling with learning to read, as well as with second language learners (Barr & Johnson, 1997). Struggling readers, regardless of age, have many life experiences that teachers can tap into to create text. It is important to recognize that some second language learners or students of poverty may have experiences that differ from your experiences or that they may offer different perspectives on the same experience. For example, a fifth-grade teacher who took a group of inner city students to another part of town to visit an art museum was amazed that most of the after-the-field-trip discussion centered on the bus ride across town and the sights seen from the bus window rather than the art in the museum. The students had seen many paintings when the museum sent a traveling show to their school the previous year. The bus ride was the new experience that the teacher could capitalize on for a language experience story.

If a broad definition of LEA is employed, then the multitude of classroom experiences provided through a student-centered, “hands-on” curriculum is fertile ground for language experience “stories,” as well as the clarification of new concepts. Science and mathematics, in particular, provide students with new vocabulary and concepts that can be integrated into the LEA (Heller, 1988).

LEA can be used with individual students as well as with small groups. From a social constructivist perspective (Newman & Holzman, 1993), LEA can be very successful when students work together with a “more knowledgeable other.” This person may be the teacher, a more experienced student, teacher aide, or parent.

The Power of the Language Experience Approach for Struggling Readers

The language experience approach as it relates to word recognition makes available an instructional framework for teaching struggling readers. LEA provides:

  • A way to reinforce the one-to-one correspondence between spoken and written language
  • A meaningful context based on students’ knowledge and experience
  • The use of repeated readings of the same text as well as repetition of high-frequency words
  • A meaning context to examine components of language (words, phonemes, and morphemes)
  • The modeling of sentence structure by the teacher

Steps to Follow

  1. Focus on an experience that is either common to all students from outside their school experiences (e.g., going to the grocery store) or an experience that is the result of a class trip, class lesson, or activity.
  2. Generate vocabulary that authors most likely would use if they were writing about the topic or idea.
  3. Record students’ dictation. This may be done on chart paper or using an overhead projector. Make sure students can clearly see what you write. You can also incorporate the use of the computer with a projection system (Labbo, Eakle, & Montero, 2003). With young students, try not to rephrase students’ sentences unless grammatical errors make the text meaning confusing. With older students and adults, editing makes more sense.
  4. Read the text aloud, modeling fluency and making connections between speech and print by pointing to each word.
  5. Invite students to read and reread the text orally and silently. This promotes fluency.
  6. Once the complete text is known by the student or group, begin to focus on the smaller components of the text such as sentences, words, and letters. This will foster word recognition skills. Use sentence strips and word cards so students can manipulate the text.

Using the Language Experience Approach with English Language Learners

Students who are learning English bring with them an understanding of their native language structure. With very young students, this knowledge may only be oral; older students who have attended schools in another country bring both oral and written language knowledge. Through LEA you model how the syntactical structure of English may differ or be the same as students’ native language. For example, in Spanish, the adjective is placed after the noun; in English, the adjective is placed before the noun. Page Number:33

Spanish Structure:    Ia manzana rojo

Literal Translation:    the apple red

English Structure:    the red apple

Thus, while an experience visiting the local grocery store may result in identifying different fruits (apples, oranges, bananas, etc.) and learning the English words for each in isolation, LEA demonstrates how English is written so that isolated words become part of a meaning-making experience.