Monday, May 19, 2008

The Language Experience Approach (LEA)

The Language Experience Approach probably had its genesis in the creative activities of many teachers who drew on children’s firsthand experiences when structuring early literacy. There are two people most credited with what we now know 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. I describe the method in more detail in my book Teaching Reading Comprehension (1990), Milton Keynes (UK): Open University Press.

The method draws on children’s firsthand experiences that are either naturally occurring or are planned by the teacher or parent. The experience becomes a focus for discussion and exploration and eventually is recorded as a written text in some way.


The overall procedure involves four main activities:

• sharing an experience
• talking about the experience
• making some record of the experience (words, pictures, photographs)
• finally, using the recorded experience for further reading, discussion and the stimulation of further writing

1. 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, the movies, the bush
  • making craft (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')

2. Talk about the experience

  • Talk constantly together as you share the experience
  • Ask questions
  • Point things out
  • Tell others about the experience

3. Make a record of the experience

  • This can be a simple drawing or sequence of drawings that you label in accordance with the child’s memories or understandings
  • It could be a narrative or recount of the experience (i.e. what they did)
  • It could be a more detailed combination of drawings, pictures, photos etc
  • As you do this take the opportunity to talk about written language and demonstrate various concepts of print (letter and sound names, left to right, capital and lower case letters, whole words etc).

4. Tell others about the experience

  • Later you can use the products of the language experience for re-reading, discussion, sharing with significant others.
  • Use any texts for shared reading.
  • Celebrate the work.
  • Look for other related books to read with or to them.
  • Encourage further related writing, observation or exploration.
  • Use the text for further discussion of language, particularly concepts of print.

The benefits of LEA

There are many benefits including:

• confidence as language users
• growing vocabulary
• growing awareness and knowledge of concepts of print
• an awareness that written texts carry meaning that can be understood and shared
• a growing awareness of text genres (e.g. the difference between narrative and recount)
• a growing understanding that words and pictures together can communicate meaning

The LEA is ideal for children aged 4-7 years. As well, it has great usefulness as a method for children experiencing difficulties with reading and writing or who have delayed language. You can read about this application here.

Another colleague, Dr Jan Turbill from the University of Wollongong has written about the use of digital Language Experience that draws heavily on the use of digital photos. You can read it here.

1 comment:

Peggy Broadbent said...

I agree - the benefits of LEA are tremendous for young children.

I, too, thoroughly enjoyed
Sylvia Ashton-Warner's approach to reading. I’m retired now but taught for many years. I used some of her ideas to teach my beginning readers in who weren't ready to read in a book. It is a little different but compatible with LEA. Children loved receiving their own word each day which finally developed into making up one's own book.

See my blog about this approach: