Getting to the Rough Ground of Language and Literacy Learning Through the Language Experience Approach

When we focus on rich, engaging, meaningful content and experiences, then language seems to take care of itself.
— Catherine Snow, Learning to Talk by Talking

Early language learners benefit from rich tasks that provide them with ample opportunities to hear, see, use and manipulate language in contextualised, purposeful ways. In the traditional Language Experience Approach (LEA) teachers use a shared experience - often involving photographs/images of that experience - as a prompt to collectively write a text with the learners. This text - often a series of photographs/images with captions - becomes a text that the group reads, re-reads, revises and extends. In the process, the teacher can draw learners' attention to phonetic and semantic patterns in the co-constructed text.

Therefore, the language experience approach (LEA) is a whole language approach that promotes reading and writing through the use of personal experiences and oral language. It effectively helps develop learners' print awareness, since learners see the direct connection between images and words. It effectively connects known vocabulary and new vocabulary with print words, since the experience and image(s) correlate with words in the written caption(s). It helps teachers explain sentence structure as the image(s) can help the teacher unpack the logical structure of the sentence. It effectively scaffolds a written text by using images to sequence a text, including personal narrative, procedures, explanations and more.  LEA also enhances reading comprehension and fluency, since the reading material is based on the learner's funds of knowledge (Gonzales, Moll & Amanti, 2006). And there are avenues to extend the experience by incorporating further reading, writing and learning tasks (see below).

The video to the left/above provides a general overview of the LEA within an adult ESL context; whereas the videos to the lower right provide an example of the LEA approach as part of an integrated unit. In this latter case, multiple learnings are achieved when the language experience approach is based around a humble kitchen garden project for newly arrived refugee children at a primary school in an urban Australian community. The project illustrates the potential for deep learning when the learning develops from authentic, engaging experiences. The latter example is a much more involved application of the LEA, so it is important to note that the LEA can be completed in a single lesson rather than as a unit. The LEA is also suitable for both younger learners as well as adults.

In the videos, you should notice how language is reinforced through practical activity. It is also apparent that language should be reinforced with the help of visual aids in the classroom, and these visual aids also support student get their ideas onto the page.

The Language Experience Approach emphasises language learning through carefully scaffolded and reinforced language in context and through activity. Teachers and learners diligently document the experience, so the experience can be revisited and developed through further reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing in the classroom.

The following are a number of questions to consider when building language and literacy through authentic, mutual practices. These initial questions illustrate the significance of a number of essential practices in the LEA, such as scaffolded talk, documenting the experience, revisiting the experience in the classroom, pulling out rich vocabulary, expanding the experience through writing, and using the experience for further comprehension and [content] learning. In this system, the teacher must be adept at orchestrating, sequencing and extending a variety practices (often within a tight timetable).


Before and During the Experience

  1. What is the experience? Is this an actual or virtual experience?
  2. How is joint attention achieved and how is language being scaffolded?
  3. How is vocabulary emphasised/reinforced/introduced/recorded during the experience
  4. How is the experience being documented (digital cameras, information scaffolds, graphic organisers, scaffolded questions, etc)?
  5. How do the instructional conversations that take place throughout the experience build a common discourse and assist learning?


After the Experience

Students benefit from a variety of activities that reinforce language and literacy in the classroom: word walls, flow charts, exemplary texts and further hands-on learning.

  1. Are word walls / glossaries / semantic maps / flow charts / storyboards developed from the experience? Are they prominent, accessible and rigorous?
  2. How is the documentation used to help the class jointly and/or individually re-construct the experience? Is the sentence cycle used to generate rich, juicy sentences?
  3. How is the joint construction phase used to refresh people’s memory and knowledge of events?
  4. Can the newly constructed text(s) be used as “familiar text(s)” that can be re-read as fluency practice?
  5. Has the teacher selected a portion of words to use for further word study?


Extending the Experience

  1. Can you link new readings to the shared experience? For instance, now that we have explored the world of the garden, can we explore:
  • poetry about gardens or which use gardens as a motif;
  • procedural/information texts about gardening;
  • stories and/or picture books which takes place in a garden; and
  • news articles about community gardens?
  1. Can the writing be extended to the inclusion of the writing of recognised genres related to the experience? (procedural texts, brochures, etc)
  2. How have non-verbal knowledge, expertise and attitudes been fostered through the activity?


Further Reading

Au, K. H. (1979). Using the Experience-Text Relationship Method with Minority Children. The Reading Teacher, (March), 677–679.

González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.

Labbo, L. D., Eakle, A. J., & Montego, M. K. (2002). Digital Language Experience Approach: Using Digital Photographs and Software as a Language Experience Approach Innovation. Reading Online, 5(8), 1–19. Retrieved from

Landis, D., Umolo, J., & Mancha, S. (2010). The power of language experience for cross-cultural reading and writing. The Reading Teacher, 63(7), 580–589.

Mustafa, M. (2008). Exceeding the standards: a strategic approach to linking state standards to best practices in reading and writing instruction. New York: Scholastic.

Nestle, D. D., & Dixon, C. N. (2008). Using the language experience approach with English language learners: Strategies for engaging students and developing literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Burr, A. J. (2002). Language Experience Approach Revisited: The Use of Personal Narratives in Adult L2 Literacy Instruction. The Reading Matrix, 2(1), 1–8. Retrieved from

(Click here for a list of recommended readings.)