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V.3 #4 Literacy - A Reader-Based Technique: Language Experience Approach (LEA)

It’s a pretty simple concept, really. What can be thought can be spoken. What can be spoken can be written. What can be written can be read. What can be read can be understood. In this way, thinking is communicated. It is revised. It is made public; shared. One way to accomplish this is through Language Experience Approach (LEA). This is a technique most commonly incorporated into beginning reading instruction (Grades K-3). However, upper-grade students are sometimes lacking this fundamental understanding of literacy. I think it is never too late to teach them!

Why use LEA?

  • It is a listening, speaking, reading, and writing activity.

  • The content is generated by the student.

  • It begins with what students already know.

  • It is highly motivating.

  • There are no costly materials or programs required.

  • It can be used with individuals, small group, and/or whole class.

  • Steps can be modified to accommodate all learners.

More often than not, readers are interested in reading about topics of interest. These are easy to relate to, authentic, and meaningful. Thus, the first step in creating LEA stories is to brainstorm ideas. When working with small or large groups, encourage the students to dictate a shared experience (Ex: a recent field trip) so that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the story. Be sure to discuss the topic with students before writing. This dialogue might spark some new memories of the event (or knowledge of the topic). It will also give students a chance to elaborate and add details. Some literacy experts suggest beginning with a title. As a writer, I find it makes more sense to title a story after it has been written. It’s a matter of personal choice and style. You decide.

Once students begin to dictate the story, you act as the recorder. This is not the time to edit and revise students’ contributions. It is important that you write in students’ exact language. This procedure has caused considerable controversy. Incorrect word usage and grammar are to be expected, and sometimes, a student will use inappropriate language. In those cases, use tact and modify students’ language slightly. On those rare occasions, I have simply said, “I like your thinking! Let’s see how that would look in a book.” or “Hmm, another way we might say that is…”

Say each word as you write it. Once a sentence is completed, read it in its entirety and slide your finger(s) under each word as you do. Then, ask the student to do the same. If you are working with a small or large group, either choose one student to do this, or have them take turns. Continue to act as the scribe, following the same steps: (1) write and say the word simultaneously, (2) read each sentence while pointing, and (3) ask students to imitate your behavior while reading.

All the while, you may probe or ask leading questions, such as: What happened next? Their story should sound natural; the students’ voices will be heard! The length of the stories will vary and depend largely on the abilities and the will of the students. When the story is finished, read it from the beginning and point to each word. Next, the student(s) will read and point from start to finish. It may take several student readings before the story is read aloud without any inaccuracies. That’s okay! Repeated readings build fluency and predictability of text. Students are gaining valuable experience with text — the E in LEA!

In the final phase, invite students to illustrate their story. In the interim, type the story and print a copy for all in the group. These may be read again (or a few times) independently in class or taken home for additional practice. A few LEA stories can be bound into a mini-book and added to the class library (or student’s personal book collection).

A variety of word identification activities may be planned as reinforcement and review lessons. There are many creative LEA lessons available in teacher resource books and online. Simple index cards or sentence strips have been put to good use in my own classroom. My favorite thing to do was to cut sentences into phrases and re-arrange them. Students would work alone or in pairs to put them back together in a sensible way. Or, cut and separate the sentences and ask students to sequence the story correctly. For more advanced learners, cut and remove certain words and challenge students to replace them with synonyms. Low risk and big return! Finally, foster partnerships with students in another class. Encourage your students to read their LEA stories to others. Undoubtedly, their previous success with the text and their ownership of it will make them leap at the chance. Leaping to read! Imagine that!


Dorr, R.E. (2006). Something old is new again: Revisiting language experience. The Reading Teacher, 60(2), 138-146. doi:10.1598/RT.60.24

Shanker, J.L. & Cockrum, W.A. (2009). Locating and correcting reading difficulties (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Walker, B.J. (2008). Diagnostic teaching of reading: Techniques for instruction and assessment (6th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Suggested Websites

Suggested Video

Video 5: The Student Dictates the Language Experience Story

Karen Russo, Ed. D. is an Assistant Professor in the Child Study Department of St. Joseph’s College in New York. There, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate level courses related to elementary education and literacy instruction. Before joining the college faculty, she was an Assistant Principal of a New York City elementary school, a literacy specialist, teacher mentor, and staff developer. Dr. Russo has presented at local, national and international conferences and has published articles on differentiating instruction, enhancing motivation of struggling readers and writers, and effective professional development for teachers. She is an Editor for Insights on Learning Disabilities as has served as a Consulting Editor for Reading Writing Quarterly.

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