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Environmental print

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Last updated 30 January 2013 10:27 by NZTecAdmin

Environmental print (PDF, 40 KB)

Environmental print is the print that can be found in many public environments, such as roads (street signs, billboards, directions, bus and train destination signs) and shopping areas (shop and product names, public service signs, cafés and restaurants).

Most adults will recognise some print in their environments. Some of this environmental print will be generic (for example, chemist, police) and some will be specific (for example, McDonald’s – where the ‘golden arch’ of the letter M is recognised, as well as the full name, Pak’n Save, The Warehouse, Shell, Woburn, DON ’T CROSS). Other important parts of a person’s environment include print that becomes familiar to the learner, such as food and drink labels, money and many other features. The amount of print recognised will grow as learners’ needs and literacy expertise develop.

Background information

Recent research suggests that when adults are beginning to learn to read, they use more visual strategies than school-aged beginners, and rely more on memory and recognition than on decoding skills in the reading process.1This finding does not imply, however, that decoding skills are not important to adults; reading will not continue to develop if readers are not able to decode. Nevertheless, it would suggest that it is worth spending time with adult learners on developing word recognition skills. At the most basic level, adults who are learning to read need to be able to read very clear, simple notices and instructions,2 such as those in public places.

Learning for adults must have immediate relevance,3 so a study of familiar and meaningful print in the environment is a good place to start. We cannot assume, however, that environmental print leads to reading using decoding; research with adult learners in Brazil showed that, in practice, learners did not use letter knowledge to read signs.4

Knowing the demands

Adults develop strategies to survive in a literate world. At a very basic level, they can associate print with some of their day-to-day needs. For example, a learner may be able to recognise a Pak’n Save sign as a symbol for a supermarket in an unfamiliar suburb or town.

Recognising environmental print is an important initial step in reading and writing development; it means that learners have grasped the concept that print carries meaning that is directly relevant to daily living. If a learner does not have this concept, they will find it difficult to find the motivation to continue to develop literacy skills. Most adults will have this awareness to some degree. Some ESOL learners who are not literate in their first language and who are from primarily oral cultures may not understand the link between print and meaning.

Knowing the learner

Each learner will recognise different signs and notices and the number they can recognise will vary. Assessment is therefore best conducted one on one. Possible assessment activities include asking the learner to:

  • tell you about signs they recognise
  • pick out which signs they recognise from a set of flashcards
  • read any flashcards they can
  • talk about any similarities they see (such as the same letters or word shapes), and
  • draw signs they know.

Knowing what to do

  • Ask learners which signs they know (selfreporting).
  • Get learners to bring in examples, such as logos, signs and advertisements they recognise.
  • Help learners to build a collection of flashcards (for example, photos of signs, stick-figure logos and the labels on food packets) by pasting examples onto cards and laminating them.
  • Make a duplicate set of flashcards for teaching, to use with other learners and for assessment activities.
  • Use flashcards for recognition activities (ask learners to read the cards).
  • Go for a ‘sign walk’ with learners – take a digital camera and photograph signs. Back in the classroom, use the photos to add to the flashcard collection.
  • Gradually introduce new and unfamiliar signs and words from the environment, and add these to the store of flashcards.
  • Help learners to make signs for the classroom, learning area or home.
  • Make a set of matching cards with pictures and/or brief descriptions of the meaning of the signs and have learners match these to their flashcards.

Other ideas for using flashcards

  • Sort into three groups (illustration only, print only, illustration plus print).
  • Sort into meaning groups, such as notices that tell us to do or not to do something; signs that tell what something is (toilet, police station, bus stop); notices that tell us what is inside a packet (food labels, appliances, DVDs); words that give us warnings (DANGER, POISON , Keep Clear, No Entry).
  • Point out similarities between flashcards (for example, the use of the same letters or words).

Case study

Jen is a mother of three young children, one aged five and twins aged seven. She has a part-time job in a food packaging factory. As a child she was frequently absent from school, and left with no qualifications and limited literacy skills. Soon after, she had the twins. She is able to read only the basic messages she needs to cope day to day, and struggles to write her name and address for basic form filling. Her tutor has followed some of the assessment procedures for environmental print and Jen demonstrated limited sight recognition of a narrow range of signs.

Teaching suggestions for Jen

  • Use packaging and advertising from the food products she packs at work, particularly at times when her tasks change and she will need to learn new words.
  • Encourage her to go on sign walks with her children, and make flashcards later (the children could draw the signs).
  • Make a photo record of environmental print in her neighbourhood, then further afield. Use these to extend her repertoire of familiar words.
  • Ask Jen to describe the places she would like to visit or needs to find, then find or make signs that will help her. For example, make or photograph signs that will help her navigate into the city and find a specific place.

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1 Greenberg, Ehri and Perin, 2002.

2 Association of Language Testers in Europe, 2007a.

3 Knowles, 1990.

4 Cardosa-Martins and Rodrigues with Ehri, 2003.


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