Leading from Behind: Language Experience in Action

Manual: Leading from BehindLanguage Experience is a strategy to develop and reinforce reading and writing by using a learner's personal experiences and natural language. In this approach, the students themselves initiate experiences through projects and other resulting interactive activities. In their authentic language, students dictate their experiences to the teacher who translates their story into written English. With this documentation as a basic material for reading and writing instruction, the teacher helps the students see the connection between what they signed and what was written. The teacher uses this language experience to develop new vocabulary, comprehension, and the basics of English grammar. At the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Language Experience is one of the nine areas of the literacy program.


The Role of the Educator is:

  • to model the writing and the thinking aloud process;
  • to develop writing skills and introduce different writing genres through mini-lessons;
  • to promote rereading as a strategy for students to remember what they are writing about;
  • to develop purpose of writing and writing for an audience;
  • to demonstrate appropriate writing conventions. 

Observers will see:

  • students and teacher thinking aloud about their experience while writing about it;
  • the teacher modeling the translation of students' signs into an appropriate written version;
  • students rereading what they have dictated;
  • students documenting their language experience through pictures and written compositions. 

How It Works

The Process: 

  1. Students initiate the experience. There are many ways the teacher can use to identify topics for Language Experience activities. For example, at the Clerc Center, there are community meetings that children and teachers attend to discuss the issues and problems that affect them and the school. During these meetings, students ask questions and bring up concerns. The teacher takes a question or concern and develops a lesson with the students.

  2. Students and teacher document that experience. Students and teacher draw pictures or use digital or Polaroid cameras throughout the experience. Taking pictures and writing in a log helps document the experience.

  3. Teacher translates the students' expressions in sign language into written English. Often students take all of the pictures and decide what happened first, second, third, and so on. The students collaboratively recount the events while the teacher writes what is said. The teacher regularly signs each sentence back to make sure it is correct.

  4. Students and teacher use the text for reading instruction. Students use a thesaurus to learn new words or use a cloze activity to focus on specific words. Then the teacher makes additional small copies of the text for everyone to share with friends and families and to read again and again during the year.

How to Record a Language Experience: (Schleper, 2002)

  • Ask students to sign what they are learning.
  • Act as a scribe and write in English what is signed.
  • Sign back to the students to make sure they agree with the story that was written down.
  • "Think aloud" to demonstrate processes to students.
  • Relate the complexity of the text to the language level of the students.
  • Let the students contribute drawings or other art to enhance the writings.
  • Use mini-lessons to focus on specific language or reading skills. 

Classroom Application (Schleper, 2002)

  • Leslie Brewer's sixth-, and eighth grade students became interested in making Indian bread during their unit on Native Americans. Brewer incorporated Language Experience strategies to help the students through the process. She began by reading April: A Pueblo Storyteller by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith to the students. Then the students researched how the Indian bread was made. After reading the directions, the students developed a list of questions. As they went thought the process of making Indian bread, the students found the answers to their questions. Then the students dictated how to make Indian bread in American Sign Language to Brewer who documented the information on chart paper. She also used it to do an extended vocabulary lesson and the students were also able to use the documentation to make their own book about the process.

  • Barbara Kaufman's first-, second-, and third-grade students planned to attend a play entitled James and the Giant Peach. To help the students understand the play, Kaufman read the picture book of the same title. After that, they watched the movie version, and then the play. The students dictated what they understood from each of the versions. Kaufman in turn wrote what they signed on chart paper for each of the three versions. Unfortunately, several pages of the book got torn so they held a class meeting to figure out what to do. In the process of solving this problem, they again used Language Experience to document a real life experience.

Sample Projects By Our Students:

Joshua Is Moving by the Integrated Pre-Kindergarten Class 
Mock Election by Team 1/2/3
The Franciscan Monastery by the Sophomore Team

A Good Place to Start

Helms, L. L., and David R. Schleper (2000). "Language Experience: Fun Projects After School, Including Writing." Odyssey, 1(3), 13-16.

Nelson, Olga G. and Wayne M. Linek (1999). Practical Classroom Applications of Language Experience: Looking Back, Look Forward. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Whitesell, Kathleena M. (1999). "Language Experience. Leading from Behind." Perspectives in Education and Deafness.

Supportive Research and Descriptive Literature

Dixon, Carol (1990). Language Experience Approach to Reading (And Writing) : LEA for ESL. Prentice Hall.

Nelson, Olga G. and Wayne M. Linek (1999). Practical Classroom Applications of Language Experience: Looking Back, Look Forward. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Schleper, David (2002). Leading from Behind: Language Experience in Action. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University, Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center.

Web Resources

Digital Language Experience Approach
LEA and Hearing-Impaired Students


Beyond Reading and Writing : Inquiry, Curriculum, and Multiple Ways of Knowing. Urbana, Ill. : National Council of Teachers of English, c2000.

Butler, D. A. Rooms to Grow : Natural Language Arts in the Middle School. 2nd ed. Durham, N.C. : Carolina Academic Press, c1998.

Combs, M. Readers and Writers in Primary Grades: A Balanced and Integrated Approach. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Merrill, c2002.

Critiquing Whole Language and Classroom Inquiry. Urbana, Ill. : National Council of Teachers of English, c2001.

Ewoldt, Carolyn & Hammermeister, Frieda. (Oct 1986). "The Language-Experience Approach to Facilitating Reading and Writing for Hearing-Impaired Students." American Annals of the Deaf. 131(4), pp. 271-274.

Fisher, B. Joyful Learning in Kindergarten. Rev. ed. Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann, c1998.

Hall, M. The Language Experience Approach for Teaching Reading: A Research Perspective. International Reading Assoc. 1978.

Halliday, M. A. K. Construing Experience Through Meaning: A Language-Based Approach to Cognition. Cassell Academic, c1999.

Language Experience Approach: Abstracts from the ERIC database.

Language Experience Forum [newsletter] / ed. by Christine A. McKeon. Contact: Jacqueline K. Peck; 4690 Young Rd., Stow, OH 44224; 330-672-0613; Fax: 330-672-3407

Making Justice Our Project : Teachers Working Toward Critical Whole Language Practice. Urbana, Ill. : National Council of Teachers of English, c1999.

Mikkelsen, N. Words and Pictures : Lessons in Children's Literature and Literacies. Boston : McGraw-Hill, c2000.

Moomaw, S. 1948-. More Than Letters : Literacy Activities for Preschool, Kindergarten, and First Grade. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press ; Distributed by Gryphon House, c2001.

Moustafa, M. Beyond Traditional Phonics : Research Discoveries and Reading Instruction. Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann, c1997. 

Nelson, O. G. and Linek, W.M. Practical Classroom Applications of Language Experience: Looking Back, Look Forward. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, c1999.

Pavelka, P. Making the Connection : Learning Skills Through Literature (3-6). Peterborough, N.H. : Crystal Springs Books, c1997.

Pike, K. New Connections : An Integrated Approach to Literacy. 2nd ed. New York : Longman, c1997.

Searfoss, L. W. Developing Literacy Naturally. Dubuque, Iowa : Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., c1998.Sedgwick, F. Writing to Learn : Poetry and Literacy Across the Primary Curriculum. London ; New York : Routledge, 2000. 

Springer, M. The Watershed Whole-Learning Activities Book. Columbus, Ohio : National Middle School Association, c1998.

The Thoughtful Reader. 3rd ed. Fort Worth, TX : Harcourt College Publishers, c2002.

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