Read junk mail in a new light

Unwanted advertising leaflets, in the right hands, can inspire the poorest of adult readers and writers. Gill Moore shares her ideas

leaflets, restaurant menus and charts have great potential for teaching different types of writing to basic skills students. They are not only a good source of information texts, but also are free and often relevant to local life.

Because leaflets are small, they are not too daunting for students who do not find reading easy. As well as reading for information, students can look at the layout, the use of headings, boxes, bullet points and typefaces, and practice skimming and scanning.

Poor readers like illustrations to help them, but they can make fiction look childish. Illustrations in leaflets seem more legitimate and are often quite informative too.

I have asked students on the milestones levels to sort leaflets from a doctor's surgery and the post office, just by looking for the NHS or the Post Office logo. They liked the task because, although they could not read the leaflets, they could relate to the context, and one of the students took away a leaflet on mobility aids to discuss with her family carer.

I have a folder containing a company management chart, a music sales chart, a page from a catalogue featuring laptop computers, a train timetable, a mail-order leaflet for books, a weather chart, a leaflet advertising a theme park, a class register and a television guide, among other sheets.

All these types of information are easy to pick up.

I put these around the classroom and hand out a quiz of 10 questions. To answer them, students have to find the information by locating the relevant source material and scanning it for the details.

This task can be made as easy or as difficult as you like, but it works well for students at entry level 3. It has the advantage, too, of getting them to move around the room, which suits the kinesthetic learners and wakes them all up a bit.

It forms a good introduction, from which you can move on to discussing when and why tables and charts are useful, and then explore particular information in more detail. You might ask students to compare two holidays or attractions, looking at, for example, costs, facilities, refreshments and hidden costs, such as insurance. They can write notes and then present their evaluations to the rest of the group.

One of my students once described in detail the effect of pester power on the family budget when you take children on an outing, and got some animated responses.

It would be easy to embed this sort of lesson in a vocational context, by comparing the values of laptops with different features (information technology), or menus from restaurants and fast food outlets (catering), for example.

I have used leaflets to help students of various entry levels, and above, plan a piece of writing. We discuss what the purpose of the leaflet is, think about the audience and then we consider what essential information to include.

With a group at milestone 8 or entry 1 level, we start by writing a pro forma leaflet giving information about each of the students. They put their name and photograph on the front and their date of birth, address and emergency contact details on the back. Discussions about what information to give inside centre on describing a positive aspect of their character and something interests them.

They have a great time taking each other's picture using a digital camera, which can be a lesson in itself. A simple pro forma is easy for the students to deal with and it looks good. They find this a very affirming activity and it provides a good basis to build on.

After looking at leaflets collected from local sources, my students compiled a leaflet about the day centre they attend. It was aimed at new clients who want to know what is on offer. We invited the centre manager to talk to us about what clients ask about when she shows them around. We took photographs around the building, used the students' knowledge of the facilities and created something that both looked good and was meaningful to them.

I have written leaflets with students up to level 2. They are a good way of helping them to focus on the purpose of writing, key points and audience.

Becoming a magpie is an occupational hazard for teachers, but I suggest that if you want a free, versatile resource which you can use at any level of Skills for Life teaching, go to your local library, surgery, post office, tourist office, bus station I and start collecting.

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