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Icon poetry: literature for the non-literate.


Students enrolled in zero level ESL at Truman College are reading stories in English on laptop computers. They use Instant English [1], a story authoring software that uses icon sentences, text-to-speech, and recorded speech in a narrative format. As the students listen to spoken sentences, they see the meaning in a string of icons over the words. Other communication strategies used in the literacy class are storyboards, and simple research projects. [2]


Background: The Ellis Island of the Midwest

The printed word is alien code to more than ten thousand non-schooled foreign and American adults who show up annually at the door of Truman College. The non-literate are among the 30,000 who register in the Adult Education program to learn English or work on their GED. The American students are non-readers who have had great difficulty with school. The refugees may have reached adulthood in camps, war zones, deltas and deserts, and may never have put pencil to paper. Or they may have some education but use a non-Latin alphabet. They come with no parents and no diplomas. They appear "gentle" to us, and why not? Why should they be wary? Enemies, family conflict, political agendas, and status are left behind. Their apparent innocence is a function of their complete dependence on the good will of strangers.

Two very young, veiled mothers from Africa, a French-speaking African journalist, three Korean bar girls, two disabled seniors--one a Vietnamese soldier, one a Cuban factory hand, two Korean grandmothers, a high school prodigy from Ecuador, a techhie from Bosnia, and a Mongolian school teacher all sit together in a classroom at Truman College, working on laptops. They are in this class because eight weeks ago, in a vast cafeteria space used for registering thousands of adult education students at a time, someone determined that they were "level zero," probably because they could not answer a few simple questions, or fill out a registration form. How does one introduce literature and culture to a group so diverse and so uncomprehending? Text is out of the question for some. Tracing the ABC's might get these students to literacy eventually, but there is enormous pressure to "get up to speed." They must handle job applications, court appointments, apartment rentals and college labs. The Lost Boys of the Sudan, for instance, are immediately placed by their sponsors in jobs with long hours, to pay the rent; but they are also expected to get their GED within a few months, so they can enroll in college courses by the next fall semester. Even Sunday soccer practice is a source of pressure on these young men. Only last week, the Latin Kings, who may have been policing their turf, assaulted the players. Our new Americans need to wise up immediately.

Learners Without Words

We learn about ourselves and our culture through stories--from news to case studies to soap operas. Without access to written, spoken, or signed narrative, we have only unrelated images and scenes without shared meaning. So how do we share "lessons" about our culture if our students cannot understand our voices, or read our prose? If they cannot write, speak or sign to us, how do people articulate their needs or feelings? How must they suffer when they are silenced after a lifetime of communication in languages they hold dear but which are unknown to us?

The E-classroom [3]

Buried in the large earphones on their heads, their eyes glued to the LCD screens of their laptops, adolescents, seniors, new Americans and non-readers are listening with great concentration to standard American stories, proverbs and poetry. The fingers of both hands are delicately stirring and clicking their touch pads. A murmur in the room from 20 voices mouthing different sentences at the same time is reminiscent of an ashram. Wires string the room like a construction site and every few feet is a floor lamp to maintain enough light to see the keyboards. Low light, ferns, mirrors, and kitchen appliances clutter the room making it look more like an apartment than a classroom. A huge light square is projected on one wall from floor to ceiling. The image looks like the hieroglyphic wall of an Egyptian tomb, filled with rows of icons in sentence format. Under each icon is an empty text box. Under each input box is the spelling of the word for the icon.

The class is using a program called Instant English, a homegrown story software program that generates sentences completely in icons. Every word has an icon and an input box to copy the word, using the keyboard. A computer-generated text-to-speech voice dictates the words one by one. A recorded file plays the sentence in a narrator's voice. Students can see what they are hearing. Sight words, pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, and word order are all presented at the same time. If they click on an icon they hear the word. If they click on a sentence, they hear the sentence. Some of the lessons are songs, so when they click these sentences, they hear the singing voice and guitar of one of our teachers.


Instant English users are immersed in American literature. The stories were authored by teachers--soap opera narratives, long verses in rhyming couplets, poems by Longfellow or Pushkin, folk songs, or proverbs collected from the Internet. And some are just sentences that people always hear from landlords, nurses, immigration officials, and employers, such as "Are you allergic to any medications?" Or, "Have you ever been arrested?" Since the program has an authoring component, teachers can create any kind of sentence they want---even drills. However, Instant English was conceived as a story generator, and no meta-language explanations or instructions, or examples are possible. The exclusive function of the editor is to create screens of multimedia sentences. Since the sentences do not wrap, the teacher has to think in short, one-line sentences. The limitation of the format becomes a discipline, similar to the rules for haiku or tanka. [4] Rhymed couplets work the best because they enable learners to anticipate the sound of a word--a big leap toward reading. In order to create a rhyme, one may have to use low frequency words, idioms and humor. There must be a beat. Jazz chants [5] are perfect for this format. Poetry is also ideal because poetry is metaphor, [6] and every icon is a metaphor.

Instant English is not a commercial product. It is an evolving set of stories generated by a community of teachers. The author of this article has designed more than 3,000 icons that are stored in parts-of-speech dictionaries in the editor. Photo thumbnails can be used for names of places or people. When these icons are dragged and dropped into the editor and saved as a lesson file, the program generates a page of sentences with scroll bars, navigation links, embedded sound, text-to-speech and input correction. Icons are an exciting new medium for incorporating images into speech itself, not just as illustration but as actual sentence components. There are obvious comparisons to sign language. However, icon language and sign language are as different as the comic form is from the dance form. The revolutionary power of an icon sentence is in its potential to make grammar transparent. As icons proliferate in the thousands, the structure of any language can be made visible. This has already happened to sign language, which has developed an iconic form--sign writing. [7] And the groundwork is being laid for icons for the blind. Icons are simple enough to be read from a raised surface, and are now being incorporated as icons (not Braille) in public facilities. [8] The web is inventing a unique blend of animation, icon, text and sound. [9]

The Immersion Experience

Associating text with layers of alternate sensory information creates a useful redundancy that taps into the parallel processing capabilities of the brain and accelerates learning. Research that supports this view is summarized in The Learning Brain, at the Center for Applied Technology website. [10] The translation of text into pictures and sound puts the learner inside the language. The wall of text becomes transparent and the mind connects directly to the narrative, enabling the learner to see the spelling and grammar components as mere detail. The same elements and patterns appear over and over in a great variety of contextual forms, gradually building a storehouse of words and cultural references.

Instant Comprehension

An icon sentence can be understood without having to first learn what the icons mean. Some of the icons for functional words like "of" or "the" are abstract. No one can tell what the icons mean in isolation. But in a sentence string, and surrounded by words that are more visually obvious, such as "run" or "house," the functional icons are accepted as scaffolding. The user need only get the ballpark meaning of the sentence. Sound provides the exact translation.

Visual Grammar

Parts of speech categories make little sense to the non-schooled. So parts of speech labels are always there as alt tags on every word. Tense is also confusing, so it is highlighted with a background shade. Gray icons always mean past tense. English spelling is subtle and contradictory (an "s" on a noun that is plural, but on a verb that is singular) so sound on every icon checks pronunciation. Pronouns are hard to remember, but recognizing a male versus a female icon is easy.

Sentence Mechanics Through Control of Error

Teaching punctuation is obsolete because students learn it through control of error features in the program. Ending punctuation must be entered and followed by a space for the computer to advance. A question mark is always associated with a tonal shift. It is also not necessary to teach upper and lower case. The keyboard is in upper case letters, while the screen text is lower case, so users are forced to see them both at once. The students must use the space bar to move from word to word, and from habit, learn to put spaces between words. (Because the program requires the student to hit the space bar before the next word, and because punctuation marks are also icon-words, one odd result is that when they transfer their skills to paper or a word processor, they tend to leave a space before the punctuation mark.)

The Typing Mode: The program can be used in three distinct ways: When the lamp icon is on, the text under each icon is visible. The students type in the input box and press the space bar to hear the next word. Practice in the typing mode teaches the alphabet, lower case, and the keyboard. Learning to write naturally starts with copying. Using the keyboard instead of paper and pencil is faster and more fun. The Montessori phenomenon of "exploding into writing" has happened again and again. With no apparent practice except on the keyboard, students begin compulsively filling notebook after notebook with words and sentences. We believe that writing is no different from drawing. When a shape is memorized, the hand "knows" how to copy it.

The Listening Mode: When the lamp icon is off, the text is hidden, and typing is not necessary. A mouse click on the sentence plays the speech file. Students are asked to repeat the sentence orally, from memory. If they can't do it, they can click on each individual icon to hear the words separately, and then click again on the sentence to hear it again and again, until they can reproduce the pronunciation perfectly. Listening to a sentence over and over is essential and is the reason why most second-language learners use tapes. However, without pictures, aural comprehension requires translation, something impossibly costly for non-European languages. In Instant English, the icons provide the translation.

The Dictation Mode: Finally, for spelling practice, students can turn off the text and type from memory. If they can't manage, they mouse over the icon to see the alt tag that shows the name of the word. The tag functions like a flash card--as soon as they begin to type, it goes away. Nonliterate native speakers have great difficulty with spelling. In dyslexia, the visual image and the sound of the word are not integrated, so poor readers don't automatically associate their speech with writing, nor do they connect the text with how it sounds. Spelling and word order must be matched consciously to auditory comprehension to improve reading. Using the dictation mode, students learn how to spell what they hear. This is exactly what is needed for non-readers, and perhaps, for victims of head trauma or stroke who have lost one or more of the language functions usually managed by the left side of the brain. Among the functions that can be separately lost are retrieving words in order to speak them, understanding word meanings, recognizing words in text, or forming words on paper. Usually, the left brain manages the language network and inhibition that builds up around scar tissue can disable the network that connects one skill with another. The right brain can rebuild this network using its visual recognition capacity. [11]

Computer Literacy

Millions of people the world over use all kinds of electronic devices without having first to learn a specific language.. Beginning computer users encounter the same technical glitches that we do. Why doesn't the sound work? Why is the computer frozen? Navigation and file management skills are all learned by trial and error. We should assume that a tool can be learned without language, although a lot of language is learned in the process.

Many teachers believe orienting zero-level learners to the computer is a nightmare. These teachers claim that learners should first develop oral language so they can follow instructions. But we depend on the mechanical curiosity and savvy of the adult, and forget about verbal instruction. Others use the lab only occasionally--as a field trip to the land of technology. Then they wonder why, each time, the students have forgotten their passwords and have to start over. In the E-classroom, we have dependable resources and can use computers every day, so students don't forget. From the first day, and every day, we use email [11] and login to Blackboard, our course on the web. One student, who started out at zero in reading, writing and speaking, panicked when she found out that her next class would not include computers: "But teacher, if we don't use it, we lose it!"--a pretty amazing and appropriate use of our idiom.

Email is the supreme narrative tool. It is here that students will communicate from the gut. Small talk is essential in developing confidence, and because they can't agonize over email, students' writing and expressive ability improves dramatically. Students become more responsible about letting the teacher know what is causing them to be late or absent. Email provides learners with individual attention--"Did you get my email?"-and for low-profile students, there is no place to hide. The E-classroom connects research, writing, and email, using a theme a week. We start with a storyboard and a verb list. Students write sentences with the verb as a cue; then put them into paragraphs in Word. The next step is research. They must find or draw a picture on the same theme and write four sentences describing, or commenting on the picture. (Depending on the theme, they may have to write a critique, a functional description, a set of instructions, or a story.) This is much simpler than it appears from its description. You can see our writing projects on our Blackboard course. Look under course materials /writing. We copy, paste, upload and download images before we tackle word processing. These functional skills will be in place when they begin using WORD, so that writing can be the focus instead of file management. Students take digital pictures of each other to use on their home pages. Even one or two sentences look impressive accompanied by a great photo and lots of color. Creating a web page also helps learners "read" other web pages, since they know how the page is formatted and constructed.


Non-literate learners have no difficulty with visual or hands-on learning. Icons, and other visual supports for language provide comprehension support. Learners can relax and take risks. In the crosscultural world of images, much, much more is understood than can be expressed. Speech catches UP through constant repetition. Repeating sentences out loud in the dark, protected by earphones, surrounded by other voices, is emotionally safe and develops new vocal schemas, reducing accents and fossilized English. Email provides a routine for engaging in conversation regardless of skill level. Since email is not "serious," writing mistakes are ok. But mistakes in addressing or failure to check email and respond become social gaffes, prompting students to pay attention to detail and to be responsible communicators. The narrative and functional context of language is fore grounded in the E-classroom, and grammar and punctuation become a housekeeping task.. Using computers in the classroom to facilitate community and communication is an exciting and effective way to teach and learn language. [12]


[1] Browse our literacy course on blackboard: username: trguest, password: trguest. The teacher, and author of Instant English is Mary Beth Guinan.

[2] Instant English is a story authoring software invented and patented by Guinan, and sponsored by the City Colleges of Chicago and Truman College. Many thousands of students have used it over the past 5 years. Many years before adding sound via the computer, Guinan used icons for grammar instruction, poetry and story telling. Her icons are copyrighted. Email her for permission. A demo of icon poetry is on The software has won a David Award for excellence in design for people with disabilities. David Award

[3] E-classroom theory can be seen at:

[4] The Tanka home page is:

[5] Carolyn Graham is the inventor of jazz chants used in the ESL classroom, http://www.oupusa. org/esl/isbn/0195024079.html

[6] Metaphors in Various Disciplines -great index for finding metaphor discussions in every intellectual context,

[7] Sign writing can be seen (and learned!) at:

[8] Haptic interface design:

[9] Report on Richard Lanham's The Electronic Word. and Earl
 Jackson's course and a rebus letter at and a
 forum on icon poetry at

[10] This site is conceptually rich and its navigation is disability-friendly.

[11] A learner-friendly flash email program is

[12] Stephen Krashen Theory of Second Language
 Acquisition. His theories are cited in research on immersion
 programs. See:
 Educational Practice Report: 11 Integrating Language And Content:
 Lessons From Immersion. Fred Genesee, McGill U. 1994 Reports
 compiled by the National Center for Research On Cultural diversity
 and SLL at

Mary Beth Guinan, Truman College, IL

Guinan teaches literacy in the Adult Education program. Instant English was presented at TechEd Chicago in 2000 and has been televised locally.
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Title Annotation:text-to-speech literacy program
Author:Guinan, Mary Beth
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Previous Article:Translating literature and learning culture.
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