Historically, Christian education has placed an important emphasis on the ability to read and write. Sunday school, Bible translation, and even the creation of written languages have been central to the work of the church in teaching God’s Word around the world. You probably rely on teaching techniques that are built around literate learners: note-taking, reading and analyzing the text, exploration of commentaries, or assigning personal Bible study during the week. But what do you do if there are people who have limited reading skills?
According to UNESCO, there are an estimated 773 million illiterate adults around the world who only communicate through oral means. In the United States, about 21 percent of the adult population, or 43 million people, possess low literacy skills that would make a typical Bible study very challenging. The scholar Walter Ong classifies these individuals as primary oral learners.
Many people today are learning through sound bites, memes, and videos on the internet. Technological innovation has not only shortened the average person’s attention span to a mere eight seconds but has also changed the way they learn. Although technically literate, these residual oral learners primarily take in information through auditory, physical, and visual means.
Most Bible teachers are unfamiliar with how to incorporate effective methods for teaching oral learners. One primary tool is the use of stories. People from every culture and community enjoy sharing personal and communal history through this means of communication. The Bible itself is full of stories, poetry, and narratives that can be used as teaching tools for learners of every age.
A few years ago, I was part of a Bible storying class in a local prison. In preparation for the study, I memorized a set of Bible stories that reflected God’s love, hope, and forgiveness. After sharing the story set several times, I gave the prisoners—mostly oral learners—an opportunity to practice sharing the stories with each other. I challenged them to then create their own storying sets to share the gospel with other prisoners. It was amazing how these men used their creativity, cultural background, and context to bring Bible stories together in a way that was easy to memorize and useful in communicating God’s Word. One person created a rap to share Bible stories from the creation to the resurrection of Jesus. It was engaging and easily reproducible for his context.
Since one in five American adults are primarily oral learners, consider integrating oral learning methods into your lesson plans. Everyone in the group will benefit from these approaches. In addition to using storytelling, integrate music, visual arts, spoken word, and other creative communication techniques. These can be incredibly helpful for those who can’t or don’t learn through literate means. With an estimated 5.7 billion primary and residual oral learners around the globe, it is of tremendous importance that we teach in ways that clearly communicate God’s truth to a lost and dying world—whether they can read or not.