You have made a start. You have taught some basic words and survival skills. But how can you teach pre-literate adults how to read?
Unfortunately the task of reading is an abstract concept. You need to balance survival activities with some direct instruction in the skill of reading.
The alphabet is the place to start. But it's not just about putting the sounds together. A student who is illiterate in their first language probably has no "concept of word" -- they can't divide a sentence up into the chunks that we think of as words.
In all alphabetic languages, the concept of word is the hurdle that has to be jumped before the student is ready for alphabetic instruction. A student has to be able to divide up a sentence into words before they can divide a word up into sounds. You can teach phonics until you're blue in the face and it won't do any good if the students aren't ready for it.
There are many ways to increase students' awareness of print so that they can learn the "concept of word". You need to work with familiar texts--short texts that the students know or can easily memorize. These can be proverbs, tv ads, songs. . . The students already have heard the words, so you practice the task of reading. Have the students read chorally. Make the students follow along with their finger while they recite, even if they can't sound out the individual words. Fingerpointing, in itself, is a difficult task. Demonstrate on a blackboard how to move from word to word.
Taking a sentence, cutting it up, and putting it back together again is a good activity. Just cut up slips of paper and put a word of a sentence on each slip. Have the students move the slips until a sentence is formed. Give more words to your more advanced students.
Word banks are also helpful for these true beginners--keep a collection of the first sight words that the students know in a little baggie, and increase it until you get to about 100. Heres a list of the most frequent sight words used in English.
Flash cards with these words can be used as a start or end fill in time every week.
One teacher I knew gave each student a metal ring at the start of the program. As the students learned a new site word, she would give each a punched card with the word to put on the ring. The students could take the rings home and review the words on their own.
Another teacher wrote words on juice can lids. Then the class had a competition to see how many words they knew. They would have 5 minutes each to throw the words into a basket. They would have to say the word correctly for it to count. The person with the most words in the basket was the winner!
These activities should of course be mixed in with oral language, and very practical, concrete, day-to-day survival skills. Making up stories about a refugee family surviving in Cleveland can also interest the students. Make it simple. Have a family cook a supper, go to a grocery store, ride a bus, see a doctor... Each segment of the story only needs to be 5 to 10 sentences. But because it is about their lives, the students will relate to it and want to know what is happening next. You will be teaching vocabulary, reading and survival skills in the one story.
Below is an example. These six sentences can teach or review a number of ideas, walking, food stamps, money, dinner, cooking, washing, etc.
Mother walks to the store. She carries her food stamps and her money in her purse. Mother buys chicken to cook for dinner. She uses her food stamps. She buys soap for washing clothes. She uses her money.