Are we teaching ESOL learners the right reading strategies?

readingWhile searching for information about reading in a second language I found out that wide-spread teaching practices used with English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) learners’ reading skills may, in fact, be wrong.

The reason why counter-productive teaching strategies have been generalised in mainstream ESL classrooms might come from extrapolating findings from research in the context of English language learning of native speakers into the ESL context.

According to the CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers, Reading consists of four components: vocabulary, alphabetic and word analysis, fluency and comprehension (Kruidenier, 2002). Although these four components are applicable to both the process of learning to read in English as L1 (Adult Basic Education, ABE) and the process of learning to read in English as L2. However, adult ESL instruction must differ from the adult basic instruction of native English speakers, simply because these two groups of learners come to the reading experience with very different prior knowledge of the subject.


The four components of Reading

Below you will find a brief explanation of the four components of reading and how they differ for both groups of learners: native English speakers learners and ESOL learners; in doing so you will also be able to identify some myths that have been around in ESL instruction for a long time as well as alternatives to teach ESL learners bearing in mind those differences.


Vocabulary refers to the words that a person knows and includes the extension and depth of that knowledge, this means that knowing a word includes knowing the different meanings of a word according to the context of a text, knowing the prefixes and suffixes of the word and how they change the meaning of the root word, etc.words 2

Teaching vocabulary in semantic sets (colours, food, furniture) can confuse learners and this is also true for teaching antonyms together (fat/thin, tall/short) (Folse, 2004). Instead, this author suggests teaching vocabulary around looser themes such as ‘going out to eat’ or ‘planning a trip’. Nation (2000, 2005) suggests teaching vocabulary based on their frequency, for example, ‘red’ is more frequent than ‘orange’ so it is better to teach ‘red’ first.

Another common myth among ESL teachers is that acquiring words by contextual clues is a useful strategy, however, the amount of words that a student needs to know in order to guess the meaning of a new word from the context is as high as 98% in any given text (Nation, 2005). Fluent English speakers know between 10,000 and 100,000 words but a beginner ESL learner usually knows between 2,000 and 7,000 (Hadley, 1993))*. Even when the learner manages to guess the meaning of a word from the context the probability that he/she recalls that meaning in the future is very low.

What to do, instead:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary in a reading passage. Select a passage that is slightly beyond the students’ level.
  • Teach high-frequency words first and provide multiple exposures to these words in different contexts.
  • After reading, encourage the use of new words asking students to write their own sentences.
  • Encourage vocabulary learning through regular tests (matching words with their definitions or multiple-choice exercises)
  • Provide lists of words for intentional learning. Ask learners to use word cards (the word on one side and its translation on the back).
  • Teach the use of both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries (especially for beginner learners)
  • Avoid presenting synonyms, antonyms or words in the same semantic set together.


Alphabetics and word analysis

wordsKruidenier (2002) defines alphabetics and word analysis as the ‘whole process of using the letters in a written alphabet to represent meaningful spoken words‘. The methods used in this process include understanding letter-sound correspondences and recognizing sight words; using context to determine meaning; knowing prefixes, suffixes, and root words; and using dictionaries.

Remember that non-native English users do not have the vocabulary base that native English speakers have (see * above).

What to do:

  • Teach English letter-sound correspondence. Use English words that follow patterns ( i.e.: pat/bat/sat)
  • Teach morphophonemic relationships in the English writing system (i.e.: in regular past verbs ‘ed’ ending sounds differently according to the phonological structure of the verb but their morphology has only one written form: ‘ed’)
  • Teach word-analysis skills, including prefixes and suffixes.
  • Identify parts of speech and their roles (nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc.)



Fluency is the ability to read easily and accurately, with appropriate rhythm, intonation, and expression. Accuracy in oral reading may be complicated by L1 interference (at the level of letter-sound relationships, stress, intonation and pauses) so individual or choral repetition has to be done with caution.

What to do:

  • Before asking for individual or choral repetition of a text consider that students hear a good model of the reading.
  • When you use individual or choral repetition of a text, use short fragments and focus on keeping the English stress and intonation.



Reading comprehension is the ability to discern meaning from a written text. Cultural differences may impede comprehension for ESOL learners.

What to do:ideas

  • Start reading texts about familiar topics.
  • Assess what students know, need to know and want to know about the topic. Use students’ prior experience.
  • Pre-teach vocabulary and unfamiliar concepts.
  • Focus on visual aids such as photos, layout, design and titles, text structure and discourse markers.
  • Assess reading comprehension through several activities (questions, cloze exercises, oral discussion), only then, you should ask students to summarize the text.


Original text: The CAELA Guide for Adult ESL Trainers. III-D. Teaching Reading to Adult English Language Learners. Extracted from


Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Hadley, A. O. (1993). Teaching language in context. Boston: Heinle & Heinle

Kruidenier, J. (2002). Research-based principles for adult basic education reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy. Retrieved February 8, 2005, from

Nation, I. M. P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6–10.

Nation, I. M. P. (2005). Teaching and learning vocabulary. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 581–595). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Is it still possible to make a distinction between ESL and EFL contexts?

Confusing termsimage

Chances are that being a teacher of English whose students are non-native English speakers you have come across one of these acronyms and abbreviations: EFL, ESL, ELL, and so on. The most wide-spread distinction  made between EFL and ESL is based on whether your students live/work in a country whose first, second or even third language is English, in this case, your students would be English as Second Language learners (ESL students), or your students live/work in a country where English is not the first, the second or the third language so, your students would be English as a Foreign Language learners (EFL students).

If you read  website you will find the following definitions:

“EFL: English as a foreign language. English language programs in non-English-speaking countries where English is not used as the lingua franca. It is also used in some U.S. university programs where international students study English and are likely to return to their home countries after graduation or finishing course work

“ESL: English as a second language. English language programs in English-speaking countries where students learn English as a second language”

ELT: English language teaching”

ELL: English language learner. Often used to refer to a student in an ESL or EFL program”

The reasons why a country may or may not have English as a first, second or third language can be found in the history of that country (origins, invasions, wars, cultural bonds) or geographical (proximity), and it is not the intention of this post to deepen in those issues. However, there is a social phenomenon which is now changing our prior ideas about the difference between ESL and EFL and that is, as you have probably guessed, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) including TV.

There may be very few places in the world where technology has not become part of everyday life. Through technology, cultural, social, economic and political ideas spread and change our beliefs and behaviours at a speed never seen before and these changes have an impact on the processes of language learning around the world.

Second language or foreign language?

According to Gabbiani (2012:37), the differences between a second language (L2) and a foreign language (FL) are not related to the language proficiency one may have but to the degree of knowledge and participation in the culture of that language. From this point of view, what defines an L2 or an FL context is the type of relationship the language user establishes with the values of the other culture.

Longcope (2009:304) states that the context is not just the location where language learning happens (for example, class learning vs street learning (Gabbiani: 2012:39)); the context is the relation established by the language learner with the location and the behaviour in which he or she engages in that location. This means that two learners in the same class may respond to the context in very different ways: one learner may interact actively with the other language (ESL learner) while the other may respond only under certain circumstances (EFL learners). So, we could say that context = location + behaviour. 

 What is the answer, then?

If we agree that the context of English language learning is a combination of the location and the learner’s behaviour in that location and that each learner responds in a personal way to a certain language learning situation, it is highly possible that we have both ESL learners and EFL learners in the same class. So, for practical purposes, how should we refer to both types of learners? One possible term would be English Language Learners (ELL), using this term the focus is just on the subject students are learning; English language, without specifying what type of response they have to that language.

Another possibility would be English to Speakers of Other Languages learners (ESOL learners), in this case, the focus is also on the English language as a subject of learning but we are adding a reference to the learner’s native language (ie: a learner whose native languages is other than English).

In both cases, using the terms ELL context or ESOL context we are able to describe and/or investigate in a more precise way the characteristics of this context (location + behaviours) without conditioning its description by using an innapropiate term.

Would you suggest an alternative terminology?


Gabbiani, B. (2012). “Formación Continua – (Co)construcción Permanente. Creación de un Espacio para la Reflexión sobre la Educación Lingüística”. En Brasil Irala y Silva (Orgs.) ENSINO NA ÀREA DA LINGUAGEM. Perspectivas a partir da formação continuada pp.35-58 Mercado Letras.

Longcope, P. (2009). Differences between the EFL and the ESL Language Learning Contexts. Language and Culture Studies Vol. 30 Nº 2, 303-320.