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.


One thought on “Are we teaching ESOL learners the right reading strategies?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s