Friday, 21 March 2014

Fluency and confidence in reading

I’d like to share  an engaging reading activity we have been enjoying recently: a word snap game.

Learners work on developing a sight word bank of personal information form cue words (e.g., first name, last name, address, date, signature, postal code, phone number). Sounds dull?! Not anymore!!! Each learner has a set of personalized flashcards (cue word/personal info). They display the flashcards in front of them on the desk (either side, it depends what is being practiced) and have to identify the word as quickly as possible when the teacher or a classmate calls it out and raise it in the air. This activity has proven to be a great way to develop the speed and sight word recognition at the early stage of reading instruction. 

While working on this activity I have been thinking on the ways to create more opportunities for learners to read with speed and confidence. In this post I’d like to brainstorm a few ideas. Your input is more than welcome.

Developing automaticity

Automaticity in word recognition is an attribute of fluent reading. However, automaticity is developed over time through massive exposure to reading that is not always possible or is the case with adult ESL learners. Indisputably, learners must be encouraged to read as much as possible in class and outside the classroom, but in our context when learners easily get tired and often do not have extra time at home due to family responsibilities, more realistic ways need to be considered. An efficient practice to develop automaticity often used in the ESL Literacy classrooms is word-recognition exercises. 

Word recognition exercises

These are fairly easy to design: teachers pick up some key words from the text (usually three per story) and line them up with the words similar in spelling or misspelled words. Students are asked to identify and circle the target word. What I have not done yet, but look forward to trying out, is timed word and phrase recognition exercises. I think that by introducing the timing feature will allow literacy learners understand that reading involves rapid recognition of words. I hope to engage learners in keeping the records of their progress and allow them to repeat the same exercises over time to notice the difference. 


I think that both pre-teaching vocabulary explicitly in the pre-reading phase and discovering new words and their meaning while reading the text are desirable. 

Pre-teaching vocabulary

Show a picture then elicit the word, then try to elicit the spelling of the word using fingers or by drawing a number of lines corresponding to the number of letters in the word on the white board; when the word is written invite students to read it out loudly; if necessary model the pronunciation of the word. When the students are able to read and spell the word without assistance, elicit some simple sentences with this word, also using fingers or drawing lines/boxes on the white board. Invite learners to read and copy the sentence in their notebooks. Once the new word is introduced in this way it is added with a matching picture to a set of flashcards that students have to match as a part of their morning class routine. At the same time, the word with the picture can be added to the word wall, or word book, or word ring, anywhere where students may repeatedly access and review it.

There is a video recorded by my Japanese colleague Mikako featuring a similar technique: Vocabulary for Literacy

Word labelling activity 

In the early stages of reading instruction, try to select the stories with one or more pictures featuring the content, and use the pictures to teach target language by labelling different items on them. 
I think that it is best to use word labelling activity in the final stage of vocabulary instruction when learners can label the vocabulary items with more comprehension and confidence.

Creating a word rich classroom

Try to set a word wall but do not overwhelm learners with it add or update words on it. I would suggest displaying the most common/relevant/important words for students to review. Remember, once it is up on the wall, there will be learners using it. 

Create word rings (I picked up the idea from the ESL Literacy Network) and personalized flashcards. Today is so easy to print out all sorts of customized flashcards ( Set a practice of working with whole class sets and personal sets. I usually give my students envelopes to elite their names, date, topic and store their flashcards.


Despite the decades of criticism of the reading-aloud practices, I think it is a very useful practice in the ESL Literacy classroom if used meaningfully. A small remark should be made here, what ESL literacy learners tend to do is to read aloud to themselves or to the teacher more often than practice silent reading. Therefore, silent reading is often an indication that the learner has developed the ability to read independently. However, this limitation of the literacy learners should not be confused with a carefully guided activity of reading aloud or repetitive reading. I have been using reading-aloud with my learners and would like to give a few suggestions to make it meaningful in the classroom. Dedicate the first hour of the class to reinforcement reading activities (e.g., students in pairs, small groups or one to one with the teacher work on reading the stories aloud and giving feedback or making corrections where appropriate). As ‘progress in reading requires learners to use their ears, as well as their eyes’ (Williams), encourage learners to listen to texts including listening to the teacher, recordings, and a classmate. It can be easily done when learners are working in pairs with a stronger reader, or read while listening to the teacher in small groups or as a whole class activity. Today’s technology allows teachers to record their readings as fast as in a couple of minutes and use these recordings in a variety of ways in the classroom. Students in my class often ask me to record a story that they want to learn and post it on the internet (on our class blog). During the time in the computer class they enjoy reading while listening to the soundtracks over and over again at their own pace. An example what you can do with a blog and soundcloud is here: My Home


Another practice that I have been using that proved to be successful with the learners is re-reading the stories over a period of time. I have re-written  quite a few stories that have been covered in class on craft sticks (one story consists of 10 sticks/sentences). Whenever learners are tired or want to relax they can retrieve a set of sticks and work with a story that is familiar to them instead of attacking a new reading. I have noticed that students particularly enjoy working with sticks both alone and with a partner. It is said that rereading familiar texts is one of the best ways to develop reading fluency that has been often ignored in L2 reading classrooms (Grabe and Stoller, 2012). Each time the students are offered the opportunity to reread familiar texts they get additional fluency and vocabulary practice. 

Creating opportunities for success

Do not forget that the most important thing is to provide opportunities for learners to experience their success. Do not aim for quantity, instead let learners work with the texts that are familiar to them so they can enjoy reading fluency and comprehension and thus sustain their motivation to learn to read. Let them enjoy their achievements in reading and keep track of them!!!


  1. These all look like very useful activities; they make a lot of sense to me. Do you have a library of graded readers that the students can borrow?

    1. Hi Brett!

      Thank you for your support and a great idea to consider. We do have a collection of resources for learners to borrow and read for pleasure on their own time/pace. We also have a collection of graded readers from Penguin series of literary pieces.

      I’d like to share a few suggestions for those who would like to put together or launch an extensive reading program for adult ESL Literacy learners.

      Do not expect/require adult ESL literacy learners to be able to read, be interested or/and understand literature. This needs to be developed and usually happens in the advanced phase of literacy. Therefore, it is very important to develop a library of the resources that feature real people with real concerns just like the learners in the class. Learners will be able to understand better the stories that they can relate to. Some of the great resources to include:

      ESL Literacy readers:

      Adapted books (just as an example, not necessarily a part of the library)

      Books that are made by/together with the learners:

      Papers (printed out weekly or monthly):

      Advanced literacy:

      At TESL Ontario conference I checked out the New Reader’s Bookstore stall - they have some outstanding resources developed for adult ESL learners:

  2. Re: "timed word and phrase recognition exercises" There are several great timed activities in the LANGUAGE! curriculum. Essentially, students sit facing each other in pairs, one scores while one reads. Then, they correct for errors and score. Students really seem to enjoy this. The curriculum has drills on sounds, whole words, and I think, phrases. I'll try to dig up a sample image to share.

    1. Hello Melanie!

      Thank you for your comment. Please do share as much as you can. I'd love to hear more and try it out in the classroom!


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