student reading

Reading can be a challenging skill to teach ESOL students.  Often, they either get it (and love it!) or they don’t. Many students come from primarily oral cultures: stories are told out loud, not read. Factor in different writing systems, and the funky phonics we’ve got in English, and many students abandon the effort it takes to become readers in English.  Unfortunately, this isn’t an option in our world today.  I always tell the students in my Intensive English Program that they must be strong readers if they want to attend American Universities. And then, I try some of these tricks to help them catch the love of reading.

  1. Build on their strengths and interests. Get to know your students on day 1, then supplement required reading with materials that spark their interest. Do they love to travel? I bring in maps and travel brochures. Are they into manga? Comic books and graphic novels are a lot of fun. Are they future doctors or engineers? Looking at the pictures and captions in textbooks can build important vocabulary. Some of my most successful supplements have been fashion magazines, children’s books, and familiar folk tales from their home countries translated to English. Anything goes, as long as they’re reading!
  1. Make it fun. Of course! But, how? I give my students a box of magazines and 10 minutes to find the funniest headline, the strangest picture, the worst advertisement… and offer prizes for the winners (usually the magazine of their choice). Or we search for details with a scavenger hunt for facts in the newspaper. Sometimes, I’ll give my students a few minutes to preview a book, make predictions about what will happen, then attempt to “sell” it to other students. Also, my students love to act out their stories. They often retell the story by writing a play or a summary, and presenting it as a group project to the class. Nothing gets them engaged and active better than performing for the class!
  1. Use the textbook creatively. In my Intensive English Program, we have a set curriculum to follow. We use it daily, but in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes, they read different stories in groups, then have to retell the story to another group. When they read in pairs, they take turns reading, then write comprehension questions for each other. When we read as a whole class, I encourage using our “phonics phones” as a megaphone, so that quieter voices can be better heard. And I always pass out highlighters, so that students can mark the structures we’re studying that day. Eventually, they learn to mark main ideas, thesis statements, and key vocabulary on their own.
  1. Maintain the motivation. Whatever motivates them, try to keep it going after class ends. Some students love to take quizzes through a service like Mreader. Great! Others will only watch Youtube videos. Challenge them to turn on the captions, and turn down the sound. I’ve introduced students to GoodReads, to our local bookstore, and even helped a few get their library cards. Book groups, poetry readings, and music reviews all help keep students engaged with each other and with reading. A love of reading is contagious!

With all of these activities, the primary goal is to establish a culture of reading among our ESOL students. When teachers love to read, they can “infect” their students with the reading bug. It takes creativity and energy from the instructor, but students are usually open to improving their reading skills. With systematic scaffolding, I’ve seen beginning students blossom into strong readers and independent learners. Reading is one of the fastest ways to improve language ability. The benefits are long-term, and can last a lifetime! Reaching reluctant readers is a worthwhile challenge.

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Keri Anderson

Keri Anderson completed her TESOL Certificate from the School of Teaching ESL in 2012 and teaches in an Intensive English Program in Tacoma, WA.

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