HomeSkillsFive things I think I know about teaching reading

Five things I think I know about teaching reading




Woman teaching young girl to readBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, shares five principles for teaching reading effectively in the classroom.

I’ve tried quite a few different approaches to teaching literacy over the years, initially with students learning to read in their first language, and now with students learning to read English as a foreign language. Like most teachers, I’ve settled on a fairly eclectic approach that seems to work well for me, and my young learners. Here are five principles that work for me.

1. Build a strong oral foundation first

When students begin learning to read in their first language, they have a working vocabulary of between 2,500 and 5,000 words. They learn to connect printed text to words that they already know. We want to be sure that our young learners have a strong foundation of oral language before we begin asking them to attach symbols to sounds, particularly since they will be working with a much smaller vocabulary to begin with.

2. Introduce text from the beginning

I think it’s important to have students looking at printed text long before you begin working on reading skills. By the time my students begin having dedicated reading lessons, they’ve already figured out that English writing goes from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom, big letters are about twice as big as the little letters and appear at the beginning of a sentence, and that we can tell where words begin and end because of the spaces between words. They’ve become familiar with the graphic look of English before having to deal with it.

3. Teach phonics in context

Phonics can be a useful key for students learning how to make sense of English sound/spelling patterns. Teach the patterns in the context of words that students have already learned orally. Go through your students’ coursebook looking for words they’ve learned that illustrate the patterns you want to teach. That way they only have to focus on one new thing – linking sounds and letters – rather than learning a new word in order to practice the phonics skill. Practice reading the words in the context of sentences (and later, stories) that are also made up of words your students have learned orally.

4. Teach both accuracy and fluency in reading

Both skills are important in developing independent readers. As students become better at applying sound/spelling strategies, phonics shifts into spelling practice and word study, equally important in order to keep expanding your students’ reading vocabulary. To develop fluency, students need a lot of opportunities to read, and be read to. Include reading in every class. Let your students read the lyrics of their songs, or conversations, or grammar lessons – after they’ve learned the language orally, of course! Read to them, so they can enjoy understanding stories even if they don’t understand every word. Create a class library and let them take books home between classes (with audio CDs, if they aren’t yet fluent readers and don’t have anyone at home to read to them). Help them create their own stories to share and read.

5. Engage multiple senses in teaching reading

Have students trace letter and word shapes, sing or chant to help reinforce phonics, use letter cards to build words and word cards to build sentences. Ask them to act out or dramatize stories. Let them write sentences and stories and draw pictures to illustrate them. Record them reading their stories to create audio books. Encourage students to use multiple senses to help them become more effective readers.

How about you?

What have you learned about teaching reading? It would be great to hear in your comments to this blog. I’d also love to see you at my webinar on Saturday, 23 March. You can sign up here.

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

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  1. Thank you so much Barb for posting this great tips. it’s really important for teaching my students how to love reading and how to read well:) .
    For me, it’s not easy to teach my students about reading skills. As we know that most of Indonesians students are bored when they’re asked to read or to do exercises about reading text. Maybe for young learners we can use the five principles above, but how about the adult learners. Honestly, I sometimes feel so ‘hard’ while teaching reading in my adult class. Could I use those 5 principles,too?

    Thanks a lot,Barb:) Wish you all the best


    Ika Chieka W

    • Thank you for the great comment, Ika! I think that in general, the principles would work for adults, especially for beginner or false beginner classes (where adults are frustrated about not being able to express themselves as well as they want in the second language). You would probably have to adapt them to work with your specific context. For example, adults would likely have a much larger vocabulary than young learners beginning to learn to read, and they would bring a great deal more life experience to class. So, a structured “phonics” program based on their oral language might not be a very popular activity with adults. However, they still need to work on accuracy and fluency, and a multi-sensory approach could make this more engaging. If they’re bored reading the texts in their coursebook, perhaps you could have them use the language in the text as a model to write their own stories — about them, about their families, about their community, about their hobbies, or whatever. Writing will help them focus on accuracy, and having a variety of more personal resources for fluency practice might motivate them to read more.

      What problems do you run into with your adults besides boredom? Are they comfortable speaking and listening to English?

      • yeah..Thanks for your suggestion Barb:). I will try to do it. As for my next problem is “Speaking”. Most of teens and adult students in Indonesia are reluctant to practice speaking English regularly. They often feel shy or afraid of making mistakes while speaking English. They are willing to speak up when they’re in the classroom only. While learning English in the classroom, they even used 50% English 50% Bahasa Indonesia.
        That’s what I found in my class,in my English course. Barb, They prefer doing exercises just like grammar and writing to speaking. Their passion of learning English = They will get good English scores at their school:( . They didn’t think about their “skills”in Speaking English getting better or not. Even, parents did. I was sad and confused:(
        Barb, please give me some tips to make my students n their parents understand that English is not about “the scores”.
        (sorry Barb if my reply is not match with the topic you’ve posted…)

        Thank you,Barb


        • Not sure about the age of your students, Ika, but assuming that they’re old enough to worry about getting good scores on tests, I’m assuming they’re old enough that you might consider letting them work on setting some goals for themselves. Maybe let them work in groups to brainstorm goals (Why do you want to study English? What do you want to be able to do in English? etc.). If groups come up with some common goals, you could write them on a poster and display it in their classroom as a reminder. For example, if their goal is to get a better score on a grammar test, you can show that the oral practice (the foundation) helps them improve reading, and grammar. If they can see how the things you want them to do will help them reach their goals, perhaps they’ll be a bit more enthusiastic.

          It’s usually worth taking the time to explain the reasoning behind your lessons to parents. You definitely want them on your side, and sometimes they don’t know enough to realize that speaking and listening in a foreign language are not a waste of time, that songs and chants aid memorization, that reading helps improve grammar, etc. If they know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and they can see improvement by supporting your methods, you’ll probably have allies in getting students to participate more enthusiastically.

          Good luck!

          • Thank you very much,Barbara for your clear explanation. My students are 14-18 years old. They study at Junior Hing School (SMP) and Senior High School (SMA). I will try what you’ve explained. Hope me, my students and parents can get together and support each other. I will do my best for them:)

            Good luck for you,too! cheers

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      • It’s a really helpful post; I still struggle a bit with teaching reading skills to young learners! So far, the most successful strategy has been setting up our school library. Our students borrow books throughout the week to read at home and on Saturdays we meet at the library to discuss them and choose the next books – and we’ve had amazing results!
        It has also worked “backwards” – students have improved their reading skills in their first language (Greek) as well.

  5. […] about it during my years in the classroom. I wrote about principles that guide my teaching in this blog post for Oxford University Press ELT Global Blog. I’d love to hear about your views, too. My ideas […]

  6. Such great advice that I will take with me to my teacher training! I also think to be a good reader there has to be a passion shared by the teacher so the children can understand the point of reading!!

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