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.