5 Easy Steps to Reach Reluctant Readers and ESL Students
There are few things more challenging than motivating a student who doesn’t want to learn. But as all good teachers know, no such student really exists.
After working with remedial learners in the ESL program at my junior high school, I truly experienced the struggle to motivate those borderline students who seemed to be constantly exposed to failure. I also experienced the success that is possible if you put in the extra effort with those students. It was only after experimenting with different learning techniques and personalizing the reading curriculum to suit my students that I found the key to reaching these reluctant readers.
Roadblocks for Reluctant Readers
Many of these readers have poor reading strategies; others are discouraged by varying degrees of failure; some are too scared to even look at a text. Many of my students became passive when faced with a reading text. Initially, I tried to simplify their exercises, provided easier language input, gave them a choice in their graded assignments, but to no avail. None of these techniques helped me with motivating them to read even a simple text.
My first roadblock with these reluctant readers was my textbook. Many schoolbooks have far more texts than are needed or texts that may not be suitable in one way or another. Some teachers assign supplemental reading materials to make up shortcomings in the textbook, but those extra assignments can further intimate readers. Because of these shortcomings, I look for ways to motivate my ninth-grade students beyond the framework of the text.
It became clear to me that creativity and the choice of text would be the key to success with these students. I have experimented with multiple teaching strategies that have reading and language implications in an attempt to engage students in my ESL classroom.
Five Foolproof Tips for Motivating the Most Reluctant of Students:
Tip 1: Teach Topics that are Motivating
Interest and topic are key. As Richard Day points out in “Selecting a Passage for the Reading Class,” relating to student interests has serious implications for facilitating second-language acquisition. Most topics in my students standard reading books were culturally and socially removed from their world.
Part of getting students interested in reading is to expand the students’ knowledge on topics they enjoy. After surveying students, music prevailed as a topic that all the students were interested in. After presenting the students with a new, shorter text I had written on Oriental and Middle Eastern Music singers, they were more motivated to read. The students also had sufficient background knowledge on at least one of the themes.
Now that you have wisely chosen a reading assignment, how will you explore the text? What is your reading plan?
Tip 2: Create Step-by-Step Lessons
Start small by using bits of text such as word clues, titles, and subtitles. Important vocabulary used in a pre-reading activity can serve as a lead-in to the topic. Keep the number of unknown vocabulary items for each text to a minimum, allowing you and the students to focus on the goals of the reading course. Those goals are digesting the text and understanding its deeper meanings. Make sure there are enough warm-up and pre-reading activities. Encourage predictions whenever possible. Keep reading passages short and visually-appealing.
Richard Day points out that the appearance of the reading passage (layout, print and type size) affects readability. Keep the lines short. This will enhance reading speed. Having a short text increases the students’ focus and the text’s readability. Paragraphs in each text should be clearly defined. Make sure the font is clear and attractive. Length is likely a major factor in the frustration in reluctant readers.
Tip 3: Choose Your Text Carefully
Look at the texts from the perspective of your students. Do your reading objectives match the objectives of the unit? Not all texts are exploitable due to their thematic, lexical, syntactic and structural appropriateness.
Here are some questions to consider:
- Lexical exploitability: Do the texts offer an opportunity to acquire some new vocabulary?
- Structural exploitability: Can students explore text meanings through the structure and text conventions?
- Thematic exploitability: Does the text have the potential to aid in the understanding of moral issues through discussion?
- Syntactic constructions: Have you seen that structure before? Syntactic constructions in a passage affect its readability. If the texts have structures that have not yet been covered in class, it might be wise to pre-teach the structure or choose a text with fewer new grammatical structures.
If a text is exploited well, it will match up with the objectives of the unit and allow the teacher to accomplish the objectives of the reading lesson.
Tip 4: Identify and Hone Phonic and Phonemic Skills
In many of my classes, reluctant learners are also remedial learners who have experienced very little success in the reading classroom.
To develop a successful reading program design, you can follow steps to identify and hone phonic and phonemic skills:
- Take ‘inventory’ and give mini-diagnostic tests at the beginning of the school year.
- Design questions based on the letter and word levels that give you a clear indication of the student’s decoding abilities.
- Target and pre-teach those sound blends, vowel sounds, and letter sounds that appear throughout my chosen text. Phonemic awareness activities constitute a big part of the lessons for those lower-level students who have yet to master basic reading skills.
- Word and letter recognition is the foundation for future comprehension. (Purcell-Gates). Once students can decode the words, introduce those words to the students, and then only in short passages. This builds up their confidence and gives them a reason to continue reading.
- Finally, present the students with a story that includes as many words from the targeted cluster as possible in a logical context and have them answer questions about the text.
Hopefully, they will be able to decode the appropriate phones and extract the correct meaning in its embedded context. By the end of the unit, the students will have achieved phonemic awareness of this specific phoneme.
Tip 5: Emphasize Authentic and Meaningful Language Communication
Students remember the targeted words and chunks of language when they are taught in a meaningful way. More often than not, this involves doing something with the language beyond simply digesting it.
- Reading strategies cannot be taught in isolation.
- Reading is comprehension.
- Comprehension involves the construction of individual meanings.
- Learners need to acquire a certain threshold in order to deeper process language.
- Meaningful communication is the goal.
- Learners need language input from all four modes: listening, speaking, reading and writing recycled and in a variety of methods.
“This teaching first involves students in purposeful (to the student) reading and writing, then pulls out some skills—ranging from decoding to text structure and comprehension—for focused work.” (Pursell-Gates)
Your number one goal should always be creating a meaningful learning experience for students. If you focus on meaningful communication rather than technical, simple reading that only leads to a ‘shallow,’ minimal understanding, you will create that learning experience. Hopefully, you will find that this program is designed to provide students with tools for learning independence and making them less reliant on teachers.
Day, Richard R. “Selecting a Passage for the EFL Reading Class” ERIC Digests, 1994.
LaBerge, D & Samuels, S.J. (1974). “Towards a theory of automatic information processing in reading.” Cognitive Psychology, 6, 293-323.
Purcell-Gates, Victoria. (1997). “There’s Reading…and Then There’s Reading: Process Models and Instruction.” NCSALL, 2, Issue A.
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