The Secret of Nurturing Reading for Adult ESL Students

The newspaper USA Today recently (2/6/14) printed an article that lists the most literate cities in the United States with Washington, D.C. placing first for several years in a row. This annual statistical study ranks the nation’s 77 largest cities, and next year the study hopes to expand globally to rank the most literate countries. Conducted by Central Connecticut State University President John Miller, the literacy study is based on data that includes the number of bookstores, expanded library resources, and the amount of internet use and the volume of newspaper circulation, as well as the educational levels of the adult population in that particular city. The higher numbers correlate to higher literacy ratings.

Implications of Literacy Study for Adult ESL Students

You might assume that many of these readers in these most “literate cities” actually enjoy reading, or the statistics would not be as high. I would think that these individuals discovered some of the benefits of reading that are outlined in current reading research (mental stimulation, stress reduction, overall knowledge, vocabulary expansion, memory improvement, sharpened focus and concentration, stronger analytical skills, better personal and business writing skills, heightened tranquility, and increased entertainment). I would also think that reading for many of these people is intrinsically motivating. Wouldn’t you agree?I wonder, too, about the number of ESL adults who impact these statistics.  I would assume a lot considering there were more than 35 million adults in the United States that were native speakers of a language other than English a decade ago (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). This number has only increased, with many ESL adults inhabiting larger cities.

Characteristics of Successful Adult ESL Reading Programs

What makes a successful adult ESL reading program? Many prominent researchers and practitioners have been curious about this topic, as well.  After all, what teacher does not realize the value of reading?  What teacher does not wish that their students can read better and meet academic success? In reviewing the literature, these 8 factors seem to be the most important for adult students (Campbell, 1989; Davis, 1995; Day and Bamford, 1997; Fielding & Roller, 1992; Gambrell, 1979; Hill, 1997; Hsui, 1994; Jacobs, Davis and Renandya, 1997; Kim & Krashen, 1997; Nash & Yun-Pi; Park & Turn, 1987; Raja, 1995; Waring, 1997; Yu, 1993):

  1. Reading a large amount of printed material (books, newspapers, magazines)
  2. Having a say in choosing what materials to read (freedom to select topics and materials to read)
  3. Reading a wide variety of materials in terms of topics and genres (everything from books and reference materials to current information on the internet in all areas)
  4. Reading within their individual comprehension levels (it doesn’t pay to read things that are written beyond your ability to understand so if you don’t know the meaning for more than about 5 words on a page it is probably too difficult for you)
  5. Engaging in some sort of a post-reading activity (do something with what you have read like verbally share some insights of what you learned with someone else, journal your thoughts, read more about the author or topic, etc.)
  6. Listening to adults who read fluently (playing books on tape is a great idea to increase your reading comprehension and to build patterns of fluency)
  7. Keeping track of reading progress (possibly have a listing of books read or a chart that encourages you to read so many minutes a day or week)
  8. Receiving reading support and guidance along the way as you study English (take a class at a local college or an online English class, hire a tutor, do more activities with native English speakers; check out volunteer literacy groups, libraries, adult education programs, family literacy programs, community-based or faith-based organizations).

What are the Essential Skills Need to Be Taught and Practiced?

As a reading and ESL teacher, I would have to agree that all of these essential skills should be taught to all students, at any level. Students need to practice the skills every time they read.

1.     Previewing

Simply put, “previewing” is looking over the material before reading it.  You will be surprised at how this skill can help you better understand the material you are about to read. You can look at the text features first. “Text features” is a fancy word for the title, subtitles, bullet points, images and photos, and anything else that comprises the format of the text (in addition to the actual words).  Next, you can move onto signal words like first, second, third, etc. at the beginning of each paragraph, or perhaps there are numbered items that show a sequence that precede the information to be read. There may be additional signal words like before, after, likewise, on the other hand, moreover, etc. These words all help you piece together the informational text or literature piece and to see how different parts relate to the whole. By previewing the text, students learn what it is about and how the material is structured. This in turn will help with overall comprehension.

2.     Contextualizing

The skill of “contextualizing” deals with placing the text within a context. Where did the event or story happen… specifically in one location (what is the setting?), or can it be generalized and happen anywhere (in any area, city or country)? Can you compare this text to another text that you have read maybe on the same topic or genre? Maybe the texts were written in different time periods or they have the same author.  In what other ways are the texts similar or different? Is there something in the text that you have experienced, or is there something that can be commented on? Does the text affect you in some way? By thinking about the text, you begin to understand it on a deeper level.Today’s jargon about teaching reading talks about comparing text to the world, comparing text to other text, and comparing text to self. Each comparison brings the student closer to a better understanding of what was read.

3.     Visualizing

As you read, stop and think about the words in the text. If it is informational, can you picture what is being discussed? If it is a literature piece, can you see the characters and the action that is described?  What does the setting look like? Can you create a picture in your head of how the text ends? Can you imagine the author and why he/she wrote the text? This skill of “visualizing” helps you to understand the text as it goes along. For literature, it helps you develop the characters and the plot. It allows you to create the action for the storyline and to watch the climax and the story ending. It is a great tool to help with memory of what is being read and to explore reasons of why it was written.

4.     Asking and Answering Questions

After previewing the text, “ask yourself … what questions are anticipated that the text will answer”?  You might want to take a few minutes and write these questions down on paper. Now, read the material and then see if the questions are addressed.  Review each question after reading the complete text, and answer each question accordingly. If you still don’t know an answer, skim through the text again to see if the information is there. Otherwise, look up the information in additional text. Spend some focused time researching the questions so you are content with the answers. This will foster a deeper understanding, as well as help you to develop good research and study habits. This is one example of how lifelong learners learn. They want to understand the material that is read and take the next step in doing so.

5.     Summarizing

After the material is read, can the main point(s) be stated in a clear, consistent manner? Can you “summarize” the major ideas and nothing more (i.e. don’t get off on tangents with so many details). You can verbally summarize the material that is read and/or write a summary. Try to use some of the important facts or the language that is being used. Keep practicing this skill until you are more comfortable with the process. Summarizing is an invaluable skill that you will use the rest of your life. You summarize all the time… when you tell someone about a book, movie, the news, or any part of your day, etc. You will need to have good summarizing skills as a student in any class you take and as an employee at any type of job. Like anything else, the more practice in this skill, the easier it will get. And the better you will get at it.

6.     Skimming

This skill of “skimming” helps the reader to get the main idea quickly. It also shows you what parts of the text need to be read. Can you skim all sorts of text and find the main idea or find what you were looking to find out without spending a lot of time reading and rereading every single word? This skill is important for everyday living as you discern information that you need to read more carefully from that which is not really that important to read after all. It is also a valuable skill in studying so you can focus on what information exactly needs to be studied. It saves you lots of time and helps you better organize material to be reviewed and applied.

7.     Scanning

“Scanning” is the process that lets the reader do a quick search for a particular piece of information within a given text. For example, if the reader needs to find the date of a historical event, the time of an airplane departure, or an address in a directory… the ability to scan through any information helps the reader to find specific information in a short amount of time and with 100% accuracy. Think of how powerful this skill is in comprehension. You get immediate reinforcement when you find what you are looking for. Think of how much you use this skill when you “search” on the internet. The ability to “scan” reduces the time that is wasted in looking for information. It helps you find just what you were looking for and in doing so, it increases your comprehension.


Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t know how many ESL adult students are represented in the yearly statistical study that’s mentioned at the beginning of this article.But I do know that the adult literacy rate (i.e. the ability to read and write) undoubtedly improves with the teaching of targeted reading skills and strategies. Seven of these key reading skills and strategies are explained further in this article. These include previewing, contextualizing, visualizing, asking and answering questions, summarizing, skimming, and scanning.I also know that literacy is linked to the understanding of the English language. Individuals who read and write fluently have a good grasp of the English language and its varied components:  vocabulary, grammar, spelling, etc. They are more apt to be able to be better listeners and speakers of the language. This in turn reinforces their skills to be able to read and write to an even higher level. It makes engagement with the language happen. It empowers them to use the language on a more consistent basis. It propels them towards their goals of learning the English language with confidence.Furthermore, developing reading skills helps students of all ages to better succeed in whatever they dream of doing. It is a direct link to a more successful future.  Nurturing a love of reading never stops – no matter how old you are.  Nope, it never does.


I am curious to know your thoughts about the literacy study. I also wonder what you think about the reading skills and strategies that are listed. Do you find any of these helpful?

Woman sitting on a floor and reading a book

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