In this article, Wendy Arnold and Fiona Malcolm explore why we need to develop reading skills with young learners and offer tips and advice on how we can do it.

Wendy Arnold and Fiona Malcolm

The nature of Reading

‘An estimated 122 million youth globally are illiterate, of which young women represent 60.7% .. 67.4 million children are out of school … deficient or non-existent basic education is the root cause of illiteracy’. (UNESCO)

Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t know how to read. Approximately only 80% of the world’s population is reported to be able to read (Grabe & Stoller, 2002).

Reading is a fundamental skill for learners, not just for learning but for life (Traves 1994) with reading being defined as “…the ability to draw meaning from the printed page and interpret this information appropriately” (Grabe & Stoller, 2002, p. 9).

Why we need to develop reading skills

L1 literacy leads to L2 literacy development awareness. Reading itself builds on oral language levels and key factors that influence (L2) reading skill development include the ability to comprehend and use both listening and speaking skills because you need to:

  • Hear a word before you can say it
  • Say a word before you can read it
  • Read a word before you can write it (Linse 2005)

What this tells us is that young learners need a firm foundation in auditory and oracy skills before they can become proficient readers and writers of ANY language. Learning to read and then to write means the young learner has to link what they have heard or spoken to what they can see (read) and produce (write).

How to explore reading with young learners

Early literacy strategies

Phonemic awareness (graphophonics)

Young learners of English need explicit instruction on the link between the symbols (letters) in English and the sounds they make. They need to be taught that there is a direct link between the phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (letters) in order to be able to start ‘blending’ or sounding out simple words, e.g. vowel consonant (VC), followed by consonant vowel consonant (VC). The UK National Literacy strategy ‘Letters and Sounds’ is a good place to start for ideas on not only the order of letters and sounds to be taught but also the methodology to be used. Once a young learner has mastered blending sounds together, they can be taught how to ‘segment’ the sounds in words they can say. These skills of putting together and separating sounds will help them with both ‘decoding’ and spelling.

The whole point of human beings inventing symbols is to pass on information to each other. They have done this in many different ways, consider the Ancient Egyptians with their hieroglyphics, Chinese pictographs, Arabic text and Roman text to name a few. There are not just differences in symbols but also in directionality. These all have to be taught explicitly because they are man-made and not intuitive.


Being able to ‘decode’ or read aloud is not useful on its own. The symbols carry meaning and so young learners need to be taught how to ‘encode’ the symbols and visuals in order to find out the message being shared.


In the same way that every language has differences in symbols, so they have in the ‘nuts and bolts’ or arrangement of their symbols. The grammar or syntax of language is best ‘acquired’ in the Krashen sense, rather than ‘learnt’ explicitly. Acquisition will occur through multiple exposures to language usage in different contexts. Dissecting language is not very useful to a young learner, however, some simple metalanguage from the age of 10 years old upwards can be helpful, e.g. identifying nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, articles, pronouns and word order. The reason being that there may be differences between the L1 and English and being helped to ‘notice’ these differences can help. A helpful publication to find out differences between 22 languages and English is edited by Swan and Smith (2001).

Developing literacy

You do not need access to a vast library or online literature to explore reading in your classroom. Techniques we have used, and ones learners have enjoyed are shared for you below. It is important to remember that activating background knowledge when needed may be key to a comprehensible reading activity as;
“Our background knowledge is like a lens through which we understand what we read” and it “allows teachers to unlock vocabulary before reading” (Anderson, 1999, p. 11).
Cameron (2001) gives a very useful list of ideas for creating a ‘literate environment in the classroom’ as this may be the only place young learners see print in the foreign language. This list includes:

  • Labels – labelling children’s trays, desks, coat hooks, as well as furniture and objects around the classroom and school.
  • Posters – colourful posters are especially eye-catching which could include a rhyme that is being learnt, advertising something, e.g. reading, cleaning teeth
  • Messages – for homework or ‘Don’t forget to bring …’
  • Reading aloud – by teacher or older child

Some other activities that will help to make reading ‘pleasurable’ (Arnold 2009) which is crucial for success in literacy, include:

  • Focusing on reading fluency may include timed repeated reading (Nation, 2009).
  • Running dictation (in pairs, so all learners are involved in reading).
  • Learners making their own story books (or comics) to share with each other (Wright, 1997, p.114-130).
  • Creating backstories for character in a puppet family and creating a class binder to refer back to when reading peers stories about the family. This can be developed over a semester with learners taking in turns in small groups to create dramas to share with the class in written form, so peers read, and can be followed through with role plays.
  • Motivation – ask your learners to bring in materials they enjoy reading – whether it is football results, recipes or song lyrics, use these as a springboard for discussion and reading.
  • Make it purposeful – if learning food lexis, bring in packets / tins of food, read where different kinds of food originate from, and classify them by country or by noun basis (countable/ uncountable). (Ellis & Brewster, 1991, p.57).
  • Extensive reading is where learners read a lot of easy material in the new language. They choose their own material and read it independently from the teacher. (Krashen, 1988). This develops confidence in their abilities and promotes an enjoyment of reading for pleasure.


Reading is a rewarding process and can be enjoyed by learners and the teacher alike. Our last note is simply this, approach reading with the intention of having fun in the learning process and your intention will be mirrored by your learners. Happy reading!


Anderson, N. (1999). Exploring second language reading: Issues and strategies. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Arnold W.H. (2009) ‘Ensuring reading is pleasurable for YL’ in Spring 2009 Children and Teenagers CATS. UK: IATEFL YLT SIG

Cameron, L (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners. UK:Cambridge University Press

Carrell, P., Pharis, B., & Liberto, J. (1989). Metacognitive strategy training for ESL reading. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 647-678.

Ellis. G & Brewster. J. (1991). The storytelling handbook for Primary Teachers. UK:Penguin, p.57.

Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and researching reading. Harlow, UK:Pearson Education.

Krashen, S. (1988). Do we learn to read by reading? The relationship between free reading and reading ability. In D. Tannen (Ed.) Linguistics in context: Connecting observation and understanding (pp. 269-298). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Linse, C.T (2005) Young Learners. USA:McGraw Hill

Nation, I. S. P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. New York:Routledge.

Paris, S. G., Wasik, B. A., & Turner, J. C. (1991). The development of strategic readers. In R. Barr, M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 609-640). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Swan, M and Smith, B (2001) (eds) Learner English. UK: Cambridge University Press

Traves, P. (1994) Reading In S Brindley (Ed.) Teaching English. London: Routledge.

UK National Literacy Strategy ‘Letters and Sounds’. Accessed 151015:

Wimmer, H. & Goswami, U. (1994). The influence of orthographic consistency on reading development: Word recognition in English and German children. Cognition, 51, 91-103.

Wright, A. (1997) Creating Stories with Children. Oxford:Oxford University Press.


Wendy Arnold and Fiona Malcolm are both consultants with ELT Consultants. They have spent many years in the field of teaching English to young learners as teachers, teacher/trainer trainers, material developers and consultants to Ministries of Education.


Submitted by Shamsutdinov Timur on Tue, 05/29/2018 - 03:09


Wendy Arnold and Fiona Malcolm provide an excellent overview of the primary reasons why reading skills should be taken into account while teaching young learners. Moreover, the authors recommend essential and useful tips of how to develop literacy among young learners effectively by giving constructive review. The beginning of the article provides an informative overview into the issue of illiteracy worldwide, by giving illiteracy rates among young learners, as it is pertinent issue of the contemporary world. I find this article useful for my future career as an EFL-teacher due to many reasons. First and foremost, I agree with the authors that developing literacy among young learner plays a crucial role not only for the enhancement of productive skills, but also receptive skills as well. Secondly, a detailed, well-written and rigorous account of given tips are constructive and tend to be effective while teaching reading to young learners. For instance, using authentic materials, which are chosen according to interests of children, are considered to be a great way to encourage learners develop their reading skills. Finally, the authors rightly conclude that if children read with pleasure, it will be more effective for young learners to improve their reading skills and as a consequence develop their literacy. Inevitably, several crucial questions are left glossed over by this insightful article. How should young learners be taught providing that they face difficulties in pronunciation of the words, particularly EFL learners? Furthermore, less convincing is the broad-sweeping generalization that “being able to ‘decode’ or read aloud is not useful on its own”. Then, there is a question that arises what about disabled learners who have to be taught using «phonics technique» in order to improve their reading skills. Almost every argument presented in the final section is largely derivative, providing little to say about young learners of non-English speaking countries, particularly completely beginners, who come across constant problems in reading and pronunciation. I hope the authors will take into account that the geographical area where English is taught has its influence on learning reading skills, especially to young learners. What strategies should be used and how to provide young learners with the exposure of the English language?

Submitted by Cartoon Stories TV on Wed, 04/05/2017 - 10:03


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