Synopsis of an ESL Reading Program

Past Reading Programs

Many years ago, I was part of a group who researched a software package that assessed students reading and allocated them an appropriate book for reading. The essence of the program was that the book was not too hard and not too easy therefore giving

the student a successful reading experience with high levels of understanding of the content. Another aspect of this program was that it built on the students experiences a little at a time so their reading ability progressed in small increments as they read slightly harder books. The program was an outstanding success in the schools it was run, but it had severe drawbacks of expensive software and a very large range of books needed for the computers recommendations to students.

Since then, I have seen many more reading programs but most were reading aloud. Reading aloud uses a different part of the brain and is generally concerned with enunciation, not comprehension, but more on that later. Some programs rely on reading books with no thought to reading levels or ages and have lists of difficult words in a column beside the text. This is also less than satisfactory as readers have difficulty maintaining a feeling for the story. This process does not generate a desire to read or decipher words by context, but rather a need to pass exams and learn new words by rote. This then favours the concept of a spelling program based on rote learning of words rather than reading for enjoyment and comprehension.

How a Good Reader Reads.

Good independent readers will tend to skim pages and look for meaning within the context of the story and the main words viewed in blocks of writing. If for some reason the reader does not understand the concept they then skim backwards to find where they went wrong, correct their misunderstanding and then read on. The big advantage is the book starts to unfold rapidly in the reader’s head like a movie or video with the exception that the reader is using large quantities of their brain capacity. An interesting note here is that our best readers were not practicing this skill until the programme had been running for several weeks. These best readers have become very fast readers with no loss of understanding of the parts of the book or overall concepts the book is expounding.

Sa-nguan Ying Present Day.

This brings us back to the present in the Sa-nguan Ying English Program (EP) and a retired teacher from Launceston College in Tasmania. Gary Bensemann who came to our program and immediately loved working with our wonderful students. He also came with the knowledge of a set of readers called DK readers which are all set out in reading levels. As our classes are all ESL students in Thailand we needed readers from level 1 to level 4 and maybe level 5

Our EP has a working MOU with Launceston College and the principal Keith Wenn who in conjunction with Gary graciously supported a reading program with the purchase of several hundred readers. Our EP also added to these purchases.

The topics of the books are based on real life science and history so the students will achieve a broader general knowledge based on their own interests as they are selecting their own books

Pellegrini and his colleagues (1990), report,

‘significantly more utterances of high cognitive demand during expository texts reading (16%) compared with reading storybook texts (4%). Similarly, children have been reported to use a greater numbers of initiations, book-relevant responses to questions, and text-external response (e.g., text to life) with expository texts than storybook reading’.

 The texts that have been purchased are therefore a good basis for an extensive reading program.

Concepts Guiding the Program.

A reading program should cater for a large variety of brain dominance's intellectual abilities and personal preferences. Added to that there is a problem in an ESL environment where there is a big range of reading abilities in the average class group. The thing to avoid was being judgemental or putting students on show so the good readers succeed and the poor readers be emotionally crushed. As an aside a student I had trouble getting in front of the class and who was going very well was emotionally crushed by another teacher and it took a further 6 months to get her back in front of the class again.

Rote learning was to be avoided in this program as students don’t get a lot of understanding about a topic although they can real off a lot of facts that rarely require high levels of thinking.

Another concept was the books should be short so the students can finish and be checked quickly getting rapid feedback on any issues. Another aspect of the shorter stories is it tends to create categories and knowledge networks for the information the student is learning. Neuman, Newman, & Dwyer, (2011); Neuman & Wright, (2013) explain how ‘categories are essential to concept building. They enable children to build knowledge networks—connections between concepts that are meaningful and enduring in their longer-term memory and are primary in comprehension development. They become the background knowledge that we know needs to be activated when children are trying to make sense of new ideas. Teaching words in meaningful semantic clusters enhances children's reading development’.

The Process

Basic Overview.

The books arrived so students were invited to select a book to read in private during their spare time in school or at home and within a few days, go to one of six teachers for assessment The teachers then recorded the students book as one read. Routman (2003) explains the importance of selecting appropriate books, monitoring, evaluating and how it all impacts on reading achievement. This process in EP takes about 5 to 10 minutes depending on how much time a teacher has. Note the students selected their own books and this has become a very important aspect of the program, the reasons which are mentioned later in this report.

Asking Questions.

The assessment process consisted of the teacher asking question about the book to ensure the student has read all the book. The student does not have to know everything in a book, these students are ESL and do not always have the language for deep analysis and cannot always bring the words needed to their memory, even-so they are expected to use other words to describe what they are trying not necessarily using the correct names or titles. This is to be expected as we learn in small increments and according to Sean Kang (2010) need to have breaks between learning sessions. We want the students to understand the concepts behind the book and the broad ideas as to what the book is about. Even so the discussion that ensues mostly requires re-reading and according to Rawson Dunlosky and Thiede (2000) this improves the individual's ability to assess their own comprehension, a critical factor when learning complex material. When teaching ESL students, the complex material depends on their current abilities which is why it is important to monitor their abilities by rereading and asking questions about specific sections in the book. The friendly non-judgemental discussion approach takes a lot of the angst out of the assessment process and the students are relaxed and happy to discuss topics.

The students are asked meaningful questions many of which require them to compare and analyse rather than state what is specifically in the book. This approach caters to high level thinking per Blooms Taxonomy. One of the problems with teaching ESL is that books catering to the reading abilities don’t necessarily cater to the maturity levels of the students. To this end the questioning is important and some sample questions that have been working for different students are included below.


The next step is to ask the student to read a few pages and in the case of younger readers or those whose enunciation needs practice, to read larger amounts. Once again, this step is judgement free it is simply a process to help the students correct their enunciation of some key and common words so their discussion becomes easier to understand

Book Selection and Reading Difficulty.

Selecting books is a critical process as there is such a large range of abilities to start in an ESL program. Fountas & Pinnel (1999) explain book difficulty by error rates. ‘An error rate of 1 in 20 words suggests an easy text, an error rate of 1 in 10 suggests an instructional level text and an error rate of greater than 1 in 10 suggests a hard text. In EP the teachers ask students which words they are not sure of on a page, the aim of these questions is to get an indication if the book is too hard or too easy. A guide we use is, if there are more than two words per page that are out of context and difficult to guess then the book could be too hard. If there are two or three words but these words are easy to guess their meanings based on the context of how and where they are used, then the book is most likely of the correct difficulty.

The process being used in EP is carefully explained to the students with the recommendation to read books that are easier rather than harder so the story and comprehension flows.

Guessing the Meanings of Words (cloze).

The students are asked to read the sentence to themselves either side of a difficult word. They are asked about the context the word is used in and then to guess the meaning of the word. If the book is appropriate and the student understands the context of how a new word is used, then they mostly guess correctly and if they do not guess quite correctly the meaning of the paragraph is still mostly correct. We are careful to explain this process to the students to put them in charge of the books they select. The importance of learning new words from the context of sentences cannot be overstated as Nagy,  Anderson and Herman (1987) found substantial gains in understanding of new words from the context they were used in and that was from a single reading. The greater the variety of exposure to the words and concepts the more dramatic the learning.

Read Easier Rather Than Hard.

Our final words to students are, ‘do not read books that are too hard’. We want them to enjoy reading and read a lot of appropriate level books rather than one book that is too hard and therefore not enjoyable. If students do not enjoy reading they will not. This is heavily influenced by our ability to learn new information Research shows according to Fountas and Pinnell (1996) ‘that learning best occurs with many lessons presenting no more than 10% new material and providing many opportunities for practice’.


The final step is to record that the student has read the book. If the student cannot give a good indication that they have read the book when we start the process the teacher will send them away to fully read the book. If they have shown they have read it and been through the discussion processes they get full marks. The students are expected to read the equivalent of 20 books a semester.

Rhythm and flow of Language.

When the book is of an appropriate difficulty the students can read the story with a rhythm and flow that makes sense. This rhythm and flow is what is missing from many reading programs and is an essential part of this program that becomes obvious when the conversations and discussions take place.

Score Algorithm Different Levels.

All the recording is done in a Moodle Grade book so parents and students have access on line to view their reading scores. If a student is reading below their level, they don’t get quite as much for their book and those reading above their levels are getting a higher score for their book. For an M2 (grade 8) student reading a level one book the book tallies as 0.75 of a book. If the same student is reading a level 3, the book is worth 1.25 books.

We start at M1 (grade 7) and level 1 books, so for beginners they move up the difficulty level as they wish and if they do they don’t have to read as many books to reach the equivalent of their 20.

Student Feedback.

The students are asked regularly if they enjoyed the book and in most cases, they did. Some students have been slow to start and it could be for several reasons, one of which could be a fear of making a fool of themselves. It appears once these students are fully on the program they start to lose any inhibitions as to reading as the process is basically non-judgemental.

Final Observations.

The final observations from the teachers involved is that the students are enjoying reading in a foreign language. Their ability to discuss concepts and ideas in a foreign language has dramatically improved to a higher level than previous years of higher grade or older students and there have been no other dramatic changes to the curriculum. The standards of scripts from other work presented to teachers for editing are much higher than previous years and editing the ESL student’s scripts is far easier. Students are gaining a feel for the grammar instead of trying to be technically correct, this feeling is relating to better expression. Students are using the language with far more fluidness and with fewer inhibitions than has been noticed in previous years. The student's ability to discuss and describe is not stopped when they forget a specific word, they are happier to discuss about the topic and describe so that the missing word is not so relevant.

As students select their own books and are advised to select easier rather than hard books it is obvious how quickly students advance in their reading levels.

Finally, teachers have noticed how quickly most students are advancing reading levels. At the beginning, most students had some difficulty reading books at the same reading level as their class level. With practice, many are reading above their class grade by at least one reading level and still have fluency of understanding. In two exceptional M1 (grade 7) students they are reading level 4 books with understanding. Another exceptional M1 (grade7) students had a philosophical discussion about hidden meanings behind a Dr Seuss book ‘The Thinks You Can Think’

The Strong Points of the Program.

The process promotes high levels of discussion (Bloom Taxonomy) as opposed to memory recall.

The learning process relies on very small non-threatening increments.

Stress levels for students are kept low so access to the high cerebral cortex is maintained.

Students select their own books according to their own reading ability which also relates back to personal learning styles and brain dominances.

Students having difficulty are not under special duress other than they must read 20 books in the semester. Note that extra duress often creates disenfranchised readers and we want the students to enjoy reading. Every student has improved some of them dramatically from the first few books to their 20 plus.

Students get a lot of practice at general conversation.

The conversation are not about recalling many facts but rather discussing ideas about the reading to search for the students deeper understanding of what they have read. We try to leave a period between the reading and the conversations as this allows for a partial re-read of material and discussion. This follows recommended practices by persons such as Clay (2010) who tell us to space out learning blocks and discuss concepts with what we are interacting with. The conversations are important as without the pressure to understand content Thiede, Redford, Wiley and Griffin (2012) tell us that ‘failure to regularly assess deeper comprehension can lead readers to monitor memorization of texts, which has a detrimental effect on their later ability to engage in effective self-regulated learning’.

Most of EP students are enjoying reading in a foreign language with the processes being used and the follow up conversations for assessments, even to the extent that some students have read over 40 books so far, this semester.


We had thought to set up a place in the library for students to go but discarded this idea as someone must consistently monitor this area even when students are not available, and it loses some of the intimacy of closed surroundings to form a clinical and unfriendly environment. In our situation, the students come to our staff room and wait for a teacher to become available.


At many stages, there will be 3 or 4 students sitting on the floor waiting for their turn. The small group approach with one or two students listening in and relating to the teachers questions is recommended by Higgins (2009) as it is a good way to reach those students that are hanging back from discussions especially in the case of reticent boys.


If a teacher is too busy they simply tell the students I cannot now but will be available later. If the room becomes too crowded students are asked to wait outside or come back later. Hearing the low-level hum of students discussing and quietly reading to teachers would be the envy of most schools.


An aside here is that the participating foreign teachers found the relationship building via the discussions and reading assessment relaxed the students in the normal class environment leading to the students conversing more and asking more questions.

Special Thanks.

Special thanks need to be given to Launceston College Tasmania Australia and their principal Kieth Wenn and Gary Bensemann for their support of the students of Thailand and the other EP teachers, Anabel Perez, Bret Kobylka, Carly Wedge, Zoe Kirsh and Trey Howwell, who demonstrated patience and understanding with our ESL Thai students.


Clay, Rebecca A. (2010), Vol 41, No. 11 Print version: page 67. Science shows us the best ways to learn. American Psychological Association. Accessed 13/02/2017. <>

Higgins, Lynda, G., (2009). An Evaluation Of The Relationship Between Criterion-Referenced Competency Test Reading Comprehension And Lexile Scores And Fountas And Pinnell’s Guided Reading Levels In A Georgia Public School District. Doctorate. The faculty of the school of education Liberty University.

Nagy, William E., Anderson, Richard C., Herman, Patricia A. American Educational Research Journal, Summer 1987, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 237-270.  Learning Word Meanings From Context During Normal Reading.

Roskos Kathleen, Neuman Susan B. (2014) quoting (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).and. (Routman, 2003). Best Practices in Reading: A 21st Century Skill Update. The Reading Teacher, 67(7), 507–511. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1248. Accessed 1/02/2017 <>

National Institute for Professional Practice (2017) quoting Fountas & Pinnell, (1996)  accessed 1/02/2017 /

National Institute for Professional Practice (2017) quoting Routman, (2013)  accessed 1/02/2017

Thiede, Keith W. and Redford, Joshua S. Boise State University Wiley, Jennifer and Griffin, Thomas D. University of Illinois at Chicago. (2012). Elementary School Experience, With Comprehension Testing May Influence Metacomprehension Accuracy Among Seventh And Eighth Graders. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2012, Vol. 104, No. 3, 554 –564.

Addendum 1

Sample questions

  • What is the book about?
  • Tell me your story?
  • What do you think the author (writer) was trying to teach?
  • Do you know what this phrase means?
  • Are there any words on this page you don’t understand?
  • What is meant by this paragraph?
  • Who is the main character?
  • What is important about the main character?
  • How does this compare to Thailand?
  • What happens to world environment?
  • Would global warming affect these animals?
  • Which part of the story did you like best? Why?
  • Have you looked at this topic in science?
  • What did you learn?
  • Would this affect Thailand or other countries? Why?

Addendum 2

We expect the students to use the higher functioning parts of their brains so we keep the stress levels low and let the students apply their own intrinsic stress. The higher the stress a student feels the more their access to the higher cortex is minimised and the fight flight instincts start to take over.

With the hope that this helps someone

Brett Wilkin.Brett Wilkin