Nurturing Reading Success in Young Learners of English

It was a privilege to give a webinar on reading for National Geographic Learning recently. I’d participated in webinars before, but this was my first time as a presenter. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive about presenting to the void – no other faces, no other voices besides mine. In fact, it was quite the opposite: I’ve never felt so connected in my life. We had teachers from about 30 different countries from all over the world join the talk; messages were streaming into the chat box faster than I could move the cursor. So, thanks to those who joined my talk and if you’ve never tried a webinar before, I highly recommend it.

So, what did we discuss? Well, I started by asking participants if they thought reading was an innate skill in humans. There was roughly an 80/20 split between no and yes. I think this question can seem ambiguous because, once we learn how to read, it’s almost impossible to imagine not being able to do it. However, not only is reading an acquired skill, but some children acquire it faster than others and this has bearings on how we teach reading to young learners of English.

First, we looked at learning to read in English. I’m a firm believer in using all the tools available to us as educators. Students in our classrooms come with a mix of abilities, backgrounds, learning styles and interests so a multifaceted approach to literacy is going to cover more ground. Using an effective phonics program – one that is both systematic and explicit – is a good way of teaching the rules of the alphabetic code. While some children may work out these phonics rules for themselves, a systematic and explicit phonics approach ensures that no one gets left behind.

We also looked at prediction as a reading strategy. We can encourage our students to make an educated guess at a word by looking at accompanying photos or artwork, by looking at the initial letter of the word, among other things to accurately predict what a word says. This is how most educators teach target vocabulary to young learners, with the help of flashcards and textbook vocabulary pages.

We also teach whole words as sight words by helping students to memorise them. High-frequency grammar words such as the, do, have, etc are taught as sight words. Eventually, all known words are read as sight words as young learners transition to fluency. However, that’s only part of the story. It’s not enough to be able to mechanically read words, we also need to understand what we read.

I asked the participants to consider reading to learn English. When we present young learners with sentences and readings, how can we be sure that they will understand what they are reading? This is best done in a scaffolded way with plenty of learner support. To illustrate the point, we looked at a structured reading lesson from level 2 of Look.

A reading lesson from Level 2 of Look
  • We pre-teach key vocabulary so that it isn’t a barrier to meaning. Textbooks often focus on some words – but only you know your class – so teach any other words you think are key
  • We build the context. Photos or illustrations help us here. An engaging photo allows us to ask plenty of questions to prepare learners for what they are about to read
  • We are now ready to read. However, break the text down into sentences and paragraphs so it isn’t too daunting. Then read it several times, keeping learners involved by doing activities as they read
  • We do comprehension-style activities after reading to check that learners have understood the meaning of what they read

Now comes the added value – reading can act as a springboard to productive skills such as guided writing, speaking, drawing, research projects, presentations and more. We looked at a few examples, which generated a lot of positive comments in the chat box.

Finally, we considered the idea of reading to learn about the world. National Geographic Learning’s mission is to bring the real world into the classroom, which has long been an interest of mine as an educator. We can do this with engaging, real-life, readings that link to core content areas like science, history, art, etc. Why do this? Because it’s interesting. And students learn better when content is interesting.

But how to do this in a way that young learners of English can handle? Oftentimes, we have good intentions, but once we move into the content areas, the difficulty level goes beyond that of our learners. The key is to carefully control the language and the tasks so that young learners can understand the content and carry out the tasks. I showed an example of an extensive reading lesson in Look entitled Let’s Go on an Insect Safari! which connects with science subject areas. It was very well received by the teachers. (Although not everybody appreciated the photo of the giant spider!)

If you’d like to see for yourself by watching the webinar HERE.

A screenshot from Rachel’s webinar


Author: Rachel Wilson

Rachel Wilson has been based in Asia for more than 25 years writing, editing and training in the field of English language teaching and, more recently, environmental education. She is passionate about diversity, the natural world, global issues, and the many ways that education can provide opportunities for all. Originally from Britain, Rachel lives in Hong Kong with her husband and two young children. She is the level 2 author of Look , a series for young learners of English, published by National Geographic Learning.


  1. I completely agree with building a strong basis through an “effective phonics program – one that is both systematic and explicit”, Additionally, lots of pre-reading epecially prediction using picture (as they can say a thousand words). Many teachers just jump straight into reading then wonder why their children feel incompetent/discouraged. We actually love making wrong predictions and then rewrite the story according to our own using the ‘A4–>8-page mini-book technique’. If you’re not familiar with this I’d be happy to share it with you and anyone else who doesn’t know it yet. I promise that you’ll enjoy it!
    Your presentation was excelent and many of those ideas were used the next day and will continue to be so. Thank you from all of us at English Together, Nara, Japan

    1. Dear Julian and the team at English Together in Nara,

      Thanks for your message; I’m so glad you found the webinar useful.

      I really like the sound of your ‘wrong predictions’ activity. It turns the idea of making a mistake (which some students are terrified of doing!) on its head. Could you explain it in a little more detail?
      I’ve long been a fan of making mini-books. Could you kindly share your folding method for a piece of A4 paper? I like this because most teachers would have access to this basic resource and it’s very satisfying for students to create – to publish – their work.

      Best wishes,


  2. Dear Rachel,
    I’d be happy to do both (-:
    As our current Emperor is abdicating and passing the throne to his oldest son we will be having a long week off next week so we’ll put together a simple PDF that should explain both. Like most ‘simple’ things it will, no doubt, take time to make!
    Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite. I look forward to it.
    I’ll be back to you soon.
    Julian Whitney
    English Together
    Nara, Japan

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