Monday, March 31, 2008

What Makes a Good Reader?- Strategies for ESL Students

How would you answer the question, "What makes a good reader?"
Neil Anderson (2005) of Brigham Young University defines language learning strategies as "the conscious actions that learners take to improve their language learning" (p. 757). Good language learners use a variety of strategies frequently and appropriately in their language learning. It is critical to teach strategies to ESL students to help them develop the skills necessary to become independent language learners who effectively direct their language learning through planning, monitoring, and evaluating their progress. Strategic language learners are empowered because they are life-long learners; they continue to learn long after they leave the formal classroom. They develop autonomy in such a way that their learning is not dependent on having a teacher in front of them.
Strategy instruction should be explicit for our students so they can learn to develop an awareness of their strategy use. A critical component of strategy instruction is how we introduce the concept of strategy use to our students so that they buy into it. So how do we introduce strategies so that they become "conscious actions" for our students?
Strategies should be introduced early on to the students--even as early as the first day of class. In the ESL reading classes I've taught, I introduce the concept of reading strategies to my students on the first day of class by engaging them in an interactive group-work activity. This is how it works:
First, I pose the question, "What makes a good reader?" After discussing a few ideas as a class, I have the students get into small groups of three or four and list their responses to this question on an overhead transparency. After each group composes their list of what makes a good reader, I put the transparencies up on the overhead projector to review each list as a class. As we begin our discussion of each item, I introduce the concept of "strategies"--things they can do to improve their language learning, specifically to improve their reading. I tell the ESL students that the things they listed are strategies they could use to be good readers. I then have students reflect on what kind of readers they want to be, and I invite them to set some specific goals that they want to accomplish by the end of the semester (long-term goals) and what they need to do to achieve these goals (short-term goals). They write their goals down to serve as a constant reminder of what they want to accomplish, and they begin writing each goal with "I will..." to show commitment. I then collect the goals, make a copy of them for my file so I can follow-up with them throughout the semester, and hand back the original to the student so they can review them often during the semester to remind them of what they committed to do to be a good reader. I also compile the list of reading strategies that the students generated into one list and distribute this list to the students the next day so they can keep the list of strategies as a handy reference as they are striving to be better readers.
I'm continuously impressed with how well the students do at generating lists of strategies. I included a couple examples of lists that my low-intermediate reading students have created collectively as a class:
What Makes a Good Reader?
(Please note: The following lists were generated by students as part of a reading strategy awareness-raising activity. The lists are not based on scientific research.)
A good reader...
  • reads every day.
  • reads in their free time.
  • reads many books, magazines, and newspapers.
  • studies all the time.
  • sets good goals.
  • prepares the reading environment to learn.
  • finds a good place and time to read.
  • writes questions about the text (what, where, when, why).
  • is interested in what they're reading.
  • has a critical sense.
  • looks at pictures and titles before reading.
  • learns about the author.
  • learns about the context.
  • talks about what they read.
  • learns the meaning of new vocabulary.
  • uses a dictionary to learn unknown words.
  • has patience.
  • underlines texts as they read.
  • enjoys reading
  • makes personal conclusions about the book.
  • learns prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.
  • analyzes what they read.
  • feels the author's feelings and writes about them.
A good reader...
  • doesn't use a dictionary. First, they guess the meaning of words from context.
  • finds the main idea.
  • reads everyday.
  • learns new words when reading.
  • reads many kinds of books.
  • reads interesting books.
  • is motivated.
  • practices reading faster.
  • doesn't translate into their native language while reading.
  • likes to read.
Having students generate strategies lists does three things: 1) It provides an engaging way to introduce strategies; 2) It reduces the risk of overwhelming students with a teacher-generated list of example strategies; and 3) It gives students an opportunity to reflect on why they are there, to decide early on what kinds of students they want to be, and gives them an opportunity to determine independently what they are willing to do to accomplish their goals. This provides a customized approach to teaching strategies that leads students on the path to becoming not just good readers, but better readers.
Work Cited:

Anderson, N. J. (2005). L2 strategy research. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 757-772). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


  1. yeah great\\
    reading is so important and so is vocab
    great web page

  2. my "don't agree" items

    reads every day.
    reads in their free time.
    studies all the time.
    reads everyday.
    reads interesting books.
    practices reading faster. BIG no!
    doesn't translate into their native language while reading.

    (likes to read also really isn't a issue; it's a personal choice that has nothing to do with one's abilities.)

    isn't the most important aspect of being a good reader have a bit of artistic sense and imagination? i'm surprised no one mentioned that.

  3. Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. Because the list of responses to the question "What Makes a Good Reader" was generated by students as a first-day-of-class brainstorming activity and not a list based on scientific evidence, there are some items listed that are debatable if looked at them out of the context cited here. If your objective of this activity, however, is to teach research-based responses to the question at hand, you could take this activity a step further and discuss the theoretical relevance of each student's response. The objective in my case was to simply get the students thinking, and an assessment of the relevance of their responses would have been potentially discouraging to them.

    Thank you again for your thoughts, Lisa.


  4. Lele,

    Thanks for visiting this page and for your comment. And I agree with you: reading and vocabulary ARE so important.


  5. I am studying to become an early childhood education teacher and am currently taking a foundations of literacy course. It may interest you to know that our professor used this same activity in our class recently and we came up with many of the same answers which you have listed as stated by your students. While not research-based, the answers we voiced were indeed a result of thinking and reflecting on this very important topic. I agree with the statement that a good reader "reads every day" because the more exposure a child has to literature, the better they will read. Well done!

  6. Terri,

    Thanks for your post! It is interesting to know that your professor used the same activity in your foundations of literacy course. I find it even more intriguing that your class came up with many similar answers as my students did! Good to know!

    Thanks also for sharing your opinion with regards to how a good reader "reads every day." I appreciate your thoughts!