Wednesday / May 22

Teaching Reading To ELLs: Reflecting on the Teacher

Teaching Reading

Contributed by Thomas S.C. Farrell

Most books on reading for teachers focus on how to teach reading from a mechanical perspective in that the teachers are shown some methods and told why these methods are useful for students to learn how to read. Many teachers are all too eager to lap these methods up and never really wonder or reflect on how or why they work or do not work with their English language learners (ELLs). When I give workshops on teaching reading to ELLs I do not begin by trying to push any particular teaching method on the participants; rather I ask teachers about their own reading habits and practices so that they can become reflective reading teachers rather than robotic reading teachers.

The Reflective Reading Teacher

It is important for teachers of ELLs to be aware of their own reading habits, what they like and dislike to read and how they like to read, before they attempt to teach others how to read. Here are a few reflective questions to get teachers reflecting:

  • What genre of reading materials do you not like to read? Why?
  • When do you like to read for pleasure?
  • When do you like to read for information?
  • How do you read?

This final question may seem strange as many may say I just use my eyes or I just read! And that is the whole point: now many teachers of reading are really aware of the reading process itself and what actually happens. Do you, for example, like to underline important points in a text? Do you like to reread or not? Do you like to write a summary? These are all strategies that have been identified that “good” readers supposedly use. If you become more aware of the strategies you, as a successful reader (you would not be reading this article if you were not a successful reader), use, you can have a better perspective on teaching reading to ELLs who are more challenged with this skill and who, for the most part, see reading as an uninteresting and painful process.

But what is reading? What is involved in the reading process? For example, do readers (first and second language users) use their previous knowledge and experience of the topic when trying to understand the meaning of a passage? Do readers depend on the text itself for information on a topic? Of course these are very controversial questions, but take a minute to reflect on these questions before you continue reading.

If we take reading at its most basic physical act, we can say that the act of reading is what happens when people look at a book, newspaper, etc. and give meaning to the written symbols in that piece of text. It is the interaction between the text and the reader that creates meaning. Models of reading have been created to describe this interaction between reader and text, and what happens when people read. The three main models of how reading occurs are bottom-up theory, top-down theory and interactive theory. These models have also been used to describe how reading in a second or foreign language occurs. I do not have the space to discuss these in detail, but I provide a reference at the end so interested readers can continue on this topic. Here’s a simple breakdown of the theories:

  • The top-down model argues that readers bring prior knowledge and experiences to the text and that they continue to read as long as the text confirms their expectations.
  • The bottom-up model suggests that a reader reads the words and sentences and looks at the organization of the text (without relating it to experience or prior knowledge) in order to construct meaning from what was written in the text—meaning that depends on knowledge of both vocabulary and syntax.
  • The interactive model argues that both top-down and bottom-up processes occur when a person reads a text.

My question to you is: Which of the three models used to explain the reading process do you subscribe to and why? So far I have not really defined reading. For me, one of the best definitions of reading that I have seen is from Anthony, Pearson, and Raphael (1993): “Reading is the process of constructing meaning through the dynamic interaction among the reader’s existing knowledge, the information suggested by the written language, and the context of the reading situation” (p. 284). It really sums up all of what I have presented so far about the reading process: the reading process involves the reader in active interaction with what is presented in the text. The reader brings important past experiences to the text and encodes the meaning of the text based on his or her prior experiences (Farrell, 2008).

I realize that most of what I have presented above can (and probably will) be disputed by theorists within reading research but the main point is that the reading teacher himself or herself should be reflective on his or her habits and methods of reading before attempting to teach reading to ELLs. This way, the teacher will decide appropriate methods based on the needs of his or her students.


Farrell, T.S.C. (2008). Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: a Reflective Approach. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Corwin Press.



Thomas S. C. Farrell

is a professor in applied linguistics at Brock University, Canada. He has been involved with ESL and applied linguistics for the past 27 years and has written extensively on topics such as reflective practice, language teacher development, and language teacher education. He is the author of Teaching Reading to English Language Learners. Visit his blog Reflective Inquiry.


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