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December 2023 - Year 25 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Coaching Reading to ESL Learners

Emmanuelle Betham, M.Ed. (Applied Linguistics) is an Educator/Coach, Company Director, and author of An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning (2018, Amazon Publishing), the I Realise series (2019-21, Amazon Publishing) and numerous articles on Education and Parenting. She is a native French speaker who specialises in Language and Communication (for Business, Family, Self-Management and Performance), facilitating Confidence, Resilience and Growth – including in the acquisition of English and French as Foreign Languages. Email:  


A coaching approach encourages a different ‘active’ attitude in the practice of the ‘receptive’ skills of listening and reading. Although it may come more naturally with children, with adults it often involves re-training the learners’ thinking about the activity of reading, so they neither ‘expect the familiar’ (and fear the unfamiliar), nor look to ‘agree or disagree’, both of which automatically limit many learning possibilities. Instead, we want to invite learners to ‘welcome what is new’, to be prepared to be surprised, to be open to discovery, to pay attention to all aspects of language and to engage one’s semantical and linguistical intuition in the process of reading.

Here is how you can adopt a coaching approach which aims to develop reading skills successfully in the ESL classroom:


Create a new reading context

It is fundamental that the best context for reading is created, where the following factors apply:

  • The activity of reading has a shared purpose (be it research, discussion, musicality or vocabulary, many examples of which are given below).
  • Reading is anticipated and experienced as an enjoyable and precious time spent together (if learners would rather do something else, then come back to reading when the time is right).
  • All readers are in the right mood – for example, not hungry, upset, tired or needing to exercise.
  • All readers are comfortable (for example and if possible, sitting in a circle away from classroom desks, and away from distractions).
  • All readers are connected and trust each other – the teacher will need to model and monitor open-mindedness, mutual respect, tolerance, empathy and encouragement.
  • All readers are given the opportunity to explore their own thoughts and feelings in an all accepting, tolerant and safe atmosphere.

In that context, you can facilitate reading together and open participation.


Reframe reading

1 Make it a joint activity

Reading does not need to be a solitary activity. There are many benefits from reading together with learners, which include the following, in no order of priority:

  • connecting and sharing ideas on a particular subject
  • encouraging and providing a support for self expression
  • focusing on learners’ interests
  • targeting learners’ needs
  • acquiring vocabulary and spelling
  • improving learner’s abilities to scan, skim, summarise and interpret a text
  • nurturing creativity and critical skills
  • enhancing analytical skills
  • developing the 4 skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) conjunctively
  • team building
  • equalising the teacherlearner power relationship and helping maintain human rapport

Depending on your learners’ ages and reading levels, it is possible that they will read silently or that the educator will read the text aloud. The latter can be very helpful when the learners’ maturity levels exceed their reading abilities, which can often be the case with second language learners. For this reason, it also helps if the reading is complemented by illustrations or activities, which reinforce the meaning conveyed in the text.

Furthermore, learners will hugely benefit from participating in the reading process. To encourage enthusiastic active participation, you can use different tones of voice when reading, so as to convey meaning, make the text come to life, and to engage the readers. If they are reading for themselves, encourage them to do so (to each other or in their heads). Taking turns in reading a sentence each is a good way of keeping everyone alert and following the text.

In any case, one should make sure the reading is slow enough to allow time for learners to process and understand what they can, by themselves. This will also give them a chance to make comments or ask questions if they wish to do so.  I would pause the reading when a learner has something to say, so as to welcome the all-important reading discussions when they naturally occur. Ideally, other learners should be allowed to join in, and you may just listen and acknowledge their ideas.

Remember that your learners cannot be wrong in their thinking and understanding as they navigate learning. It is important that you show them that you have heard and appreciate their input, and that any idea is valid and welcome. You may for example say: “You think …”, and repeat what they have just said as a way to acknowledge and validate the expression of their thoughts and feelings. Or you may just smile and show interest with an “Ah-ha...”, “That’s an idea…”, or “Could be…”

If a learner asks a question, you could repeat it and give them time to come up with their own answer. A coaching approach requires you respect all styles and perspectives; invite and acknowledge any learner’s observation and rather than respond by sharing their opinion, encourage them to express themselves further. Most importantly, resist the temptation to give your approval or disapproval of the way that they comprehend things at any given moment. Even when an idea seems strange or wrong to you, engage your curiosity and again, practice saying things like: “Hm, I wonder…” or “Is that so …” or “May be…”

Naturally, an educator should feel confident to use strategies known to support closure when required, such as when reassuring a learner who is getting upset. However, the teacher-coach will recognise that there is often no need to conclude on a subject. This is because learning is a continuous process and what we see, understand, appreciate or disapprove of, in any given situation, is neither right nor wrong (unless this is unhelpful to our learning and development). So, our ideas are just part of our self-development, which is an ongoing process, in constant flux and evolution.

Sometimes learners may refer to the main character in the third person and perhaps interpret their actions, while others will talk about themselves in relation to the story, which is all fine. Other learners may be listening or reading quietly, so you will not know what is going on in their mind at that time, and this is fine too, as long they are given time for silent reflection.

You can ask carefully worded questions that direct learners to participate and reflect on the reading content. The effectiveness of such questions is in the asking. How the questions are answered, or even whether they are vocally answered or not does not matter. Open questions, starting with ‘How’ or ‘what’ tend to be more awareness inducive.

After reading, you may invite more awareness-raising participation from the learners. This may also be done upon a second reading of the same text (not necessarily on the same day). The younger the learners are, the shorter their concentration span may be; however, they are also more likely to welcome re-visiting the same book or text on many occasions. Generally speaking, not only does repetition strengthen learning, but it can also give the learners a feeling of familiarity along with a sense of safety.


2 Introduce reading as a similar exercise to listening

As with listening, when reading, learners need to both look out for what they understand and be prepared to discover new words and expressions, along with new ideas and concepts.

Worries about not understanding, not having enough English, or looking to quickly identify the subject so that you can make a quick judgement about it are two factors that lessen your chances to enjoy reading or to discover something new.


3 When reading, ask learners to focus on what they do understand

When reading (or listening), learners often automatically focus on what they do not understand and it stops them hearing what they do understand. It also makes them panic and means that they are, in fact, not hearing the actual message (outside of their own head) that is conveyed by the text. In other words, they are not ‘listening’ to what is being said or written.

To avoid discouragement, I use a rule of five where if more than five words in a page are totally new to the learners, I might choose an easier text. But of course, it is only a guideline that will be adapted depending on the situation, on the learners’ degree of interest in the subject, or possibly on their personalities, moods or resilience levels.

To begin to reframe reading, and raise learners’ awareness, there are three key questions for each learner to answer:

1) How much do you understand? 5%, 10%, 20%, more?  

2) What happens if you concentrate on what you do not understand?

3) So, would you like to try and concentrate on what you do understand and see how that works for you?

From here, an appropriate reading exercise will be carried out, in which the learners will be focusing on picking up key words and messages, and then reporting them to show (themselves) that they can read and understand.


4 Guide learners to practice reading for ‘Listening’, not ‘Already Always Listening’

We often think we are ‘listening’ when in fact, we are in ‘Already Always Listening’ mode (exposed in An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, chapter 13). Already Always Listening is an automatic and passive act of non-listening, based on past experience association with the speaker, the context or the content. It describes locked or limited listening due to our programmed attitude and corresponding thoughts such as: “I know what she is going to say”, “Please, not him” “Not this again!” “I don’t have time for this” “Not what I had in mind” or “This looks or sounds all too familiar”. Such thoughts express our belief that we don’t need to listen because we already know.

Furthermore, it is difficult to fully listen when we are paying attention to our own thoughts. Even when listening with interest, our ‘listening’ is jeopardised by the fact that we are simultaneously formulating our opinion, or answer, to what is being said.

Listening as if for the first time, and postponing judgment, is the most effective strategy. This is not to say that we need to give ourselves a hard time when we notice that we are not listening in that manner – which would only complicate matters rather than facilitate listening – but it is certainly worth noticing ourselves ‘already, always listening’, so that we may choose to listen differently. All it takes is awareness.

To listen with a new ear, as it were, involves freeing yourself from past experiences that did not work, and from having expectations that may lead to disappointment, or from seeking one method, recipe or approach. It necessitates making a conscious choice to welcome new possibilities, and to go with them.

Teachers will also need to be in this new frame of mind if they want to adopt a coaching approach successfully: they too need to be aware so that they do not operate in default mode, they too need to consciously choose to only attribute familiar paradigms and values to language learning that suit the situation and help the learners. In our coaching practice, when we are ‘listening’ to learners, we want to suspend judgment and not take anything for granted. Coaching happens when classes or sessions have not been highly planned in advance and when the teacher-coach is prepared for the unpredictable, confident that they know enough, and are happy to guide and accompany the learners in their own inquiry for learning. It is the same principle.


5 Introduce reading with the heart (not the head)

This is easier said than done, but it simply means being fully present, and postponing judgment: of us as the reader or listener, of the author as a person, and of what is being said. 

Our minds are naturally already very busy. It helps to use all our senses when we read or listen. We do not just listen to words. Dr Albert Mehrabian, (Silent Messages, 1972), who conducted several studies on non-verbal communication, found that only 38 percent of our message is conveyed through vocal behaviour, pitch, speed, volume, tone, emphasis, other sounds, fillers, pauses and silences. Additionally, in face-to-face listening, we listen with our eyes. According to Mehrabian’s findings, 55 percent of our message is conveyed non-verbally through facial expression, eye contact, gestures, postures, physical attitude body orientation and movements. In reading, this translates as rhythm, short or longer sentences, punctuation, pauses, choice of vocabulary, tone, register, repetitions, etc.

This theory demonstrates that only 7 percent of our message is conveyed verbally (with words). Therefore, successful reading and listening does not necessarily require having a high language level but it does require directing one’s attention on what is being communicated. When we read or listen with our heart, for lack of a better expression, we can use intuition and sense what we cannot see or hear, we can assume the best, appreciate differences and variations and see unlimited possibilities.


6 Instigate Reading for information

Coaching in the ESL is very much about following the learners’ interests, and researching into them. This often involves reading for information (which develops general fluency).

Reading for information is ‘reframed’ as described above and it is not different to skimming to get a sense of the general idea or scanning to find specific facts or details; it involves reading actively and wholeheartedly, being curious, enjoying finding out, sharing and discussing reading. Reading for information may have an agenda, but reading discussions do not. They arise from the text itself.

Reading for information requires focusing on the learners’ interests as they arise. For many learners, content is more interesting than form and this is fine, for as we know, we do not need to consciously study form to acquire fluency or accuracy. Yet, when form draws the readers’ attention, then form may be a subject in reading discussion. Reading for information needs to be spontaneous and similarly needs to address the learner’s interests in the moment. When form does not raise the learners’ targeted interest, it usually means that their active brains are concentrated more on content. Meanwhile, the passive brain does register things we cannot measure, including form. So, if form seems neglected, please remember that both fluency and accuracy are developed with practice, and that reading for information is a wonderful practice.

When coaching reading is newly offered to learners, some may still be anxious to monitor their own learning, therefore showing an interest in form – which is to be respected like any other interest. So, you may choose a text in which to research form. However, for most learners, when they have discovered reading based around their interests or passions in life, once they start to really enjoy reading, and they become aware of ‘what works” best for them (refer to An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, Chapter 10.3, Seeing ‘what works’), their focus in reading is likely to changeNevertheless, at any moment in time, the teacher-coach will respond to individual learners’ interests, so as to provide a ‘scaffold’ in the development of the values the learners attach to their own learning (Vygotsky L.S., Thinking and Speech, Collected works, vol.1, pp.39-285, 1987). An example of scaffolding involving learners’ values is given in An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, chapter VI.6.a)

In reading for information, the teacher-coach is merely the learners’ research companion, a research led by the learners and their interests, and helped by the teacher offering resources, support and encouragement. One research often leads to another and many texts can be researched at the same time. This activity is rich and rewarding for all.


7 Researching language and meaning

‘Cherry picking’ is a reading activity that can be done using any written text of interest to the individual learner; it means selectively choosing new vocabulary, expressions, language chunks, or any language forms, which can then be discussed, practised, and experienced meaningfully by the learners. All the pieces of language collected can then be used to play games. For example, they can all be put into a ‘lucky dip’ pot and picked out randomly by one learner at a time, each of whom will have to make the other learners guess their word or phrase by explaining, miming or giving a synonym for it.


8 Sounding English

A good language awareness activity is reading aloud for rhythm and musicality. This can be done by walking the text, taking a step for each phrase or chunk of language. This helps learners feel the sound physically. It enables them to understand and be understood when reading more complex texts. Mimicking intonation, such as humming a text can also be a lot of fun and a good way to train the ear.


9 Consciousness of interpreting or not

We, humans are intelligent, in other words we are meaning making machines. We interpret everything; it is our way of making sense of our world. And for our happiness and sanity, it is important that we realise that this is what we do. For without interpretation, facts are just facts, meaningless and emotionless, which is essential for us to understand.

To help raise learners’ consciousness of when they are interpreting or not, I like to select short metaphorical stories (no longer than a page or two) for shared reading - I recommend Nick Owen, The Magic of Metaphor, as a source of short stories for this activity. I give a different story to each learner and then ask them to do the following things separately and in the following order:

  1. Read your story silently (in the reframed way described above)
  2. Report it to the group/class. Retell the story as it is, without interpretations, just the facts.
  3. Interpret it. Explain what the story means to you - what message (or moral) do you read in it?
  4. Give an example of how this moral can be applied in real life.

This is one of my favourite activities, as it encompasses the practice of many skills (linguistic, personal and social) and in my experience, gives way to very rich discussions.


Summing up

Now, you will be able to apply some of these ideas for re-framing reading with your learners. And I know that in so doing you will come up with your own ways of helping your learners’ change their thinking, and discover how to enjoy reading.


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