5 Components of an Effective Reading Programme for ESL and EFL Learners

18 Jan 2017

You may have a reading programme already implemented in your school but when you’re asked what your programme is like, what do you say? An effective reading programme is more than just a textbook. It should include teaching knowledge about reading and the skills and strategies to read well.

In 1997, the National Reading Panel (NRP) was convened in the United States to research into the components of effective reading instruction. The NRP published its findings in 2000 and from this report, five significant components of effective reading instruction were identified. These include:

  • phonemic awareness
  • phonics
  • fluency
  • vocabulary 
  • comprehension

Although this research was targeted at native speakers and not second language learners (ESL) and foreign language learners (EFL), subsequent synthesis of the research findings suggested four important recommendations (August, as cited in Irujo, 2015). The most significant finding is that substantial coverage of the five essential significant components of reading instruction is important for ESL and EFL students.  

Given that research has identified the “Big 5” of reading instruction, it is clear then that any reading programme must include these components. Let’s examine what these five components are and how we can work them into our reading programme.

  1. Phonemic awareness

    The first of the five components is phonemic awareness. Phonemes are the smallest units that make up spoken language. The English language has 41 phonemes and they are combined to form syllables and words. For example, the word fish has three phonemes (f-i-sh) while the word happy has 4 phonemes (h-a-p-y).

    Phonemic awareness is both the understanding that these sounds can be put together to form words and the ability to identify and manipulate these phonemes in spoken words.

    The best way to develop such knowledge is to give learners extensive experience with songs and rhymes, chants and poetry and read alouds so that they can hear and reproduce these sounds.

    Because some English phonemes may not be present in the native languages of learners, teachers need to explicitly teach these sounds and to highlight the differences. Activities like language games that focus on particular sounds and letters can be helpful as are songs and rhymes. These need not be taught only during reading but can be a significant part of any English language lesson.

  2. Phonics

    Phonics instruction helps learners to understand the alphabetic principle that is the predictable relationship between sounds and letters in the language. Readers armed with this understanding can then recognise familiar words and decode new words. Such understanding can be challenging for learners whose native languages are not alphabetic, for example, Chinese, which uses a logographic system. In such a case, early and extensive experience with phonemic awareness activities can familiarise them with the sounds of English and help them to hear and produce these sounds.

    Phonics instructions should be systematic and meaningful. Traditional phonics has often focused solely on decoding and the discrete practice of sounds. Students often read texts that are regular in their spelling and sounds, but are not meaningful. This practice has resulted in a focus on pronouncing words rather than understanding the message in the text. A print-rich environment with many interesting and comprehensible texts contributes to phonics learning. Instruction in sight words, syllabification, word families and structural analysis will also facilitate the learning of phonics.

  3. Fluency

    Fluency is the ability to read accurately and quickly. Fluent readers recognise words quickly and can read them simultaneously. Fluent reading is essential for comprehension (Pikulski & Chard, 2005). Slow readers struggle so much with decoding that they are unable to pay attention the meaning of what they are reading. Their reading is consequently slow and laborious. ESL and EFL learners struggle with fluency in reading when they have not achieved fluency in speaking. A lack of vocabulary is thus a stumbling block to fluency.

    When reading aloud, use texts that students are familiar with and are comprehensible to them. Have readers practise reading silently before reading out aloud. Use echo reading as a model. To do this, the teacher reads each sentence or part of a sentence expressively while students echo after her. When students are more fluent, they can read along with the teacher.  

    Avoid overt criticism of learners’ efforts. Instead provide support by first focusing on choral reading in small groups before moving to individual reading. Provide an authentic purpose for the reading aloud so that the activity is meaningful. Such purposes include reading a story or poem for entertainment or reading aloud to deliver information.

    Practising timed reading and charting pupils’ reading rate can also provide motivation for improvement. Record pupils reading for a minute and chart the number of words they can read. Provide enough practice to improve their reading rate. Suggested reading rates for non-native readers have been developed by Darrell Morris (Morris, 2005) and can be used as guidelines.

  4. Vocabulary learning

    Being able to decode a word is a good first step to reading for ESL/EFL learners but if the learner does not know the meaning of the word, he or she cannot be reading successfully. Developing students’ vocabulary is a significant component to successful comprehension. Readers need to recognise and know a substantial number of words and their meanings before they can comprehend a text.

    Research suggests that students can learn new words through conversations with adults, listening to adults read to them and from reading extensively on their own (CIERA, 2001). Since ESL students cannot depend on extensive reading and incidental learning for vocabulary learning, explicit and daily instruction is important. Nation (2001) suggests that direct teaching of vocabulary should make up 25% of a vocabulary programme. Instruction includes teaching the meaning of words explicitly, using dictionaries, using prefixes and suffixes and using context clues where appropriate.  

    Research by Nation suggests that about 2000 high-frequency words constitute 80 percent of all texts in English. Similarly, Coxhead (2000) has published a list of 570 high-frequency words for academic learning. Learning and mastering these words may well be a first step to reading independence.

  5. Reading Comprehension

    Reading comprehension is the ultimate goal of all reading instruction. The previous four components are part and parcel of instruction to facilitate comprehension.

    Reading comprehension is related to vocabulary knowledge. Comprehension can be described as the active process of making meaning from a text through the use of visual information (print, illustrations and what’s on the page) and non-visual information (prior knowledge of language and experiences). The process is active because it requires the reader’s intentional and purposeful interaction with the text.

    Often, with the focus to develop decoding skills, teachers fail to emphasise the importance of meaning in reading. This results in learners barking at print or just pronouncing words with no attempt understand what the message is.

    Begin with texts that are comprehensible and teach the reading strategies that are crucial to comprehension such as questioning, making inferences, summarising, and monitoring for understanding. Practise these skills with comprehensible texts before moving on to challenging ones. The use of quality texts is also important because such texts can challenge readers to read critically and inferentially. The use of non-verbal support such as pictures, diagrams, real objects, drama and graphic organisers can support learners’ understanding and comprehension.

A comprehensive reading programme in any ESL and EFL setting should consist of these five significant components in order for reading instruction to be effective and successful. The practice of skills should not overwhelm the programme because the end goal of all reading instruction is to read and comprehend texts. Students should, therefore, be exposed to extensive reading of a variety of materials as well as intensive reading of selected comprehensible texts with which they could practise their reading skills and strategies.  Such an approach will lead to a balanced programme within which students can develop their reading ability and learn to use it for meaningful pursuits.


The above information is contributed by Dr Cheah Yin Mee, Author with Marshall Cavendish Education and Associate Lecturer at Marshall Cavendish Institute.



Centre for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA). (2001). Put reading first: The research building blocks for teaching children to read. The Partnership for Reading: National Institute for Literacy; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and U.S. Department of Education.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34 (2), 213-238.

Irujo, S. (2015). What does research tell us about teaching reading to English language learners? Retrieved from http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/what-does-research-tell-us-about-teaching-reading-english-language-learners

Morris, D. (2008). Diagnosis and correction of reading problems. New York: Guilford.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge University Press.

National Reading Panel (2006). Teaching children to read. Retrieved from


Pikulski, J. J., & Chard, D. J. (2005). Fluency: Bridge Between Decoding and Reading Comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 58, 510-519.

Share this on your network:

Ask the Experts