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5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Selecting Texts for Beginner EAL Learners

November 11, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan

Have you ever had the feeling in a lesson that the ship is sinking and you are desperately trying to hold it up? That just as you patch one leak, the next leak starts. And you want so badly to turn the ship around and go back to shore, but you’ve travelled so far and it’s too late to turn back. Well…I have definitely felt this when I have walked into class with a text thinking, “This will do.” Whether it was due to the level being too high, the pictures being too ambiguous, or the concept being too unfamiliar, it created barriers for student comprehension, leading to complete reliance on me. 

Taking time to select the right texts for your learners is crucial, and will save you considerable time and effort in the long run. As the term rapidly comes to an end, and you switch your focus (or what is left of it right now!) to planning for the new year, it might be helpful to reflect on a few questions when making text selections, especially for your beginners. 

1. What are you trying to teach?

  • Semantic knowledge (comprehension)
  • Syntactic knowledge (grammar)
  • Graphophonic knowledge (decoding)

Bow Valley College, 2018, A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy, Bow Valley College, Calgary

It is helpful to consider which knowledge and skills you would like to focus on with your students and choose a text that is suitable for that particular purpose. When you target the teaching in this way, it reduces students’ cognitive load considerably as their learning goals are clear and the resources support them. Of course, you may like to teach all of these skills using a single text. If this is your aim, consider selecting a text that has rich language and content, as well as making sure that it is not too challenging, and that you use it repeatedly over several lessons. 

2. How much does your student know about the topic?

It is critical to consider the background of your students and their cultural knowledge when selecting a text. Our beginners come with a whole range of amazing cultural, linguistic and often religious knowledge, but this may be different to the concepts represented in our texts. Remember, language is cultural, and so are the texts we select! For instance, texts about celebrations or historical events may require extensive pre-teaching. This isn’t to say that they can’t be used, but carefully consider whether this text aligns with your intended purpose and whether it enhances or detracts from it. 

3. Is the language level appropriate?

Bow Valley College, 2018, A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy, Bow Valley College, Calgary, p249

I like this excerpt from Bow Valley’s A Practical Guide to Teaching ESL Literacy which defines independent and instructional reading in terms of high percentages of accuracy and comprehension on a text. For our students to avoid the frustration level, they need to have a high level of accuracy reading the text. This can be difficult to achieve for beginners, but it’s a reminder to carefully analyse the linguistic features of a text in depth to gauge how successful your learners will be. 

Milad Goes to the Library P1 Pre-Level 1, Level 2, Level 4, ESL Reads

You can analyse the text in terms of familiar/unfamiliar genres, vocabulary (adjectives, adverbs etc), sentence structure, verb tense, conjunctions, prepositional phrases and of course, for any slang or idioms that might impede our learners ability to comprehend the text. Some of the texts for beginners look deceptively simple, but when you analyse the linguistic features, you may find colloquial language and slang that will only create frustration for a beginner at this point of their learning journey. 

4. Is it clear and easy to read?
Zahra Has an Appointment, ESL Reads

The layout of a text makes an enormous difference in assisting our EAL learners to read. The busier the page, the more it distracts from the text and your teaching focus. It also adds to the cognitive load of the student as they try to decipher the layout at the same time as they decode the text and attempt to make meaning of it. Look for texts that have large, clear, sans-serif fonts, meaningful images and white space around the text and images, and to make this as consistent as possible for all texts you present. Many internet texts, while written for EAL learners, tend to have busy layouts or small font. It’s a good idea to check or modify these before use. 

5. How much exposure has this student had to this genre?

Genres are distinctive of a particular education system and culture. Some of our students, even if they
have had formal schooling, might not have come across a specific genre or if they have, their culture might interpret it differently. And don’t forget digital texts! Some of our learners may have had little experience using digital technology and will require a steady, scaffolded approach to navigating online texts. It’s important to gauge whether your students have had exposure to a genre you are presenting, and if not, it’s worthwhile spending time pre-teaching the purpose and key features of it. 

In summary, while this can be a time-consuming and challenging task, it is worth investing time to source
texts written in your country and for your context that are EAL supportive, age-appropriate, clear and simple and that meet the reading goals that you set for your students. To reduce the time spent constantly trying to find or write different texts, I would suggest planning ahead to use a good quality text over a number of weeks for different purposes including, but not limited to:

  • Building vocabulary
  • Teaching decoding strategies
  • Teaching reading fluency
  • Doing comprehension activities
  • Teaching text features
  • Using it as a model text for writing

So as you step into your final weeks of the year, I hope this is a helpful guide for selecting texts for your units and class libraries for the following school year. 

Please note: This blog is written from my experience as a teacher and a business owner working with teachers who have EAL beginner learners. While I have drawn on a few resources to write this blog, it is not the result of academic research. 

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