How to Improve Literacy Skills in the ESL Classroom (Part 2)

In my last post, I briefly introduced the concept of literacy skills, and the need to improve students’ literacy skills in ESL. “Literacy”, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “the ability to read and write“. Though it’s not directly related to reading and writing, I would maybe add the ability to speak conversationally (and comprehend what you hear) to that definition. I think the ability to speak somewhat proficiently is just as important as being able to read and write English. I’ve met plenty of adults, both young and old, who may be able to read and write English to some degree, but they cannot speak it.

ESL teachers have to teach non-English speakers how to read, write, and speak English to a certain level of proficiently. In this part, I’m going to share with you some ways to help improve your students’ oral fluency. Oral fluency is basically the ability to speak, and understand speech, in one’s native language or a second language. Now, a person doesn’t have to be completely fluent in a language in order to be considered orally fluent. The person must at least be able to understand basic words and phrases in spoken language, as well as produce phrases and sentences in a conversational manner. Good listening skills are required to help develop good oral fluency.  Fluency doesn’t ensure comprehension, but having medium to high comprehension level of what’s being heard and said helps immensely. 

 So, what can we do to improve our students’ oral fluency level?

For students to have a strong grasp of oral language, they must have a well-developed, diverse and large amount of vocabulary words at their disposal. How do we help our students diversify their vocabulary? We read to them, of course! Not only should we read to them, but they must read on their own, too. As we teach our students to read and learn new words, we must give them definitions and contexts for those words. If a student knows a set of words, but doesn’t know when or how to use them, then those words are utterly useless for the student.

Here are a few tips to help teach new words to students, taken from esl-literacy:

  • Teach new words orally first– this gives the student the chance to hear what the words sound like, intonation, and pronunciation.
  • Use a picture to give the students with a visual of the word– this helps the students build an easy way to recollect the word if asked.
  • Show the word in print– now the students can actually see what the word looks like, how it’s spelled, and gives a way to teach phonics.
  • Read the word aloud– this helps build the students’ listening comprehension skills; after you read it, have the students repeat the word to  help them develop their phonics skills and overall fluency.
  • Have the students write down the word– when people write what they hear, it helps improve memory skills and the brain is able to store it in both the long-term and short-term memory areas.
  • Recycle the word for future review– you can never review too often; every few days or so, review the word(s) the students have learned; ask them to say the word, give its meaning, and write it down.
  • Encourage the students to practice using it in everyday conversation– The best way to help students build their oral fluency, is to have them practice, practice, practice!!
  • Encourage the students to practice using the newly learned words in reading and writing– As the student begins to learn a new word, writing it out is key to memory retention. What’s also important is to use the word(s) in reading and writing with various contexts. Seeing the word in a story or written essay helps give the students an idea of how to use the word properly.

Helping students build their vocabulary and speaking skills is very time-consuming and can be quite difficult. The payoff is nice when you are able to converse with your students in a natural manner.

Help build background knowledge

As students continue to learn new vocabulary words and phrases, we need to teach them about the meanings of the words and phrases; we also need to help give them a context where they can use the word(s) or phrase(s). For example, if you have a lesson about cities and countries (if such a topic is part of your curriculum), get a map out, or use your computer to show them where the cities and countries are located. Teach them directional words and have them find the cities or countries on the map. Or, if you’re talking about space, watch a video or show pictures about space. The pictures, videos, or other things you use to help give background knowledge and they can recall the words and phrases a little easier.

Give your students the tools to classify and categorize words and phrases

To prepare for abstract thinking, students need to be able to organize and integrate new information into what they already know. Categorization and classification are both methods of doing this. In an effective ESL literacy classroom, learners gradually learn to apply different principles of categorization and classification to become aware of grouping and regrouping.

Tips for Developing Categorization:

  • Teach categorization in a concrete, systematic manner.
  • Always start with the oral and move to the written.
  • Beginning in Foundation Phase, introduce the concepts of same and different, with different being the easier concept to understand.
  • Introduce categorization after learners master the visual discrimination needed to make simple comparisons of same and different.
  • Use basic charts with two or three columns and a picture or word bank. A good place to begin is to use two categories of vocabulary the learners already know and that are obviously distinct, such as clothing and food.
  • Once learners understand the concept of categories, introduce more categories. Depending on the level of learners, introduce distinctions that are more difficult.

Tips for Developing Classification:

  • Use vocabulary that learners already know. Move from the spoken to the written, from concrete to more abstract, introducing a few new vocabulary classification words to aid in the tasks.
  • Use games such as UNO or Crazy Eights to teach “one-step differences” where two cards are the same except for one thing.
  • Use simple, concrete exercises, such as classifying cars and bicycles as subsets of vehicles.
  • Introduce abstract classifications, such as classifying nouns, verbs and adjectives as parts of speech in higher phases.
  • Teach classification across hierarchies using a family tree.

(The bullet points above are taken from

As hard as it can be to teach new words, phrases and meanings to your students, continue to do it! The more words students can speak and understand in everyday conversation, as well as in reading and writing will greatly help them later in life!


Filed under Andong, Education, ESL, Literacy Skills, Oral Fluency, Second Language, South Korea, Teaching, Teaching Methodology, Vocabulary Skills, Writing, Young Learners

7 responses to “How to Improve Literacy Skills in the ESL Classroom (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Vocabulary Monday’s – disparity | Black Women Have It Going On

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