March 2015
Quick Tip: Reading Backward for Fluency
by Jon Hodge

Audience: ESL teachers, of all levels, working on reading aloud fluency

If you have a student who—when reading aloud—stumbles, or circles back to repeat previously read words, or freezes before saying the next word, then this is a must-use strategy in your next lesson:

Read a paragraph backward, word by word.

Here’s Why

Backward reading has an extremely positive influence on fluent aloud reading, which perhaps has to do with the act of “anticipation” discussed by Wildman and Kling (1978–1979). Although these authors cite the positive effects that anticipation has on reading, they do acknowledge that “there are, of course, situations in which readers’ anticipations…will be inappropriate” (149). My example of such inappropriateness would be how a sentence like, “The girlfriend broke into her boyfriend’s house” might be misread aloud as "The girlfriend broke up her boyfriend’s house,” because the cue “girlfriend” triggers the phrasal verb “break up,” because boyfriends and girlfriends more often break “up" with each other than break “into" each other’s houses.

By reading backward, we train readers to disabuse themselves of all such idiomatic expectations and conventions. They, in effect, say only what they see and not what they expect. In short, we stop the mind from racing ahead of the words, which can gum up the mental works. Reading becomes simplified to a “See-it-say-it” process instead of a “See-it.-Anticipate-the-next-word.-Confirm-that-expectation.-Rethink-if-the-expectation-was-wrong” process, which can only create a tension between what readers think they are about to see and what they actually see. Quite naturally, such tension finds expression through stammering doubt.

So, to remove the stammering, we need only remove the tension. And to remove the tension, we need only stop the mind from going any further than the word being read at the moment of articulation.

Here’s How

There are various ways to execute this backward reading:

Individual Backward Reading

One way is to have a student read the entire paragraph backward by herself. For example, the first paragraph of this Quick Tip would be read as, “lesson, next, your, in, strategy, use, must, a, is, this, then, word, next, the…”

Group Backward Reading

The second way would be to have each student read only one word, so that the whole class is “reading” the paragraph backward, one word per student. In this scenario, student one would read “lesson,” student two would read “next,” student three would read “your,” and so on. In bigger classes, I encourage students to follow along with their index finger on the page so that when it comes to their turn, they will know exactly what their word is to say. If they have not been following along, and have to search for their word, the rhythm breaks and the exercise is not as effective.

Competitive Paired Backward Reading

A more playful and competitive way to do this exercise is to pair two students together and have them try to say their words as quickly as possible after their partner has just said his or hers. This focuses their attention on the exercise, and helps them speed up word recognition.

Regardless of the method of execution, what you'll find is that when the stammering student reads forward again, his or her automaticity and fluidity is near flawless. In fact, I’ve had classes audibly gasp in amazement at how fluidly the previously-stammering student can now read, who—minutes before—made everyone squirm with sympathetic discomfort at his or her earnest struggles to wrench a sentence from his or her mouth.


First: Sadly, the immediate positive uptick that results in the audible gasp of astonishment fades quickly. Ten minutes later, the student will stumble once again when reading forward. But with a sustained and concerted commitment to reading backward, the “See-it-say-it” mindset will take hold more permanently.

Second: This works best with students who are not from pictographic L1s. In their case, the stumbling comes from the confusion between sight-reading words and phonetically assessing them. To correct this, we have to work on the level of the syllable, not the level of the word.


Wildman, D. M., & Kling, M. (1978–1979). Semantic, syntactic, and spatial anticipation in reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 128–164.


Jon Hodge, PhD, has taught ESL for 23+ years. He is the owner of Strictly English TOEFL Tutors as well as a full-time lecturer of English literature and rhetoric at Babson College.