TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: Reading Backward for Fluency

by Jon Hodge

Reading aloud is often very difficult for English language learners, and it results in stammering, stumbling over vocabulary, and repeating syllables or entire words. Try this unexpected and unusual strategy in your next class to have your students surprise even themselves as they begin to read aloud smoothly and fluently. 

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.


Free TESOL Quarterly Article:
"Challenges in Teaching English to Young Learners: Global Perspectives and Local Realities"

December 2014: Volume 48, Issue 4

In this article, "Challenges in Teaching English to Young Learners: Global Perspectives and Local Realities," Fiona Copland, Sue Garton, and Anne Burns discuss the challenges faced by English language teachers of young learners against the backdrop of the global rise of English. The data was obtained via a survey completed by more than 4,000 teachers worldwide, and via case studies. Read their findings and recommendations to help teachers meet the challenges identified. 

This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Volume 48, Number 4, pgs. 738–762. Subscribers can access issues here. Only TESOL members may subscribe. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

Drawing on data from a recent research international research project, this article focuses on the challenges faced by teachers of English to young learners against the backdrop of the global rise of English. A mixed-methods approach was used to obtain the data, including a survey, which was completed by 4,459 teachers worldwide, and case studies, including observations and interviews with teachers, in five different primary schools in five different countries. A number of challenges emerged as affecting large numbers of teachers in different educational contexts, namely, teaching speaking, motivation, differentiating learning, teaching large classes, discipline, teaching writing, and teaching grammar. Importantly, some of these challenges have not been highlighted in the literature on young learner teaching to date. Other challenges are more localised, such as developing teachers' English competence. The article argues that teacher education should focus less on introducing teachers to general approaches to English language teaching and more on supporting teachers to meet the challenges that they have identified. 

The widespread introduction of languages in primary schools has been described by Johnstone (2009) as “possibly the world's biggest policy development in education” (p. 33), with English being the language most commonly introduced. There are several reasons for this trend. First, it is often assumed that it is better to begin learning languages early (Y. Hu, 2007; Nunan, 2003). Second, economic globalisation has resulted in the widespread use of English and many governments believe it is essential to have an English-speaking workforce in order to compete (Enever & Moon, 2009; Gimenez, 2009; Y. Hu, 2007). Third, parents want their children to develop English skills to benefit from new world orders and put pressure on governments to introduce English to younger children (Enever & Moon, 2009; Gimenez, 2009).

In parallel with this expansion, there has been increasing criticism of the growth of English as a global lingua franca, in particular the political and social implications. Publications by Block, Gray, and Holborow (2012), Coleman (2011), Edge (2006), and Kumaravadivelu (2011) have all challenged understandings of the place of English, how it has reached its current level of popularity, whose interests the rise of English serves, and the status of different world Englishes. Such discussions call into question the underlying premises on which the introduction of learning English at an early age are predicated (see also Pillar & Cho, 2013). Edge (2006) and Kumaravadivelu (2011) in particular are also highly critical of wholesale adoption of Western approaches to language teaching which support the spread of English while ensuring Western countries continue to benefit from it. Against this background, teachers of young learners around the world must daily fulfil the tasks of instructing their students, often being required to use a pedagogic approach which is alien to many, and having to persuade their students of the value of learning English.

The research reported here is part of a larger study, which investigated global practices in teaching young learners. The ensuing report (Garton, Copland, & Burns, 2011) focused on how policy affects young learner classrooms, the pedagogic approaches used by teachers globally, and how teachers understand their roles and responsibilities in the young learner classroom, amongst other things. This article draws on further data from the study to identify the challenges faced by teachers of primary English both globally, across the total number of countries involved in the study, and more locally in five of these countries located in different continents. Our aim is to portray overall trends but also to explore local variations and possible reasons for these variations. Specifically, this research responds to two research questions:

  • What are teachers' perceptions of the challenges they face in teaching English to young learners?
  • What challenges are experienced globally and locally?

Download the full article and references for free (PDF)


This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, 48, 738–762. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Request Permissions" under "Article Tools."
doi: 10.1002/tesq.148

Grammatically Speaking

by Michelle Jackson
After a brief hiatus, Grammatically Speaking is back. Meet new grammar columnist Michelle Jackson as she shares an interactive classroom activity on teaching adjective order. 

Dr. Michelle Jackson is the associate director of teaching at New Mexico State University’s Teaching Academy. She designs, develops, and delivers workshops on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Prior to NMSU, she was the manager of the English Language Institute at UT El Paso. She has taught English as a second language at UT El Paso and Harvard University as well as Spanish at UT Austin. She is enthusiastic about sharing teaching strategies as the new grammar columnist for TESOL Connections

During my first semester as a college ESL instructor, I was tasked with teaching English adjective order. Adjective order was an error that had marched cavalierly across my desk in students’ essays, knowing I was unfamiliar with how to address it. Students described their “beautiful, smart, tall mothers” and their “blue old cars.” While I had readily seen these constructions, I only intuitively knew they were incorrect. That is to say, they sounded wrong, but I was uncertain why they were wrong.

Furthermore, I had little idea of how to teach the concept outside of the confines of traditional lecture. In these instances, I surrendered to the battalion of papers, passively wrote “word order” in the margin, and promptly returned them. After a bit of practice, I developed the following in-class activity that allows for student production, group work, and peer correction, thus turning the teaching and learning of English adjective order into an interactive endeavor.

Materials Required

  • Post-it notes, enough for each student to have one
  • Paper and writing utensils for all students
  • Chalkboard, whiteboard, or doc cam & writing utensils

Timing: 25–35 minutes

Step 1

Have students break into groups of six. Each group must select an object to describe. This could be any object that comes to mind. If students struggle with selecting an object, I suggest they search their backpacks, which often yields some interesting items. Write the order of adjectives on the board where all students can view it easily, or provide them with the chart below. Explain to students that if adjectives are not in this order, it can lead to confusion for readers and/or listeners. (5 minutes)

English Adjective Order: Article, judgment, size, shape, age, color, nationality, material

Adjective Type 


1. Article 

a, an, the 

2. Judgment 

 perfect, beautiful, silly

 3. Size

 big, small, tall

 4. Shape

 round, octagonal, triangular

 5. Age

 100-year-old, new, ancient

 6. Color

 yellow, vermillion, beige

 7. Nationality

 German, Spanish

 8. Material

 cloth, wood, stone

Step 2

As a group, the students will write one sentence describing the object. The sentence must use six adjectives and follow the order of adjectives rule. Inform students they will share their work with the rest of the class. Allow for students to use dictionaries in any form (e.g. printed, electronic) as this yields better results. (5–7 minutes)

Step 3

Each group should write its sentence on one piece of paper. Ask students to double-check that they have followed the order of adjectives rule. The instructor should walk around to ensure students’ sentences follow the correct adjective order. (2 minutes)

Step 4

Students write the six adjectives used in their sentences onto six Post-its. Each student fixes a Post-it to his or her chest. (2 minutes)

Step 5

Each group will come to the front of the room and write its sentence on the board, eliminating the adjectives. (1 minute)

For example, the sentence “The large rectangular old Japanese glass vase belonged to my grandmother,” would be written on the board as:

_____ _____ _____ _____ _____ _____ vase belonged to my grandmother.

Step 6

The group members stand in front of the class so that the adjectives on their Post-it notes are out of order. For example, the Post-its might read:

Japanese large glass the rectangular old

Step 7

The instructor calls on a student to read the sentence using the board and the Post-it notes. The instructor explains that the adjectives are in the wrong order. The seated groups work as a team to write the correct complete sentence on a shared piece of paper. (1 minute)

Step 8

Call on an audience member to come to the front and move the group members into the correct order. The instructor asks the rest of the audience if the move is correct. Then the instructor asks the group presenting if it is correct. (2 minutes)

Repeat Steps 5–8 as necessary.

Optional Extension

When students know they will be sharing their writing, they often work harder to create texts they believe are worthy of others’ attention. You could have the class vote on the best sentence and discuss why it is the best. Did the group capture the object through a careful selection of adjectives? Did they use humor in their description? Did they use sophisticated vocabulary or terms from the current unit that made their example timely? Never miss the opportunity both to praise your students’ writing and to discuss what makes good writing good.

Happy teaching,


Lesson Plan: Making Family & Community Connections

by Sarah Sahr
Use this lesson plan to help your adult ELs make connections with the community while working on practical communicative skills.

Teachers are always looking for ways to connect with their students’ families and the surrounding community (Cowdery, Levi, Wells, & Blauvelt, 2010). In best practice, once solid connections are made, teachers are able to utilize these connections as resources and make a better classroom experience for all in attendance. But how do you make that first connection? Based on information gathered from TESOL’s 2014 W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant, this lesson plan is designed to help teachers reach out to student family members and the surrounding community. 
Materials: A satellite or Earth map of the area surrounding your school; a way to project a neighborhood map (a screen and a digital or overhead projector); a large neighborhood map for the final blueprint.
Audience: This activity is developed to meet the needs and proficiency levels of all adult learners.
Objectives: Students will be able to develop a short questionnaire for family and community members, conduct a short interview with a variety of family and community members, and create a blueprint of their neighboring school community.
Outcome: The class will create a blueprint of information from the school’s surroundings that could be useful with future classroom projects, programs, and activities.
Duration: Times vary based on proficiency levels. Approximately 90 minutes for planning questionnaire, 1 week for collecting data, and 90 minutes for creating a neighborhood blueprint

Initial Classroom Work

Preclass Preparation

Go to an online mapping webpage such as Google Maps or MapQuest and find your school’s location without entering an address. Click on the feature that shows the actual tops of buildings, usually Satellite or Earth feature. Save this image as a PDF or JPEG for projecting the map to your students. You may want to print a few copies of the map as backup, in the case of technical problems.


Present the map to your class on the projector of your choice. Ask students where they think the map might be showing (hopefully they will see some landmarks and be able to tell you the location. I tried this in my office with three people, and they needed some prompts). Lead a conversation with your class:

  • What is this a map of?
  • Can you point out any landmarks?
  • What are some places you visit on this map? Why do you go there?
  • Is your home on this map? You don’t have to share the exact location with the class. A simple “yes” or “no” will do.
  • (if appropriate) Is your place of work on this map?

Take note to help with assigning interview tasks (see below).


Let students know that they will be making a comprehensive blueprint of the surrounding school community. This will include taking an inventory of neighborhood shops and soliciting information from those same shops. If the homes of students are in the surrounding neighborhood and they think their families would like to participate, students may talk with family members to see what they think of the community, what shops they patronize, and so on.

With student input, make a list of shops that should be interviewed, and another list of family members that should be interviewed.

Planning the Questionnaire

Two questionnaires need to be developed: one for shop owners and one for family members. These could be done with the class as a whole or in small groups. If you are going with small groups, make sure each group comes up with at least five questions for each questionnaire. Questions could include:

For shop owners:

  • How long have you been a part of the community?
  • What makes this community unique?
  • Are you willing to give time and/or services to your neighborhood school?

For family members:

  • What do you like best about this community?
  • What shops do you frequent? Why?
  • Are you willing to give time and/or services to your neighborhood school?

After some time, consolidate the groups’ questions into one list. Ask for comments and edits.

Conducting Interviews

Practice the Questionnaire Process

Make groups of three for questionnaire practice. This practice will be in English, even though some of the interview could be in other languages. Students will rotate roles: interviewer, interviewee, and observer. The interviewer will ask the questions. The interviewee will answer the questions as best as possible. The observer will monitor the conversation and give feedback to the interviewer. Allow for enough time so each student can role-play each role.

Assign Tasks

From the list of shops and family members, assign students to the proper match: If possible, make sure the students interviewing the proprietors of the shops and/or family members already have an established relationship.

Collecting Data

Encourage students to travel in pairs to interview their respective community or family members. Let students know that interviews can be conducted in any language students and interviewees deem appropriate. The purpose is to gather information, not necessarily practice English. Give students at least 1 week to complete their interviews.

Concluding Classroom Work

Summarize and Share Information

Allow students to debrief. Was it fun talking with community and family members in this way? Did they learn anything new? Make sure each student in your class contributes to this conversation. It is important that everyone reports back to the class.

Building the Blueprint

If possible, create a large-scale satellite/Earth map of the school’s surrounding community. From shops, include on the map information regarding the point of contact at the shop, services offered, preferred language to communicate in, and availability, both time and place (e.g., if they are willing to come to the school). From families, include a point of contact (personal information should be kept off the map and in a safe location, possibly with the instructor), services offered, preferred language to communicate in, and availability, both time and place (e.g., if they are willing to come to the school).

Reaching out to community and family members simply strengthens classroom instruction (Cowdery, et al., 2010). This activity is a first step in getting to know community and family members better. As classroom instruction deepens over the course of the semester, refer back to this blueprint as often as possible for resources outside the school that could help with projects, programs, and activities. In addition, look to the community and family members as a practical resource for lessons by inviting community and family members to your classroom to enrich instruction. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.


Cowdery, J., Levi, K., Wells, D., & Blauvelt, S. (2010). Family projects: Empowering students, parents, and teachers. TESOL Journal, 1, 500–508.

Download this lesson plan (PDF)

You can find past TESOL Connections lesson plans and activities in the TESOL Connections archives, or you can visit the TESOL Resource Center. From there, search Keyword “Sahr.”


Sarah Sahr works at TESOL and is currently pursuing her doctorate in education administration and policy at the George Washington University. Her professional career has taken her all over the world, most notably as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia and as a traveling school teacher/administrator with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. Sarah is also a certified ashtanga yoga instructor and has managed an eco-lodge in Chugchilan, Ecuador.

10 Time-Saving Tips for Teaching English Online

by Steven Humphries
Teaching online often ends up requiring more time than classroom teaching. Try these tips for ensuring you make the most of your and your students' time. 

Teaching online can and should be a rewarding experience. However, other things being equal, it requires more time than teaching traditional face-to-face classes (Allen & Seaman, 2013). This challenge requires that teachers use their time efficiently.

This article provides practical tips for saving time when teaching English online. These tips may be used in courses taught synchronously, in which teachers and students meet simultaneously to collaborate through group video, voice or text messaging, or some other virtual method, or asynchronously, in which students participate at times convenient to them, though generally within assigned deadlines. They also may be used for teaching subjects other than English.

1. Create an “Ask the Prof”

Good students have questions, and many often have the same ones. A simple method to save time is to not have to answer the same questions multiple times. My colleagues and I do this by creating a specific Discussion Forum for questions—called “Ask the Prof”—and encouraging students to both ask questions and to seek answers there. In fact, if students e-mail us with questions already asked, we politely refer them to Ask the Prof.

There may be times when students have questions that are personal or embarrassing, or simply not their classmates’ business, so you should always leave the door open to private email questions for such cases.

2. Use Canned Correspondence

Often, much of the information students need is common not only within a course, but sometimes across courses taught by the same instructor. Students also often have some of the same questions from term to term, such as the appropriate format for written assignments, or how they should address the teacher. Online teachers can take advantage of this by keeping an easily accessible electronic file of commonly used responses to cut and paste into a reply. For example, I use the following “canned” response when students ask questions that they should already know the answer to:

Hello (Student’s Name),
Thank you for the question; however, the information you need is explained fully in our course syllabus. Please check there first. If you still have questions, let me know, preferably on Ask the Prof.

The example above is relatively short. The longer the response required, the more time you will save by using canned correspondences, which also work well with course announcements.

3. Set Space Limitations

As educators, we encourage students to express themselves knowledgeably, clearly, and thoroughly, but this does not require wordiness. Indeed, conciseness is a cornerstone of good writing. It is also a requirement for effective and efficient online teaching (Chang, Chen, & Ching, 2011; Palloff & Pratt, 1999).

To foster conciseness, enforce strict word limits on all assignments. This saves time in grading, but also pushes students to become better writers and more precise thinkers. In written discussions, it also gives them an incentive to read more broadly across their classmates’ work and to participate more fully in the interactions.

4. Avoid Redundancy in Requirements

Another place to save time is to provide course requirements to students in one place and one place only. The danger otherwise is in providing conflicting requirements in two or more places, an easy mistake to make as you modify courses from term to term, thus having to correct them after the fact. Such mistakes can occur just as easily when you create new courses as well.

5. Be Consistent Across Classes

Setting course expectations and requirements consistently across classes has time advantages as well. This includes spacing and margin requirements for writing, grading scales, and late work and attendance policies. The more consistent you make expectations and requirements, the easier they will be for you to remember, and the less time you will spend checking and applying them correctly within a particular class.

6. Post Initial Readings

Online students are often located worldwide, but this does not guarantee access to an efficient postal service from which to receive textbooks on time. Even in countries with efficient postal systems, packages get delayed or vendors ship the wrong book. Some students may enroll in the class late. One way to avoid these problems is to use electronic textbooks, but these are not available for all titles.

Having electronic copies of initial reading assignments posted in your course will help those affected to keep up, but also save you from photocopying, scanning, and posting each time a student needs a reading, or from having to provide individual feedback for students who turn in assignments based on those readings late.

One warning: Be sure not to violate copyright laws by posting too much from any one source!

7. Provide Detailed Contact Information

A number of studies (Heyman, 2010; Rovai, 2003), and have found that effective student support is an invaluable retention tool in online programs. As an online educator, you may be the primary point of contact between students and the institution, and therefore asked to help with administrative issues. These may be technical matters related to the learning management system (e.g., Blackboard), or questions, concerns, or problems for issues such as registration, financial aid, or graduation.

Explaining that answering such questions is not your responsibility is not in anyone’s best interest. Instead, post a detailed list of contacts for appropriate administrative offices—names, telephone numbers, email addresses—to refer students to someone who can help.

8. Let Students Do the Work

No one would suggest that students to do your work, but there are ways that using student work can ethically save you time while providing a valuable pedagogical function. One such way is to provide previously completed assignments as examples of what is expected, including discussion postings, essays, summaries, and individual and group projects. Student annotated bibliographies, for example, save time in creating required or suggested reading lists.

Be sure, however, to get permission from the students whose work you are using before you make it available to your classes.

9. Allow Absences

Students work hard in their online courses and, like their colleagues in traditional ones, sometimes have legitimate reasons for missing class other than those generally considered excused. Allowing a limited number of unexcused absences is not only fair to students, it can save time for the teacher as it can translate into fewer postings to read or fewer questions to answer for any given class.

This does not mean, however, that students should not be held responsible for their work.

10. Be Thorough and Accurate

This final suggestion may seem obvious, but it is perhaps the most important of all. Education is often high stakes and expensive, and students rightly have important questions about course requirements and expectations. The more detailed and accurate information you provide upfront, the less time you will spend clarifying what you expect. And the fewer mistakes you make, the less time you will spend correcting them.


Allen, I. E., & and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from http://results.chronicle.com/PearsonChanging1?elq=0c0378948e5a48ce8d3a6fefc81055a4&elqCampaignId=509

Chang, C. -K., Chen, G. -D., & Ching, K. H. (2011). Providing adequate interactions in online discussion forums using few teaching assistants. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 10(3), 193–203.

Heyman, E. (2010). Overcoming student retention issues in higher education online programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(4). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/winter134/heyman134.html

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 1–16.


Steven Humphries is an associate professor of TESOL and director of English as a second language at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. He has been teaching online for more than 7 years. His professional interests include intercultural communication, language assessment, and language program and curriculum development.