ESL Literacy Readers: Igniting a passion for reading in ESL literacy learners

“We do learn to read by reading”
Frank West (cited in Smith and Elley 1997)

I still remember my excitement when I learned to read. The bookmobile came to our school every two weeks and I would take out the full limit of books allowed. By the time the bookmobile returned I had read everything and was eagerly waiting to restock my stash. This early and extensive reading ignited my passion for reading and writing, a passion that still exists today.

Teacher and scholar Alan Maley researched and wrote at length about extensive reading and its benefits for English language learners. He compiled a list of characteristics of extensive reading, which includes the following:

  1. Students read a lot and often.
  2. There is a wide variety of text types and topics to choose from.
  3. The texts are not just interesting: they are engaging/compelling.
  4. Students choose what to read.
  5. Reading purposes focus on: pleasure, information, and general understanding.
  6. Reading is its own reward.
  7. Materials are within the language competence of the students.
  8. Reading is individual, and silent.
  9. The teacher is a role model…a reader who participates along with the students. (Maley 2009)

Simply put, extensive reading is reading a lot and reading for pleasure. The goal is “to create fluency and enjoyment in the reading process” (Clarity 2007).

Ample research evidence supports the benefits of extensive reading. It helps develop learner autonomy; provides massive and repeated exposure to language in context; increases general language competence (writing, speaking skills); develops general, world knowledge; extends, consolidates, and sustains vocabulary growth; improves writing (the more we read the better we write); and creates motivation to read more (Maley 2009).

It is clear that extensive reading would benefit adult ESL literacy learners for all these reasons. For them to begin, the first task would be finding books written at the appropriate levels for this diverse group. And that is where this story opens.

The ESL Literacy Readers Project: Developing resources for ESL literacy learners

Theresa and Joan (2)In early 2010, Theresa Wall and Joan Bruce, ESL literacy practitioners in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College, embarked on an ambitious project: to substantially increase the available reading resources for adult ESL literacy learners. As practitioners they experienced frustration with the lack of suitable reading materials for their learners. And like many practitioners working in the field, they created their own materials from scratch or modified existing materials intended for mainstream ESL learners. Out of this need, an idea emerged: to develop a series of books designed specifically for adult ESL literacy learners that would be openly accessible to practitioners everywhere.

The result was the ESL Literacy Readers project funded by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. By its end, the project created 40 readers intended to be used in conjunction with theme-based lessons for adult ESL literacy learners.

Theresa described the project’s early days. “When we started this project, there were very few materials available developed for adults who were new to reading. Our goal was to develop books for ESL literacy learners that were appropriate for adult readers. We wanted the characters to reflect the learners in our ESL literacy programs. The books would complement the settlement themes used in LINC[1] classes. We wanted to create something that instructors could use as part of a larger unit in their classroom instruction and that learners would read with support at the beginning, and independently by the end of the unit. We wanted reading to be a successful experience for ESL literacy learners. In the end, the project team wrote eleven to sixteen readers at each of the different levels from introductory to intermediate.”

Readers_ (4) (2)“The entire team of writers and editors were ESL literacy practitioners in Bow Valley College’s ESL Literacy and Practical programs in the CEIIA. In all, there were six writers and the two of us as editors directly involved. Other CEIIA instructors supported the process by piloting the readers in their classes and offering feedback on the stories.” Theresa explained, “Instructors worked in pairs, with two teachers writing for one phase. Some instructors worked together and would meet throughout the process. After writers finished a story, they would send it for editing, where Joan and I would run the stories through all of the criteria we had developed as a team earlier in the process.”

Joan added, “Our purpose was not only developing material for our learners, but also to create exemplars to demonstrate to instructors what they needed to take into consideration when they were developing [their own] materials.”

Readers_ (12) (2)As part of the project, they reviewed other initiatives and related research to gather information about best practices in developing reading materials for new readers. They discovered ongoing work being done in this area at Newcastle University in England. Researchers Young-Scholten and Maguire (2010) found that there was a shortage of non-fiction and fiction books written for the lowest level second language learners. They set up a pilot project to train undergraduate English language and linguistics students to write stories for low level ESL literacy learners. The purpose of their project was two-fold: to educate the student writers about the needs of low literacy English language learners and to increase the availability of books for this population. The pilot eventually led to the Cracking Good Stories project, an ongoing initiative that trains people on how to write books for low literacy ESL learners and contributes to the development of appropriate level books for this learner group.

Incorporating this and other research with the experience of practitioners working in the CEIIA, Theresa and Joan compiled a list of best practices for practitioners to consider in the creation of their own ESL literacy stories, which is included in the ESL Literacy Readers Guide that was written as an accompaniment to the readers:

  1. Choose relevant themes. Learners will understand and better relate to stories that speak to their everyday lives.

It’s so important that the reading material we’re giving our learners to work with is something that is completely relevant, that they can connect to, that has to do with their day-to-day lives, or something that they already have experience with so that the text doesn’t become cumbersome. They are learning to read, learning the reading strategies, learning the vocabulary, learning the syntax, and so adding an unfamiliar topic that potentially has little relevance to the learners’ lives does not support the reading process,” Theresa explained.

  1. Keep vocabulary simple. Stories should consist of vocabulary familiar to learners; only a few new words should be introduced in a reading. Repetition of key words is critical, particularly with lower Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) levels.

“Learners have to be able to read 98% of the surrounding text before they’re able to use context clues so that’s a very high percentage of words that they have to be familiar with in order to use that strategy. I think that’s something that often we don’t realize. It’s just too much of an overload with new words and new concepts, and unfamiliar situations or unfamiliar content. That whole scaffolding piece before they actually get to reading the text is so critical. Whether that’s oral language or work with the new vocabulary and different kind of games and that sort of thing. We need to set them up for success,” Joan emphasized.

  1. Choose fonts carefully. Font type and size are both important. Fonts should be clear, easy-to-read, and larger than in non-literacy materials. At the lower CLB levels, the font used should not contain the script version of ‘a’; however, it should be introduced in the higher levels as it is found in most authentic print.
  2. Include plenty of whitespace. An uncluttered page is critical in stories written for LIFE (learners with interrupted formal education). The amount of whitespace can decrease with higher CLB levels.
  3. Use authentic pictures. Good pictures facilitate comprehension a great deal. The more realistic the pictures are, the more easily learners will interpret them – a photograph is better than a drawing, for example.

(Bow Valley College 2011, 10)

After doing this project, I have a new awareness of how complex the process of reading text is, and what you need to take into account to come up with texts that are meaningful, relevant, level appropriate, and address the learner’s reality. (Joan Bruce, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)

The ESL Literacy Readers Guide is intended to assist practitioners in developing lessons for both the pre-reading and post-reading stages. It explains how the 40 stories are organized in levels from introductory to intermediate, and encompass the range of reading skills within each level.[2]

It also explains the importance of themes, and how they were carefully selected in the writing of the stories and recur throughout the different levels. “Theme-teaching allows for a natural progression into practical, real-life extension activities – activities that go beyond the classroom and have a basis in authentic printed material and application in the community” (ESL Literacy Readers Guide 2011). The guide gives suggestions for extension activities corresponding to the themes and using authentic printed materials. Theme topics include food/shopping/money, housing, transportation, employment, leisure, health, school and clothing.

Both the Readers’ Guide and the Readers themselves are freely available and easily downloaded from the ESL Literacy Network.

I asked both Theresa and Joan about the success of the ESL Literacy Readers. Were learners using them and had they improved their skills?

Theresa replied, “I remember one of the things I was excited about was that one of the learners in our class told me she was actually reading her book at home. She had it in her bedroom so when she put her child down to sleep, she’d make some time to read. To me, there were two important pieces to this – first, there was a book she could (and wanted to) read independently, and second, this book was hers to keep and read whenever she wanted to. Now she had the tools to practice reading at home on her own.”

Joan added, “We sometimes also don’t realize the importance of a child seeing their parent read. That it is sending a message to the child that reading is important and that it’s something we enjoy doing. And so having this woman able to read to her child or having books in the home, the effects of that are far reaching because it affects the child and their attitude, and how they feel about reading.”

Some final words

The ESL Literacy Readers project is successful and innovative on many fronts. The Canadian-produced materials are specifically designed and written with the needs of adult ESL literacy learners in mind. The chosen themes are of high interest and pertinent to learners’ lives. The events and issues portrayed are those that a typical learner may experience in their new country. Deng goes to school, Lien buys food, Amir gets sick, and A Problem at Work are only a handful of titles in the 40 stories. An added bonus is that the photos accompanying the stories are of learners at Bow Valley College. Research and experience has shown that the more realistic a photo is, the more easily learners will interpret them and relate to them. The ESL Literacy Readers fill an important need for relevant, interesting adult-oriented reading materials targeted at beginning ESL literacy learners.

This project made it possible for instructor-created materials, developed specifically for ESL literacy learners, to be available to instructors across the country. And for learners to be able to take home and keep these books is a big deal for someone who has not had access to books that are both level appropriate and age-appropriate. (Theresa Wall, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)


Bow Valley College. 2011. ESL Literacy Readers’ Guide. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Bow Valley College. 2011. ESL Literacy Readers. Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Clarity, Mary. 2007. “An Extensive Reading Program for Your ESL Classroom.” The Internet TESL Journal 13(8).

Maley, Alan. 2009. “Extensive reading: why it is good for our students…and for us.” Teaching English Blog (British Council, BBC World Service).

Smith, John W. A. and Warwick B. Elley. 1997. How Children Learn to Read: Insights from the New Zealand Experience. Auckland, New Zealand: Longman.

Young-Scholten, Martha and Margaret Wilkinson. 2010. “The Cracking Good Stories project: Creating fiction for LESLLA adults.” Presented at the EU-Speak Inaugural Workshop, Newcastle, England, November 5-7.

[1] LINC refers to Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada, a program funded by the Government of Canada (

[2] The Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: ESL for Literacy Learners document informed the development of the ESL Literacy Readers ( This document organized the different ESL literacy levels into phases. It has since been revised, and the organization changed from phases to levels (Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners (ALL), In the near future, the ESL Literacy Readers will be re-organized to reflect the levels outlined in the 2015 document.

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