A Case Study for Teaching Pre-Literacy Skills to EFL Learners

Cynthia Akazawa

Hello, colleagues! I am very pleased to welcome Cynthia Akazawa, a well-respected English language educator based in Japan, as a guest columnist for this issue. She will discuss her literacy program with a focus on the development of pre-literacy skills.

A Case Study for Teaching Pre-Literacy Skills to EFL Learners
Introducing Pre-K students to sound discrimination, phonological awareness, and extensive reading has allowed us to give the six-year-old students who enter our reading program a better chance for success. I have no data to offer in support of this opinion, but students are progressing faster since we made the commitment to teaching pre-literacy skills in 2007, despite our teaching materials in the reading program remaining constant.
First, let me describe the kinds of pre-literacy training we give to children in our Pre-K program. We conscientiously weave sound discrimination and phonological awareness instruction into every class hour. We teach both of these skills by playfully exaggerating and elongating the pronunciation of new vocabulary. We get the students to look at our mouths and mimic our mouth gestures. It’s silly and fun, and we laugh a lot, but the work is serious for teachers because we purposefully focus on especially challenging sounds such as the “th” in “three”, the “f” and “v” in “five” and the “n” in “ten” to improve sound discrimination through the experience of forming sounds correctly. Elongating the sounds in a word also helps children to become more aware of all the different sounds within it. This is the beginning of phonological awareness which, when combined with letter knowledge, are key predictors to students’ success in learning to read (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Our way of using music in the class also supports pre-literacy goals. We use songs that are slow enough for students to clearly articulate the lyrics, and the language is simple enough for the students to clearly understand. When accurate articulation is accompanied by comprehension, children can begin to internalize the meaning of grammatical structures and vocabulary in a kinesthetic way. Oral output strongly correlates with reading comprehension (Catts & Hogan, 2003), so teachers need to be deliberate in creating tasks that encourage children to produce meaningful language as early as possible.
My school also has an extensive reading library with 100 books devoted to teaching language to Pre-K students. How can pre-literate students enjoy extensive reading? You might imagine the experience to be more like extensive listening, but not many three-year-old children will listen to a CD and read along. So, I did something fun to help them. I wrote songs that told picture book stories in language accessible to EFL students, and I sang them into CDs along with an audio track of me reading the books with exaggerated intonation. I also included a page-by-page quiz to see if the children could find things in the pictures and point to them with their parents. Many parents use the CDs to enjoy the books with their children, and then they play the CDs in the car to extend that enjoyment. Young children at my school check out books far more often than older children, and so giving them early pleasurable experiences with shared reading increases the chances of them becoming early independent readers.
The data from research on extensive reading for older students indicates that extensive reading is the best route to acquiring vocabulary and syntax (Sheu, 2003). Since roughly 70 percent of poor readers have deficits in vocabulary, morphology, and understanding of syntax, extensive reading needs to be a part of any English language curriculum (Nation, Clarke, Marshall, & Durand, 2004). While I have no data to share regarding the use of extensive reading experiences with Pre-K students, I believe something similarly dynamic happens to very young children, so I enthusiastically share that philosophy with parents.
Formal reading instruction begins in our first-year elementary school classroom. The class format changes from a one-hour, once a week conversation class to two hours comprised of one hour of conversation and one hour of reading. The conversation class uses a popular course book, and within that hour we include plenty of writing experiences. The reading course focuses on literacy skills, but it also includes plenty of carefully planned conversation work because I believe English can’t be taught well when the four skills are separated and compartmentalized. When students are trained in synthetic phonics, writing is not an act of copying but a legitimate form of speech, and reading is merely a sophisticated form of listening.
Readers familiar with typical language course book experiences might be wondering how the experience in our reading course differs, so I will describe a typical hour. I like to start off with a print that has many line drawings depicting verbs, adjectives, prepositions of location, plurals and pronouns. I use language to describe something in the picture for them to color with crayons. I ask them, “What is it?”, “Where are they?”, “What’s he doing?”, “Is it long?”, “Where is it?”, and so on, and the children will try to answer while coloring. Keeping student’s hands busy coloring helps them to focus on listening and speaking. During the exercise, we do not focus on one grammatical structure like most conversation course books do. Rather, we use a variety of basic structures common to most early elementary curricula.
After the initial language work is done, I begin to pass students a series of prints with different kinds of tasks that focus on stroke order, blending, vowel discrimination, letter discrimination, initial consonant discrimination and vocabulary work in fun puzzle-like tasks. I encourage students to work independently, and I give support when needed.
I like to end the hour with a fluency reading task. Rapid naming of letters is an important skill because slow readers are poor at reading comprehension (for example, Beglar, Hunt, & Kite, 2012; Nuttall, 2005). Beware, however, that impressive fluency in the absence of comprehension occurs often enough in EFL classrooms. In my early years as a teacher, I remember teaching phonics for the first time. All of my students were reading out loud beautifully, but their comprehension was disappointing. I had made the mistake of assuming that comprehension would naturally follow decoding. Most native English speakers do not require explicit comprehension instruction, but young EFL students most assuredly do.
The ideal reading course is when the teacher acts as a facilitator rather than taking the lead. That takes good teaching materials and a commitment to developing independent learners. There is certainly much more to say about teaching reading to young children in EFL settings, but the most important points are: start early, have clear goals and a plan and, most importantly, have fun.


  • Beglar, D., Hunt, A., & Kite, Y. (2012). The effect of pleasure reading on Japanese university EFL learners’ reading rates. Language Learning, 62(3), 665–703.
  • Catts, H. W., & Hogan, T. P. (2003). Language basis of reading disabilities and implications for early identification and remediation. Reading Psychology, 24(3-4), 223-246.
  • Nation, K., Clarke, P., Marshall, C. M., & Durand, M. (2004). Hidden language impairments in children: Parallels between poor reading comprehension and specific language impairment? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 47(1) 199-211.
  • National Reading Panel. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. NIH Publication. Retrieved from https://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs/nrp/documents/report.pdf
  • Nuttall, C. (2005). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford, UK: Macmillan Education.
  • Sheu, P. H. (2003) Extensive reading as a breakthrough in a traditional EFL curriculum: Experimental research in junior high schools in Taiwan. PhD Thesis, University of Warwick Centre for English Language Teacher Education. Retrieved from http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/2500/1/WRAP_THESIS_Sheu_2003.pdf

Cynthia Akazawa is the owner/head teacher of Interact English School in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. The school caters to children, ages 2 to 15 years. They have had a reading program from age six since 2005, and have systematically introduced pre-literacy activities to Pre-K classes from 2007. <http://www.interactjp.com>