All teachers of low-level literacy must be
familiar with this scenario: You spend hours planning
an activity for class. When the time comes, you explain the activity, holding the paper up where
the learners can see it. You pass out the papers and are met with a chorus of, "I don't understand,
teacher." You explain it again, which doesn't help, so you show individual learners on their
papers how to do the activity. By the time the learners understand what they're supposed to do,
they're finished with the exercise. How can we avoid this problem? In this article I will illustrate
techniques for modeling three kinds of literacy activities-cloze, cut-up sentences, and matching,
so learners will be able to do them successfully and independently.
I have modeled these activities with my ESOL students in the literacy level class at the
International Institute of Boston.
Don't Assume Too Much
Most of the activities we do in ABE/ESOL classrooms are unfamiliar to learners who have
limited formal education. Teachers assign matching exercises, cloze exercises, cut-up sentences,
and comprehension questions because we believe these exercises will improve learners'
comprehension of a particular story and help their reading ability in general. These are "school-
based" activities, unlike reading itself, which is an activity people do both inside and outside the
classroom. We can't assume that students already know how to complete these tasks; People
learn how to do these activities after being in classrooms and doing them repeatedly. Initially,
however, they need explicit instruction and modeling before they can do the activities
independently. Of course, the end goal of these activities I have chosen to model: cloze, cut-up
sentences, and matching is to help beginning readers manipulate text in a variety of ways so they
gain confidence and fluency in the reading process.
Can Everyone See?
In general, modeling (where the teacher shows the class how to do something using an
example) is a whole-class activity, so the first question is how to make the activity large enough
that everyone will see and work with it easily.
An excellent tool for teachers of low-level literacy classes is a pocket chart, available
through the Hammett Co. A pocket chart is a nylon fabric rectangle that hangs on the wall; sewn
onto the nylon are clear plastic strips to make horizontal pockets. You can put word cards, letter
cards, pictures, or whatever you want in the see-through pockets, then take them out and reshuffle them.
Another prop useful for modeling literacy activities is large paper, such as a roll of
newsprint. The ends of rolls of newsprint are often available free from newspaper printers. A
more expensive alternative is a flip chart. A pocket chart and large paper are both invaluable
props-I honestly don't know how I could teach low-level literacy without either of them. Most
activities can be modeled for the whole class using one of these two props.
Post reading Activities
The exercises I discuss below are postreading activities. All of these exercises start with a
reading, either learner-generated, teacher-written, or from a source outside the class. The learners are
familiar with the text before beginning any of
these follow-up activities. The activities help the reader become more fluent with the text they have
initially encountered, helping them reinforce vocabulary, sentence structure, and comprehension.
All three activities can be done
using the same original text, allowing for reinforcement of language and reading in a variety of ways.
For the cloze activity, the teacher puts blanks in the story in place of some of the words.
Learners figure out what the missing words are and write them in the blanks. There are many
different ways to do a cloze. Some teachers remove every 5th, 6th, or 7th word arbitrarily from a
text. The purpose of this is for readers to skip over the blank, read the rest of the sentence, and
select a word that would make sense in the sentence, either from a word bank or from their own
vocabulary. Some teachers remove selected words with a grammatical, phonetic, vocabulary, or
content focus. For example some remove all the prepositions, some remove "to be" verbs, others
remove articles. The teacher can supply a list of words for the blanks, or not. Some beginning
readers need to use the original story for reference when completing a cloze.
Modeling Cloze Activities
If the original reading the cloze is based on is a language experience story elicited from the
class, the teacher may have already written the story on big paper as the learners were telling it,
then taken it down to write the activities for the next class.
- The teacher can put the original story on big paper back onto the wall, then cover some
words with post-it notes. A word list can go on the board or another piece of big paper, if desired.
- Have learners read the story aloud and discuss what words go in the spaces.
- Have one learner come up to the story with a marker and write the word on the post-it note,
then check off the word from the word list.
- Have another learner come up and write another word and so on, until the cloze is complete.
- Then lift up the post-it notes to check it against the original.
Alternatively, the teacher can write the whole cloze on big paper with blanks and a word list
at the bottom, and individual learners can come up to fill it in as discussed above.
After modeling the activity and making sure students know how to proceed, the teacher can
then hand out individual cloze worksheets and point out step-by-step that the activity is the same
as the one they have just practiced as a whole class. At this point, I usually say "no pencils," so
everyone stays with the explanation; otherwise, some students will want to copy from the model.
The class can complete the activity orally, using their worksheets, then the teacher can fold up the
model and learners can complete the activity on their worksheets in writing.
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A cut-up sentence activity uses sentences from the same story, which have been cut up into
individual words. The goal of the cut-up sentence activity is for learners to reassemble sentences,
then put the sentences into order to reassemble the story. This is a challenging activity, best done
after learners are very familiar with a story. It leads learners to focus on sentence structure and
on reading each individual word of a story instead of calling (guessing) or skipping words. This
is especially important for literacy-level students.
Modeling Cut-up Sentences
To model this activity, use the pocket chart.
- The teacher can write the story, word by word, on index cards or cut-up manila folders.
(These words can often be reused, since there are many common words from story to story).
- The teacher gives out the word cards, a few to each learner, and asks them to read their words
to the class.
- Then the teacher can motion to the pocket chart and tell the learners to create the story in the
chart. One learner is sure to understand enough to get started and ask others for cards ("I need
'she.' Mohammed, do you have 'she'?") and others will quickly catch on.
- The teacher can monitor participation, asking particular learners to sit down after they've
completed some of the story, and encouraging others to get out of their seats with their cards and
go to the chart.
- After they're finished, the class can reread the completed story from the pocket chart. (If it
was difficult, the teacher can choose to repeat the whole-class activity the next day before having
learners do the task individually.)
- Each student then gets an envelope of cut-up words that he or she reassembles and tapes
together at her seat. Students can then copy their reassembled words for reinforcement.
Matching activities, where a learner draws a line from a list in one column to the
corresponding item in the other column, can give additional practice with vocabulary words and
can teach sorting or categorizing skills. They can also teach learners to read for specific
information. However, they are often difficult for low-literacy learners and need careful modeling
to avoid confusion.
An example of a matching activity might be to match the name of fruits and vegetables with
the correct colors. In another case, the worksheet would match names to activities, for example:
Victor--go shopping and Marie--go to the park.
Matching activities can be challenging for a few reasons. Learners sometimes get lost and
forget the first item if they don't find the matching item right away. Drawing the lines can be
challenging because they may try to draw more than one line for each item, or they may draw
lines straight across the paper instead of looking for matches.
Part One: (Using Paper Strips)
I have found that breaking the modeling into two parts works best. The first part uses paper
slips rather than drawing lines across columns.
Part Two: (Using Lines)
- The teacher prints out names of students (Victor, Marie, etc.) on one color paper and cuts it
into word slips. She then prints out activities (went to the park, went shopping) on another color
paper and cuts it into phrase slips.
- Using the pocket chart, the teacher calls a learner up to the chart and guides the learner to put
the names and activities together on one line of the chart. For example, "Victor" with "went
shopping," "Marie" with "went to the park," and so on.
- Once students have shown that they understand the concept of matching, they can work in
pairs or individually using their own smaller packets of word slips to put together.
- For extra practice students can copy their matching word slips onto another sheet of paper.
Once students get the idea of matching, the teacher can move toward modeling the activity
using lines across columns. This task aids in locating specific information from a text and can
prepare students for reading charts and graphs.
- The teacher writes the matching activity on big paper.
- The class reads it together and discusses the answer: that is, which thing in column A gets
matched with which thing in column B. For example, names in column A get matched with
activities in column B.
- An individual learner comes to the front with a marker to draw a line connecting the
- Students then get an individual worksheet and complete the activity in pairs or on their own.
As you can infer from the above activities, successful modelling is repetitious: the whole
class does the whole exercise, then learners do it individually on their own paper.
Such repetition in the modeling process may sound boring, but in my experience, it never is.
It feels like a different activity when the whole class does it versus individual learners working
independently. The repetition, far from being boring, gives learners the practice they need to successfully complete the
Resources for props: J.L Hammett Co. catalog: 1-800-333-4600 or
Lee Haller teaches and supervises the basic ESOL literacy and math program at the
International Institute of Boston. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org