The cognitive processes involved in reading comprehension depend on accurate decoding. This paper explains how visualization improves both comprehension and decoding, and it provides a variety of activities that encourage students of all ages to visualize both the forms and meanings of words.
Key words: reading comprehension, decoding, visualization, interactive

Competent readers make movies when they read, picturing the events, characters, and information in their minds (Bell, 2007). Although the clarity and detail of the pictures may vary, a good reader can see a fish when reading “f-i-s-h,” and can imagine the scene of Harry Potter’s first broom ride when he chased after Neville’s Remembrall. If readers cannot make movies as they read, their understanding and memory of the text can be severely compromised (Bell, 2007). 

Visualizing what we read is important not only for comprehension, but also for decoding because the critical first steps in learning to read involve phonemic awareness and linking the visual images of letters to their sounds. Words are stored by sound in long term memory, yet recognized visually when reading, so both the sounds and the letters of a word are needed to recognize written words (Farrell & Cushen White, 2018; Seidenberg, 2017). Can you close your eyes and picture the letters in “fish”? Readers who cannot picture the letters in words may struggle with word recognition and spelling (Bell, 2001, p. 29).  

For beginning or struggling readers of any age, then, training in how to visualize the spelling and meaning of words can be enormously beneficial. After exploring the cognitive processes behind the roles of visualization in decoding and comprehension, this paper describes strategies for helping students visualize what they read.

Cognitive Processes


Learning to read begins with phonemic awareness and decoding, which entail using the pronunciation of a word to link sounds to letters (Kilpatrick, 2015, pp. 253-269). Seidenberg (2017, p. 119-120) asserts that the “initial hurdle” of decoding involves understanding how letters in written language represent phonemes (sounds) in spoken language. Phonemic awareness entails taking spoken words that are uttered as a series of connected phonemes and teasing out the individual sounds. Then these sounds are associated with arbitrary written symbols, or letters. Because the decoding task is cross modal, linking auditory and visual information, it becomes even more difficult. Yet the links between phonemes and letters must become automatic—quickly and effortlessly accessed—in order for a reader to comprehend a text, in large part because of the limits of working memory.

Working memory only lasts 20 seconds and holds only about five to seven pieces of information in adults (Goldstein, 2015, pp. 127-129). Working memory is not so much about storing information as it is about using information (Baddeley, 2012). For example, working memory allows a listener to process what someone says, holding the first part of an utterance in mind, combining it with the next part of the utterance, and making sense of the entire statement. Similarly, readers use working memory to parse what they read, connecting information in the first part of a sentence or paragraph to the next part. 

For readers who are not fluent, decoding becomes a bottleneck that reduces or even eliminates comprehension. This bottleneck in processing can be traced to many sources for second language (L2) readers, including slow word recognition, trouble with syntax, and pronunciation (Koda, 2007; Nassaji, 2007; Shiotsu & Weir, 2007). For young readers, whether they are L2 learners or not, simply recognizing letters and linking them to sounds can pose such a hurdle that the beginning of a CVC word is lost to working memory before the final consonant is ever reached. Furthermore, automatic decoding allows words to be identified as chunks of information, so that “fish” counts as only one item in working memory rather than four separate letters or three phonemes. Because the working memory capacity of children is even more limited than adults, with 3-4 items for elementary students (Paulson, 2018), automatic decoding is essential for young readers.


For comprehension of longer texts, which is to say, anything that exceeds the 20-second time limit of working memory, readers need to convert the words to semantics, or meaning, that can be stored in long-term memory. This conversion is necessary because long-term memory stores most information semantically, based on meaning and associations (Goldstein, 2015, p. 160). Visualization facilitates this conversion, allowing mental images to replace the individual words that created the scenes. In other words, although I could not quote J. K. Rowlings’ exact description of Harry Potter’s first broom flight, I could provide a fairly detailed description of what happened based on my mental image of the event.

Given that comprehending a text involves many cognitive processes which essentially require a back-and-forth interplay between working memory and long-term memory, making a movie as one reads enables ongoing comprehension. Working memory busily processes the incoming visual words, retrieving their phonemic representations and semantics from long-term memory. When this process is automatic, the meanings of individual words are easily combined in phrases and paragraphs, whose images are stored in long-term memory for later access as the longer text unfolds. If the process is not automatic, readers may be unable to either retrieve word meanings from long-term memory, or to make images of phrases that can be encoded in long-term memory. As Bell (2007) points out, readers who fail to create a picture in their mind of what they are reading will end up not understanding or remembering a text they have just labored over.

Visualization strategies

Many strategies that help students visualize meaning and spelling echo the best practices English Learner (EL) teachers already use to engage students.  However, by intentionally linking interactive techniques to visualization, students not only benefit from engaging, multimodal activities, but they also gain specific skills that equip them to become stronger readers and more proficient spellers. Some strategies described in this paper target meaning:   

A. drawing

B. using props

C. acting.

These meaning-based strategies were inspired by Bell’s (2007) work on visualizing and verbalizing, but instead of requiring students to verbally describe their mental images as Bell does, these strategies encourage nonverbal communication. Visualization techniques that target spelling and decoding (adapted from Bell, 2001 and Slingerland, 1971) include:

D. air writing 

E. backwards spelling bee.

All of these visualization strategies are outlined below, with tips for implementation. These strategies can be used with students of all ages, and most can be modified for small or large groups, or for online learning. 

Strategies that target meaning

The first step in each of the meaning-based strategies is for students to read a word, sentence, or passage. Keep in mind that the way that students read the material can vary, depending on how challenging it is for them. For example, they may read independently and silently, or they may read aloud with the support of choral reading or partner work. Even in distance learning, students can read aloud. In one-on-one online contexts, the student could read aloud for the teacher; in a synchronous group meeting, volunteers could read the text aloud. For asynchronous lessons, a teacher can model reading aloud to a stuffed animal, a pet, or a family member, and encourage students to do the same. Regardless of how students read the material, immediately following their reading, they use a visualization strategy to practice seeing in their mind what they just read.

A. Steps for drawing:

1. Students read a word, sentence, or passage. As noted above, give students as much or little support as needed for this step.

a. Tip: Students who struggle may need the support of choral reading, help sounding out words, targeted pronunciation work, or comprehension checks.

b. Tip: More skilled readers may be able to read silently and independently, or aloud with a partner. 

2. On a separate piece of paper, students sketch a picture of what they read.  

a. Tip: It often helps to set a time limit of 2-3 minutes so that students do not get bogged down in trying to create elaborate drawings. 

b. Variation: Students can draw on a whiteboard, which facilitates several rounds of reading and drawing.

c. Variation: The teacher can create a worksheet with a box next to each word or passage for students to draw what they visualize.  

d. Variation: The teacher can create worksheets with pictures that students match or cut and glue. The Explode the Code series (Hall & Price, 2016, available in hard copy or online) also has exercises for matching words and pictures for a range of reading levels. 

3. Students share their pictures. They can share quickly by holding up their pictures so the teacher and other students can see what they drew, but it can be helpful to have some or all students briefly explain what their picture shows and receive feedback.  

a. Tip: The immediate feedback should target important details that students did or did not include, such as, “I see Julio drew the cat sitting on the mat instead of standing. That’s great because the sentence said that the cat was sitting.”

b. Variation: Students could do a gallery walk, partner share, or other interactive strategies, particularly if they have read a longer passage.

c. Variations for online lessons: Synchronous video lessons might allow students to hold up their pictures to their camera for others to see. With Flipgrid, students could create a brief video showing and explaining their work. Other applications, such as Padlet, would allow students to take a picture of their work and upload it with a brief written comment.

B. Steps for using props (see Figure 1):

1. Students read a sentence or passage. Give students as much or little support as they need; for differentiation ideas for this step, see the “Tips” in A. 1. above.

a. Tip: This technique works well for longer passages that students re-read with a partner as they use the props. In this case, the initial reading could be independent or choral.

2. Students receive, choose, or create props to use.

a. Tip: Depending on your goals for the lesson, this step can take as little time as distributing materials, or it can be a multi-day project for creating materials.

b. Tip: Before distributing materials, model how the props might be used to show meaning. Modeling is especially important the first few times this activity is used.

c. Variation: Props might include figurines, puppets, toys, and math or science manipulatives.

d. Variation: Props that students create could be made with playdough, paper, felt, or objects such as rocks, sticks, and cardboard boxes.

3. Students use props to show the meaning of the sentence or passage. 

a. Tip: If students work with partners, the stronger reader can read the passage aloud while the weaker reader shows the meaning using the props, and then the students switch roles.

b. Tip: With non-fiction texts, partners can work together to decide how to show the meaning of the passage. Then some or all groups would demonstrate their work to the class.

c. Variation: To encourage students to demonstrate deeper understanding, ask students to analyze and evaluate, rather than create. The teacher or a volunteer can use props to show the meaning of a passage, sometimes deliberately making mistakes. The rest of the class gives a thumbs up or down, or some other response, to indicate if the demonstration matches the passage.

d. Variations for online lessons: For synchronous lessons, variation C above would work well (having the teacher or a volunteer use props while others give a thumbs up or down). For asynchronous lessons, Flipgrid or other video tools would allow students to submit their own puppet shows. 

Figure 1. Ideas for Props

C. Steps for acting:

1. Students read a sentence or passage. Give students as much or little support as they need; for differentiation ideas for this step, see the “Tips” in A. 1. above.

a. Tip: Like using props, this technique works well for longer passages that students re-read in small groups.

b. Variation: Instead of having all students act out the passage, skip steps 2 and 3 below and have just the teacher and perhaps some volunteers act it out. This variation is useful when first introducing the activity to a class, or if students are not confident because of limited English skills or because a collaborative class culture is still being built.

2. Students rehearse the scene. Model how to act out a scene before asking students to rehearse and act, particularly the first few times this activity is used. Depending on students’ needs, the teacher can model the entire scene, a portion of it, or a different scene from the one students will perform. 

a. Tip: When modeling how to act out the meaning, a student who is a strong reader can narrate while the teacher acts. 

b. Tip: Having some simple props makes the activity more fun.

c. Tip: Introduce or assign roles. For example, a fiction text about a dog and boy could have three roles: narrator, dog, boy. A nonfiction text about the water cycle could have two roles: narrator, water. By making the roles clear, groups can focus more quickly on rehearsing.

d. Variation: If the passage is short, students might not need to rehearse, but can go straight to performing their assigned sentence. In this case, each group could be assigned a different sentence. The class could read all sentences at the beginning of the activity, then groups perform them in turn. Alternatively, the class could read a sentence together, one group performs it, then the class would read the next sentence, a different group performs it, and so on.

3. Students perform the scene.  

a. Tip: To save time, only one or two groups perform for the whole class. The groups can be chosen as the teacher circulates among groups, and the teacher might let the selected groups know that they will be performing.

b. Variation: Although it is often helpful to have a narrator who reads the text while others act out the meaning, omitting a narrator may be appropriate for longer texts.

c. Variation: Groups are paired to perform for each other. In this case, the teacher gives a signal, such as ringing a bell, when it is time for the second group in a pair to perform.

d. Variations for online lessons: For asynchronous lessons, students can be assigned different sentences or texts to perform, without reading the text during their performance. Using a platform like Flipgrid, students watch each others’ videos and post comments to guess which texts their classmates performed. Synchronous lessons could include a similar game, either using the comment box or offering guesses aloud after each performance.

Strategies that target spelling and decoding

Visualizing the letters in words can be as fun as visualizing meaning through drawing and puppet shows. Because readers need to visualize both the letters and the meanings of words, visualization strategies that target spelling can and should be used in conjunction with strategies that target meaning. Depending on students’ needs, it may make sense to introduce spelling and decoding strategies first. A group of native English-speaking kindergarteners, for example, probably needs more work initially with visualizing letters and linking them to sounds in words. In contrast, a group of WIDA Level 2 EL eighth graders who are literate in their home language may benefit most from practice picturing the meaning of what they read, and only later working on visualizing the spelling of words.  

The visualization strategies below can be quick exercises at the beginning of a lesson, or they can be longer activities that are the focus of a lesson. In either case, pacing is key to giving students enough time to think while at the same time maintaining a good energy level.

D. Steps for air writing (adapted from Bell, 2001; Slingerland, 1971; see linked website Sight Words, 2020):

1. Introduce a word visually, saying the word aloud and encouraging students to notice all the letters.

a. Tip: Students chorally repeat the word and tap out the phonemes as you point to the corresponding letters. As needed, notice the number of letters and syllables, prefixes and suffixes, stress, and applicable spelling rules.

b. Variation: Words can be written on a board, shown as flash cards, or read in a book or worksheet.

c. Variation: When working on sounding out words or applying spelling rules, omit showing the word, or show it after students have printed it in the air so they can check their accuracy.

2. Students use one finger and a straight arm to write the word in the air.

a. Tip: The letters need to be about the size a teacher would write on a whiteboard, and written carefully in a straight line in front of the student. Sloppy air writing or overlapping letters minimizes the benefit of visualizing and feeling the letters.

b. Tip: Students can imagine they are writing on a whiteboard, even choosing the color of dry erase marker they are using.

c. Variation: Write the word, using one finger, on a table or the floor instead of in the air.

3. Students close their eyes and visualize the word they wrote.

a. Tip: Erase or remove the word you showed in step 1.

b. Tip: Ask students what color their word is, if they can see specific letters, what the last letter is, or other probing questions to help them really “look” at the word.

c. Variation: Students keep their eyes open and look at the imaginary whiteboard in front of them, or the table or floor where they wrote the word, and visualize the word.

d. Variation for online lessons: Air writing could be done in a synchronous lesson if the teacher can see students; it would work best in lessons with 1-3 students.

E. Steps for backwards spelling bee (adapted from Bell, 2001):

1. Show students a word on a flashcard or whiteboard; students read the word aloud. Then, hide or erase the word.

a. Variation: Instead of reading the word chorally, students may read it silently, or individual students can be called on to read it.

b. Variation: To make the activity more game-like, familiar words can be flashed to students for just a second or two.

c. Variation: Cover one letter at a time instead of the whole word to help students gain confidence.

2. Outloud, one student spells the word forwards.

a. Tip: To keep a fun fast pace, encourage students to spell quickly, or give them a time limit.

b. Tip: If a student cannot spell the word or misspells it, go to the next student. If several students in a row cannot spell the word, either ask for a volunteer to spell it, or show the word again and go to the next student in line.

c. Variation: For the first practice session with a set of words, all students write the word on a whiteboard, check it when the teacher shows the word again, then erase it. This variation can also be used in subsequent sessions to make the task easier and less competitive.

d. Variation: To make the task easier, one student writes the word on a whiteboard, shows it, then erases it.

e. Variation: To make the task harder, skip this step and go straight to step 3, spelling the word backwards.

3. Outloud, another student spells the word backwards. Confirm the correct spelling enthusiastically.

a. Tip: Encourage students to go slowly and take their time. The cognitive load of spelling backwards is high, requiring visualization as the speller toggles between working memory and long-term memory.

b. Tip: As in step 2, if a student cannot successfully spell the word backwards, go to the next student, ask for a volunteer, or show the word again and go to the next student.

c. Tip: Unlike writing the word forwards, writing backwards can be confusing and unhelpful, so I avoid writing on this step. Instead, students can point to the invisible letters in the air, going backwards.

d. Variation: Ask the rest of the class to say whether the word was spelled correctly; if they are uncertain or disagree, have the speller spell the word again so the class has a second chance to evaluate the spelling.

e. Variation for online lessons: The game-like aspect of this activity works well in synchronous lessons, whether with one student or a group. To avoid students cheating by writing down the word, student videos should be visible.

Strategies and learning

When choosing visualization strategies, teachers should consider not just the type of visualization that a strategy targets, whether meaning or spelling, but how visualization fits in the goals of a lesson or unit. To encourage peer interaction, using props and acting emphasize partner and group work, but drawing can also incorporate interactive sharing at the end of the activity. For in-person or online teaching, drawing lends itself well to assignments that are submitted, but using props and acting could be assigned if students can use video tools such as Flipgrid. Online lessons that incorporate air writing can be delivered as pre-recorded videos or as synchronous video meetings, but in-person work on air writing may make it easier to give feedback to students and make sure they are practicing effectively. Whatever way a teacher decides to use visualization activities, it is fairly simple to adapt them to different settings and lessons, so these research-based strategies are both versatile and fun.  

Recommended resources



Baddeley, A. (2012). Working memory: Theories, models, and controversies. The Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 1–29.

Bell, N. (2001). Seeing stars: Symbol imagery for phonemic awareness, sight words and spelling. Gander Educational Publishing.

Bell, N. (2007). Visualizing and verbalizing: For language comprehension and thinking (2nd ed.). Gander Educational Publishing.

Farrell, M. L., & Cushen White, N.  (2018). Structured literacy instruction. In J. R. Birsh & S. Carreker (Eds.) Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (4th ed) (pp. 35-80). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Goldstein, E. B. (2015). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (4th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Hall, N., & Price, R. (2016). Explode the code 1: Essential lessons for phonics mastery (2nd ed.). Educators Publishing Service.

Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties.  Wiley.

Koda, K. (2007). Reading and language learning: Crosslinguistic constraints on second language reading development. Language Learning, 57(S1), 1–44. 

Maslen, B. L. (2006). The red car. Scholastic Inc.

Nassaji, H. (2007). Schema theory and knowledge-based processes in second language reading comprehension: A need for alternative perspectives. Language Learning, 57(S1), 79–113. 

Paulson, L. H. (2018). Teaching phonemic awareness. In J. R. Birsh & S. Carreker (Eds.) Multisensory teaching of basic language skills (4th ed.) (pp. 205-253). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the speed of sight: How we read, why so many can’t, and what can be done about it. Basic Books.

Shiotsu, T., & Weir, C. J. (2007). The relative significance of syntactic knowledge and vocabulary breadth in the prediction of reading comprehension test performance. Language Testing, 24(1), 99–128. 

Sight Words. (2020). Technique four: Air writing.

Slingerland, B. H. (1971). A multi-sensory approach to language arts for specific language disability children: A guide for primary teachers, Book 1. Educators Publishing Service, Inc.



Learning a language is a lifelong process. Therefore, it is essential to transform an assessment into a moment of learning and joy. To reach this goal, Directed Motivational Current (DMC) theory (Muir & Dörnyei, 2013) was successfully experimented in a Malian English as a Foreign Language classroom in order to intentionally generate the learners’ motivation and push them to surpass themselves during an assessment so that successful learning could take place. The results revealed that the learners experienced an intense motivational level that stimulated an exceptional interest in the assessment instrument.
Key words: Directed Motivational Currents, motivation, assessment, oral presentation project, intense

What happened in my teaching context?

Language assessment is a significant element in the process of teaching and learning. Its outcomes are normally used to improve teaching and learning processes, but in my teaching context, specifically Mali (a West African country) where English is learned as a compulsory foreign language from the seventh grade to university, teachers and the school administrations consider an assessment as their sole property. They use the outcomes of an assessment to make administrative decisions such as validating a course credit. They are rarely utilized to improve the teaching and learning process. As a result, an assessment may increase social inequity instead of minimizing it as claimed by certain specialists in the field of evaluation such as Darling-Hammond (1994). In addition to these issues, most of the Malian English teachers mainly use grammar translation as a method to teach English to their learners. Therefore, during the assessment, these teachers use decontextualized tests (such as multiple-choice questions, true or false questions, matching, and translation from French to English or vice versa) to measure their learners’ competencies. As this way of assessing does not take into account learners’ communicative skills such as written and oral productions, oral interactive tasks, problem solving activities, and project work, it is difficult for the teachers to offer quality feedback to their students. Besides, decontextualized tests may not have a high washback. According to Brown and Abeywickrama (2010), washback is the positive or negative impact that testing has on learning and the teaching process. 

Certain Malian English learners are so demotivated that they consider the English language to be a mirage that they will never reach unless they go to inner circle countries such as Canada, Great Britain, the United States of America, or to some African anglophone countries (e.g., Ghana, Nigeria, or South Africa). Additionally, going to these countries increases the social barriers and promotes exclusion because most of the Malian English learners who are attending public schools are from poor and middle-class families. Most of them cannot afford to go to these English-speaking countries. In the case that they have financial means, obtaining a visa may be another obstacle to their English learning abroad. 

All of these issues motivated me to apply for the Fulbright Scholarship. I learned about this prestigious scholarship thanks to one of my role model professors who was also a Fulbright alumnus. It is worth mentioning that the Fulbright selection process is highly competitive because each candidate is supposed to obtain at least 80 out of 120 on the TOEFL Internet-Based Test (iBT) so that their application can be considered for the final selection. In 2013, my dream became true and I was sent to Minnesota State University, Mankato where I majored in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).  

For my first semester there, I was hypnotized by my professors’ ways of personalizing their feedback and nurturing their students. Long and anxious traditional timed tests were over and these professors considered different learning experiences as course assessments. Projects were also adapted to students’ lives outside of school. This attention was so unique and new for me that I called TESL my ‘little refuge’. As a result, my Master’s thesis focused on the topics of performance-based assessment (PBA) and motivation. PBAs, which are also referred to as authentic assessments or performance assessments, “require students to accomplish approximations of real-life authentic tasks, usually using the productive skills of speaking or writing but also using reading or writing or combining skills” (Brown & Hudson, 1998, p. 662). Data were collected from 25 English learners using pre- and post-project motivation questionnaires to explore their motivational responses to a PBA, specifically an oral presentation project done in small groups. The results indicated that these participants responded positively to an oral presentation project done in small groups. Their test-taking anxiety was also maintained at an optimal level, so it did not interfere with their overall production (Koné, 2015). Other researchers from the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context such as Birjandi and Tamjid (2010), Fook and Sidhu (2010), Nier, Silvio, and Malone (2014), and Zohoorian (2015) also found that PBA had a positive impact on the learning and teaching process. Stefanou and Parkes (2003) additionally argued that a PBA can lead to higher motivation and greater interest in an activity. PBA further motivated learners to stay focused and engaged (Koné, 2015). Based on these positive results, I was curious to figure out my learners’ motivational reactions to a PBA activity, specifically an oral presentation project framed within a Directed Motivational Current (DMC) theory perspective. 

What did I do to make changes in my teaching context?

Although changes did not happen overnight, I decided to use a framework for focused intervention in my EFL classroom that involved 60 first-year students who would be working in small groups of four or five (Dörnyei, Henry, & Muir, 2016). Among them, there were 25 female students and 35 male students whose ages ranged from 17 to 21. There were 13 groups (eight groups of five students and five groups of four students). These students were attending the Professional and Technical Teacher’s Training School in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. They were majoring in communication and office work. Before explaining how I applied such a robust theory in my EFL classroom, it is worth defining a DMC. 

According to Dörnyei, Henry, and Muir (2016), Ibrahim (2016), Ibrahim and Al-Hoorie (2019), Muir (2016), and Muir and Dörnyei (2013), DMCs are an intense motivational surge that goes beyond the motivational level of a highly and intrinsically motivated student. This heightened motivation is so intense that it can support second language learning for a long time (Dörnyei et al., 2016). DMCs can last for a week or even years, but they are finite (Dörnyei et al., 2016). Dörnyei et al. (2016) proposed a teaching methodology called project-based learning and framework variants that can be used to apply DMCs in a language classroom. Among these framework variants, I have used a combination of That’s Me! and All eyes on the Final Product to trigger my EFL learners’ DMCs. A project organized around a That’s Me! framework has a strong connection with learners’ identities and lives. In other words, it values them as learners and takes their needs and particularities into account (Dörnyei et al., 2016; Muir, 2016). It additionally allows them to have their own voice and work on a topic that increases their curiosity and passion. A good example of a project reflecting the That’s Me! framework is the Freedom Writers Diary, a best seller of The New York Times. The Freedom Writers Diary project gave voice to some students who were labelled as low-achievers to be heard on the world stage. They wrote about their lives, dreams, fears, and hope in a journal, and the classroom teacher responded to their entries. Finally, giving learners the opportunity to present their project outcome to a real audience increases its authenticity. 

Regarding a project built around the All eyes on the Final Product framework, this gives learners the opportunity to work on a real-life project and present its outcomes to a real audience (Dörnyei et al., 2016; Muir, 2016). To achieve this aim, the goal of a project must be clear with a strong vision so that learners can be involved in it from the beginning to the end (Muir, 2016). Creating a blog or making a video are examples of projects that reflect an All eyes on the Final Product variant (Dörnyei et al., 2016). Learners should use their second language to record the experiences related to their project work in a journal for each framework variant mentioned previously. To adapt my project to some of the requirements of these frameworks, I allowed the learners to choose their own topics in relation to their specific field as seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Topics of the Oral Presentation Project
Table 1. Topics of the Oral Presentation Project

The project was named Free Topic Oral Presentation and it spanned over six weeks. The class met twice a week and each course lasted two hours. Table 2 offers a thorough description of the course and the project. 

Table 2. Project Description and Course Schedule 
Table 2. Project Description and Course Schedule

Concerning the learners’ reflective comments written in their journals, I paired groups to minimize the workload. For example, Group 1 wrote comments for each member of Group 2. Each week, I read their reflective comments and provided them with feedback as decided at the beginning of the project. In a DMC, this step is called a “progress check” (Dörnyei et al., 2016). In the journal, there was a section called My Course. In this part, each learner was allowed to write about their impressions ranging from their motivation, the teaching and assessment techniques used by the teacher, the classroom environment, to anything miscellaneous related to the course that they would like to share.

What did I find in the learners’ reflective journals?

I read the students’ reflective journals and interpreted the data based on the number of references to a theme. I also checked if the markers of group-DMCs were present. It is worth noting that a colleague of mine helped me analyze the data and classified them based on the number of references to a theme. Some students’ comments were also selected based on their relevance and clarity to illustrate each theme. However, this does not mean that the other samples were not useful. Table 3 shows the various themes that were chosen based on the interpretation of the data extracted from the learners’ reflective comments. The number of references is between parentheses. 

Table 3. Students Samples and Themes found in the Data
Table 3. Students Samples and Themes found in the Data

Based on these results, it can be said that these learners were caught up in the flow of group-DMCs. This happened because of the teaching methodology and the combination of the framework variants that were used to design the project. The launch of the DMCs was difficult, but it happened once the various groups matured and became cohesive. These findings parallel the study by Ibrahim (2016), which indicated that the group maturity is a sine qua non in order to generate a group-DMC. Ibrahim also confirmed that a cohesive group with positive group norms was conducive to facilitating a group-DMC. The difficulties observed at the beginning of the project can be explained by the learners’ non-familiarity with project-based learning and oral presentations. One needs to know that the grammar translation method is widespread in this teaching context as explained earlier. Therefore, transitioning from one method to another may be challenging for certain learners as argued by this student in his reflective journal:

“This was my first time to speak much English and do an expose [oral presentation]. I was anxious and said how can I do this. I never work like this. I learn my lessons by heart and during the exam I recite [recall] them, but Madam asked us to work like professionals and this was difficult. I really really worked hard with my group. But my teacher helped and at end I became confident and I plunged myself in it.”

As I was familiar with this teaching method, I had regular conferences with the learners upon request in order to help them reach their goals and provide them with quality feedback that could help them achieve the goals set for the project work. Having conferences with learners and providing them with quality feedback is an integrative part of DMCs and project-based learning (Dörnyei et al., 2016). It additionally increases the positive impact that teaching may have on the learning process if learners consider the feedback given by the teacher while improving their ongoing projects. It can be deduced that this was the case for this project because the students mentioned most of the characteristics of a DMC as noted by this learner while reflecting on his oral presentation:

“I had never worked like this. I was so strong and powerful. I think I could do all the things I like. I was like fly in the air. I was not heavy and I could understand new things easily. I was not afraid of working even if it was sometimes challenge [challenging] and hard. If I can be like this all the time I will speak English in one year like an Anglophone. I want to revive this again and again because I want to speak English.”

When learners are caught up in the motivational flows, they establish routines such as reading books in the second language in order to achieve their learning goals. These routines may be so automatic that they will become an integral part of the learning process and will no longer require an explicit effort. Once the currents start waning, some people may feel nostalgic about their lived experiences. Accordingly, a teacher should help their learners set new learning habits to value the DMC experiences and to facilitate a smooth transition from an energetic state to a normal motivational level.

My impressions

Based on this classroom project, it can be concluded that the Malian EFL learners can experience purposefully generated DMCs. Additionally, while caught up in the flow of DMCs, these learners showed that they could learn and speak their English in Mali. This new motivational state empowered them and increased their motivation so that successful EFL learning could happen. The teacher’s familiarity with project-based learning also made the classroom environment friendly and supportive as claimed by this student: 

“To know that Madam was with us not against is important. She was not in the class to give us bad notes or traumatize students. She helps us to learn and speak English. She sit [sits] near us and discuss as a family. I really like this of her.” 

The title of the article was inspired by this student’s comment. Furthermore, this proves that these learners used to view an assessment as a moment of torture and stress. They seemed not to consider it as a component of their learning. The results of this classroom-based research demonstrated that PBA, specifically project work, can be one of the solutions to the assessment issues in the Malian EFL context. However, teachers there can also explore other assessment methods in order to decrease their learners’ test-taking anxiety and transform their assessment into a moment of learning and enjoyment. Researchers from other teaching contexts should experiment with the DMC theory in their language classrooms because motivation matters, as it is one of the key predictors of successful language learning.                       



Birjandi, P., & Tamjid, H. N. (2010). The role of self-assessment in promoting Iranian EFL learners’ motivation. English Language Teaching, 3(3), 211-220. 

Brown, H. D., & Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. (2nd ed). Pearson Longman.

Brown, J. D., & Hudson, T. (1998). The alternatives in language assessment. TESOL Quarterly, 32(4), 653-675. 

Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Performance-based assessment and educational equity. Harvard Educational Review, 64(1), 5-30. 

Dörnyei, Z., Henry, A., & Muir, C. (2016). Motivational currents in language learning: Frameworks for focused interventions. Routledge. 

Fook, Y. C., & Sidhu, K. G. (2010). Authentic assessment and pedagogical strategies in higher education. Journal of Social Sciences, 6(2), 153-161.

Ibrahim, Z. (2016). Directed motivational currents: Optimal productivity and long-term sustainability in second language acquisition (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Nottingham. Retrievable from 

Ibrahim, Z., & Al-Hoorie, A. H. (2019). Shared, sustained flow: Triggering motivation with collaborative projects. ELT Journal, 73(1), 51-60. 

Koné, K. (2015). The impact of performance-based assessment on university ESL learners’ motivation (Unpublished master’s thesis). Minnesota State University, Mankato. Retrievable from 

Muir, C. (2016). The dynamics of intense long-term motivation in language learning: Directed motivational currents in theory and practice (Unpublished doctoral thesis). University of Nottingham. Retrievable from

Muir, C., & Dörnyei, Z. (2013). Directed motivational currents: Using vision to create effective motivational pathways. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 3(3), 357-375.

Nier, V. C., Silvio, F. D., & Malone, M. E. (2014). Beliefs about assessment and language from Arabian instructors and students. The NECTFL Review, 73, 56-76.

Stefanou, C., & Parkes, J. (2003). Effects of classroom assessment on student motivation in fifth-grade science. The Journal of Educational Research, 96(3), 152-162.

Zohoorian, Z. (2015). Motivation level: A study on the effect of an authentic context. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 192, 15-25. 



“Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners: Developing Higher-Order Thinking Skills,” by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Sypnieski. 2016. 370 pages, paperback, $30.55 USD. ISBN 978-1-119-02300-5
Key words: ELL, Common core, higher order thinking, scaffolding, graphic organizer, modeling,

As teachers, we have all spent time in meetings unpacking the Common Core Standards. In their book Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners, two California high school teachers, Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski, take this unpacking a step further and address the needs of English language learners (ELLs) in light of the Common Core. 

Navigating the Common Core uses both research on ELLs and the authors’ and contributors’ extensive experience working with high school ELLs to bring the reader practical, scaffolded ideas for developing higher-order thinking skills that the Common Core now requires of all learners, including ELLs. One of the writers’ best successes toward this goal can be seen in the very explicit lesson examples. In a section on the importance of questions, for instance, the authors first introduce literal and interpretive questions through modeling. They go on to discuss different question starters for each category. Then, using a graphic organizer, students are led to develop interpretive questions for a history unit. Finally, the authors give an example of what they call a “test in reverse,” where students are given the test answers and must come up with the matching literal and/or interpretive questions (p. 38). 

The book is divided into nine chapters. The first chapter gives a valuable overview of ELLs and the Common Core. It is followed by a timely chapter addressing the importance of social emotional learning (SEL) in an ELL’s route to successfully navigating the Common Core. Practical, ready-to-use lessons on goal-setting, metacognition, critical thinking, creativity/innovation, self-control, and persistence/resilience are included. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 each delve into a separate domain of language learning, namely, reading, writing, and speaking/listening. These chapters, as well as Chapter 6, on language, follow a similar format. The Common Core standards are unpacked and translated to answer the question, “What does this mean in my classroom?” Next, clear examples of lessons are shared. The final Chapters 7, 8, and 9 address the areas of mathematics, social studies, and science, incorporating the work of experienced content teachers as contributors in these specialized subject areas. This change in authorship is notable in the change of format and tone. At the end of the book, readers will find a very extensive index that teachers will find very useful for locating additional information. 

One chapter that I found particularly useful was Chapter 5 on speaking and listening. This chapter identifies the Common Core requirements of comprehension and collaboration and of presentation of knowledge and ideas. As a teacher of very young learners, I believe that nearly all of the suggestions given in this chapter are easily adaptable to any age. The authors start with the necessary classroom environment for successful discussion: one which is safe, provides tasks at the right level, where the student participation is authentic, and there is student ownership. They also emphasize what they call the iron rule, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.” 

This chapter gives a simple but potentially impactful exercise for practicing active listening by having a student identify what it looks like and what it does not look like, then demonstrating both with a peer. This amounts to metacognitive listening, which is valuable for anyone. Two other examples of easily adaptable ideas from this chapter are “elevator pitches” and using speaker frames, which could easily be taught in an elementary school show-and-tell setting, beginning to expose students to presentation skills. The sentence frames for discussion, such as I think that…, could also be chosen for any level. 

Rather than just telling teachers what they could use in class, the authors provide many specific examples, graphic organizers, sentence frames for responses, and follow-up work and extensions, including online resources. One author, Larry Ferlazzo, has written and compiled useful information in his extensive blog. Ferlazzo provides the titles to information in his blog for easy retrieval. Additionally, downloadable lesson plans and handouts are given. While the book is a valuable tool for teachers as is, two bonus online chapters are provided that address how teachers can use art with ELLs and how school counselors can provide both student and teacher support. 

While there are some lessons for beginning ELLs, the authors have written the book for more advanced learners. However, their boots-on-the-ground approach gives teachers practical strategies for scaffolding Common Core tasks, particularly with their emphasis on higher-order thinking, in a manner that can lead to success with our ELLs. Even though the book was not directed at me, a kindergarten teacher, I still found there were many take-aways that I could adapt for my classroom. 

While the chapters on mathematics, science, and social studies also contained practical ideas, I wish Ferlazzo and Sypnieski had required the writers of these three chapters to follow the same format of the earlier chapters, as this would have given the work more continuity of voice and perhaps leveled the language and content for ease of both reading and use. The Common Core asks for higher-level thinking right out of the gate, so while the specific lessons may be geared to more advanced students in secondary schools, good teaching is good teaching. Teachers at any level can glean valuable ideas for ELLs and reflect on their own teaching by reading this book, especially the first six chapters. They will also know that what they have read is grounded in research and experience. 

Though this book is four years old, the content is still of great interest to teachers today. In particular, teachers who are new to working with ELLs may find implementing Common Core with this student population to be a somewhat daunting task, but Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners: Developing Higher-Order Thinking Skills can certainly help all teachers as they work with their ELL populations. Perhaps the two strongest features of this book are the teacher-friendly accessible language used to explain the concepts and the extensive inclusion of classroom-ready materials. For these reasons and many others, I strongly recommend this book to ELL teachers.



Ferlazzo, L., & Sypnieski, K. (2016). Navigating the common core with English language learners: Developing higher-order thinking skills. Jossey-Bass.



“Teaching Adult Immigrants with Limited Formal Education: Theory, Research and Practice,” by Joy Kreeft Peyton and Martha Young-Scholten (Eds). 2020. 191 pages, paperback, $34.95 USD. Multilingual Matters.
Key words: English as a second language, teacher education, LESLLA, SLIFE, refugee education

If you are as hungry as I am for the knowledge and skills to facilitate your journey in becoming the most effective educator you can be to migrants whose literacy proficiency is low, read this book. For the novice, this volume will serve as a graduate course in the current issues, challenges, and research pertaining to teaching immigrants with literacy needs. You are likely to mark, mangle, and annotate every page. If you are already an experienced professional, read this for the joy of discovering the newest research and practical implications related to teaching immigrants with limited education in a ridiculously concise volume. For every educator, practitioner, and researcher seeking a compilation of the latest theory and research on teaching adult migrants to read, this edited volume presents international perspectives from world-renowned practitioners and researchers.

Larry Condelli contextualizes the book in his foreword, as the culmination of decades of research and practice from an international community that coalesced in 2005 and created what is today the Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults organization (LESLLA). Today, LESLLA is unique as the only association devoted solely to the study of second language (L2) acquisition research and teaching as they relate to adult migrants. LESLLA has inspired a European team of researchers to create the Digital Literacy Instructor, or DigLin, a computer program used for testing and learning for adults with low literacy proficiency. LESLLA was also a catalyst for the creation of the European Speakers of Other Languages: Teaching Adult Migrants and Training their Teachers (EU-Speak), a research community that assessed the needs of teachers and delivered training modules to meet them. Out of this laudable history, comes this volume edited by Joy Kreeft Peyton and Martha Young-Scholten.

Peyton and Young-Scholten have been pioneering leaders in the field of L2 acquisition since its inception, as reflected in their substantial publishing history as original thinkers, researchers, and editors. Peyton may be best known for her advocacy of heritage languages and her work encouraging the use of dialogue journals and reflective writing. I remember a slender but mighty book that she edited, Approaches to Adult ESL Instruction (Language in Education) (1993), because of its chapters on Freire and participatory learning, and other timeless topics critical to teaching migrants today. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Linguistics, where she served as vice president for 16 years.

Young-Scholten shares Peyton’s interest in heritage languages, but her research focus has been primarily in L2 acquisition of morphosyntax, of phonology, and reading development for migrants with limited education. She is second language professor at Newcastle University, a coordinator of EU-Speak, and a co-director of Simply Cracking Good Stories, a project designed to teach nonwriters to compose engaging and accessible fiction for immigrant adults with basic reading skills. 

In their latest collaboration as authors and editors, Peyton and Young-Scholten have produced a concise and consequential contribution to the growing literature on a topic that has long been marginalized in research, conference, and journal attention within the larger scope of L2 acquisition. In Chapter 1, Peyton and Young-Scholten reflect on some of the challenges that educators encounter when teaching adult migrants to read for the first time in an L2. 

Learning to read for the first time as an adult is a slow process and educators sorely need more research on this topic to inform their teaching practices. The editors/authors urge readers to conduct their own research on the subjects of non- and low-literate learners, L2 acquisition, and the influence of literacy on the acquisition of linguistic competence. The authors describe the history of teaching adult migrants over the past decades, how a small group of professionals serendipitously came together to share their experience, and then engaged in developing an organization dedicated to serving this population. Decades later, not only is there still a dearth of research on the topic of teaching adult migrants with low literacy, but there is also an unmet need to provide the education that teachers need in order to deliver effective literacy instruction. In an effort to meet this need, a project called European Speakers of Other Languages: Teaching Adult Migrants and Training Their Teachers conducted a survey to elicit what knowledge and skills teachers and tutors wanted, and from 2010-2018, six six-week modules were delivered twice by prominent researchers from Finland, Spain, Germany, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reaching over 1,000 educators in twenty-one countries. This volume represents the findings of the researchers and practitioners who were involved in the EU-Speak modules. (Information about the development of the EU-Speak modules may be found in the Appendix, pp. 8-10.)

Chapter 2, by Minna Suni and Taina Tammelin-Laine at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, focuses on language and literacy in social context. Suni and Tammelin-Laine report that lack of literacy skills is a main contributor to marginalization in industrialized countries and that promoting family literacy improves outcomes for multi-generations. In the 21st century, the idea of multiliteracies addresses how information is increasingly shared in technologically-rich environments, expanding our notion of literacy and making it more important to incorporate digital literacy in literacy classes. Suni and Tammelin-Laine also address learning inside and outside the classroom, the need for social interaction for language development, and the role of input. They argue that literacy skills will produce the best outcomes for migrants, including high self-esteem, broader work opportunities, economic security, and civic involvement.

Marcin Sosiński from the University of Granada, Spain, reports in Chapter 3 on reading from a psycholinguistic perspective. He addresses the components of reading that include decoding, phonemic and phonological awareness, and two instructional methods for reading: the Generative Word Approach and the Language Experience Approach. Sosiński presents different lower-level and higher-level strategies for the process of reading until it becomes automatic; he promotes use of the Digital Literacy Instructor as one way for non-literate migrants to learn to read. He also addresses the need for reading materials for low-literate learners for extensive reading and reading for pleasure. Sosiński recommends Simply Cracking Good Stories as a project that aims to address this need.

Chapter 4 is written by Andreas Rohde, Kerstin Chlubek, Pia Holtappels, Kim-Sarah Schick, and Johanna Schmuch, all from the University of Cologne, Germany, who report on one of the most important aspects of literacy: vocabulary. This is the longest chapter in the book, perhaps because learning new words is so important and learning the vocabulary of a new language raises many issues. Rohde et al. explain that although there is little research with low-literate learners, it isn’t crucial, since there is no critical period for word acquisition, and it will take place over a lifetime. Secondly, humans are hard-wired to acquire new language, which depends on exposure to it. Words are learned explicitly and implicitly, but some of the strategies associated with learning words require a metacognitive awareness or knowledge that low-literate learners may not have. The authors describe the fast mapping process, its importance, and how teachers can support it.

Martha Young-Scholten and Rola Naeb, from Northumbria University, U.K., cover an aspect of linguistic competence essential to comprehension: the acquisition of morphosyntax, in Chapter 5. Young-Scholten and Naeb report that unlike other research areas, some of the most important studies of L2 morphosyntax have been of migrants. They describe the history of competing grammar acquisition theories including Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, Halliday’s functional grammar, construction grammar, and emergentist theory of acquisition. The authors discuss memorization of expressions and the role of explicit teaching of morphosyntactic forms. Studies have converged on the conclusion that there are common stages of development independent of learners’ L1, exposure to language, or literacy level, with important pedagogical implications for adult migrants and their teachers. How and what migrants learn is examined and implications for working with migrants are supplied. This chapter concludes with a section on assessment that raises questions about what is being tested and what is reliable and valid. 

Belma Haznedar, from Bogaziçi University, Turkey, discusses bilingualism and multilingualism in Chapter 6. Adult migrants are often motivated to be language learners in order to help children with their schooling. Haznedar reports on the benefits of families becoming bilingual or multilingual and the issues that arise throughout the lifespan through the themes of language; discusses simultaneous bilingualism, successive bilingualism, and code switching; and describes the cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism. Haznedar advocates for the maintenance and development of heritage languages led by this chapter’s author and the editors of this book. 

In Chapter 7, Nancy Faux, a founding member of LESLLA, and Susan Watson, ESOL Specialist for The Literacy Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, begin by focusing on the sociocultural aspects of literacy and then proceed with a discussion of seven topics to guide effective instruction in literacy development. The first of these is what it means to be a literacy learner, with reference to Wrigley and Guth’s (1993) ground-breaking work Bringing Literacy to Life, which describes the wealth of knowledge, skills, attitudes and experience that migrants bring to the learning environment. The authors provide advice on preparing to teach adult literacy classes that includes creating an engaging learning environment that connects instruction to learners’ lives, designing separate learning stations for projects and independent learning, and choosing adult-appropriate materials. Developing print awareness and phonological and phonemic awareness are components of literacy instruction. Finally, the authors offer strategies for teaching multilevel classes, guidance in using a learner-centered approach or the Language Experience Approach, and information about types of assessment tools.

This book is required reading for teachers, tutors, teacher educators, and researchers serving emergent learners. It is a much-needed resource that comes at a time when more than 79 million migrants are displaced worldwide, many of whom have limited education and will undertake learning a new language and literacy while adapting to living in a new country. This thought-provoking collection written by outstanding researchers and practitioners provides current, critical information to inform teaching and research worldwide for years to come. 



Peyton, J. K. (1993). Approaches to adult ESL instruction (language in education). Center for Applied Linguistics.

Wrigley, H. S., & Guth, G. J. A. (1993). Bringing literacy to life. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education.