The right approach

When I first started teaching literacy for lower secondary Arabic speakers, one of my biggest challenges was lesson planning. Literacy learners usually work at a slower pace but lower secondary students are different. They tend to be impatient and get bored easily, so lessons benefit from being fast paced. While games can be good, it is really important lessons are more than a series of unrelated games. With this in mind, I sought to develop a structure that I could keep coming back to when planning lessons which would motivate the students and enhance their learning.

I needed an approach that took students on a journey from discovery to play and finally assessment with a planned ‘creation’ stage, during which I could monitor students and determine if they had grasped the phonics or the skills I was teaching them.

Running with the students

Moving with the pace of the students is crucial to successful learning, and continuous assessment enables this to be done successfully. With higher levels, there may be more flexibility when deciding how much more time to spend on a language point 20% of the class have not yet acquired. With literacy learners, it is impractical to move on if 20% of the students are having problems. It may result in a tremendous decrease in the motivation of students who have not acquired the language, affecting their overall performance.

Sticking to the familiar

Lower secondary literacy learners struggle with self-confidence, especially at an age where their identities are still undergoing sensitive changes. They constantly have to remind themselves that they are capable of successful learning, and we as teachers can help them with this. Knowing what to expect at each stage of the lesson can go a long way in making their learning environment feel safe and familiar.

Variety is important but so are routines, so a predictable structure makes things manageable for both teachers and students. Once students are used to the teacher’s demonstration techniques, they can focus their attention on the material being taught. This in turn leads to more autonomous learning, although it does require learner training and takes time.

You will find that some activities do not work the first time round. Keep coming back to the complex activities, rethinking instructions and materials to ensure clarity. You will see that the students gradually learn how to use the activity to enhance their learning.


Constant recycling of the language, both within each lesson, and in between lessons is important. With phonics, this is quite practical as each lesson builds on the last, with a different set of phonics being introduced each time. The activities I suggest below help literacy learners acquire self-study skills, which is an area they may lack confidence in.

 In practice

To understand how this plays out in a lesson, below is an example of a lesson plan for literacy learners, focusing on the vowel sounds a and i. Note that at this stage, students have already learned at least some of the easier consonant sounds, like s, t, p, etc.

Review: Write the consonant sounds already taught in previous lessons on the board in large letters. Ask students to identify them as a whole class.

  • Review game: Students are divided into groups. In the center of the classroom are some letter cards. One person from each team stands up, but remains in their group. The teacher calls out a sound, and these students race to the pile, find the sound and give it to the teacher. Speed is crucial because there will be one card less for each sound. i.e. if you have 4 groups, there should be only 3 letter cards for each sound. Award points accordingly, before the next students race.
  • Letter sounds (discovery): Write a and i on the board. Point at a and articulate it, asking students to repeat in chorus. Do the same with i.
  • Blending for recognition (discovery): Write words on the board. Have students listen to you sound out one letter at a time, and then sound out the whole word. Invite students to repeat after you, then practise with new words.
  • Practice 1 (play): Pair students and give each pair a set of words cards, some tack and allocate some wall space. When the teacher calls out a word, the students stick it on the wall.
  • Letter forms (discovery): Give students a mini whiteboard each, with pens and an eraser. Demo by slowly write the letter a on the board, sounding it out as you write it. Students repeat on their whiteboards. Do the same for i. It is worth spending some time on this to ensure that all the students are able to form letters correctly.
  • Letter form and recognition (play): This activity combines what was taught in the two previous activities. Create a writing worksheet with words. Use large tracing fonts. Dotted lines are good, but letters you can trace within are better. Markers make this fun and colourful. Call out a word. Students find it on their sheet and trace it. This should give them letter formation practice, as well as the opportunity to listen, read and recognize, sounds within words. Give them enough time to find the word, and move to the next word. Ensure that words are not called out in order.
  • Reading (discovery): This activity is good for initial lessons because students are not trained to work independently, and the teacher needs to be monitoring how well students are blending. At later stages, it can be omitted completely. Print some words on a sheet of paper. Hand one out to each student. Students take turns to read one word at a time, until the list is exhausted. If your students struggle the first time, have them try again. Sometimes, students will guess words, without blending. Discourage this from the beginning otherwise it may stick and become a negative habit.
  • Reading (independent play): Pair students. Each pair gets a set of word cards. Cards are placed face down on the table. The first student in each pair picks a card and reads it to his/her partner. If her / his partner agrees that it is correct, s/he gets the card. If not, s/he puts it back in the pile. The second student then plays her / his turn and so on. The student with the most cards collected wins.
  • Assessment (creation): The aim here is for students to recognize and produce the sounds they have learnt, as well as create new connections in their existing language. An information gap activity works well.

Pairs of students sit facing each other. Give Student A a card with words on it, and give Student B paper and a pencil. A is not allowed to show B her / his words. A reads them out loud to B, who listens and writes them down. When they have finished, swap roles with different words. To check, have students share their lists and tick off the correct ones.

This kind of activity will give the teacher time to monitor and determine whether students have acquired the sounds or not. From here, the teacher can decide whether more time needs to be spent on the same sounds in the next lesson, or if students are ready to move on.

On reflection

You will notice in the lesson that students move back and forth from discovery to play, until they have enough for ‘creation’ using multiple skills. i.e. reading, recognizing, listening, etc. This gives them what they need to achieve lesson aims in a structured manner, builds their confidence and helps them with those all-important study skills. My students enjoy these activities, I hope yours will too.


  • Zahra Zuhair

    Zahra is an English language teacher at British Council Bahrain. She has a particular interest in teaching literacy with all young learner age groups. She has conducted a range of action research projects to better understand ways to work with low levels and has shared some of her findings on the TeachingEnglish website. She is also a student of literature, a fan of Shelley and a blogger. You can contact her at [email protected] and find out more about her work at