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Ideas and tools for reading, writing, and speaking

On this page, you can find information about effective tools for helping students read, write, and speak language. The focus: English language and academic language. 

The page also has ideas for helping students:

  • make hard sentences easier
  • tap into knowledge of text structures and features
  • find information in complex texts
  • scaffold writing
  • extend their vocabulary 
  • explore generic texts
  • and more.

Purposes and patterns in written language

Similar to oral language, written language fulfils different purposes. Those purposes arise again and again. For example, wanting to tell people what happened.

It is common for language features and text structures to be repeated in order to express specific purposes. These repetitions are referred to as generic patterning.

The distinctive patterns recognised in written texts are referred to as genres or text types.

What makes sentences hard for learners?

You can compare the reading difficulty of texts on the basis of word and sentence length.

Longer sentences are usually more complex than shorter sentences.

How to better understand sentences

Teachers and students can pinpoint challenges within sentences and understand them better.


  • By breaking up sentences – If a sentence is too long, there is a greater chance it will be misunderstood.
  • By joining sentences – Teach students to combine sentences. Through practice, they may be better able to understand what complex and compound sentences are. They can also learn about punctuation and capitalisation.
  • By studying groups of words in sentences and how together ("as one") form meaning.

Language becomes more complex

As academic studies become more advanced, the language usually becomes more complex. The increased complexity includes the following changes.

The (series of words that make sense and that have a subject and a verb) are longer.

  • The words are longer and more abstract (unclear, without an easy-to-understand meaning). 
  • The sentences are longer.
  • The sentences are more complex in structure. (The sentence is put together in more complicated parts.)
  • The sentences contain a larger number of basic ideas or propositions (suggestions or possible plans of action).

Other factors that can also make texts hard to read:

  • Students are unfamiliar with the content or topic
  • The text, as a whole, has a complex structure.
  • There is a lot of supporting material.
  • The layout of text and images and the size of the print.

Helping students understand text structures and features

Whatever the genre (type) or combination of genres used in a particular text, making its features and structure clear to students will help them understand and remember the text.

However, be aware that bilingual students may have a knowledge of generic patterning from their first language (L1) that differs from the patterns common in English.

This applies to bilingual Pasifika students whose main contact with English genres is through school. Keep that is mind when you interact with those students. Find out what they already know about generic patterning. See if there is a way to build off that knowledge.

Helping bilingual students to grasp unfamiliar texts

Assist bilingual Pasifika students in their learning about new and unfamiliar text types.

First, build on their existing literacy learning in both English and their L1. Encourage them to read a lot in both languages.

Next, give them English reading that is at the right level – not too hard and not too easy. Encourage them to ask for clarification when they do not understand something.

Continue to find opportunities to develop their knowledge of English and how it works (structurally and grammatically).

Then, have them read authentic texts – accurate for their age level and for their cognitive abilities and development.

Selection series
The Ministry of Education’s Selections series for new learners of English in Years 7–13 includes a variety of curriculum-related texts at easy reading levels.

The teachers’ notes that accompany them provide a clear analysis of the language features and text structures, along with suggestions for using the texts to teach these features and structures to English language learners.

Finding information in complex texts

Teachers often present a succession of texts over a series of lessons. The texts may be closely aligned in topic or theme. Furthermore, they may include a range of text types. For example, one text may be a description, another may be a narrative, while another may offer an explanation.

A teacher may also introduce two or more texts at the same time, for example when their students are learning to recognise and use similarities and differences in text content or structure.

Embedded texts

Many of the materials students work with embed texts (have a text within a text). The embedded text may contain additional information. Or, it may have curriculum content in other text types.

Sometimes embedded texts are used to engage an audience, to keep them reading. You might, for example, find a description embedded in a narrative (story).

Mini texts

Students might also find two or more texts at the same time if a page or section of a text they are reading contains mini texts with different purposes, features, or structures.

Frames or boxes often mark the boundaries between these mini texts. At times, one or more of the mini texts may be a visual text such as a diagram, a flow chart, or a graph.

When items of information are chunked separately in this way, the reader needs to know how to find the connections between them. Help your students to recognise and make sense of mini texts.

Texts in different media

The material on a printed page may be complex, yet print is not the only kind of written language that students need to work with.

They also meet a wide variety of other sources of information in curriculum learning – for example, videos, DVDs, computer software, and hypertext on the Internet.

Navigation through such multiply linked texts can be quite challenging, with or without graphics. This is particularly so for English as a second language ( EAL) students, who are unlikely to have a full command of the Academic Word List and the technical words essential in particular content areas.

Another challenge is the reader might not know how these text types are typically organised.

Scaffolding students’ writing

All students, and especially EAL students, benefit from learning activities that scaffold (help them organise) their production of written text.

Scaffolding activities – such as oral rehearsal, where students can say out loud and "hear" their writing – give students a change to try out ideas, grammatical structures, and vocabulary.

Other helpful scaffolding tools are writing frames based on genre or text structure help students produce well organised texts.

Preparing students for writing: Oral rehearsal

Speaking activities play an important role in preparing students for writing.

Most teachers will be familiar with brainstorming, concept mapping, and so on. These are good ways to generate vocabulary and key ideas for writing.

The associated materials, The "Say It" activity – example and How "Say It" supports students, outline the "Say It" technique, which scaffolds students’ oral rehearsal of ideas and language.

PMI (Plus Minus Interesting)

In the PMI brainstorming technique, students’ ideas are categorised as being:

  • Plus – in support of an idea
  • Minus – against an idea
  • Interesting – other interesting points that come up.

This is good preparation for writing an argument.


Are your students preparing to write a report? They can use cubing to think about the topic from six different perspectives: describe, compare, associate, analyse, apply, argue

Describe it
Physically describe the topic. What does it look like? What is its colour, shape, texture, and size? Identify its parts.

Compare it
How is the topic similar to other topics or things? How is it different?

Associate it
What other topic or thing does the topic make you think of?

Analyse it
Look at the parts. How are they related? How are they put together?

Apply it
What can you do with the topic? What uses does it have?

Argue it
Argue for or against it.

Students can do this orally. In a group context, one student throws some dice. Then, each person say or perform (shows in drawing or actions) one of the six perspectives.

Using self-questioning scales

A self-questioning scale is a checklist for content. This tool is similar to a technique familiar to primary school teachers – having the students ask themselves questions beginning with "4 Ws and an H" (Who, What, when, Where, How).

Students can apply self-questioning when they explore text structure.

Self-questioning scales: links between reading and writing

When they are reading a text, students can use a self-questioning scale to check that they have located the information they need. They can also use the scale when they do their own writing, to check that they included all the necessary information. This means that self-questioning scales help students make the links between reading and writing.

Self-questioning scale example

The following example of a self-questioning scale was designed for an explanation text. Notice that the teacher could have included an intermediate step of filling in an information transfer grid to make the link between reading and writing.

The curriculum-related topics for the text:

  • “What did Sir Āpirana Ngata see as the major problems facing rural Māori in the 1920s and 1930s?"
  • "How did he attempt to solve these problems?”
Ask yourself these questions to locate information in your reading text(s) to prepare you for writing. Then check that your own writing answers the questions.
Participants ___ Who/what group was involved?
Location ___ When/where did the situation take place?
Conditions ___ What factors were originally present?
Effects ___ What happened to change these conditions, or as a result of these conditions?
Event ___ What was the result of these factors, or what is now different from the original condition?

Using writing frames

"Say It", PMI, and Cubing are all useful activities to prepare students for writing.

Once students are prepared to write, a writing frame helps them structure their language and content, based on the purpose for their writing. Different genres of (types of ) writing use different formats (ways of organising the information and ideas in the writing).

Writing frames are one way of helping students use knowledge of text structure to support their writing.

Which words do my students need next?

Reading materials at curriculum levels 2 and 4

Use Text Inspector (a web-based language analysis tool to find out and think about the difference between reading materials at curriculum levels 2 and 4.

To use this tool, all you have to do is:

  • copy some text you want to analyse
  • paste it into the box on the website
  • click on "ANALYSE" (button on the bottom right)
  • wait briefly for your analysis results to pop up.

Comparing reading materials at curriculum levels 2 and 4

To begin, copy and paste into Text Inspector the first passage from Measuring readability. Then, do the analysis.

After that, copy and paste the second passage and do the analysis.

Next, fill in the table below with the percentages shown in the analysis. 

Finally, look at the results and compare the two passages.

  • What differences do you notice?
  • What does this mean for students as they progress from level 2 to level 4?
  Level 2 Bats Level 4 Ferns
First 500 words    
First 1000 words (1–1000)    
Second 1000 words (1001–2000)    
Academic words (from AWL)    
Off-list words    

Off-list words
The off-list words are those that are infrequent in general use (in the first 2000 words) or across many academic areas. They are mostly technical words, such as "forestry", "logging", "bats", "ferns", "leaflets", "fronds", and "sporangia".

In stories, they may be unusual descriptive words, such as "gleaming" or "quiver".

How do vocabulary levels relate to reading levels?

More complex texts will have:

  • more specific vocabulary
  • more complex sentences.

Although vocabulary is only one of the factors considered in deciding the reading level of a text, it is a significant one.

Comparing the vocabulary in texts you know your students can understand with the vocabulary in a text that you might use will indicate whether the new text is at the right level.

Because readers need to understand at least 95 percent of the words in a text to read it easily, consider the following.

  • What teaching practices can help your bilingual Pasifika students work well with texts where more than five percent of the words are unknown?
  • How can you help your bilingual Pasifika students learn the words they need to know?

ESOL Online has many vocabulary learning resources that can help you address these questions.

Students’ writing and speaking at curriculum levels

Reading and writing: Curriculum levels 1, 2, and 3

In Materials for vocabulary analysis, you can find a list of all the different words students used in speaking and writing in the social studies curriculum exemplars at levels 1 and 2. You will also see a list for full written text from level 1.

Copy and paste these into the Text Inspector program and look at how students at curriculum levels 1 and 2 use words in their writing and speaking.

You will see that those students:

  • mostly use the first 1000 words
  • are already using some more difficult words from the second 1000 words
  • are beginning to use words from the academic list
  • use many off-list words as well.

After that you could put in some texts from level 3 exemplars and see whether there is a large increase in the number of academic words used. The material students produced in the exemplars suggests the vocabulary targets for bilingual Pasifika students as well as for students who know only English.

Analyse some texts that your Pasifika students have produced and see if their vocabulary use is close to the patterns shown in the relevant exemplars.

Bilingual people generally have well-developed language skills. Thus, with appropriate support and guidance, your students should be able to progress quickly towards typical levels of vocabulary acquisition for their age. 

Writing: curriculum level 5

Use Text Inspector to think about students’ writing at curriculum level 5.

First, cut and paste the level 5 social studies curriculum exemplars from Materials for vocabulary analysis into the Text Inspector.

After that, compare the Water Woes text with the Parihaka text My ancestor Te Whiti.

  • How many academic and off-list words do these two students use?
  • How do the different patterns of use relate to the different style and effect of the writing?

Next, look at the three Parihaka texts together.

You will see that, taken together, the three Parihaka texts use a wider range of different words (types) than any one of the individual texts.

This reinforces the idea that when students share what they say and write across the whole class (rather than working individually or with one other student), there is a rich source of input and a wider vocabulary for students to learn from. 

Extending students’ vocabulary 

Most teachers, aware of the importance of vocabulary, teach content words. It takes a lot to learn a new word. Students need to extend their understanding and use of the words they know already, and they need to learn new words.

You may find it helpful to use and adapt this checklist.

Some aspects of knowing a word What students need to do
form Can the students recognise the word when they hear or read it on its own?
  Can they say the word easily, and write and spell it?
  Can they recognise other members of the word family (for example, "compare": "comparing", "comparison", "comparatively")?
meaning Do the students know what the word means?
  Can they give a definition or an example?
grammar Can they understand the word in a sentence?
  Can they use the word correctly in a sentence?
collocations – two or more words that are commonly associated in a particular language, such as "read about" or "white lies". Do they recognise other words and phrases that often occur with the word? (This is important for understanding how the meaning of texts is built up and holds together.)
  Can they use the word with other appropriate words?

The video Secondary curriculum and vocabulary shows teachers carefully scaffolding aspects of vocabulary learning.

Planning vocabulary learning with your students

Students are likely to be unaware of how many new words they need to learn to understand and use, or what these words are.

Tell them to set vocabulary goals. Work with them as they construct their language-learning goals.

Using the Text Inspector, show them how vocabulary can be analysed. This should raise their awareness of the nature of vocabulary and suggest to them where their next word learning needs to occur.

Keys to learning vocabulary

Students need to learn to use about one new word every day – seven each week.

They need to learn to understand the meaning of a second new word each day – one that they may not use themselves.

They should make a noticeable (planned) effort to extend the range of different words they use.

They should gradually learn to use and understand all the words of the Academic Word List. This includes concrete words (words you can picture or that have a clear meaning) and abstract words (words you cannot picture or those without an easy-to-understand meaning).

Examples of concrete words

  • adult
  • community
  • computer
  • vehicle

Examples of abstract words

  • access
  • available
  • despite
  • issue
  • maintain
  • occur
  • valid

Support from classmates

The class can be a learning community, one that gives input to each member, shares word knowledge, and supports individuals to practise and try new skills with words.

Refer to the section on expanding students’ vocabulary as a classroom community, on pages 126–127 of Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5 to 8 (Ministry of Education, 2006). A reference copy of this book is available to all secondary schools.

Extending Pasifika languages

Use the same vocabulary goals as those described above to develop Pasifika language use. Your bilingual students can work together to construct shared goals and check their progress in their Pasifika languages.

You may be surprised to know that translation is one of the best ways of learning words. 

Bilingual students can make bilingual vocabulary lists and records and learn from those. This is one of the benefits of the "interdependence" of languages.

How can I help students deal with complex sentences?

When students are having difficulty with the material they need to read for their curriculum studies, teachers need to teach them how to read that material.

Students who lack challenges may not move on to more advanced learning. 

Three ways of analysing complex sentences are:

  • breaking sentences into parts
  • restating parts of sentences in more familiar ways
  • putting parts together into more complex sentences.

You can use the same methods to help students learn to understand such sentences and develop their ability to use complex sentence structures themselves.

Generic patterns in texts

Helping primary students recognise generic patterns

Primary teachers could work with their students during a shared reading session. Help students identify the structure and features of a new type of text they need to become familiar with.

The shared goals could be:

  • to identify and build on all students’ prior knowledge of the text content and structure
  • to use the identified structure and features to aid comprehension during the reading of the text
  • to discuss, after the reading, how the identified structure and features support the writer’s purpose.

Check that the text and instructional strategies you choose enable your bilingual Pasifika students to:

  • build on their existing literacy learning in both English and their first language (L1)
  • read the text in the context of the approach you use and ask for clarification when they don’t understand something
  • develop their knowledge of English and the culture that underlies it
  • experience cognitive challenge and discuss their understandings with other students, in one or both of their languages.

Can you use this again to develop students’ confidence with another important text type or combination of text types?

Helping secondary students recognise generic patterns

Secondary school teachers who have copies of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13 (Ministry of Education, 2004) could refer to Chapters 4 and 6 for suggestions about using shared and guided reading and writing to identify the structures and features of the texts they use in curriculum learning.

Check that the text and instructional strategies you choose enables your bilingual Pasifika students to:

  • build their existing knowledge of literacy and curriculum content in both English and their L1
  • read the text in the context of the approach you use and ask for clarification when they lack understand 
  • develop their knowledge of English and the culture that underlies it
  • experience cognitive challenge in relation to the relevant curriculum area and discuss their understandings with other students, in one or both of their languages.

Two student stories

Look at these short texts. They are the stories of two Sāmoan weavers. They tell the story of how each woman came to be a weaver (what motivated them and how they learned to weave), and they inform the reader about weaving, for example by explaining the significance of weaving today. (Text extracts from Mallon, 2002.)

Vivealava Vaepae
My name is Vivealava Vaepae, and I live at Lepuiai at Manono. I began weaving when I married my husband. My mother died when I was very young, so I taught myself after watching other women weave, because I wanted to improve my family. I love to weave. I will weave anything. I really started to weave because when I got married, having no mother, I didn’t have any mats to bring with me to my husband’s family. Sāmoan women should know how to weave. It’s an art that belongs to them. It’s their purpose in life. Mothers should teach their daughters how to weave. It’s their purpose … I think that weaving is still very important in Sāmoan society today. It’s the matafaioi …

Emma Kesha
I was born in Sāmoa and came to live in New Zealand in 1958 when I was only 18 years old. My mother is Apaua from the village of Fale Apuna and my father is Fuatavai from the village of Fusi Salofata. I learnt to weave from my mother and grandmother. Weaving is an everyday thing that goes on in the village life and I remember when I was a little girl going to school and coming home to see my mother and grandmother weaving. That is when I first started…. In 1983 I set up my own Multicultural Weavers Association and started teaching weaving. My aim is to preserve the art of weaving and share my knowledge with others. Weaving is an art …

Comparing stories

You could compare and contrast the information in the two stories by using this information transfer grid.

  Vivealava Vaepae Emma Kesha
Where was she born?    
Where does she live now?    
Who taught her how to weave?    
Why did she want to learn to weave?    
How is weaving important to her now?    

Reflection questions

  • What are your observations of the language in the two extracts? 
  • Look across each of the rows. 
    • What is the nature of the items in the boxes? 
    • Do they have the same form, or are they different? 
    • Is one way of expressing ideas more complex than another?
  • How do you think this method helps students to understand the texts better?

Classroom activity: Short text

Select a short text and prepare an information transfer grid for it. Get your students to fill in the grid. What do you notice about how the activity supports their learning?

Bilingual students who become familiar with using information transfer activities may like to work in groups to develop their own information transfer grids for texts in their Pasifika languages. In doing so, they will be able to compare them with similar English texts and identify differences and similarities.

For example, the second sentence of Emma Kesha’s recount is a common feature of many Pasifika texts. Your students could identify which text types normally have this feature and where it is usually located in the texts.

Finding information in complex texts

Examples from Kiwi Conservation Club

The Kiwi Conservation Club connects kids to the environment. The site has activities and provides resources for these. 

Go to the Kiwi Conservation Club webpage.

Notice the many different mini texts on the page. Some have two sets of bulleted points; others have two coloured texts. A resource might have one text in a box or frame or two diagrams (or drawings).

For example, Make a climbing kōaro toy gives instructions about how to make a climbing kōaro toy. It uses steps, descriptions, and images to explain how to make the toy.

Comparing texts

Choose two texts from the Kiwi Conservation Club activities page.

Help your students to identify the following aspects of each text. (You can  also add your own questions.)

  • The purpose of the writing.
  • The target audience (who is likely to read this).
    • The target audience could be an age group or reading levels or interests or some other factor.
  • The kind of information that is given.
  • Study diagrams or pictures.
    • How do they relate to the text?
    • What is their purpose?
    • To what extent do these fit with (add to the understanding of) the target audience?
  • Is the text simple, complex, or somewhere in between? 
    • Why do you say that? (That is, ask students to give a reason for their choices.)

Afterwards, talk about what they learned or relearned about language, text patterns, and so on.

NOTE: You could divide the task and assign "text one" to half of the class and "text two" to the other half of the class. Also, you could choose either texts that have the same topic (such as trees: 9 activities for discovering your tree community and Interview with the author: Tree Beings) or texts that have different topics (for example, GAME: How do plants become poisonous? and Rethinking our choices).

What does a good reader do?

A good reader taps into prior knowledge ...

A student is reading a curriculum-related text. At some point, the student cannot comprehend the text.

When this happens, the student must draw on their prior knowledge, their background knowledge, and their prior experiences with other texts. This helps them hold on to the ideas and key points from that text.

The more connections a student makes, the more memorable the text becomes.

Teachers can help their students make connections with their own prior knowledge. How? By using a technique such as brainstorming before and/or after reading or by setting aside time for students to read a text more than once (where appropriate). This approach is vital when teachers work with English language learners.

Teachers can help their students make connections across texts by having their students monitor their ongoing learning. To achieve this, students could keep a log where they write their understandings after reading new texts.

The purposes and benefits of student learning logs are described in Appendix 1 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13: A Guide for Teachers, Ministry of Education, 2004.

Information transfer tasks

Students could also use information transfer charts and inquiry charts; these will help them select, organise, and evaluate the information in different topic-related texts. 

Bilingual students who become familiar with using information transfer activities may like to work in groups to develop their own information transfer grids for texts in their Pasifika languages.

This approach will be able to compare them with similar English texts and identify differences and similarities. In addition, it will enable them to make connections when reading other texts in the future.

Explicit teaching

Students need explicit teaching to enable them to recognise the main points in complex texts such as multiply-linked texts. For example, teachers can teach students to identify:

  • subheadings (in written text) or section headings (in hypertext) and to retrieve the information in them 
  • the writers’ purposes and the key points made to meet those purposes.

Teachers can also plan and implement learning activities that require students to comprehend the information they have, to take responsibility for it, and to share it with others (for example, split information tasks).

Using inquiry charts

There are three steps in using an inquiry chart.

Step 1: Before

Before students read a text, they record what they already know about a topic.

They can either do this with other students or with the teacher.

What they already know should relate the kind of information they will focus on.

An example of step one reading focus

In the following example, students are learning to retrieve information from a factual report.

Topic: Frogs What do tadpoles eat? What do frogs eat? Where can frogs live? What eats frogs Other interesting facts
What we know







sea snails

under the water

in the pond

in lakes

on a lily pad

under a lily pad






Sometimes they dry out.

The frog goes up to breathe.

Step 2: Use the same categories

In step two, students use the same categories of information to guide them in reading a number of different texts or other sources of information.

An example of step two "same categories" focus

This might look like the example below.

Topic: Frogs What do tadpoles eat? What do frogs eat? Where can frogs live? What eats frogs Other interesting facts
Text 1 small water plants insects In a fish pond




They go down in the mud when the cold comes.

Frogs have long tongues.

Text 2 plants





on plants

in the pond

on grass

no information available Some frogs are poisonous.

Step 3: Combine information

Finally, the students integrate (combine to form one whole) information and language under each of the headings to produce a summary statement for each.

Example of step three "Combine information"

Topic: Frogs What do tadpoles eat? What do frogs eat? Where can frogs live? What eats frogs Other interesting facts
Summary plants and insects insects in damp places birds and small animals  

Using inquiry charts like this help students to link the skills of speaking, reading, and writing. See Inquiry chart for a complete description.

Teachers keep a record of texts

If you are a secondary teacher, take your own curriculum area. If you are a primary teacher, take one of the curriculum areas and keep a daily log of all the texts students are given to read.

Using the following categories, note both the frequency of particular text structures and features and any challenges the students face.

One individual text Multiple texts
one theme, one genre one theme, mixed genres thematically related, presented at different times thematically related, presented at the same time
same or similar genres different genres same or similar genres different genres

Suggestion for class inquiry chart activity

Design an inquiry chart that will help students navigate the Kiwi Conservation Club website and its links to information about other types of wētā.

(If this website is not appropriate for your students, you could find another website for this investigation and then reflect together on its usefulness for the intended curriculum and language learning.)