Approaches for Teaching ESL Students: Prediction vs. Decoding

by Angie Barnett | Aug 27, 2018

Approaches for Teaching ESL Students: Prediction vs. Decoding


One of my biggest character flaws is definitely impatience. One way I’ve discovered this is through my drive to complete other people’s sentences. I usually do this when I want to speed up a conversation or help the person I’m conversing with to get to the point. It is not a good way to be.

Anyways, to get to my point: today I read an article about the connection between the ability to complete other people’s sentences and the understanding of a language. The article was titled: “New Research Findings in Linguistics.”

The article explained that the “ability to effectively predict the syntax of others in context” is the result of “linguistic probability.” The more exposure and experience a person has with a language, the higher their ability to accurately predict what’s coming next in a sentence or text. The researchers explained that the ability to predict someone else’s point can be ‘remarkably’ accurate. Not only does the ability to produce accurate predictions in the basic meaning of what someone is going to say, but it also provides accurate predictions for word choice and phrasing.

While discussing the possible implications of this study, one idea posed was: “Educators engaged in foreign language instruction might effectively focus their initial efforts on the most probable sentence constructions.”

Which sounds pretty good… initially. But, being a hyper sentence predictor myself, I started thinking about all the times I’ve been wrong. Sometimes I’m right, but sometimes… I fail. Completely. All of which made me compare the idea of teaching ESL students English by teaching them how to predict word choice and phrasing to a line from a Jim Gaffigan bit:

“Really, we’re going to rely on my acting skills?” (Predictably, I replaced the word ‘acting’ with ‘prediction’ during the comparison).

Not that teaching common sight words is a bad idea. It’s not. But there’s got to be a lot more. Because of all the things I’ve learned in my life, it’s that predictions are often wrong. Yes, it’s possible to “remarkably and accurately predict things,” but it’s also very possible to be absolutely wrong. When teaching ESL students, let’s not teach them how to read and speak English using an approach that we hope will help them predict the language faster. Let’s teach them in a way that will help them know the language faster.

Let’s teach them the sounds and the building blocks of the English language, so when they see an English word they know how to correctly pronounce it. Then transfer those skills to vocabulary and comprehension. Because I’ve spoken the English language my entire life and I try and predict the ending of many a people’s sentences and I might be right a lot of the time but I’m wrong just as frequently.

In a recent webinar for Reading Horizons, former TESOL President, Dr. Neil J. Anderson, quoted a research study highlighting the importance of teaching ESL students decoding strategies on top of higher-level skills like prediction:

“In practical terms, my concern is thus to keep the language in the teaching of second language reading. That may not sound very controversial, but I think that in promoting higher-level strategies—like predicting from context or the use of schemata and other kinds of background knowledge—some researchers have been sending a message to teachers that the teaching of reading to second language readers is mostly just a matter of providing them with the right background knowledge for any texts they must read, and encouraging them to make full use of that knowledge in decoding those texts. Though that is certainly important, it is also, I think, potentially misleading as a total approach. . . . We must not, I believe, lose sight of the fact that language is a major problem in second language reading, and that even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding.” (Eskey, 1988, p. 97)

Language learners need a lot of exposure to the language they are learning and as they do it will help them predict the meaning of complicated words and phrases –but- teaching ESL students should start with phonemic awareness and decoding strategies. It’s always safer to rely on facts than on predictions.

“I think back on what I was teaching and how I was trying to explain the English language and it didn’t make sense. And, it made sense to me because I natively speak it, but I couldn’t communicate that to a non-native speaker. In my experience teaching in Mexico, everything I’m learning now I keep thinking: ‘Oh, I wish I would’ve known that.’ Because I don’t think I taught them anything. But I can see that Reading Horizons is going to help my ESL students immediately.”

– Lisa Velarti, Dual Immersion Academy, UT (after attending Reading Horizons decoding strategies training)

Learn how Reading Horizons ELL reading program helps students master the sounds and structure of the language while layering in sight word, vocabulary, and comprehension exercises.
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