Language Experience Approach: Engaging New & Reluctant Readers | W.O.R.D. Ink
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Language Experience Approach: Engaging New & Reluctant Readers

Susan Kawell

Guest post written by W.O.R.D. Ink team member, Dr. Susan Kawell


“Let’s start with my newest story,” suggests Tasha. “The second one I wrote.”

So I begin to read her story –-

“No, no, I’ll read it.” And she does – perfectly. Why?

Because it is her story, and Tasha is becoming a better reader by learning to read her own words. That’s what LEA does – LEA, Language Experience Approach, teaches young children or reluctant readers, whatever their age, to read.

How LEA Works

Part 1: Dictating and Reading

In the LEA, the child dictates a story to the tutor, teacher, or parent, and he writes the story word for word, saying each word as it is written. Slang or inappropriate grammar is also recorded as dictated. After the story is complete, the adult reads it to the child and asks if it sounds correct. Then, they read the story together, out loud. The child alone completes the third oral reading. By this time, the story has been memorized, and effortlessly so, since it was the child’s original creation.

Writing and reading the story can be completed in one session.

mom and daughter

Part 2: Isolating words

Depending on the amount of time available, the next step can be added to the first session. The tutor isolates three to five words for a lower elementary student and up to ten words for an upper elementary student. The isolated words are listed under or beside the story in the order they appear. The student is asked to find the words in the story and read them, an easy task, having already memorized the piece.  Thus, in future readings, they will both readily recognize and fluently read through these language-building words.


Part 3: Extended Learning

Several follow-up activities can extend the student’s learning.

  1. List the same words beside or under the story, but in a different order. Again, the child must find the isolated words within the story.
  2. Now provide the student with a copy of the story, but with blanks included to replace the isolated words, so that the student may fill in the blanks with the correct words.
  3. Another strategy is to cut the story into sentences and have the child arrange the sentences in correct story order.


Once a child has worked through various repetitive activities, she has not only learned the words from her list, but has also added other words from the story into her reading and writing vocabulary. What’s more, she is proud of the story that she’s created. 

boys reading

LEA: Engaging the Reluctant Reader

Because the LEA is so interactive, a child will engage in reading, even when they rarely seek out opportunities to do so on their own. In the reading clinic where I work, a fourth grader could not read and had given up trying. Instead, he’d become the class clown, and he was assessed at a kindergarten reading level. By the end of nine months in the clinic, with the tutor using the LEA as one of her main strategies, the struggling fourth grader was reading at the second grade level – a 200% improvement!

Before progressing in our reading clinic, the same fourth grader had resigned himself to the role of class clown. Generally, when children refuse to learn or read or misbehave, they either are bored or lack confidence. Sometimes they become defiant or act out, since negative attention is better than no attention. Usually tutors using the LEA see little of this unproductive conduct, because the strategy requires participation where the child is the star.

When children exhibit dysfunctional behavior, the first rule is to not take it personally. Often it is best to appear not to notice the child, and only notice them the minute they exhibit behavior that’s close to compliant. If you’re working one-on-one with a child, begin the activity planned and engage by yourself, enjoying the process. Whenever I use this approach, the student will involve himself. They want attention, so they will attempt to join you, since refusing to be involved only earned them “not noticed” status earlier on.

If a child is high energy, always moving and/or talking, play the stillness game. Frame the act of stillness as a game in itself and explain that once the game begins, they are only allowed to breathe and must not move any part of their body. If there is more than one child, challenge them to a contest to see who can be the “stillest”. With only one child, casually mention that you know they cannot possibly sit still for a minute. Does it work…?

After playing the stillness game with my own fourth grade class several times, a school bus driver asked me if I had invented the game. He remarked that the children on his bus had asked his permission to play and that the ride that afternoon was the calmest, most peaceful of his career.

When teaching children to read, use the LEA.

It holds their attention, is highly participatory, and utilizes their individual vocabulary.

To keep that same student attentive and cooperative, use activities that the child least expects.

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