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Reading 101 for English Language Learners

Get the basics on how to support the literacy achievement of your English language learners. You’ll find instructional strategies based on the five components of reading as well as oral language and the role of students’ home language.

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Learning to read is a complicated process. If you teach English language learners (ELLs), there are a number of ways you can support their literacy and language development through targeted instruction.

This article highlights ELL instructional strategies based on the five components of reading as outlined in the report by the National Reading Panel (2000). This report is a study of research-based best practices in reading instruction and it focuses on the following five instructional areas: 

  • phonemic awareness
  • phonics,
  • vocabulary
  • fluency
  • comprehension

In addition, this section includes information related to two additional important areas of instruction for ELLs:

  • oral language
  • role of the home language

What does the research say?

In general, what we know about effective literacy instruction for English speakers holds true for ELLs, but modifications and adjustments may be needed (Goldenberg, 2008). Since the original National Reading Panel did not include ELLs’ literacy development as part of its research review, a subsequent panel reviewed the research related to language learners and released a report authored by principal investigator Dr. Diane August and panel chair Dr. Timothy Shanahan titled Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth.

Within the executive summary of that report, the authors note:

“Instruction that provides substantial coverage in the key components of reading — identified by the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension — has clear benefits for language-minority students … However, while approaches that are similar to those used with native-language populations are effective, the research suggests that adjustments to these approaches are needed to have maximum benefit with language-minority students.”

For example, many practices may need modifications or scaffolds which may not be reflected in different reading programs or materials (August, 2018; Goldenberg, 2008), and in some cases, certain strategies may not be appropriate even with adjustments. In addition, the authors note the important role of two areas that were not addressed in the original National Reading Panel: students’ home language and oral language.

Students’ home languages

When working with ELLs, students’ home languages are a powerful tool that educators can use — even if they don’t speak those languages or are working in a classroom with students who speak many languages. In their executive summary, Drs. August and Shanahan write:

“Oral proficiency and literacy in the first language can be used to facilitate literacy development in English.”

And in his Colorín Colorado article about the value of students’ home language, Dr. Fred Genesee writes:

“Extensive research, again from around the world, has found that children who are learning to read in a second language are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in the second language. The best evidence of this comes from studies showing that students with strong reading skills in the home language also have strong reading skills in their second language. Much of this work has been done on ELLs in the U.S. (August & Shanahan, 2006; Riches & Genesee, 2006).”

Tapping into students’ home languages (also referred to as a first or native language) as a resource can take different forms:

  • Helping students make connections between their language and English in order to identify similarities and differences, such as English/Spanish cognates
  • Providing opportunities to use the home language in the classroom for reading, writing, and discussion
  • Encouraging students to draw on all of their language skills across languages, which is called translanguaging
  • Promoting biliteracy through bilingual or dual-language instruction, which can support students’ future opportunities and family ties (not to mention brain health!), with initiatives such as the Seal of Biliteracy, which has been adopted in many states

It is important to keep in mind that the extent to which a student’s literacy skills from their first language transfer depends on many factors, such as how similar the alphabetic systems between the two languages are and whether they share any connection in their origins, such as two languages that both derive from Latin (Nieser & Cárdenas-Hagan, 2020, p. 65). The students’ levels of literacy in their home language will also have an impact on their literacy development in their new language. Learning more about the languages students speak can help educators target instruction, notice patterns among speakers of the same language, and help students understand the relationship between their language and English

You can also provide students and families with access to bilingual books and texts and encourage families to continue using and developing the home language through activities such as rhymes, storytelling, and conversation at home. You will also find specific strategies related to home language throughout the key components below.

Expert voices

In her 2018 American Educator article (opens in a new window) on best practices for ELLs, Dr. Diane August writes,

“It is helpful to teach ELLs the same skills as their English-proficient peers — the skills of hearing the individual English sounds or phonemes within words (i.e., phonemic awareness); using the letters and spelling patterns within words to decode the pronunciation (i.e., phonics); reading text aloud with appropriate speed, accuracy, and expression (i.e., oral reading fluency); using strategies to learn new words; thinking about what they are reading (i.e., reading comprehension); and writing with the organization, development, substance, and style appropriate to the task and audience.”

Oral language development

In addition, oral language has a role to play across all reading skills, yet it often does not receive much attention as a critical part of ELLs’ language and literacy development. In their executive summary, Drs. August and Shanahan write:

“Instruction in the key components of reading is necessary — but not sufficient — for teaching language-minority students to read and write proficiently in English. Oral proficiency in English is critical as well — but student performance suggests that it is often overlooked in instruction.”

Oral language supports students’ literacy skills in different ways. For example, students need to be familiar not only with the sounds and letters they are learning but also the words in which they appear in order to support their word recognition and comprehension. Other more global oral language skills, such as facility with English syntax and grammar, and the ability to navigate specific language functions like describing, predicting, and comparing, also contribute to both reading and writing development for ELLs.

In addition, strengthening oral language supports students’ ability to participate in peer groups and their proficiency in speaking and writing using academic language. Students need opportunities to practice applying their emerging oral language skills through partner talk and peer work (scaffolded with supports such as sentence frames), activities such as partner reading, and responding to comprehension questions using academic language.

Dr. Carrie Simkin, the director of our sister site AdLit.org, offers the following suggestions related to oral language:

  • Make it a learning target for lesson planning (e.g. be intentional about planning for it).
  • Consider how much of the learning time in your classroom is text based vs. discussion. Do students have opportunities to discuss ideas or do they mostly respond in written formats? We want to engage students in lively discussions!
  • Consider if students have opportunities to work in pairs as well as small groups and not just respond to teacher-generated questions.
  • Have you modeled how to orally respond to questions using the question as a sentence starter? Do you have sentence starters visible for share-outs?

Our strategies related to oral language are also woven throughout the components below.

Phonemic awareness and ELLs

Phonemic awareness is an important indicator of how well children will learn to read. Sometimes it is difficult, however, for speakers of a second language to “hear” and say sounds in the language they are learning. If you have had a student who could not master a particular sound in English, the sound may not have been a part of the student’s native language.

In her chapter of Literacy Foundations for English Learners, Dr. Virginia Lovelace-Gonzalez notes that, “Phonological awareness skills can transfer across languages when students have opportunities to build these skills in their native language and English” (2020, p. 53).

For example, there are multiple sounds in English and Spanish that will directly transfer between languages, even if the sounds are associated with different letters (p. 50). Dr. Lovelace-Gonzalez writes, “For ELs, phonemic activities in English can be complicated by having to recognize sounds in English that do not exist in their native language…Instructionally, it is important for teachers to determine some of the similarities and differences between English and the student’s native language to ensure the opportunity to learn” (p. 53).

What is phonemic awareness? The ability to hear and manipulate the different sounds in our language.

Why it matters: Phonemic awareness is the foundation for spelling and word recognition skills.

Considerations for ELLs
Sound recognition and production
  • Students can make the connections with the sounds they are already familiar with in their own language. However, students may need additional practice to “hear” or produce a new sound in a second language.
  • Students who cannot hear and work with the phonemes of spoken words will have a difficult time learning how to relate these phonemes to letters when they see them in written words.
Strategies for ELLs

Learn more about the students’ home languages.
  • Start by visiting a resource such as MyLanguages.org (opens in a new window) or Omniglot.com (opens in a new window), which shares an overview of many different global languages.
  • Ask bilingual colleagues about how their languages are similar or different from English and common areas that need attention when learning English. 
  • Identify whether there are any sounds that your students’ languages share with English. Use these as a starting point in your instruction. In addition, find out which sounds might be new to your students and be sure to include explicit practice of those sounds.

Help students think about the connection between their language and English.
  • Ask students how their language is the same or different than English in terms of how the language is written, the sounds that letters or symbols make, and words that might be related.
  • Help students become familiar with sounds, letters, and symbols that are shared between languages, as well as those that are not shared between the languages. (Some examples across different languages are included in Literacy Foundations for English Learners (opens in a new window).)
  • Ask students if they have words that begin with a particular sound, or if there are any words related to a particular word in English. This can work with students who have limited literacy skills in their first language too.

Use familiar vocabulary words for building phonemic awareness.
  • It is helpful for ELLs to be familiar with the English vocabulary words that are used to teach phonemes (Brown & Ortiz, 2014, as cited in Lovelace-Gonzalez, p. 53). The more familiar students are with words that are used in teaching phonemic awareness, the more effective that instruction will be.

Model production of the sound.
  • Spend a few minutes at the beginning of class or in small groups demonstrating and reinforcing the correct production of the sound.

Help beginning readers learn to identify sounds in short words.
  • Have students practice identifying the sounds in the beginning, middle, and end of these words. You may wish to use words that begin with a consonant, have a short vowel, and end in a consonant (CVC words) such as mat, top, and bus.
  • One very effective method is having students match pictures of words that have the same beginning, middle, or ending sound.
  • Use words that students already know in English.

Phonics and ELLs

Phonics instruction aims to help new readers understand that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Students benefit from learning and practicing sounds and symbols, including blended combinations. ELLs often show many strengths in mastering early phonics skills but it’s important to remember that decoding while reading and correctly spelling words does not ensure good comprehension.

That’s why it’s important to ensure that ELLs are familiar with the words they are learning to decode in order to support their comprehension. The authors of Words Their Way with English Learners write, “English learners need structured opportunities to learn many new words to add to their repertoires so that these words can become the material of their literacy learning” (2011, p. 79).

What is phonics? The relationship between a sound and its corresponding written letter.

Why it matters: Reading development is dependent on the understanding that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language.

Considerations for ELLs
Literacy skills in native language
  • If a student has learned to read in their native language, they can apply the skill of matching a symbol with a sound in a new language. Students who have learned to read in their native language have an advantage because they were able to learn this concept with familiar sounds and words.
  • Students who have not learned to read in their native language may struggle to put together the sound/symbol correspondence concept, new words, and new sounds all at once.
Unfamiliar vocabulary words
  • It is difficult for students to distinguish phonetic components in new vocabulary words.
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary is an important part of good phonics instruction with ELLs so that students aren’t trying to figure out new vocabulary items out of context.
  • This is also a reason that decoding “nonsense words” is not a good strategy for ELLs.
Strategies for ELLs
Help students make a connection between their first language and English.
  • For students with native language literacy skills, help them understand that the process of sounding out words is the same across languages. (Even if students don’t have literacy skills in their first language, you may be able to point to the sounds letters make that are familiar.)
  • Explain that some letters may make the same or similar sounds in both languages. Knowing this can help Spanish-dominant students, for example, as they learn to decode words in English.
Teach phonics in a systematic and explicit way.
  • Explicit and systematic phonics instruction benefits ELLs. As noted above, however, it is most effective when tied to meaningful language that students already know and when connections are made to students’ home language.
  • If these kinds of considerations or strategies are not part of your phonics curriculum, it is worthwhile to bring this up to administrators and request additional training and professional learning from school and district leaders to support ELLs.
Use a word study approach.
  • Word study is a powerful approach that connects letters, sound, meaning, word parts, and usage so that students are learning explicit foundational skills within a meaningful context. For example, ELLs need lots of opportunities to connect the sounds, letters, and words they are learning.
  • The authors of Words Their Way with English Learners write, “What is key to literacy development for English learners in the emergent stage is that they use language with teachers and peers and see oral language they understand captured in print” (Helman et al, 2011).
Look for opportunities to reinforce phonics in context.

Using literature and content material, you can introduce and reinforce:

  • letter recognition
  • beginning and ending sounds
  • blends
  • rhyming words
  • silent letters
  • homonyms
Use hands-on activities to help teach letter-sound relationships.
  • This can include using manipulatives such as counters, sound boxes, and magnetic letters.
Have students write for sound.
  • Say a short sentence that includes one or more words that include the target phonics feature(s). Ask students to listen carefully and then write what they heard.
  • This activity trains students to listen for the individual sounds in words and represent them phonetically in their writing.

Vocabulary and ELLs

Vocabulary plays an important part in learning to read, as well as in understanding what is read.

As students learn to read more advanced texts, they must learn the meaning of new words that are not part of their oral vocabulary. For ELLs, vocabulary development is especially important as students’ develop academic language — in all subjects and activities! There are numerous ways to support explicit vocabulary instruction, which is essential for developing students’ vocabulary knowledge. Dr. Coleen D. Carlson writes,

For EL students, drawing attention to unknown words during the initial presentation of the text, providing appropriate levels of definitions (e.g., providing English labels for words for which concepts and labels in one’s native language are understood, quick definitions or demonstrations for simple words) and tying to background knowledge is critical. No amount of simply reading and rereading words will produce knowledge of unknown vocabulary. (2020, p. 97)

What is vocabulary? Recognizing and understanding words in relation to the context of the reading passage.

Why it matters: Understanding vocabulary words is a key step in reading comprehension. The more words a student knows, the better he or she will understand the text.

Considerations for ELLs
Learning new vocabulary in English
  • ELLs need direct instruction for new vocabulary words, as well as multiple opportunities to interact and use the words in writing and speaking. Beginning readers must use the words they hear orally to make sense of the words they sound out. If those words aren’t a part of a student’s vocabulary, however, it will make it much harder to understand the text. As a result, it is harder for ELLs figure out words in text that are not already part of their speaking (oral) vocabulary.
  • This is also true for academic vocabulary. This word knowledge allows students to comprehend text, including the text found in content-area textbooks, on assessments, and in printed material such as newspapers and magazines. Without a strong foundation of academic vocabulary, ELLs won’t be able to access the material they are expected to master.
Strategies for ELLs
Draw upon students’ home languages.

You can draw upon students’ home languages to build vocabulary by:

  • Providing bilingual glossaries with definitions of vocabulary words
  • Giving students the opportunity to discuss word meanings with peers who speak the home language
  • Asking students how to say a word in their language and sharing it with the class
Pre-teach vocabulary.

It is important to give students as much exposure and experience with new vocabulary words as possible before asking students to use them in a lesson or activity.

Select words that will support the reader’s understanding of the story or text, as well as for other phrases and connectors that affect comprehension (even though, except, etc.). You can pre-teach vocabulary by using English as a second language (ESL) methods such as:

  • Role playing or pantomiming
  • Using gestures
  • Showing real objects
  • Pointing to pictures
  • Doing quick drawings on the board
  • Using the equivalent in students’ languages and then asking students to say the word in English
  • Providing a student-friendly definition
  • Using graphic organizers
Focus on cognates.
  • Cognates are words in different languages that are derived from the same original word or root. About 40% of all English words have cognates in Spanish (such as the English/Spanish cognate “family/familia”). This is an obvious bridge to the English language for Spanish speakers if the student is made aware of how to use this resource.
  • Teach students to recognize and use cognates, or words that are related across languages, and encourage students to be on the lookout for cognates from other languages as well.
Give students an opportunity to practice using new words.

As the teacher, you can explicitly teach word meanings to improve comprehension. However, to know a word means knowing it in all of the following dimensions:

  • The ability to define a word
  • The ability to recognize when to use that word
  • Knowledge of its multiple meanings
  • The ability to decode and spell that word
  • The ability to use different definitions word accurately in different contexts

Ensure students understand a new word by asking them to produce it themselves either orally or in writing.

I taught a summer school unit on habitats and healthy environments, and every student had to learn the phrase, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Over the course of four weeks I gave students many opportunities to use those words to describe what we were doing: “We are reusing the grocery bag,” or “We reused the scratch paper.”

Build students’ academic vocabulary.

You can increase students’ academic vocabulary by teaching common structures and terms used in a specific content area. For example, sentence frames are a great way to get students familiar with these structures and can be used in writing and speaking:

You can learn more strategies in this related article.

  • The _____ is ______ than the _____.
  • I can conclude ______ because _______.

Fluency and ELLs

Fluency is a tricky area when it comes to ELL reading instruction. For native English speakers, fluency and reading comprehension often share a strong correlation because fluent readers recognize words and comprehend at the same time. This is not always the case for ELLs.

Many ELLs can be deceptively fast and accurate in their reading because they are good readers in their primary language and have strong decoding skills. Yet they may demonstrate little understanding of the text, and hearing the text out loud may not necessarily provide a step towards comprehension as it is likely to do for native speakers. One important factor in the connection between fluency and comprehension is ELLs’ oral language skills, which Dr. Carlson describes as “an important foundation that supports the role of fluency as a bridge to comprehension” (p. 93).

What is fluency? The ability to read a text accurately and quickly.

Why it matters: Fluency is important because it provides a bridge between word recognition and comprehension.

Challenges for ELLs
Inaccurate indicator of ELLs’ comprehensionIt is not unusual for an ELL student to read a passage beautifully and then not be able answer more than a couple of comprehension questions correctly. Decoding skills (sounding out words) and comprehending the text are two different skills.
Limited benefit from hearing texts read aloud

Native speakers who are not strong decoders can often comprehend text that is read to them better than text that they read themselves. That’s because when someone else is doing the reading, they can focus on meaning without having to struggle to get the words off the page.

With ELLs, however, comprehension problems tend to be associated with limited vocabulary and limited background knowledge. Thus, listening to text read by someone else won’t enhance comprehension.

Strategies for ELLs
Balance fluency and comprehension.
  • For ELLs, try not to provide instruction in fluency that focuses primarily on developing students’ reading rates at the expense of reading with expression, meaning, and comprehension.
  • Students may read fast, but with insufficient comprehension. Fluency without comprehension will require instructional intervention in vocabulary and comprehension skills.
Give students a chance to practice reading out loud.
  • In order to improve fluency in English, provide independent level texts that students can practice again and again, or read a short passage and then have the student immediately read it back to you.
  • Have the student practice reading a passage with a certain emotion or to emphasize expression, intonation, and inflection based on punctuation.
  • Also, keep in mind that ELLs may be uncomfortable reading aloud during class and this activity may work best 1:1 or in a small group with a teacher.
Allow students to practice reading along with taped text.
  • This is an excellent way for them to practice appropriate pronunciation and phrasing.

Comprehension and ELLs

Comprehension is the understanding and interpretation of what is read. To be able to accurately understand written material, children need to be able to 1) decode what they read; 2) make connections between what they read and what they already know; and 3) think deeply about what they have read. Comprehension can be the most difficult skill to master, however, and can elude students who have mastered word-level skills. According to the executive summary of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth,

An important finding that emerges from the research is that word-level skills in literacy — such as decoding, word recognition and spelling — are often taught well enough to allow language-minority students to attain levels of performance equal to those of native English speakers. However, this is not the case for text-level skills — reading comprehension and writing. (p. 4)

ELLs at all levels of English proficiency, and literacy development, will benefit from explicit instruction in comprehension skills along with other skills because improved comprehension will not only help them in language arts and ESL classes — it will help them in content-area classes and in daily activities. It will also improve the chances of their interest in reading for pleasure.

What is comprehension? Understanding the meaning of the text.

Why it matters: Comprehension is the reason for reading. Readers who have strong comprehension are able to draw conclusions about what they read.

Considerations for ELLs
Reading for meaningELLs who struggle with comprehension may read more slowly, have a hard time following a text or story, have a hard time picking out important events, and feel frustrated. They may also have problems mastering new concepts in their content-area classes or completing assignments and assessments because they cannot comprehend the texts and tests for these subjects.
Strategies for ELLs
Use students’ home languages for support.
  • Encourage students to hold partner or small group conversations in their home language as part of peer activities.
  • Review or preview content in students’ home languages.
  • Read books out loud in students’ home languages (which can be achieved in partnership with bilingual students themselves, staff, and families).
Consider the role of background knowledge.
  • Background knowledge is a vitally important component of comprehension instruction.
  • Keep an eye out for areas where you may need to build background knowledge.
  • You can preview new concepts and vocabulary through a book, unit or chapter “walk-through” or through a mini lesson.
Connect content to students’ background knowledge.
  • Look for ways to tie lessons to students’ experiences and to find out what students know about a particular topic. This can be an important bridge for students as they make connections with the knowledge they have.
  • One way to encourage students to make connections is to give them a chance to brainstorm with peers (in their own language if possible) and report back to the group.
Check comprehension frequently.As students read, ask them open-ended questions about what they are reading, and informally test students’ ability to sequence material from sentences or a story by printing sentences from a section of the story on paper strips, mixing the strips or word order, and having students put them in order.
Use questions after reading.

After the ELLs and/or whole class have completed the reading, you can test their comprehension with carefully crafted questions, taking care to use simple sentences and key vocabulary from the text they just read.

These questions can be at the:

  • Literal level (Why do the leaves turn red and yellow in the fall?)
  • Interpretive level (Why do you think it needs water?)
  • Applied level (How much water are you going to give it? Why?)

Interactive reading of a story

First-grade teacher Albuquerque teacher Ali Nava leads her students through an interactive reading of Burro’s Tortillas, a Southwestern adaptation of “The Little Red Hen.”

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Learn more at Colorín Colorado

Reading 101 for English Language Learners was created by ELL experts Kristina Robertson and Lydia Breiseth and originally published on Colorín Colorado. It is excerpted from Reading Instruction in Grades 1-3 for ELLs (opens in a new window) (with references), part of the in-depth resource, Literacy Instruction for ELLs (opens in a new window) on Colorín Colorado. We invite you to explore the wealth of resources on the site!

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