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English Language Learners

Recommendations for Teaching Reading to ELLs

Although more research is needed, the research we do have suggests that knowing how to speak English makes it easier to learn to read English. This article makes some recommendations for teaching reading to non-English-speaking children, and raises questions for future research.

The large and growing number of children for whom English is a second language has thrust upon the educational community – practitioners no less than researchers – extremely important questions and challenges not traditionally addressed within the domain of reading science.

By far the most controversial of these is whether it is more desirable to promote literacy in a first or second language for limited-English-speaking children. Although far from conclusive, there is evidence that initial reading instruction in a child’s home language (e.g., Spanish) makes a positive contribution to literacy attainment (both in the home language and in English) and, presumably, to the prevention of reading difficulties.

The question of how best to promote literacy learning in either or both languages is just as important but overshadowed by the politically more volatile issues of which language should be used and for how long. Researchers and educators possess scant empirical guidance on how best to design literacy instruction for such children in either their primary language or English, much less in both.


Appropriate government agencies and private foundations are urged to sponsor research on the factors that influence the literacy acquisition of children for whom English is not the primary language. For various primary languages (e.g., Spanish, Khmer, Chinese) and along key language dimensions such as alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems and traditionally literate versus nonliterate languages, issues that need to be addressed include:

  • What are the principal difficulties involved in literacy acquisition in the primary language? What methods of primary language reading instruction are effective?
  • What can we learn from successful reading instruction practices in countries where the children’s primary language is not written? To what extent are these practices applicable in a North American context?
  • In what ways might successful methods for teaching primary language literacy be adjusted to anticipate English language literacy acquisition and facilitate the transition to successful English literacy?
  • How does the timing of the transition to English influence literacy prospects in each language? What are the optimal instructional strategies for such programs and how do they differ as a function of when the transition is introduced? Once a child makes a transition to English literacy, what are the advantages and disadvantages of continuing primary language academic instruction?
  • Are there threshold levels of oral English proficiency and primary language literacy that are required for successful transition to, and satisfactory achievement in, English literacy? If so, are there adequate instruments for assessing these levels?
  • How do similarities and differences in the syntax, semantics, phonology, and orthography of the first language ease or impede the challenge of learning to read in English? What are the instructional implications of these similarities and differences?
  • To what extent should absolute level of oral English proficiency and relative proficiency in English and the primary language determine whether a limited-English-proficient child receives beginning and early literacy instruction in English?
  • Where initial reading instruction is provided only in English, what are the best instructional strategies for developing literacy in English?
  • What are the long-term literacy consequences of being taught to read only in a second language (i.e., English)?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning to read in two languages? In particular, what are the cognitive costs and benefits? Is there an optimal timing and sequencing of instruction?
  • Can children learn to read in two languages simultaneously, just as they can learn to speak in two or more languages simultaneously? What are the advantages and disadvantages of learning to read in two languages simultaneously?
  • How do cultural issues in how text is used and regarded overlap with linguistic issues among children for whom English is a second language?
Excerpted from: Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P., (Eds.) (1998). Recommendations for Practice and Research. Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.
For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

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