10 Ways to Support ELLs in the School Library

Watch a clip on creating a welcoming library from Launching Young Readers: Becoming Bilingual.

The school library is an important resource for English language learners (ELLs). It may be the first place many students and their families get experience using a lending library. What can school librarians do to show ELLs that libraries are welcoming places of entertainment and enrichment?

Here are some ideas, and don't miss the recommended resources or the American Association of School Librarians' report on ELLs included at the end of the article.

1. Provide materials in students' home languages in easy-access displays.

There are a number of ways to keep bilingual or foreign language books front and center in the library and to integrate them into the curriculum:

  • Translated books: Keep your Spanish and other translated books on shelves close to the action, rather than in a hidden corner. If possible, mark these sections with bilingual signs in Spanish/English, Chinese/English, etc.
  • Curriculum resources: Collaborate with teachers to learn more about topics they are studying so you can display as many translated books as possible on topics students will be studying.

2. Provide books and information on students' countries of origin.

ELLs love seeing colorful pictures from their birth countries in books or online. You can offer them access to those resources by making these materials available:

  • Books about different countries: In addition to books in student's home languages, you can feature books about students' countries. Before adding any books to your collection, review some options with colleagues or community members from that country for authenticity and accuracy. If available, choose books with dynamic photos and illustrations of important symbols such as the flag or national bird.
  • Online resources: There are also a number of educational websites that provide information and pictures from countries around the world. Some are free, while others require a paid subscription to access a database or encyclopedia. (See the recommended websites below for some ideas.) Students may enjoy an online trip back home. Before suggesting this activity, however, talk with the student's teacher and a family liaison to get their feedback on this idea. Some students who have experienced trauma may not benefit from such an activity.

3. Provide electronic access to materials in other languages.

Many online resources are also available in other languages, such as the following:

  • Reference materials: Spanish versions of World Book Online, Grolier Online, and Encyclopædia Britannica's PlanetaSaber. (Check to see what's available as part of these websites' subscription packages.) You may also wish to show students how to use the English-Spanish online dictionaries that include audio pronunciation guides, such as Merriam-Webster or WordReference.com.
  • Reading materials: Share stories with your students from the International Children's Digital Library, which includes children's books in more than 50 languages.

Post links to these websites on your library web page for easy access from school or home.

4. Provide audio materials and instructions on how to use them.

Audio materials can be very helpful to ELL learners, from books on CD to free podcasts. If students don't have access to devices, you can also help students access these materials through:

  • Playaways®: These are audio books that are preloaded on a portable player. A number of children's and young adult titles are available. Students may need instruction on how to use the players and help changing batteries.
  • Library-owned CD players, MP3 players, or iPods: Many classrooms and libraries are using technology to support ELLs' language acquisition. Students can use these players in the library to listen to ESL podcasts, listening activities on CD, or other audio programs.
  • Library computers: Students can use headphones to listen to free podcasts or watch educational videos.

Short translated instruction sheets and stickers for players and computers will help students learn how to use these technologies effectively.

5. Share culturally relevant and responsive literature.

The library is a wonderful place to ensure students have access not only to diverse books but books that are culturally meaningful. By incorporating these stories into our collection and library time, we validate a child's cultural heritage, and foster their self-esteem and adjustment.

Start by looking for ways to highlight and feature more diverse books all throughout the year, especially books that will serve as "mirror books" for your students. You can also share culturally relevant titles through the following activities:

  • Students cultural celebrations: Recognize ELL students' home celebrations by doing read-alouds on these holidays and asking students to share their own traditions. Review books first with colleagues or community members for authenticity and accuracy.
  • Halloween: Read one of the children's book versions of "La Llorona, the Weeping Woman" — a Hispanic folktale the students may have heard from family members — or another story from the Spooky Stories: Diverse Books for Kids booklist.
  • Thanksgiving: ELLs may feel left out when hearing stories of families eating traditional American foods which are not served in their own homes. Share stories of immigrants celebrating Thanksgiving in their own way. This topic is near and dear to my heart, and I focus on this issue in my children's book Duck for Turkey Day. Additional titles are featured on the Colorín Colorado Thanksgiving Tales booklist, which also includes books that provide guidance on updating the way we talk about Native history as it relates to Thanksgiving. (See more tips in Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans.)

Finally, look for opportunities to add more diverse books to your library collection. If you need resources that support these purchases, see Colorín Colorado's guide on using diverse books with ELLs.

6. Scaffold your read-aloud.

ELLs sometimes need help with instructions, vocabulary, or understanding a key piece of background knowledge in a story. It's important not to take their comprehension for granted. Support their comprehension in the following ways:

  • Clarify instructions: Be on the lookout for puzzled faces. Reading instructions aloud doesn't always clear confusion for ELL learners. If you ask your students to practice Atlas skills with a worksheet and you see they are having trouble getting started, find out if there is an unfamiliar word in the directions or questions.
  • Help students build background knowledge: During read-alouds, be prepared to stop and explain words like "patriotic" and "accomplishment." Be prepared to briefly highlight key concepts, words, or background knowledge as needed. Encourage students to raise their hand if they don't understand a word.

7. Make story time interactive.

Interactive story time is a favorite activity for many ELLs at our library. You can get kids participating by using these strategies:

  • Choral response: Everyone can say "Moo!" For story time, choose books that have a short repeated chorus or animal sounds everyone can chime in with. ELL students like to participate, and a repeated phrase or song will allow them to feel included.
  • Music: Songs are a great way to teach library skills and promote a love of reading. Easy-to-learn ditties can become earworms students will repeat, giving them more practice with the English language. Use simple songs to begin and end story time. I have a favorite reading song, which you can listen to on my website.

8. Use visuals at story time.

Using visuals will help ELLs learn new vocabulary words and will add meaning to stories or read-alouds:

  • Flannel board pieces, props, and puppets: These are great tools for engaging all students and will enhance comprehension of new stories.
  • Tangible objects: If a gourd is featured prominently in a story, bring one in to show ELL learners who might not understand the word in English. Whenever possible, use "realia" — ELL learners especially benefit from any three dimensional objects you bring in to enhance the reading experience.

9. Use visuals in home communication.

The concept of a lending library may be new to immigrant families. You can help them get familiar with library books by doing the following:

  • Recognizing library books: Prepare a short translated note explaining when library books must be returned. Include a bar code, a spine sticker, and library stamp on the letter to help parents identify library materials, which must be returned to the library by a certain date, as opposed to RIF books and Title I materials.
  • Overdue notices: If books are overdue, send home a print-out from your catalogue that contains the book cover, or send an e-mail with the book cover graphic. Visuals can get better results than a translated note simply listing the name of the overdue book.

10. Promote the public library too!

There are a number of things that school librarians can do to encourage ELL families to use the public library:

  • Librarian outreach: Invite a public librarian to come to an evening event, provide an overview of library materials and resources (with lots of visuals!), and sign up new families for library cards. It's important for families to know that they do not need to be U.S. citizens to use the resources at the public library.
  • Library cards: Encourage your ELL families to obtain a public library card. Keep a list available (in different languages if possible) of different resources at your local library so that you can show parents what they will be able to use if they get a card.
  • Family night: Arrange for an evening family event at the public library, where families can take a tour, visit the children's section, and learn about programs offered at their local branches.

Note: Colorín Colorado's family tip sheet The Resources at Your Library is available in English and Spanish.

Closing Thoughts

Try some of these ideas this year! I hope you find they go a long way in helping ELLs feel comfortable and welcome in the school library, and that they support student learning throughout the year.

AASL Report on ELLs: School Libraries Count!

In 2007, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) initiated an annual survey of school library media programs. Each year, the survey addresses a current issue within the school library field in addition to its standard questions. In 2009, AASL focused these questions on English Language Learners (ELLs). This report summarizes those findings.

A Welcoming Library

Learn how to make your library accessible for children in multiple languages in this clip from Launching Young Readers: Becoming Bilingual.

This video is also available on YouTube.

About the Author

Jacqueline Jules is a teacher, librarian, poet, and author of fourteen children's books. Two of them, No English and Duck for Turkey Day, were directly inspired by her work with English Language Learners as an elementary school librarian in a Title I school in Virginia. No English is the story of two second grade girls who find a creative way to overcome a language barrier. Duck for Turkey Day is the story of Tuyet, who is worried because her family is not following the "rules" for Thanksgiving she learned in school. Both books validate the immigrant experience in America, encourage readers to reach out to newcomers, and embrace the diversity in our schools. To learn more about Jacqueline, take a look at Colorín Colorado's 2008 interview with her and her website!

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Fantastic. Now can we do a video and lists for the older, secondary students?

What a useful resource!

Jacqueline: Your background and experience fits so well with teaching for ELL students. How wonderful to be able to share your experience with others.
Dorit Sasson
The Teacher's Diversity Coach

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