12 Strategies for Creating Inclusive Literacy Celebrations for ELLs

12 Strategies for Creating Inclusive Literacy Celebrations for ELLs

Learn how to plan literacy celebrations that include and welcome diverse learners, including English language learners. This article is part of Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners.

Throughout the year, literacy events and celebrations can be a great way to get kids excited about books. When schools celebrate reading, they send the message that reading matters and that it’s fun!

However, it is important to plan an event that welcomes and includes English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students who are learning to read in English and may have varying levels of literacy in their native language.

Fortunately, there are many steps planners can take in making reading events engaging and accessible for all students. This guide can help you get started, but the best ideas will be the ones that come from your own school community!

Literacy Celebrations: An Overview

What do we mean by "literacy celebrations"?

It's helpful to think about the kinds of literacy programs and events that happen in your classroom, school, library, or community throughout the year. These might include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Book fairs and book distributions
  • Family literacy events
  • Kid-centered book clubs
  • Field trips
  • Reading events tied to other holidays and celebrations
  • Accomplishment parties

Annual literacy celebrations held nationally include:

(See more events on Reading Rockets’ Literacy Calendar.)

What are some reasons students don't enjoy reading celebrations?

There are a number of reasons that ELLs may not enjoy reading events they attend, or worse, may find them stressful. These include:

  • Uncertainty about what the event is, why they are attending it, and what to do while they are there
  • Lack of confidence as a reader due to their ongoing literacy development
  • A lack of accommodations, such as information in students' first languages
  • A lack of books and activities that represent students and their experiences
  • Limited amount of reading genres and formats that ELLs can easily enjoy
  • A sense students have that "they are not readers" (which literacy expert Rachael Walker says is more common than you think!)
  • A negative experience at a literacy event in the past
  • An assumption on the part of students that these events are for "other kids"
  • A high-pressure reading activity such as a public read-aloud or book challenge competition with public results that increases stress levels
  • Uncertainty about "rules" for attendance and participation, such as whether students can take books home, whether schools and libraries are government buildings, or whether you must be a U.S. citizen to get a library card (you don't!)

Note: For additional barriers that impact students with special needs, which may include ELLs who are dually-identified, see our related article for students with learning and attention issues.

Planning a Successful Literacy Event

Step back and look at the big picture.

Whether you are planning something for your classroom or for the whole school, look at your curriculum throughout the year, as well as the school’s existing calendar of literacy events and celebrations across grade levels.

Ask the following questions, ideally in discussion with colleagues such as the school librarian, an administrator, and other teachers and specialists:

  • What events do we hold each year and why?
  • Who participates?
  • How successful and engaging are these events for students?
  • What kinds of feedback have we gotten about these events in the past from students?
  • If we haven’t gotten any, is there a way to ask students about their favorite / least favorite events from the past?
  • What kinds of events have students most enjoyed?
  • Are there any events that should be replaced or re-imagined?  
  • Are there other possibilities that might better engage the students and families we currently serve?
  • Have we considered events that celebrate diversity such as Día or the African-American Read-In?  
  • Are there students or community groups we’d like to see participate in the future?
  • Are there other holidays and celebrations that these groups observe that can serve as a bridge?  
  • Have we taken the strengths and needs of our diverse learners into account when planning these events in the past? How can we do that more effectively in the future?
  • Are there barriers that prevent or discourage participation, such as transportation, child care, or work schedules? Are there some creative ways to remove those barriers that have not yet been tried?

Listen to kids' voices when planning literacy celebrations.

It's important to give students a chance to express their interests and preferences, whether at the classroom, grade, or school level. Get student input through:

  • student surveys
  • class discussions
  • activities tied to the curriculum such as an author study

Individual conversations may also be an effective way to get input from ELLs who prefer one-on-one interactions. Students appreciate the opportunity to express their choices, especially when it comes to reading! Explain to students that while you may not be able to implement all of their ideas, their suggestions do matter, will be taken seriously, and will help shape the event you plan.

Keep in mind that:

  • Smaller events that students can help plan may be more successful than big events. For example, students may prefer a skype visit or Twitter chat with a favorite author over a big school-wide book fair. Starting small may also lead to successes on which to build in the future. Find out what a successful event will look like to them. Their answers may surprise you!
  • Kids often like to talk about the books they enjoy and make recommendations, even if they seem resistant to reading what has been assigned. Kids can share their ideas in a book club, book swap, or "book of the week" pick for classmates.
  • ELLs may need some extra information and explanation about the event and its goals as you plan. Explain what kind of event you hope to plan and why students participate. Ask other students to share some highlights or activities that they have enjoyed from similar events. Providing this information will not only pave the way for students to provide more input, it will allow students to get more out of the event you choose (just as providing background knowledge helps students get more out of the lesson). At the same time, you will collect valuable information that can help inform your instruction and relationship.

Plan an event that has multiple activities, stations, or project options.

Offer students choices about how they will participate, and embrace a "choose your own adventure" spirit. Consider having different kinds of activities and stations that students can choose, such as areas where kids can:

  • be physically active
  • listen to or act out a story
  • browse through books and different kinds of reading materials
  • play games
  • do a project tied to a non-fiction theme
  • create a craft
  • participate in a maker project that involves some reading
  • talk and ask questions about stories and ideas that are being shared

Asking kids to sit still and listen for a long time without a chance to move around or ask any questions is not a recipe for success!  Having students’ input on the kinds of activities they enjoy will increase the likelihood that all kids will be able to find something they like to do.

Give students a chance to share their talents and experiences.

Offering students a chance to share a talent or skill or make a difference to others can be a powerful, positive experience because it can:

  • take the pressure off the "reading" part of the literacy event
  • build confidence and highlight the contributions and strengths of students, as opposed to their challenges or skills they have not yet developed (like learning English)
  • give students a chance to share their experience and represent the class or their school publicly
  • help others see ELLs and immigrant students in a new light and emphasize talents that others can appreciate and share

Consider ways that the event you plan will allow students to:

  • contribute their own talents and skills
  • highlight an important cultural tradition or experience
  • make a contribution to the school or local community as reading buddies or through holding a book drive
  • highlight their activities through a classroom newsletter, school website, or the local media

Include ELL families in the planning process.

Including and engaging ELL families around special events and celebrations can have a powerful impact. Collaborating with colleagues such as a bilingual parent liaison or ESOL specialist can ensure that you maximize your outreach.

  • First, think about how would you like to share information about the event with families. You may wish to talk about it informally or share it in a larger group setting. Sending translated information home is a good start but there should be personal communication as well. Your colleagues may have information on how families prefer to receive communication.
  • When sharing information about the event, share the same kinds of information you shared with students: what is the event and what will students be doing? Parents may wish to know if it's mandatory (particularly if it's after school hours). They also may be concerned about coming to the school or other public buildings out in the community. 
  • Get input from parents on the kinds of literacy events that they think their children would enjoy. Parents may have ideas on their children’s favorite books, authors, and activities – as well as ideas on the "not-so-favorite" list!
  • If you are planning to make this a family literacy event, survey parents about their interests and the factors that are likely to impact their participation in these events. Is there a topic that is of interest to multiple families? Are there other services at the school or library that may be of interest? It may be hard to plan a one-size-fits-all literacy event for families, but getting input on their interests and priorities is an important first step in hosting a successful event.
  • Look at ways to bring activities and services to families. For example, the public librarian can come to a school event to sign families up for a library card.

Engage community partners, volunteers, guests, and resources.

As you plan your activities and events, look for the people, organizations, and resources in your community that can be included in the event.

Volunteers: Look for opportunities to engage community volunteers and mentors (such as families, high school/college students or retirees) to read stories aloud, help with activities, or sit with a student as a reading buddy. Finding individuals that reflect your student population can help make the event even more positive, especially if they are available for an ongoing commitment. Individuals who speak students' languages may be interested in doing read-alouds in multiple languages.

Community partners: Look for community partners who can help plan events, organize outreach, and provide some kind of donation or contribution such as:

  • community organizations
  • local media outlets (particularly in other languages)
  • local businesses, restaurants, and sports franchises
  • institutions of higher education
  • your local library or bookstore
  • your local teacher's union affiliate

Community resources: Are there resources you can incorporate into your activity to help make it feel even more relevant to students? These might include:

  • A local author or a book about a local place, person, or event
  • Local storytellers or local celebrities
  • A field trip destination where the hands-on experience can inspire kids to learn more through reading (such as a family field trip to a museum organized by a Washington DC-based literacy organization, Turning the Page)

Book donations: You may be able to find a way to make books available for kids to take home through a literacy partner or donation. Learn more in our article, In Search of Free Books.

Review book selections that will be included in activities.

If books or stories will be read aloud at the event, include a diverse range of titles that represent the students' own diversity in terms of background, culture, language, disability, and other life experiences.

  • Look for mirror books, books to share in which your students will be able to see themselves.
  • If there is a theme for the event, look for books by a diverse group of authors on that theme and books that highlight a variety of aspects of the theme that will speak to different students. If you are having trouble coming up with related titles reflecting some diversity, you may need to broaden your search or consider a different theme that lends itself to more options.

Review book selections for sale, browsing, distribution and swaps.

If access to books and reading materials will be part of the event for students to either to buy, borrow, or keep, make sure to have a wide range of titles, genres, and formats available, including:

  • audiobooks
  • e-books
  • non-fiction, including biography
  • poetry
  • how-to books
  • maps and guidebooks
  • graphic novels and comic books
  • art and photo books
  • wordless books
  • newspapers
  • magazines

These formats can be especially appealing for reluctant or struggling readers. Ideally the selection of books will include not only ethnic and cultural diversity as well, but representations of socio-economic diversity, different life experiences such as adoption, and diverse representations of gender identity.

Help students with book selections.

Help students as they browse. Some students may welcome recommendations of new kinds of books; others may prefer to stick with old favorites or what’s familiar. Don't limit a child’s choice. Let them make their own decision about what to read. While there are opportunities to encourage more rigorous reading in the classroom, the goal this time around may simply be to build confidence and comfort; keep the stakes low and the level of fun high! And remember, a child choosing a book that seems well below his or her reading level has a reason — it could be an old favorite to revisit or it could be the chance to have something new to read and share with a younger sibling.

Look for reading "role models."

If visitors, volunteers, or special guests will be speaking with kids or reading aloud, consider the following:

  • Make an effort to include a diverse range of readers as well so that students can see various adults (and ideally some adults with whom they identify) participating in reading activities.
  • Ask your guests to share stories of challenges they have overcome regarding reading or learning a new language.
  • Ask your guests to talk about reading as part of their life: favorite books, what they like to read, reading habits, places they like to read, and what they find hard about reading. Kids may be surprised to know that adults struggle with reading too!

As appropriate, make your guest aware of kids’ interests and abilities to help facilitate a positive experience for all students. (See more tips in this blog post from Rachael Walker.)

Don't force it.

If students seem especially stressed or anxious about attending an event, don't force it. Look for another activity that they can do during this time. If they are anxious about a class assignment related to reading, take time to talk with them about what is making them most nervous and how the plan can be adjusted to help them be successful. 

Reflect, review, and revise.

After the event has ended, gather input from various stakeholders: most importantly, the students!  Also talk with colleagues, families, visitors and guests, authors, volunteers, and partners. Find out what worked well and what didn't work well, and what was different than you had expected. Take notes in these discussions and talk about ideas for next time while it is fresh in your mind. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small, so that the next event will be even better!


Classroom resources

Planning literacy celebrations




Reading Rockets. “Henry Winkler: A book nightmare.” Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeA-UTY5k10

Reading Rockets. Reading and the Brain. Retrieved from: http://www.readingrockets.org/shows/launching/brain



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