Motivating ELL Student Readers

Once upon a time, I tried to read Like Water, for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel in Spanish. I had seen and enjoyed the movie in English, and since I'm a fairly fluent Spanish speaker, I thought it would be a fun challenge. I think I "read" three pages. I say "read" because I read the words, but I probably understood about 20% of what I'd read. My reading was frustrating and slow, and even though I was familiar with the story, I was only able to pick out some of the details related to the characters and storyline.

I returned the book to the library and checked out a book written in Spanish that was more comprehensible to me — a romance novel by Danielle Steele. This time, although I didn't know the story or characters, I understood 90% of the Spanish, could follow the basic dialogue, and knew the formula of romance text structure. This was a lot more fun. I felt challenged reading the Spanish, and I could still enjoy the story.

I believe that my experiences were very similar to what many ELL students experience. Our challenge is to help ELL students discover books and materials that are interesting and at a readability level that allows them to enjoy reading while exposing them to new vocabulary and making sure that they don't become too frustrated.

Stephen Krashen has done a lot of research on libraries; one idea that he likes to emphasize is that it's not how many books are in the library — it's how many "readable" and interesting books are in the library (see the research report in Hotlinks). His premise makes a lot of sense. The only way to improve reading skills is to do a lot of reading, and most people will only do a lot of reading if they enjoy it. For many of our students, however, they don't have access to enough materials at their reading level to motivate them to read a lot. Krashen encourages educators and librarians to help children find what Trelease (2001) calls a "home run" book (see article in Hotlinks). A home run book is the first book that a child reads that really excites and motivates him/her. It is the book that makes the child want more. My home run book was The Boxcar Children, and I went on to read the whole series. For children today it may be the Goosebumps or The Magic Tree House series.

Researcher G.R. Carlson outlined five stages of reading appreciation in a 1974 report:

  1. reading for enjoyment
  2. reading for vicarious experience
  3. reading to find yourself
  4. reading to understand issues
  5. reading for aesthetic appreciation

Many ELL students are required to begin their reading experience with stage four — reading to understand, or reading academic content information. They struggle with literacy, language, and content. They may experience reading as a frustrating struggle that doesn't give them much information or enjoyment. If they have access to readable materials in their interest area, and they are allowed to read for enjoyment, however, they will be more likely to read independently. And if they understand 80% of what they read, they will be able to build their vocabulary as they encounter new words.

The question is — how to get them reading? There are a variety of strategies educators can use to help motivate ELL readers.


Start by finding out what students are interested in. You may gain a lot of insight from your day-to-day interaction with students and by observing symbols and pictures on their clothing or notebooks. If you want to try a more formal survey of student interests, there are reading inventories (see Hotlinks) that may work with some students. Small groups of students can also discuss key questions.

  1. What is something that you think is fun?
  2. Talk about a movie you liked.
  3. What kind of music do you like? Who are some of the artists?
  4. Do you like to read? Why?
  5. What is something you read that you liked?

For very beginning students you may simply ask them to draw a picture of something they like. If it is a picture of flowers, their family, or a dragon, it still may tell you something about what interests them and makes them happy. In my experience with focus groups on the literacy development of ELL students in high school, we interviewed many small groups of ELL students, and found books about the subjects relating to their interests.

Readable Materials

Once you know what interests a student, the next challenge is to find a book at the student's reading level. Many schools determine student reading level by DRA or Lexile reading scores, and they have leveled libraries available in the media center. There are also book series that level books by the number of different vocabulary words used in the story. For example, you may have a story about Cinderella with 300 unique words and a story about Cinderella with 600 unique words — they both tell the same story, but the first story would be more comprehensible to a beginning-level English speaker (see Hotlinks for leveled reader resources).

Other sources of regular comprehensible input include:

  • The current events series News for You — this series is written at a beginning to intermediate English level and covers weekly news headlines. The series also comes with a teacher's guide and activities.
  • Comic books or graphic novels — they have a lot of visual support, an enjoyable story, and in many cases the language, although presented in short sentences, contains challenging vocabulary. With the popularity of Manga there are probably some students who would enjoy this option.

For more ideas on high-low reading resources, please visit the Hotlinks section.

Spark Their Interest

Pre-reading activities are very important in activating student interest and background knowledge before reading. This example highlights why this is such an important step: A fifth-grade teacher was teaching her class about the American Revolution, and before the students opened the textbook, the teacher introduced vocabulary in an engaging way. She put up signs such as "England" and "British" on one side of the room and "America" and "Colonists" on the other side. She had a "red coat," a blue swatch of cloth down the center of the room for the ocean, a king's crown, a box of tea, fake money (Colonial notes), and tax declarations. She enlisted the students' help in acting out the events that led to the Revolution. As the king kept sending more tax declarations over to the Colonists, they were increasingly agitated at how "unfair" it was. The teacher kept checking in to ask what the Colonists wanted to do. They finally came to the verge of revolution. As the class ended, the students were told they would read about this tomorrow. As they left the room, one student stopped and asked urgently, "But who won?"

It can also be helpful to show a movie on a topic before reading so that students are familiar with the content or story before tackling the reading. Many teachers save the movie for a treat after the reading and discussions have been completed, but ELL students can benefit from making connections back to the movie while they read the story. Remember, however, that the film version of the book should be seen as a complement rather than a substitute.

It is also important to expose students to a variety of literature by reading to them regularly. This works with all ages, and adolescents may particularly enjoy this because they are not read to often. Having audio books available is also an excellent resource, especially in conjunction with reading a book.

Help Students Know What to do with Unknown Words

Students will come across unknown words while reading. Some of these words may just be figurative and not imperative to comprehension, but some may be key vocabulary words. Students can develop strategies for handling unknown vocabulary and reducing interruptions to their reading. The temptation is to stop and look up each word. Teachers can demonstrate how students can determine the importance of the unknown word through structural clues. If the word is in a string of commas, it may be a descriptive word that is not necessary for comprehension. However, if it is a noun — especially a repeated noun — students may want to spend time figuring it out.

Teaching students how to use context clues can also be a valuable tool for reading comprehension. Demonstrate how context clues can help students "guess" the meaning. For example:

The stout man had difficulty sitting in the chair because of his size.

Why would the man have difficulty sitting in a chair? He's either very big or very small. Which choice makes more sense in this sentence? What do other sentences lead the reader to believe?

In some instances, students may be able to use their own language as a resource in figuring out the meaning of an unknown English word. Take a look at this example:

He wasn't very happy as a mortician. Many people felt uncomfortable around him after he told them what he did for a living. Most people associated morticians with tragic circumstances.

The Spanish word for "to die" is "morir." This comes from the same Latin root as the English word "mortician." Some instruction on prefixes and suffixes can help students understand that "ian" means "of, or related to." Spanish-speaking students can guess a mortician is "one who does something with death." They will be able to make the connection with the job of preparing a dead body for a funeral if they are familiar with this from their own culture, even if the words aren't direct cognates.

Of course this strategy only works for students who speak a language that shares cognates with English, and students can also ask a friend for the meaning of a word or look it up themselves in a dictionary. The objective, though, is that students who learn strategies for attacking unknown words gain confidence in moving through text without having to stop for every unknown word, which may ultimately enhance their enjoyment of reading.


What makes a fun movie even more enjoyable? Talking about it with your friends afterwards. ELL students can learn that the same is true about reading. Set up book groups or literature groups, and begin with guided questions such as, "Describe your favorite character and why you like him/her. What does this story remind you of?" or "Describe an interesting event. Explain why you think someone should or shouldn't read this story."

I recommend that you make this kind of activity as fun as possible for the students. Set up a book club or "café" with snacks and beverages, and have the group meet in a comfortable place if possible. This is an opportunity for students to be an expert and to be influenced by peers who have enjoyed a different book.

Part of the job of teaching ELLs to read is to expose them to the "culture of reading." Experienced, fluent readers know that if they start a book and don't find it interesting or enjoyable, it just means they don't like the story — not that they don't like reading in general. Experienced readers have learned through many reading experiences the kind of material they are likely to enjoy, and they can be easily motivated to pick up a book and read.

Beginning readers, on the other hand, may interpret a boring or frustrating book as "not liking to read." Educators are in a unique position to help ELL students experience a variety of genres and literature at their reading level. If students learn to love reading, then they will do it more often and eventually become fluent readers in English who will be able to continually gain vocabulary and concepts from what they read. Everything you do to provide them with a wide variety of materials at lower English levels is worth the effort. The "love of reading" is a precious gift your students will enjoy for a lifetime.

Scholastic News English/Spanish

Scholastic News English/Español is a classroom magazine available by subscription with a flip-format that lets students read the same content in both English and Spanish. The magazine connects its topics to Latino cultures and offers family activities that can be sent home.

DC Public Library: Booklists for Teens

The DC Public Library offers suggested booklists for teens sorted by different categories, such as graphic novels, humor, faith, and fantasy.

Meg Medina: Girls of Summer

Girls of Summer is a celebration of summer, girls, and books co-designed by author Meg Medina and fellow Candlewick author Gigi Amateau. The project reviews 18 titles for strong girls (picture book, middle grade and YA). The blog also features giveaways and weekly Q & As with selected authors. Books and Authors

AdLit: Books & Authors is a part of, WETA's Adolescent Literacy Web site. Books & Authors offers themed booklists for young adults, exclusive author video interviews, and guided discussions for specific books.

New York Public Library: E-books & Audiobooks Collection

This website allows New York Public Library users to browse the system's free online collection of audiobooks, e-books, video, and more. While users must have a NYPL card to access the database, it offers a helpful example of the kinds of resources that more libraries are using. Audiobooks are also available in Spanish.

Audible Kids

Audible Kids provides digital audio content for children. Shop, purchase, and download digital audio editions of books, newspapers, and magazines; original programming; and TV and radio subscriptions. Spanish titles are also available.

"Home Run Books and Reading Enjoyment"

Research article by Joanne Ujiie and Stephen Krashen on the importance of finding a "Home Run" book.

Reading Rockets: Reading Motivation Articles

Articles about motivating younger readers on our sister site, Reading Rockets.

AdLit.Org: Reading Motivation Articles

Reading motivation articles on our sister site about adolescent literacy,

Reading Is Fundamental: Tips & Articles

Articles covering a wide range of topics from Reading Is Fundamental.

Vocabulary Workshop

Website with lists of common English prefixes, roots, and suffixes and their meanings from the South Hampton College of Long Island University.

New Readers Press

New Readers Press is a publishing division of ProLiteracy, the world's largest organization of adult basic education and literacy programs. New Readers Press offers a wide variety of materials, including ESL and citizenship resources, a weekly newspaper designed for beginning readers, and GED/life skills resources.

The Lexile Framework for Reading

A searchable database of books with corresponding Lexile level.

Scholastic, Inc.: Books Organized by Level

This grid can be used to browse Scholastic's Classroom Books' individual paperback titles organized by Guided Reading, Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), and Lexile Levels.

Great Source Books: Content Textbooks

A publisher offering content-area textbooks for higher grades written in simple English with lots of visuals.

Perfection Learning Article: High-Low Books

Perfection Learning article describing the research supporting the use of high interest/low readability books with struggling readers. Includes examples of their products.

Pearson Longman Publisher: Penguin Readers

Penguin readers are books categorized by the number of words used in the story, from 300 to 3,000.

National Geographic Learning and Cengage Publishing

Differentiated themed sets, reading programs, magazines, and content-based fiction materials created for ELLs and struggling readers. Strong emphasis on understanding science, social studies, and math content while improving literacy skills.

What's Different About Teaching Reading to Students Learning English?

What's Different About Teaching Reading to Students Learning English? by Dorothy Kaufmann provides teacher trainers with a research-based curriculum to guide the professional development of classroom and ESL teachers who teach reading in classes where some or all of the students are English language learners. The curriculum is available for purchase from the Center for Applied Linguistics store.



Carlson, G.R. (1974). Literature Is. English Journal, 63, 23-27.

Trelease, J. (2001). The Read-Aloud Handbook (4th ed.). New York: Penguin.


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