Bright Ideas from the Classroom

Reading 101 for English Language Learners

Teacher sounding out letter

In this article, Kirstina Robertson highlights ELL instructional strategies based on the five components of reading as outlined in Teaching Children to Read by the National Reading Panel (2000), phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

Teaching reading IS rocket science.
~Louisa Moats

Learning to read is a little bit like learning to ride a bike — while you are balancing a person on the handle-bars, holding a pole, spinning plates, and focusing on the destination at the same time!

Reading is a complicated process, which is why so many children struggle to become strong readers. The process of learning to read can be particularly challenging for English language learners (ELLs), especially if they have little or no formal schooling and they have not learned to read in their native language.

In this article, I will highlight ELL instructional strategies based on the five components of reading as outlined in Teaching Children to Read 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.

Each of these topics is explored below, and each section includes:

  • a definition
  • an explanation of why the component is important when learning to read
  • challenges that ELLs may face
  • strategies for ELL instruction

You will find references to more in-depth information about ELLs and effective reading instruction from our Literacy Instruction section and Reading Rockets throughout the article, as well as in the Hotlinks below.

Phonemic Awareness and English Language Learners

Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school instruction. Sometimes it is nearly impossible, however, for speakers of a second language to "hear" and say sounds in the language they are learning.

Perhaps you have had a student who simply could not master a particular sound in English. Chances are good that that sound was not a part of the student's native language, and so the student didn't have the ability to produce that sound.

I experienced this when learning Sinhala in the Peace Corps. There was a "th" sound that seemed to be a combination "d" and "th," and no matter how hard I tried, I could not hear or produce the sound correctly. I knew which words it belonged in, but I couldn't say it. The native Sinhala speakers struggled to make sense of my pronunciation. ELLs may have similar difficulties with sounds that are not a part of their native language.

Phonemic Awareness: Challenges and Strategies

What: 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.


Challenges for ELLs

Sound recognition and production

Students may not be able 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

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.

Be careful to use only words that students know in English!

Phonics and English Language Learners

Phonics instruction aims to help new readers understand that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds.

Students will benefit from learning and practicing sounds and symbols, including blended combinations. This is fairly common in the primary grades and ELLs may pick up the code very quickly and appear to be fairly proficient readers. However, it's important to remember that knowledge of phonics and decoding does not ensure good comprehension.

Phonics: Challenges and Strategies

What: 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.

Challenges for ELLs

Limited literacy skills in native language

Many educators believe that students only need to learn to read once. Once the concept of matching a symbol with a sound has been learned, it can be applied to new languages.

Students who have learned to read in their native language have a distinct 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, however, 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.

Preteaching 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.

Strategies for ELLs

Teach 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.

Help students make a connection between their first language and English

For students with strong native language literacy skills, help them understand that the process of sounding out words is the same across languages.

Explain 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.

Vocabulary and English Language Learners

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.

Vocabulary: Challenges and Strategies

What: Recognizing and understanding words in relation to the context of the reading passage.

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

Challenges for ELLs

Limited comprehension

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.

Consider, for example, what happens when a beginning reader comes to the word dig in a book. As she begins to figure out the sounds represented by the letters d-i-g, the reader recognizes that the sounds make up a very familiar word that she has heard and said many times.

As a result, it is harder for ELLs figure out words that are not already part of their speaking (oral) vocabulary.

Limited vocabulary foundation

The average native English speaker enters kindergarten knowing at least 5,000 words. The average ELL may know 5,000 words in his or her native language, but very few words in English.

While native speakers are continuously learning new words, ELLs are still catching up on their basic vocabulary foundation.

Limited academic vocabulary

A student's maximum level of reading comprehension is determined by his or her knowledge of words. 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.


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. Remember that vocabulary lists in textbooks are often created with English speakers in mind.

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 Spanish equivalent 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. Cognates are related words like family and familia, and conversation and conversación. False cognates do exist (embarazada in Spanish means pregnant, not embarrassed), but they are the exception to the rule.

About 40% of all English words have cognates in Spanish! This is an obvious bridge to the English language for Spanish speakers if the student is made aware of how to use this resource. Encourage Spanish speakers to connect words in the two languages and try to decipher text based on this existing knowledge.

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

The only way to make sure students understand a new word is to have them 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."

Fluency and English Language Learners

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, however. 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.

Fluency: Challenges and Strategies

What: 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' comprehension


It 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.

Allow students to practice reading along with taped text

This is an excellent way for them to learn appropriate pronunciation and phrasing.


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. 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.

Learn more from the following articles:

Comprehension: Challenges and Strategies

What: 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.

Challenges for ELLs

Limited ability to read for meaning

ELLs 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

Build background knowledge

One way to build background knowledge is through a book, unit or chapter "walk-through." ELLs can preview the information in the text and begin to make connections with the knowledge they have.

If the text is about a fair, the student may note that the pictures are similar to fairs they have attended in the past and they can think of the kinds of experiences a person has in that environment.

If it is a science textbook the student may see visuals of animals or processes that remind them of concepts they may have learned or are somewhat familiar with.

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?)

These strategies for ELLs just scratch the surface. If you'd like to learn more about the five components, be sure to take a look at the resources in the Hotlinks below. Remember: little things can go a long in way in providing effective literacy instruction for ELLs!

Videos: ELL Reading Instruction

Classroom Videos: ELL Reading Instruction

Dr. Nancy Cloud: Reading Instruction for ELLs


See more from Dr. Cloud about the use of the native language in reading instruction and how to help ELLs who struggle with reading in her Meet the Expert interview.


Colorín Colorado Webcast: Reading to Learn in Grades 4-6

This Colorín Colorado webcast features Dr. Nonie Lesaux, and addresses the challenges facing English language learners — and their teachers — in grades 4-6.

Colorín Colorado Webcast: ELL Comprehension

This webcast featuring Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Kristina Robertson discusses effective reading comprehension strategies for teaching English language learner students.

Research-based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners, Grades K-4

Authors: Sylvia Linan-Thompson and Sharon Vaughn. A practical and accessible guide to reading instruction for ELLs that is organized around these five key components.

Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners

Report from the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth by Diane August and Timothy Shanahan.



Reading Rockets. Reading 101: What You Should Know. Retrieved 9/28/09 from

Reading Rockets. Target the Problem! Retrieved 9/28/09 from

Portland, OR Public School District. ESL/Bilingual Resource Guide for Mainstream Teachers. Retrieved 9/28/09 from


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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I like english speaking

i want speak english fluently

Thanks for the great article with so many suggestions to tailor my instruction to my ELL students! The video links look very helpful too. :)

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