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. If you teach English language learners (ELLs), however, there are a number of ways you can harness the power of their home language and provide targeted instruction that supports both their literacy and language development.
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. In addition, the article includes information related to two additional important areas of instruction for ELLs, oral language and the role of the home language.
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 recommended resources below.
What does the research say?
Before jumping in, it's important to note that the five core areas identified above are appropriate and necessary for ELLs' literacy development; however, adjustments in instruction may be needed. Since the original National Reading Panel did not include ELLs' literacy development as part of its research review, a subsequent panel reviewed the research related to language learners and released a report authored by principal invesigator Dr. Diane August and panel chair Dr. Tim Shanahan titled Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth.
Within the executive summary of that report, the authors note that, "Instruction that provides substantial coverage in the key components of reading — identified by the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000) as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension — has clear benefits for language-minority students." They continue on to say, "However, while approaches that are similar to those used with native-language populations are effective, the research suggests that adjustments to these approaches are needed to have maximum benefit with language-minority students." (p. 3)
For example, many practices may need modifications or scaffolds which may not be reflected in the reading program or materials you have available in your setting (August, 2018; Goldenberg, 2008), and in some cases, certain strategies may be appropriate even with adjustments. Many of these modificiations are outlined in the strategies below, and you can find additional research resources at the end of the article.
In addition, the authors note the important role of two areas that were not addressed in the National Reading Panel: students' home language and oral language.
Students' Home Languages
When working with ELLs, students' home languages are a powerful tool that educators can use – even if they don’t speak those languages or are working in a classroom with students who speak many languages. Drs. August and Shanahan write, "Oral proficiency and literacy in the first language can be used to facilitate literacy development in English." (2006, p. 5) And in his Colorin Colorado article about the value of students’ home language, Dr. Fred Genesee writes:
Extensive research, again from around the world, has found that children who are learning to read in a second language are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in the second language. The best evidence of this comes from studies showing that students with strong reading skills in the home language also have strong reading skills in their second language. Much of this work has been done on ELLs in the U.S. (August & Shanahan, 2006; Riches & Genesee, 2006).
Tapping into students’ home languages (also referred to as a first or native language) as a resource can take different forms:
- Helping students make connections between their language and English in order to identify similarities and differences
- Providing opportunities to use the home language in the classroom
- Promoting biliteracy through bilingual or dual-language instruction, which can support students’ future opportunities and family ties (not to mention brain health!), with initiatives such as the Seal of Biliteracy, which has been adopted in many states
- Encouraging students to draw on all of their language skills across languages, which is called translanguaging
It is important to keep in mind that the extent to which a student’s literacy skills from their first language transfer depends on many factors, such as how similar the alphabetic systems between the two languages are and whether they share any connection in their origins (e.g., both derive from Latin). Learning more about the languages students speak can help educators target instruction, notice patterns among speakers of the same language, and help students understand the relationship between their language and English.
You can also provide students and families with access to bilingual books and texts and encourage families to continue using and developing the home language through activities such as rhymes, storytelling, and conversation at home. You will find specific strategies related to home language throughout the key components in Reading 101 for ELLs.
- The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource (Dr. Fred Genesee, Colorin Colorado)
- Family Literacy: Multilingual Videos and Tip Sheets
Oral Language Development
In addition, as you will see below, oral language has a role to play across all reading skills, yet it often does not receive much attention as part of ELLs’ language and literacy development. Drs. August and Shanahan write, "Instruction in the key components of reading is necessary — but not sufficient — for teaching language-minority students to read and write proficiently in English. Oral proficiency in English is critical as well — but student performance suggests that it is often overlooked in instruction." (2006, p. 5)
Oral language supports students' literacy skills in different ways. For example, students need to be familiar not only with the sounds and letters they are learning but also the words in which they appear in order to support their word recognition and comprehension. Other more global oral language skills, such as facility with English syntax and grammar, and the ability to navigate specific language functions like describing, predicting, and comparing, also contribute to both reading and writing development for ELLs.
In addition, strengthening oral language supports students' ability to participate in peer groups and their proficiency in speaking and writing using academic language. Students need opportunities to practice applying their emerging oral language skills through partner talk and peer work (scaffolded with supports such as sentence frames), activities such as partner reading, and responding to comprehension questions using academic language.
Dr. Carrie Simkin, the director of our sister site AdLit.org, offers the following suggestions related to oral language:
- Make it a learning target for lesson planning (e.g. be intentional about planning for it).
- Consider how much of the learning time in your classroom is text based vs. discussion. Do students have opportunities to discuss ideas or do they mostly respond in written formats? We want to engage students in lively discussions!
- Consider if students have opportunities to work in pairs as well as small groups, and not just respond to teacher generated questions.
- Have you modeled how to orally respond to questions using the question as a sentence starter? Do you have sentence starters visible for share-outs?
- Our strategies related to oral language are also woven throughout the components below.
Keeping these two important areas in mind, let's dive into the five key skill areas!
- Oral Language Development and ELLs: Five Challenges and Solutions
- Video Series: Engaging ELLs in Academic Conversations
- Meaningful Classroom Talk: Supporting English Learners’ Oral Language Development
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:
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
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.
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:
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 conversaciÃ³n. 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 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 Skills for Content Learning
- Finding the Main Idea
- Reading Comprehension Strategies for English Language Learners
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:
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.
Narrowing Down to Find Common Ground: Shared Agreements for Effective Literacy Instruction in California
This new working paper released by Pivot Learning reflects collective consensus on key topics concerning (1) literacy and multilingual and English learner students; (2) early screening and assessment; and (3) foundational skills among leading following literacy experts.
To learn more about the paper and how it was developed, see Can common ground be found on teaching reading in California? (EdSource)
Research articles and chapters
- Educating English Learners: A Review of the Latest Research (Dr. Diane August, American Educator)
- Teaching English Learners: What the Research Does - and Does Not - Say (Dr. Claude Goldenberg, American Educator)
- Chapter #1 of Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners (Dr. Nancy Cloud, Dr. Fred Genesee, and Else Hamayan)
- Chapter #1 of Literacy Foundations for English Learners (Dr. Elsa Cardenas-Hagan)
- Research-based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners, Grades K-4 (Sylvia Linan-Thompson and Sharon Vaughn)
- Literacy Foundations for English Learners by Dr. Elsa Cardenas-Hagan
- Words Their Way with English Learners: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling (2nd Ed.) by Dr. Lori Helman, Dr. Donald R. Bear, Dr. Shane Templeton, Dr. Dr. Marcia Invernizzi, Dr. Francine Johnston
- Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners by Dr. Nancy Cloud, Dr. Fred Genesee, and Dr. Else Hamayan
- Dual Language Instruction from A to Z: Practical Guidance for Teachers and Administrators by Dr. Else Hamayan, Dr. Fred Genesee, and Dr. Nancy Cloud
Abdirisaaq omar replied on Permalink
I like english speaking
Trish DeCicco replied on Permalink
Thanks for the great article with so many suggestions to tailor my instruction to my ELL students! The video links look very helpful too. :)
jess replied on Permalink
great videos with lots of information! Thanks
Madi Wade replied on Permalink
In the first video I really liked how she used the illustrations to connect to student's memory of key details.
Anonymous replied on Permalink
Working with EL students can be incredibly rewarding and exciting, as a teacher I'm able to see them growing. There are so many great resources, as a second grade teacher I think it's about finding the key resources that work best for my students so I can stay consistent and use strategies that are best. I love that everything I do for EL student can be just as powerful for a Native English Language Speaker.
Beth Camp replied on Permalink
being aware of the 5 components of reading will help ELLs to become better readers and be able to comprehend what they are reading.
Renee Lindsay replied on Permalink
I really liked the videos. They helped a lot to show interesting ways to do things.
Carol J. Styron replied on Permalink
I love the use of using pictures and manipulatives to help in teaching students about vocabulary words and concepts in text. Also, breaking the reading down in short passages really helps and asking open-ended questions so students comprehend the material easier. In addition, one of my favorite strategies with students connecting with a story and comprehension is having students put paper sentences printed out in order of how events in the story occur.
Lastly, allowing the students to build connections with topics or events in the story really helps them put things in perspective, especially if they have had previous experiences with topics or events in the story.
Joan McNeill replied on Permalink
Very well done. This was a nice refresher on the varying roles and interface of teachers/interventionists with the ELLs.
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