Suggestions: Working with ESL Students Who Have Special Needs in Reading

In this article, I will share three selections I referred to in my talk at VATESOL, along with instructional suggestions. Teachers are in a unique position to create positive attitudes in children learning English as a second language. They can do so by adopting methods, materials, and ideas that are linguistically and culturally sympathetic to the students' backgrounds (Cooter, 1990). Field and Aebersold (1990) suggest, "What is most important is that we remain aware of how culture functions as a cognitive filter for all of us, shaping our values and assumptions, the ways we think about reading, and the ways we teach reading" (p. 410).

One way to accomplish this is by using a variety of text resources, including literature, in ESL instruction. Such use of multitext can provide many levels of literacy in a classroom, as well as many different kinds of experiences and backgrounds. As Cook and Gonzales (1995) point out, teaching ESL with literature can illustrate for learners the human experiences that are common to all cultures.

When the teacher reads literature aloud, ESL students have an opportunity to practice English in a non-threatening and enjoyable environment. They reap such benefits as: hearing an expressive model of the English language, practicing listening skills, hearing and becoming familiar with words they will soon be reading, and developing a familiarity with a story they might read and study after the read-aloud.

An activity I often use to introduce a piece of literature I am going to read aloud is BRIAB (Book Report in a Bag). The presenter (which could be the ESL student who is giving a book report, or the teacher, who is going to read aloud and wants the students to listen to English being used) selects objects that represent events or important points in the reading material. These objects are placed in a bag and pulled out one at a time, with either a presenter explanation or student guesses about the objects. Either way, English language is heard and practiced. For I Hate English, some objects I chose were: a toy covered wagon, sea shells, and letters spelling TRIP. As you read my description of this children's book, you will see why I chose these objects and why I recommend this book for ESL students.

A Reluctant Learner

Mei Mei in I Hate English by Levine does NOT want to learn English. She likes living in Chinatown, where her culture and language surround her. She sees no reason to change. Yet, her teacher patiently expects her to learn English. She resists, but becomes enticed by stories written in English. On a walk with her teacher, she discovers that English might be useful outside of Chinatown.

Mei Mei illustrates the fear a learner can experience, wondering if the native language and culture will be lost. She is fighting to keep what is important to her. She worries that she will forget the words to express herself in Chinese if she uses English too often. "She felt she might lose something." She dreams that she has gone to China and cannot even remember her name.

Sometimes a second language learner becomes overloaded with new information. Too much is happening at once; too many new concepts are being introduced. The learner, who seems to have learned very successfully, may suddenly seem to regress or stop learning. Mei Mei tells her teacher to "STOP! FOREVER TALKING!" Mei Mei cannot take it all in and wants a chance to stop hearing the English all around her. If a learner does not feel comfortable to step back and take it one step at a time, language shock may occur. Time to absorb the overload of information is needed. Mei Mei's teacher does give her plenty of time, knowing that Mei Mei will find her own balance. By the end of this children's novel, Mei Mei herself is forever talking English but also recognizes that certain thoughts of hers will always be best expressed in Chinese. At the end of the story, Mei Mei "talks in Chinese and English whenever she wants."

I Hate English! is children's literature; the entire book can be read aloud in a few minutes. Because Levine expresses so well the anguish of a second language learner who feels caught between two worlds, and because of its brevity, this selection has been well-received by ESL students.

Adapting like Chameleons

The second book I shared is Grab Hands and Run. The twenty chapters of Grab Hands and Run by Temple lend themselves to an interactive reading format. The teacher might start by reading the first two chapters aloud, then alternate students' silent reading with read-alouds throughout the book. Because the novel is so rich with ESL issues, discussions should occur often, at least once during each chapter.

If each ESL learner could read his or her own copy of this novel, as the teacher reads brief passages, following along as the teacher read aloud, each could see how the written word in English sounds in an expressive context. Discussion would encourage not only involvement and critical thinking, but also would provide the opportunity for and practice in using the English language which ESL learners need so much. (I can include only one example of a read aloud and matching instruction within this article, but the monograph Read It Aloud! contains several more from this book and many other read aloud suggestions.)

One issue for ESL learners is the many challenges to be met as they adapt to North America. As Felipe and his family move from the countryside to the city and from country to country they encounter a variety of cultural situations to which they must adapt. One is the use of different dialects in the same language. In order to adapt, one must know how to express oneself within the circumstances. As Felipe, Romy and Paloma walk towards freedom, they are warned,

"'Walk east,' Josefina urges us. 'Find a boat. Don't talk any more than you have to. And when you do, remember, we Guatemalans say aldea for village, not cantón.'"

Josefina has been correcting our Salvadoran way of speaking. 'It is not that our Guatemalan way is better, Felipe,' she says carefully. 'Your way of speaking is beautiful, too. But you don't want to draw attention to yourselves. You need to adapt, to belong everywhere. Like fish in a stream, you need to be.'

'Chameleons,' says Romy.

'Chameleons with language,' says Josefina, smiling.(p. 65)

One question about this read-aloud might be: Have you ever noticed that people use different words to express the same meaning? Can you think of examples? For instance, in the Midwestern United States, people often say "sack," where Northerners say "bag." Some Southerners "cut off" lights, while many Northerners "turn off" lights.

The above passage also illustrates the issue of acculturation versus assimilation for an L2 learner. Learners should not think that they have to abandon their own cultures when they learn English. If they feel that they must keep quiet, or always be chameleons, they may resent using English. A question such as the following might help an ESL learner express emotions about this issue: Have you ever felt "safer" not saying anything so you won't draw attention to yourself? When did this happen? Do you think that keeping quiet is always the best solution? Is it for Felipe's family?

Crash Course in Japanese

Many in the audience seemed to enjoy the essay by Dave Barry, "Failing to Learn Japanese in only five minutes" (found in the book of essays There's no toilet paper on the road less traveled, collected by Lansky). Barry describes for readers how he failed to learn Japanese. First, he started too late — in mid-air on the way to Japan. Next, he could not make a connection between the symbols of Japanese writing and his knowledge of English grapheme-phoneme relationships — the symbols all looked the same to him and he could not make an inter-language transfer. Finally, he writes,

"Before I fell asleep, I was able to devote nearly an hour to the study of the Japanese language. My ultimate goal was to learn how to say, 'I do not speak Japanese' in fluent Japanese, but I decided to start with 'Thank you.'"

His frustrations, shared with his wonderful sense of humor, could help ESL students relax and share their own funny stories about trying to learn English.


This article is included in the November 2003 publication of the VATESOL Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission.


Cook, L., and Gonzales, P. (1995)."Zones of contact: Using literature with second language learners." Reading Today, 12, 27.

Cooter, R. B. (1990, October/November). "Learners with special needs". Reading Today, p. 28.

Field, M. L., and Aebersold, J. A. (1990). "Cultural attitudes toward reading: Implications for teachers of ESL/bilingual readers". Journal of Reading, 33, 406-410.

Lansky,D. (1998). There's no toilet paper on the road less traveled. San Francisco, CA:Travelers' Tales, Inc.

Levine, E. (1989). I Hate English! New York: Scholastic Books.

Richardson, J. S. (2000). Read It Aloud! Newark: Delaware: International Reading Association.

Temple, F. (1993). Grab hands and Run. New York: Orchard Books.


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