Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: Reading Instruction

Note: This article was adapted from excerpts of the ESL/Bilingual Resource Guide for Mainstream Teachers, published by the Portland, OR Public School District.

Teaching reading to English language learners (ELLs) may seem daunting, but the good news is that you don't have to learn an entirely new method. You can and should use what you already know to be effective, research-based reading instruction. However, ELLs will need additional support in learning how to read. The strategies below will help you to provide this much-needed assistance in the context of your everyday teaching, particularly for newcomers (students who have recently arrived in the U.S.).

For more information, take a look at Colorín Colorado's section on Teaching Reading.

1. Read to students every day

Look for reading material for English Language Learners (ELLs) that contains some of these characteristics, especially at the beginning of the school year:

  • Numerous illustrations that help clarify the text
  • Story plots that are action-based
  • Limited text on each page
  • Text that contains repetitive, predictable phrases
  • High-frequency vocabulary and useful words
  • Text that employs simple sentence structures

2. Support students' comprehension as much as possible

When you read to newcomers, look for ways to help support their comprehension of new vocabulary and the story.

  • Read sentences at a slow-to-normal speed, using an expressive tone.
  • Allow time after each sentence or paragraph for students to assimilate the material.
  • Point to the words in the text as you read them. This is particularly useful for students who need to learn the left-to-right flow of English text.
  • Point to the corresponding pictures as you read the text.
  • Act out the story as you read, and ask students to act along with you.
  • Use visuals and manipulatives such as flannel board pieces, props, puppets, and "realia." ELL learners especially benefit from any three dimensional objects you bring in to enhance the reading experience.
  • Verify comprehension of the story by asking students to point to items in the illustrations. Check comprehension with yes/no and either/or questions at first, and then move to fill-in-the-blank or who/what/when/where/why questions when students are more comfortable.
  • Read the same story on successive days. Pause at strategic points and invite students to supply the words or phrases they know.
  • When students are familiar with the story, invite them to "read" along with you as you point to the words.
  • If appropriate for younger students, use Big Books, as both text and illustrations can be easily seen.

3. Teach the alphabet when necessary

Remember that newcomers' schooling and literacy skills may vary dramatically. Preliterate students and literate newcomers who speak a language that does not use the Roman alphabet need direct instruction in letter recognition and formation as well as beginning phonics.

4. 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, etc. Phonics worksheets may not be useful to the newcomer since they present new vocabulary items out of context.

5. Check comprehension frequently

Your students may learn to decode accurately but be unable to construct meaning out of the words they have read. Teach newcomers to reflect on what they have decoded and to monitor what they do or do not understand. Check student comprehension with one or more of the following activities.

  • Teach students to use graphic organizers such as story maps while they read. Visual depictions of information allow ELLs to better understand the material while learning important vocabulary.
  • Write individual sentences from the text on separate sheets of drawing paper; then read or have the students read each sentence and illustrate it.
  • Informally test students' ability to sequence material from a story: print sentences from a section of the story on paper strips, mix the strips; have students put them in order.
  • Check students' ability to order words within a sentence; write several sentences from the text on individual strips of paper; cut the strips into words; have students arrange each group of words into a sentence.

You can find a number of other ideas in's Classroom Strategy Library.

6. Use audiobooks

Look for books on CD, Playaways, or podcasts of the stories you are reading in class. If the stories haven't been recorded, set up a tape recorder and record stories as you read. Newcomers will have the opportunity to listen to a story and read along as many times as they wish.

7. Support native language literacy

Students who learn to read in their native language generally learn to read more successfully in English. Whenever feasible, students will benefit from receiving reading instruction in their home language prior to receiving reading instruction in English. If you are a mainstream teacher and find yourself responsible for the developmental reading instruction of preliterate newcomers, allow newcomers time to develop some aural familiarity with English and build a vocabulary base before beginning reading instruction.

8. Encourage reading outside of the classroom

Stock your classroom library and encourage students' parents to join the public library and check out picture books, books with read-along tapes, and home-language books, if available.

9. Establish an English Language Learner Center

Fill the ELL Center with activities for your new language learners. Here are some of the items you may want to include. It is not necessary to put everything in at once! Add to the Learning Center a little bit at a time.

  • Tape recorder and earphones
  • Copies of appropriate activity pages, and keep them in a loose-leaf binder, a large envelope, or a folder with pockets.)
  • Crayons, scissors, pencils, erasers, and paper
  • An ESL notebook
  • An ESL folder for Dictionary pages
  • Labels for classroom objects
  • A picture file (class-made or commercial)
  • Well-illustrated magazines for cutting out pictures
  • Blank 3"x 5" index cards to be used for flash cards or concentration games
  • A picture dictionary
  • Home-language books on your newcomers' reading levels
  • Home-language magazines with lots of pictures
  • Nonfiction picture books from the library that cover the same content material you are currently teaching
  • Beginning phonics books with tapes
  • Taped music in both English and home language
  • Picture books and well-illustrated beginning-to-read books with tapes
  • Simple games: dot-to-dot activities, word searches, concentration games, sequencing activities, and jigsaw puzzles
  • An "object" box containing small manipulative objects for beginning vocabulary or phonics learning.

10. Make up individualized activity packs for your newcomers

Activity packs enable entry-level students to work independently on activities suited to their specific needs, such as phonics practice or vocabulary exercises. Encourage students to work on these activities when they cannot follow the work being done in the classroom. Remember, however, not to isolate the newcomers from their peers with separate work all day long. They, too, need to be a part of your class and should be integrated as much as possible.

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