Strategies for Teaching ELLs to Read

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When I imagined my work as an ELL teacher I wrongly thought my students’ language-learning journeys would be a lot like my own journey to learn Spanish. I started taking high school and continued in college with some trips to live in other countries and practice with native speakers. I did a lot of vocabulary lists, word games, skits, and grammar exercises in workbooks. I was able to use all my English language knowledge to help me learn Spanish. However, that was Spanish as a foreign language and I was already literate in English. At first, when I started teaching ELLs I didn’t comprehend how much those factors impacted my ability to learn Spanish easily and especially to read in Spanish.

The Facts

So as a new teacher, I was surprised to realize when working with ELLs that reading ability was absolutely NOT something that I could take for granted. Many ELLs are coming to school with the need to both learn to speak English but ALSO to learn to read for the first time. This puts an additional onus on the ELL teacher to not only figure out how to help the student with their language acquisition but also to help them become literate in an additional language. Should the student fail in either area, they will not be successful in school.

In 2019, the reading score for 4th-grade ELL students (191) was 33 points lower than the score for their non-ELL peers (224). And the 2019 reading score for 8th-grade ELL students (221) was 45 points lower than the score for their non-ELL peers (266). (Source national center for education statistics). For teachers who have worked with ELLs, these numbers are not surprising. ELLs, just like monolingual students, ELLs come to school with a variety of literacy and school backgrounds. Their experiences with literacy and reading are further impacted by their need to learn a new language at the same time.

Language and Reading Instruction

So what can you, as the language teacher do? You will need to balance teaching the language- using all the strategies proven to work for ELLs- growing vocabulary, building background, contextualizing content, providing visuals, etc. You will still use all those strategies for helping students acquire language, BUT, at the same time, you need to instruct students in reading in a way that doesn’t completely decontextualize the language. If you have ever met an ELL who can decode beautifully but doesn’t understand a word they read, you will understand why students need to learn to understand the language at the same time they learn to decode it on the page. Teaching reading to ELls is complex, you will all of the steps below to be successful.

Strategies for Teaching Reading

  1. Assess the reading level of your students. You can’t start teaching students to read if you have no idea of their skills. Reading is a complex process and the English language can be both difficult and confusing. Assess students using one or more measures of both comprehension and decoding. There are a variety of tests that you can use for these assessments. Keep in mind that- in particular with ELL students- excellent decoding doesn’t automatically translate to great comprehension. Similarly, a student who doesn’t decode (can’t read words well because they don’t how to break words into syllables and sound parts) well may have a higher level of comprehension when a text is read to them and/or also have a much higher level of oral language depending on their literacy background.
  2. Teach explicit reading and decoding skills. This means providing solid instruction in the sounds and structure of the English language. Work through a phonics program or sequence of lessons that teach decoding (breaking apart words into the sounds they make and then blending those sounds together so that they form words) and encoding (spelling words from the sounds that you hear). There are programs for students at different levels, and some for students who have some basic skills but just need a push. Students then need to practice those isolated decoding skills in context by reading actual, connected texts. However, a word of caution here, this should only be a small piece of your overall instruction. Particularly at the beginning, focusing solely on phonics limits what language you can use in the extreme. Those limits on the natural use of language will prevent ELLs from acquiring robust, contextualized language if a phonics program is the only English that they are being exposed to daily.
  3. Recognize that many words in English must be memorized. These words are often called “sight” words. You can find lists of “Fry” words that categorize sight words by grade level. I like to make sure that my older ELLs are practicing these words and building up a solid deck of words they know how to read, pronounce, spell and define. This can be tedious so don’t dedicate too much time to it. Daily, I would say no more than 5 minutes or so. Progress will be slow and steady but it is necessary as there are so many words in English that don’t follow the phonetic rules for reading and spelling.
  4. Don’t forget about comprehension. You will also need to work on comprehension. If students are reading at a very low level, you need to provide materials on their level to practice comprehension skills, or you will need to read materials to them to practice comprehension. While you shouldn’t focus exclusively on teaching discrete comprehension skills, students do need instruction on reading strategies normally taught in the lower grades. These are things like predicting, inferring, finding the main idea, summarizing, and making connections with the text.
  5. Ample reading on-level reading materials. Provide students with ample reading material on their level. This doesn’t mean that older ELLs should be reading books meant for five-year-olds, but the materials DO need to be generally decodable at their level. Providing time for them to read daily and then pushing students to progress into texts that are slightly harder is essential for progress. There are a lot of different places to get Hi-lo (meaning high interest, lower reading level) material these days.
  6. Push comprehension skills. Expose ELLs to texts that are beyond their independent reading level, but that they can read and understand with instructional help. This may mean designing reading lessons that focus on the development of the language and vocabulary needed for a certain reading. First, learn the vocabulary needed to access a particular text, then activate students’ prior knowledge about a subject, then build any necessary background information, and finally, read the text together with students, out loud, with them following along.
  7. Literacy-rich environment. Make your classroom literacy-rich. Just like the ELA or English classroom, the ELL classroom should be full of print materials. You should spend time sharing your reading interests with students, providing them with access to different types of media to read. Make an effort to help ELLs find joy in reading and provide them with reading recommendations.
  8. Incorporate read-alouds into your instruction. All students benefit from having a skilled reader model reading for them. This is a great way to help students access texts that might be on a reading level that is too challenging for them to decode by themselves. You can build comprehension skills with all students when you read aloud, without depending on each student’s decoding abilities. This also builds classroom community.

You can do it!

If you are completely new to teaching reading to ELLs, this list might seem a bit daunting. Remember, the intention isn’t to do all of the things all the time, nor to do them all perfectly. Pick one or two things and see how you can incorporate them into your instruction. Then slowly add in the other elements until you have a robust, multi-faceted literacy program that will help your ELLs learn to read.

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