Teaching Reading to English Language Learners
Teaching English learners to read in English is a difficult but extremely rewarding journey. The role of the teacher involves not just teaching fundamentals like vocabulary and phonics but also finding ways to engage readers with text that they care about and want to read. This article breaks down the stages of appreciating reading and provides strategies and resources to support teaching reading to English language learners.
A note on language: in this article we employ the common phrase English language learner, along with the acronym ELL, to describe students whose first language isn’t English but are learning within a predominantly English-speaking U.S. school. However, we recognize the challenge of categorically describing these learners. Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label.
Stages of the Appreciation of Reading
The appreciation of reading can be broken down into five stages. These stages build on one another as we grow and learn. They deepen our understanding of the written word:
- Stage 1: Reading brings enjoyment. We see this very early on as we look at picture books, read with our parents and teachers, or share oral manifestations like nursery rhymes.
- Stage 2: Reading becomes a vicarious experience. We start to think about the adventures or experiences that we read about and begin imagining ourselves in the place of the characters. We question how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking and compare it to our own emotions.
- Stage 3: Reading becomes self-reflective. We start seeing ourselves in characters and find solace or escape in texts. We look for characters and relationships that we can relate to in order to understand the world around us.
- Stage 4: Reading becomes about achieving greater understanding. We start to examine social issues and take on a new level of consciousness regarding varied topics. We read to learn and use this new information to examine the world.
- Stage 5: Reading becomes aesthetic in nature. We are able to appreciate the written word for art. We take pleasure in what it adds to our lives and the world around us.
Engaging English Learners with Text
So, what does this have to do with engaging English learners with text? It’s very simple. We regularly ask ELLs to start at Stage 4 in most of our classrooms. We say, “Let’s read this information about Mesopotamia and see what you can understand.” We fall into the content trap.
However, there are ways to engage our ELLs with texts and to sidestep the trap. The key is to foster a general interest in reading. By encouraging these students to engage with works that interest them, you are ultimately building the skillset they need to be successful in their classroom content reading. Give them time and help them find joy in reading. From there, they will be able to tell you all about Mesopotamia.
Finding joy in reading will be a different journey for every student, especially as students bring different prior knowledge and experiences into the classroom. Take advantage of programs you have access to that can help ELLs engage with the text and develop a long-term interest in reading. In Waggle, for example, students are guided through personalized practice with real-time supports like academic vocabulary meaning, figurative language explanations, and English/Spanish cognates.
Reading Strategies for ELL Students
Try these ELL reading strategies to help them engage with reading and foster a desire to connect with texts.
- Strategy 1: Tell stories. This is often a forgotten element to reading. Allowing ELL students the opportunity to tell stories without reading them allows them to develop an interest in text structure and, in some cases, plot.
- Strategy 2: Read bilingual books. This may seem like a no-brainer, but students who are literate in their native languages are much more likely to build literacy in English. Try looking for some texts that are written in dual languages, allowing the students to compare what the different writings look like without worrying about what the English portion says. In Amira, students can opt to read a story in English or in Spanish, with the ability to go back and forth between the languages as often as desired.
- Strategy 3: Listen to audio books. To me, this totally counts. Students may not be working on fluency or decoding skills, but they are gaining vocabulary, applying comprehension strategies, and attending to information. They’re being exposed to words, thoughts, and ideas that may be entirely new to them, and isn’t that a main goal in reading?
- Strategy 4: Choose material that is relevant and interesting. Or better yet, allow them to choose! Give them ownership of their learning and let them steer for a while. Try having your students fill out a reader’s survey from English 3D to recommend books that match their interests.
You can also try our articles on texting and video games if they pique your students’ interest. Both are featured in English 3D’s extended reading library with a readability level for multilingual students in Grades 6–8.
- Strategy 5: Fill your shelves with readable materials. It’s wonderful to have a stocked library, but if no one is checking your materials out, who is it good for? Readability is key! Invest in a few really interesting titles. Try graphic novels. Look for books with great illustrations. You’ll have less on the shelves, but it will actually get read! Choose programs that incorporate high-interest, accessible content such as Read 180, which allows students to explore content that fascinates them.
- Strategy 6: Give them some background information. Before you start any sort of reading, gauge what the student knows and understands, and then give them some vocabulary and details that they may struggle with later on in the text. Then, when they get to it, they’ll already know a little about it. Read 180 also includes high-interest anchor videos designed to put learning into context and build background knowledge before students engage with text.
- Strategy 7: Reading away from school is crucial! I don’t have to tell teachers that many kids just don’t encounter that many books away from school. So talk to their caregivers about it. Tell them about nearby thrift stores and used bookshops, along with community resources like public libraries and services that provide free books, such as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library or Little Free Library. Help them help their children. And if they’re not reading to their kids in English? Tell them to read with them in whatever language they can. It’s all about building a love of text!
Putting Reading Strategies in Action
Nobody knows your classroom situation better than you. Your students’ backgrounds, languages, and experiences are unique to your classroom, and these ELL strategies for reading are here to help you find ways to connect with your students and foster in them a love for the written word. You can download this free PDF tip sheet for teaching reading to English language learners to always have these strategies at your fingertips.
This blog post, originally published in 2017, has been updated for 2023.
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