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ELL/ESL. [image]. Retrieved from https://www.spalding.org/about-us/about-spalding/wrtr-program/ell-esl.
ELL/ESL. [image]. Retrieved from https://www.spalding.org/about-us/about-spalding/wrtr-program/ell-esl.

While the National Reading Panel released their initial review of effective practices in reading in 1997, educators of English Language Learners (ELL) were left with little direction as to how to help their ELL students learn to read and write.  The U.S. Department of Education funded the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority and Youth in 2002 with the intent to study research on teaching ELL students to read and write and released their most recent report in 2006 (August & Shanahan, 2006).  

Included on this page is information on the ways that ELL students may learn the five components of reading differently than native English speakers and ways that ELL students can build their skills in the five components of reading.  

Phonemic Awareness 

Watch the video below to hear Gisela Morgado, an ELL educator, talk about importance Phonemic Awareness and ELL students.  Watch below to her describe a phonemic awareness activity that she uses with her ELL students.  

Morgado, Gisela (2015, Nov 19). Phonemic awareness activity for ELL's. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uslUy-pu5Y. 

Phonemic awareness can be a difficult component of reading for ELL students to acquire because they may not have enough experience with the English language to be able to differentiate between sounds from those of their native language and sounds from the English language (Irujo, 2018). Additionally, some phonemes in the English Language may not be present in the ELLs' native language,  making it difficult for the student to pronounce and distinguish sounds when listening, as well as to place the words into a meaningful context (Antunez, 2012). To address this issue, parents and educators should use familiar words when working on phonemic awareness, as well as be aware of the similarities and differences between the phonemes in the student's native language and English.  

Three Things to Consider when Teaching Phonemic Awareness to ELL Students  

Be Familiar with Sounds in the English Language
ELL students learning phonemic awareness need to be familiar with the sounds in English language before they can identify and manipulate phonemes.  Songs, poems, chants, and read-alouds are fun ways to expose ELL students to the English language.  

Understand the Phonemes of their Native Language vs. English
Some phonemes may not be present in ELLs' native language and, therefore, may be difficult for a student to pronounce and distinguish auditorily, as well as to place into a meaningful context (Antunez, 2012).  It is for this reason that ELL students should work on manipulating phonemes in words that they are already familiar with and that parents and educators are familiar with the sound discrepancies between native language and English.   

Native Language Phonemic Awareness
Once phonological awareness has developed in any language, it transfers to other languages that are learned (Irujo, 2018).  This means that if an ELL learner has phonemic awareness in their native language, the focus should be on the student's ability to distinguish sounds from their native language and the English language.  


There are two main reasons that phonics can be problematic for ELL students: 1) the English language does not have a regular system of correspondence between letters and sounds and 2) many ELL students have difficulty discriminating between similar sounds in English. 

Additional Time 
Author Suzanne Irujo, author of the article What does Research Tell Us About Teaching Reading to English Langauge Learners? states: 

  • "Most ELLs will need additional time to master phonics. Given the need for extra practice to learn to hear and produce the sounds of English, to learn the meanings of the words used in phonics instruction, to learn the multiple combinations of letters that make the same sound, and to learn many more sight words than English speakers need, additional time for phonics instruction should be built into reading programs for ELLs."- Suzanne Irujo, 2018

The video below, created by ELL teacher Ian Leahy, show an activity for ELL students to build phonics skills. In the video, the students use mirrors to watch their mouth movements when producing letter sounds.  

Leahy, Ian. (2011, December 14). Teaching Phonics-Activities-Using a Mirror. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIo6oKxYcGM. 


To become a fluent reader one must first become a fluent speaker.  Susanna Irujo states "Fluency is difficult for ELLs because their lack of proficiency in English slows down their ability to decode words and hinders their ability to understand the meanings of the words and how the words combine to produce meaningful sentences and discourse." (Irujo, 2018).  

Reading in Native Language 
It is encouraged that ELL students are instructed to read in their native language first, if at all possible. Additionally, choosing stories that are familiar with is a good place to start when teaching reading to ELL students, allowing the focus of the reading is on decoding the words, not understanding the meaning of the text.  

Want a book suggestion? Click on the image below get book suggestions for your ELL student! 

Reader's Theater
Reader's Theater (a reading activity where students read aloud a play with a small group) is a great way for ELL students to practice fluency in a meaningful way.  When students participate in Reader's Theater they work in their accuracy, rate, and expression (the three elements of fluency) in a fun interactive way.  

Watch the video below to see a Reader's Theater in action! 

The Balanced Literacy Diet. (2011, Nov 28). Reader's Theater: Building Fluency and Expression. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-Suvry_pw8&feature=youtu.be. 


Understand words and their meaning is a critical element of reading.  Many ELL students struggle with vocabulary and the failure to understand even a few words of a text can have negative effects on comprehension (Irujo, 2018). 

Explicitly Teach Figurative Language and Idioms
Figurative language and idioms can be difficult for non-native English speakers to understand when reading due to their meanings not being fully understandable through the text only.  For readers to fully understand these types of phrases they must understand the meaning of the full phrase not the individual words in the phrase.  

Examples of Figurative Language 

~This coffee shop is an icebox! (Metaphor)
~She's drowning in a sea of grief. (Metaphor)
~She's happy as a clam. (Simile)
~I move fast like a cheetah on the Serengeti. (Simile)
~The sea lashed out in anger at the ships, unwilling to tolerate another battle. (Personification)
~The sky misses the sun at night. (Personification)
~I've told you a million times to clean your room! (Hyperbole)
~Her head was spinning from all the new information. (Hyperbole)
~She was living her life in chains. (Symbolism - Chains are a symbol of oppression of entrapment.)

Primar Punch. (2016). Metaphor. [infographic]. Retrieved from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Similes-and-Metaphors-572969. 

Common Idioms

~A hot potato. 
~Kill two bird with one stone. 
~Piece of cake. 
~When pigs fly. 
~Get a kick out of it. 

App Store Preview. (N.D.) Idioms. [infographic]. Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/idioms/id323375078?mt=8. 


Reading comprehension is the main goal of reading.  Instruction for reading comprehension needs to be modified to address the individual needs of the ELL student. Asking ELLs to read the same texts and do the same activities as everybody else will only result in frustration for teachers and failure for students (Irujo, 2018). 

Watch the video below to hear Dr. Cynthia Lundgren and Kristina Robertson discuss effective reading comprehension strategies for teaching English language learner students.  

Reading Rockets. (2014, Apr 24). Comprehension: Helping ELLs Grasp the Full Picture. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0txgn2qbQE#action=share.