English learners (ELs) are the fastest growing group of students in the United States, and the NEA expects that by the year 2025, roughly one fourth of our students will be ELs. These students bring a rich diversity into our classrooms—they represent over 400 languages. With this beautiful diversity comes a need for educators to understand language acquisition and linguistic differences and similarities.
Because English learners are far from monolithic, it’s dangerous to paint them with one brush, especially when it comes to teaching reading. It is critical that we consider students first, before considering content. It’s also important that language acquisition be addressed in balance with reading instruction. All states have language standards to support linguistic development.
ELs may not have had the same opportunities with English as native English speakers, but they have other experiences with language, including speaking and hearing another language since birth. And in addition to language, students enter classrooms with backgrounds and experiences that influence their ability to read.
Additional factors come into play when teaching reading to English learners. If a child has already “cracked the code” in their first language (L1)—so that they understand the connections between sounds and symbols—reading instruction will differ from that of a child who has not yet cracked the code in their L1. Some factors to consider include:
- the student’s first language proficiency (listening, speaking, reading, and writing),
- the student’s current English language proficiency,
- the student’s background knowledge and opportunities,
- the student’s access to language at home, and
- similarities and differences between the student’s first language and English (cognates and written features).
The primary grades are traditionally highly language-rich environments. Many students, no matter their language experience, are emergent readers and writers. At this very early stage of school, phonemic awareness and phonics should be explicitly and systematically taught to all learners. This helps students learn to crack the code. Since reading is not a natural experience, students must be taught to lift letters off the page, turn them into sounds, connect sounds, and make words.
Decoding, however, is only one aspect of reading—another is comprehension. ELs who already read in their L1 can transfer knowledge and skills they’ve learned to acquiring English. Some may also benefit from individualized, explicit phonics instruction. For example, a third-grade newcomer EL from Venezuela may need additional support with English letters and sounds that are nonexistent in Spanish. Formatively assessing students’ first language reading by listening to them read in their L1, asking them questions about their reading life, and/or talking to caregivers about their reading experiences will help teachers make instructional decisions.
There is much we can learn from observing a child read in their primary language even if we don’t speak or understand the language. The simple act of sitting side-by-side with a student and observing them with a book in their language allows us to see how they interact with text, and we can listen for expression and watch for visual clues of engagement or excitement.
What Do ELs need?
ELs need high quality tier one reading instruction. Here are some characteristics of tier one reading instruction that is designed to meet ELs’ cognitive, affective, and linguistic needs.
Cognitive needs: Instruction provides ELs with access to grade-level state standards with the support of second language acquisition methods. Teachers can set high expectations for ELs while providing them with supports such as:
- Native language resources,
- Visuals and gestures,
- Opportunities to listen and speak with peers,
- Sentence stems for speaking and writing, and
- Content and language objectives.
Affective needs: Instruction supports ELs’ confidence, self-assurance, positive identity, and self-efficacy as readers. Teachers can provide a safe environment for reading that follows a gradual release of responsibility and represents all learners by:
- Building a strong classroom community,
- Fostering a love of literacy,
- Allowing and encouraging reading in L1, and
- Providing books that represent students’ experiences.
Linguistic needs: Instruction supports ELs’ English proficiency and bridges or leverages students’ first language and uses English Language Proficiency Standards and grade level state standards to guide students to reach literacy goals for listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
This work is not the sole responsibility of the English as a second language teacher but rather a collaborative effort by all stakeholders.
3 Ways Teachers Can Help Motivate ELs as Readers
Motivation to read is built by creating environments where students want to pick up books and then don’t want to put them down. Here are three ways teachers can create conditions to motivate ELs as readers.
1. Provide books that represent students: Rudine Sims Bishop wrote about the importance of seeing ourselves and learning about the world and others in books we read. Providing rich bookshelves with selections that represent students and their experiences can help students feel connected, build community, and motivate students to turn the pages.
2. Factor in student choice and interest in reading materials: Readers are more apt to read and understand a book they find interesting than one they don’t. They bring their own experiences and background knowledge to the text. By removing limits, such as letting ELs read books in their primary language, we leverage their assets and increase engagement and reading growth.
3. Increase student talk and interaction: By definition, ELs are acquiring English. They benefit from multiple opportunities to listen, speak, read, and write in English. Saving space for students to talk about the books they are reading is an excellent way to help them think about their reading and comprehension.