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Teaching Reading to English Language Learners

There is an increasing amount of English language learners represented in our schools for whom a unique approach to developing literacy is necessary. The development of literacy by English language learners (ELLs) includes all of the challenges implicit for English speaking children literacy attainments, and is additionally compounded by a diversity of linguistic, cognitive and academic variables.

In general, the following are critical variables that need to be targeted in effective reading instruction:

Phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, including oral reading skills, and reading comprehension strategies. The National Research Council’s Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children recently completed the most authoritative, comprehensive review of the research on normal reading development and instruction and on preventing reading difficulties in young children1. This study documented a number of important findings about teaching English reading to language-minority children. These include:
  • English-speaking children making initial attempts at reading understand, if they are successful, the products of their efforts; they read words they know and sentences they understand, and…can self-correct efficiently. Non-English speakers have a more limited basis for knowing whether their reading is correct because the crucial meaning-making process is short circuited by lack of language knowledge.
  • Giving a child initial reading instruction in a language that he or she does not yet speak can undermine the child’s chance to see literacy as a powerful form of communication by knocking the support of meaning out from underneath the process of learning.
  • Initial reading instruction in the first language does no harm. To the contrary, it seems likely both from research findings and from theories about literacy development that initial reading instruction in the second language can have negative consequences for immediate and long-term achievement. Primary language and reading literacy is critical and should be strongly encouraged.

It was highly recommended that "initial literacy instruction in a child’s native language whenever possible" and suggested that "literacy instruction should not be introduced in any language before some reasonable level of oral proficiency in that language has been attained."
On the question of which language to use when teaching English language learners to read, the committee recommended the following guidelines:

  • If language minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English but speaking a language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers, then these children should be taught how to read in their native language while acquiring proficiency in spoken English, and then subsequently taught to extend their skills to reading in English.
  • If these second language children arrive at school with no proficiency in English but speak a language for which the above conditions cannot be met and for which there are insufficient numbers of children to justify the development of the local community to meet such conditions, the instructional priority should be to develop the children’s proficiency in spoken English. Although print materials may be used to develop understanding of English speech sounds, vocabulary, and syntax, the postponement of formal reading instruction is appropriate until an adequate level of proficiency in spoken English has been achieved. In other words, the instructional priority need to be to develop spoken oral English prior to attempting to facilitate reading in English.
By Deborah Chitester