Teaching ESL Students to Read

Teaching ESL Kids to readWhat Works Best for ESL Children?

Teaching ESL students to read can be a triple challenge. They don’t know English very well. Some can be dyslexic or have other learning challenges. And few of them will hear English spoken at home, much less will parents be able to help.

Although most of us don’t think about it in this way, language is noise. Children learn their native language by organizing this noise into discreet and meaningful sounds.  The sounds makes sense as syllables , words, and sentences.

ESL students who learn English quickly do this easily. Other students struggle with phonological skills, often not recognizing phonemes, the smallest sound segments of language.

Just as with Enlish-speaking dyslexic kids, ESL kids with dyslexia will learn English more quickly if they’re using a phonics-based program such as the Orton-Gillingham approach. If you think any of your students have dyslexia, be sure to have them tested so they can get the help they need.

The ease with which ESL students will master English will depend on their reading and pre-reading skills in their native language.  It’s important to find out students’ general reading ability. The skills they need are the same from one language to the next.

These skills involve:

  • vocabulary development
  • phonemic awareness
  • knowledge of the alphabet
  • letter-sound correlation
  • concepts of print
  • listening comprehension
  • decoding
  • comprehension skills

From kindergarten on, ESL kids need lots of daily practice in vocabulary building. Because vocabulary is first learned at home and practiced at home, these children aren’t learning vocabulary since their parents don’t speak English.

Research has shown that children basically learn vocabulary in three ways:

1. Conversations with adults

2. Listening to adults read to them

3. Reading lots of books

Unfortunately, this puts ESL kids at a disadvantage when reading for comprehension. Therefore, teachers need to find as many ways as possible to teach vocabulary including introducing new words when reading aloud.  Games and songs are also effective.

Whether working with phonemic awareness, decoding, vocabulary building, or comprehension, these kids will require lots of repetition. Students learning a second language require more time to process information and more review and practice than other students.

Teaching ESL Students to Read Who are in Kindergarten and First Grade

Before you read a story to children, pre-teach the vocabulary using hand gestures, role-playing, point to objects and pictures, drawing quick pictures, or saying the word in the children’s language such as Spanish.

Begin with phonemic awareness before teaching the alphabet. For ESL kids, it’s easier to hear sounds before naming a letter of the alphabet.

  • Look for objects in the room that begin with the same sound like book, ball, boy. Look for things that end with the same letter like snack, clock, drink, black.
  • Say poems or sing songs that have the same beginning sounds or end with a rhyme
  • Learn the sounds of the children’s names. Whose name starts with D? Does anyone have a name with R in it?

Some individual letters and phonemes present a challenge as they won’t correspond to the same sounds in the child’s language. For example,  ch and sh are the same in Spanish. Vowel letters look the same in Spanish and English but have different names and different sounds. When teaching phonetic awareness, teachers need to be aware of these differences.

Once the children demonstrate phonemic awareness, you can begin making charts for letters and sounds. Begin by introducing three letters of the alphabet. Ask the children to think of words to put under the new letters.

When teaching the alphabet, use songs to help with memory. You can find alphabet and alphabet/word songs online and on YouTube.

After children have their own books, they can follow along as you first read the story aloud. During this guided reading, the sounds of the words are reinforced and they hear reading fluency. Stop often to explain words they may not know, to explain concepts, and to make sure everyone is understanding the story.

Teaching ESL Students to Read Who are in Second and Third Grade

The same strategies used for younger children work equally well in second and third grade: hand gestures, role-playing, pointing to objects and pictures, drawing quick pictures, and saying the word in the children’s language such as Spanish.

For abstract word recognition:

  • Explain the word before students hear or read it
  • Give examples of ways to use the word
  • Have the students to repeat the word several times
  • Ask students to give examples of using the word

Listening comprehension gives students the opportunity work on comprehension without having to work on decoding at the same time. As you read,  you model fluency. And ESL kids receptive and expressive vocabulary improves. Include discussions about the meaning, the main idea, cause and effect of the story.

The Tiger Tuesday Multisensory, Interactive Reading Program is the perfect solution for ESL learners. It’s fun, designed sequentially, and includes a variety of activities from games to plays, even a doll.



Phonics Centered — Consistent with Orton-Gillingham — Multisensory