Literacy and the ESL Learner

For English language learners (ELLs), success in learning to read in English in the first grade depends on several factors: (1) In kindergarten, were they exposed to reading in English or in their primary language? (2) Did that exposure include ample vocabulary development? In which language? (3) Were they exposed to the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness), the alphabet, sound-letter relationships (phonological awareness), decoding, and comprehension skills? In which language?

If the level of oral language proficiency in English or Spanish is high, and decoding skills have been taught, learning to read first grade texts will be easier. If the student did not attend kindergarten or was not exposed to a rich language development program and pre-reading skills, a first grade teacher will need to begin with building these kindergarten skills.

The good news is that research has shown that students can develop oral language and reading skills simultaneously. In fact, the more students read, the more language they learn. And when they are regularly taught vocabulary, they will become more fluent readers and have better comprehension skills.

Strategies to support ESL students in reading

Before, during, or after reading a story in class, teach vocabulary. This is a must in order for students to understand what they are reading. Students need to know at least 90 - 95% of the words they are reading in order to comprehend the text.

Before reading activities
The purpose of these activities is to prepare for linguistic, cultural and conceptual difficulties ESL students may encounter and to activate prior knowledge.

Progressive Brainstorm

From: Pauline Gibbons’s book English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking.
This is a way for students to share what they already know about a topic at the beginning of the unit.
  1. Divide students into groups of 4 or 5and give each group a large piece of paper in the centre of which is a circle with the statement, ‘What we know about (the particular topic)’. Each group has a different coloured pen.
  2. As a group, students brainstorm what they already know about the topic, writing down the words and concepts they associate with it around the circle (as in a semantic web).
  3. After a few minutes, each group moves on to the next group’s table leaving their brainstorm paper behind but keeping their particular colour pen.
  4. On the next group’s paper they add their ideas using the previous group’s ideas as a springboard for things they hadn’t thought of earlier, or adding things they think are missing.
  5. The groups continue moving until all the groups have contributed to all the papers and are back in their original position.
  6. Each group discusses what is now written on their original paper, noting any relevant additions or critiquing anything they disagree with.
  7. The papers are put on the wall and each group briefly reports on any comments they have or anything they have learned from other groups.

KWL (what I know, what I want to learn, what I learned)

This activity helps to activate students’ prior knowledge and sets a purpose for the reading, so that students are prepared to search the text for specific information. Before reading, as a whole class or in pairs, students are asked the question what do you know about topic? The teacher or students write their responses in the first column. Students are then asked What would you like to learn? and their responses are recorded in the second column. The teacher may need to prompt or add questions so that gaps in the knowledge are addressed. After the students read the text they can review what they have learned by completing the third column what I learned.

Example: Science

K what I know
W what I want to learn
L what I learned
animals breathe
animals reproduce
How are animals classified into groups?
What is classification?

Vocabulary in Context
This activity introduces students to any new vocabulary they may encounter when reading a text. Students also learn that words in English may have different meanings depending on the context. Before reading the text students can find the dictionary meaning of the words. As they read the text, in pairs, or as a whole class, students decide on a new definition for the word in context.
Example: Maths
Dictionary meaning
Meaning in context


Predicting from words
This activity activates students' prior knowledge and builds content knowledge about the text.
Put a word or a phrase from the text on the board and ask students to say what they think the text will be about, or what words they associate with the topic. Develop a semantic web based on the students' suggestions. Add a few words yourself that you know occur in the text, and discuss the meaning. Example: History
gangs Ned Kelly bank robber
famous Bushrangers horse drawn
infamous held up coaches

Predicting purpose or type of text from title or first sentence
This activity activates students' prior knowledge and builds content knowledge about the text.
Write up the title of the book or the first sentence of the text and ask the students to predict what kind of text it is (e.g. narrative, information text, exposition) and what the text will be about. You might wish to guide the class in a way that will best help them deal with the major concepts or events in the text to be read.
Predicting from a key illustration
This activity activates students' prior knowledge, builds content knowledge and introduces new vocabulary.
Photocopy a key illustration from the text and give students time, in pairs or groups, to say what they think the topic is about. For example, based on a text about earthquakes the class would later be reading, one teacher gave the class a picture of devastation after an earthquake and asked them to guess what happened. She then introduced some new vocabulary that would occur in the text e.g. boat, sank, balance, row, bay. Almost all students were quickly able to relate these to the words they knew in their first language.

During reading activities
The purpose of these activities is to model good reading strategies. Good readers are actively involved in the text; they constantly interrogate and interact with it and they predict what is coming.

Modelled Reading

This activity allows students to listen to a fluent reading of the text which supports students to gain meaning from it.
It’s useful to read to the class the first time as a reading model for the students, using appropriate pausing and expression. Try to bring the text to life-students need to see that print has meaning and is not simply a functionally empty exercise. With lower-level learners, remember that the more times something is read or heard, the more comprehension there will be.
Pause and Predict
This activity encourages students to be active readers and make connections to their own experiences.
As you are reading, stop at significant points and ask questions like: What do you think is going to happen? What’s she going to do? If you were (character’s name), what would you do? The goal here is to engage learners in the process of meaning making, not to have them verbalise the “right” answers.

Listening comprehension

Listening to stories read aloud by the teacher is one effective way for students to enrich vocabulary. It is also an easier way for you to introduce comprehension skills such as the main idea and cause and effect because the students are not having to do the arduous work of decoding, learning new words, and trying to comprehend the story while also attempting to think about elements of the story.
You can do this through discussions with students or by thinking aloud about what might be the main idea or the cause and effect in a section you just finished reading. When reading aloud to ELLs:
  • Show and read the front an back pages of the book, as well as the dedication or table of contents page.
  • Use pictures, maps, objects, or drawings on the board.
  • Provide background knowledge on concepts that students will need to comprehend the story.
  • Introduce the characteristics/elements of the story (characters, setting, problem, solution, plot).
  • Pre-teach five to six key words they will encounter frequently and will need to use for the discussions.
  • Model how a reader self-corrects when making a mistake.
  • Think aloud about what you are reading; stop every once in a while and summarize what you have read so far.
  • Provide opportunities for students to summarize or retell the story through dramatic retellings; or use picture cards to put the story's events in sequence.

Margin questions or comments
Take a piece of text you want the students to read and transcribe it onto a large sheet of paper. Identify and circle key aspects of the text. In the margin write a comment or a question that you would like to draw your students attention to.
Who is he? Where is this?

Beside the sea, on Mr Peffer's place, there lived a cow, a donkey, a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse.

Do you have a good friend? What does mean?

They were good friends and one warm sunny morning, for no particular reason, they decided to go for a

How do you do this?

row in the bay . . .

Who asks this question?

Do you know who sank the boat?

Summarising the Text
Making summaries encourages students to identify key ideas and concepts. It isn’t necessarily appropriate to summarise all kinds of texts. However, if there is something you want to focus on, here are some ways to help students practise summarising skills.
  • Get students to write a summary. Limit the number of sentences or words they can use, pointing out that this means they must focus on the most important points.
  • Ask students to suggest a title for each paragraph.
  • Have students explain the key points to each other in less than one minute.
  • Either alone or with teacher support, have students write two or three sentences under each paragraph title and use these to write a short summary of the whole passage.

Jigsaw reading
This activity builds on spoken language and encourages students to identify main ideas and concepts.
You need three or four different readings around the same topic. If you have varying reading levels in the class, include a simpler reading and a more challenging reading. Place students in expert/home groupings. Each group first becomes an “expert” in one of the readings and then shares the information in a mixed group. This kind of activity gives reading a real purpose, since the aim is to share what one has read with others. It is also a useful way of having readers at different levels work collaboratively (even the poorer readers will be able to contribute in the group since their reading will have information that other members in the group don’t have). Finally, it provides an authentic context for developing summarising skills, since each group of experts must decide on the key points they are later going to share with others in the mixed group.

Reciprocal Teaching
This is an instructional method that involves guided practice of reading comprehension, and follows four concrete steps: prediction, clarification, questioning and summary.
Students are put into groups of four or five. A student is chosen to take on the role of the leader. Before reading, the leader will ask students to predict what the text will be about based on the title, pictures, subheading and/or any other relevant predictors. Students read the text or a section of the text and they are asked if they need any clarification on terms or phrases they do not understand. A second reading may be necessary at this point. The questioning step involves students asking why and how questions, to create shared understanding. Students are then asked to summarise the main ideas in the text (orally).
It is necessary for the teacher to model the process of the leader and explicitly show the students what is required of the leader and group at each stage of the process, before each group can proceed independently of the teacher. Students can take turns being leaders.

After Reading Activities

These activities are based on the assumption that students are already familiar with the text and no longer have basic comprehension difficulties in reading it. They can focus on specific language study.
This activity encourages students to focus on specific types of words and the overall meaning of texts. Traditional cloze involves deleting every fifth, sixth, or seventh word and it encourages readers to reference backward and forward in the text to work out what the missing words are likely to be. The first and last sentences should always be kept intact. It therefore mirrors the kind of reading strategies used by proficient readers. However, cloze passages can be used more selectively, with only certain kinds of words deleted. For example, you can choose to delete key content vocabulary that is integral to the topic, or grammatical items such as adjectives, connectives, pronouns, past tense, and so forth. Cloze exercises are often more successful when students work in pairs, since there will be discussion about why certain choices are made.
Depending upon the level of support necessary, the missing words can be placed in a word bank to prompt students.
Transport is the way people move about. People can travel all the world using many different types of transport. They can travel the air, and water and land. For hundreds of years animals such as horses and camels have been used transport and more recently, human made machines such as cars, trains, ships and aeroplanes have also been important. Different forms transport are also important to move goods place to place.
In this cloze, prepositions have been deleted to focus on this language feature.
Picture and Sentence Matching
Take about six illustrations with sentences from the text. Cut them up into separate pictures and sentences. Students match the pictures with the appropriate sentences.
Text Reconstruction
This is a good activity for focusing on text cohesion and drawing attention to reference words and conjunctions.
Cut an excerpt from the text into paragraphs or sentences. Students must put the sentences or paragraphs in the right order and explain why they have chosen that order.
Story Map
A story map is a visual representation of the main features of a story. It can be drawn after a story is read, or it can involve an ongoing process of adding details as the story is progressing.