How Does Literacy Instruction Differ for ELL Students?

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Curriculum director; M.A. in Educational Leadership
Students sit around a table with the words “Learn English. Enter” in the middle of them and their books.

What Literacy Challenges do ELL Students Face?

Just as native speakers do, English language learners (ELLs) face two significant challenges in learning to read English. Like native English speakers, the first broad challenge is word recognition, and the second is language comprehension.

However, in addition to typical literacy challenges within those two competencies, ELLs must often contend with unfamiliar sounds and letters, as well as unfamiliar vocabulary and language structure.

Word Recognition

English Language Learners may speak languages that do not include the same sounds like English. For instance, Spanish has only five vowel sounds, while English contains more than 14, depending on the regional dialect. Thus, ELL students must first learn how new sounds are articulated.

Even once they have mastered the English language sounds, they must connect those sounds to their grapheme correspondences, which sometimes requires learning an entirely new alphabet. Spanish and English are similar, with the addition of the letter ~n. Mandarin Chinese languages, however, use a completely different alphabetic system than English does. Their alphabet is composed of characters that represent meaning and cannot be sounded out. In contrast, each letter of the English alphabet represents a sound or sound, not meaning. Thus, Mandarin speakers must learn a completely different alphabetic principle when learning to read in English.

Given the added difficulty of learning new sounds and new alphabets, ELLs need extra literacy support as they learn to decode.

Language Comprehension

Along with learning to decode, ELLs also must learn to comprehend a new language. This means being able to understand the meaning of words when they are spoken. This includes an understanding of vocabulary and grammatical and syntactical structures in spoken language. For example, in Spanish, adjectives follow nouns, while in English, adjectives precede nouns. In Mandarin Chinese, meaning, not just emotion, changes based on the tone of words, a distinction that doesn’t exist in English.

Because ELLs have limited exposure to spoken English, they have the added barrier of not understanding words, even if they can decode. To overcome obstacles in both word recognition and language comprehension, English Language Learners require specialized literacy instruction.

How Does Literacy Instruction Differ for ELL Students?

According to an analysis by Suzanne Irujo, the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth (2006) revealed four general observations and recommendations for literacy instruction of English language learners.

  1. Proficient literacy in their native language is beneficial. This one seems pretty obvious and isn’t particularly helpful for current teachers of ELLs. Many communities, particularly rural ones, will not have the capacity to teach a student literacy skills in both their native language and English.
  2. The five general competency areas that are important for native speakers are also important for ELLs. This finding is only based on a lack of contrary evidence, however. In other words, no evidence exists to suggest ELLs wouldn’t benefit from instruction in the five competency areas recommended by the National Reading Panel in 2000: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  3. Intensive language development is an essential part of English Language Learner literacy programs. Again, a student cannot achieve reading comprehension simply by knowing how to decode. English language comprehension is necessary.
  4. Instruction should be adjusted to the needs of ELLs.

Irujo found seven specific recommendations for these adjustments for best practices in literacy instruction:

  • Provide additional work on English phonemes that are not present in the students’ native language
  • If students are literate in their native language, focus on differences between that language and English, with less attention given to transfer elements
  • Provide extra practice in reading words, sentences, and stories
  • Use cognate words in the native language as synonyms when teaching vocabulary
  • Identify and clarify difficult words and passages
  • Consolidate knowledge of the text through the use of summaries
  • Find appropriate ways to use the native language

Literacy Strategies to Use with Your ELL Students

In her article, “Output Strategies for English-Language Learners: Theory to Practice”, Angela R. Beckman-Anthony argues that the output of ELL students is just as important as the teacher’s input. By “output”, Beckman-Anthony refers to the reading, writing, and speaking that students produce themselves. She explains that students can notice, hypothesis-test, and reflect on their output by completing these activities.

She suggests that once a supportive learning environment is established, students create output across four general areas:

Collaborative Conversations

Collaborative conversations are guided by a teacher wherein open-ended questions are asked, and there is more than one correct answer. The discussion is based upon the level of students’ English proficiency, with the conversation being natural and balanced between teacher and students. This can also be beneficial for social-emotional learning (SEL).


Vocabulary instruction should encourage ELLs to interact with new vocabulary in the context of their reading. Students practice saying the word with the teacher, noticing how it is pronounced, and are encouraged to use the story’s context to arrive at definitions. They are also prompted to use the word in unique contexts, thereby testing their hypotheses about word meaning and pronunciations. They are then encouraged to reflect upon their processes to understand and use the new vocabulary word.

Another strategy for teaching vocabulary is to draw comparisons to students’ personal experiences by discussing their own experiences with the new word or pointing out cognates from their native language and English.


Much like a conversation, writing should be collaborative, with students reading and providing feedback on each other’s work. ELLs should be allowed to read their work aloud, in both English and their native language. Students can be given frequent opportunities to journal, with focused support from the teacher in generating ideas based on student interests.


Students should be encouraged to read aloud, allowing them to hear the correct reading of words and practice producing the language themselves. By participating in that type of reading, students can notice errors and receive corrective feedback. Readers theater, open roleplays, and think-alouds all encourage students to practice noticing, hypothesizing, and reflecting on their use of English.

Ready to pursue an advanced program to reach ELL learners? Explore our available literacy and dual-language programs, and start your next journey today!

The Reading Teacher, 61(6), pp. 472–482, March 2008, published by the International Literacy Association.
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