For Teachers

How to Use Reading to Teach ELL Students

By The Room 241 Team February 26, 2013

For young English language learners (also called ELL students), reading in a second language is an important part of learning it. Of course, just as with reading in your first language, it helps if the reading is at least somewhat enjoyable. It is vital that ELL students learn to read in English, as reading is an important tool for improving comprehension of a new language.

Literature Choice

Book selection can make a big difference in an English classroom. Mainstream English children’s literature is perfectly acceptable to give to ELL students. Students who have been in ESL or bilingual education from the start may be able to read at close to the normal grade level, while late starters may need easier books. There’s strong evidence that access to graded readers improves a child’s progress in the language. It’s also worth noting that bilingual students often end up reading to about the same proficiency in both languages. Giving children a variety of books to study and read improves their comprehension and engagement in the subject. Too many students are pushed into reading solely as an activity to improve their English, struggling with the content, and never learn to read for enjoyment. Students should not be discouraged from reading books they enjoy, even if those books are not on the syllabus.

Community Language Learning

Community Language Learning is a method in which students are encouraged to work in groups and to read and discuss books (as well as their own stories, written in English. This method has good results, especially if combined with question-answer strategies and K-W-L (Know-Want-Learn) activities. It has the advantage of encouraging interaction between students and continued immersion in the English language. A 2003 study at Johns Hopkins University found that students with the combined method scored highest, followed by students using only community language learning or only a combination of question-answer and K-W-L. More traditional methods came last for both reading and overall comprehension. Setting up book groups is an easy way to introduce community language learning into the classroom, with meetings in a comfortable place with snacks.

Comic Books

Comic books are often dismissed by adults and educational professionals, but provide an enjoyable source of reading material, with understanding enhanced by the visual support. Age-appropriate comics, graphic novels, and manga are useful to spark reading interest and create enjoyment rather than the slog of constant learning. Additionally, many graphic novels have higher-level vocabulary presented in a manner that allows students to understand it from visual and story context.

Encouragement and Feedback

Students need to be encouraged to read a lot. In some ways this comes back to literature choice. Providing children with plenty of options will help them learn to be avid readers. Additionally, students need feedback on their reading. One way to do this is to have children read out loud, not just to the teacher but to each other, and follow up with discussion about the story or content. Students who read are students who not only understand and comprehend English, but also begin to enjoy it.

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