Supporting the Literacy Needs of English Language Learners

Up until the past few years, I have had limited experiences working with English Language Learners (ELLs) in the classroom and no experience working with them as a reading interventionist.  As I began to work with ELLs to provide their reading intervention I  realized that their profile was different from what I typically saw with my native English speakers.  A few questions began to formulate in my mind as I experienced worked with my ELLs.

  • How does learning a new language while learning to read and write impact literacy learning? 
  • How do I support and extend oral language for students new to English? 
  • Are there particular language-related errors that I need to pay special attention to?  

These questions led me to seek out resources to better understand how to best support ELLs.  During this post and the following post, I will share my learning and reflections about teaching ELLs how to read.  

Unfortunately, schools can deem ELLs as slow or even as having some sort of learning disability when in fact this is not the case.  On this topic, Regie Routman, writes “many of our beliefs and actions about English Language Learners from pre-k through high school are not mandated but rather business as usual actions based on old habits, ingrained beliefs, and past behaviors.  For example, too many educators hold the belief that children who speak a different language are somehow less capable” (p. 289).

It is important for teachers to keep in mind the complexity of what we are asking ELLS to do when we ask them to read.  When native English speakers are learning to read they are able to pull from a very important body of information – their oral language.  ELLs ability to use their oral language as a source of information when reading is limited.  Learning to read, write, and speak English all at the same time is a huge and amazing task.  Rather than labeling these students as having something wrong with them, it is more helpful to remember the demands being placed on them.

Although it is quite demanding to learn how to read, write, and speak a new language all at the same time.  It is our responsibility to provide ELLs with a curriculum that has high expectations.  We can not teach ELLs with the same mindset that we teach our native English speakers and hope that they will learn English quickly to close the gap.  The keys to success for ELLs are presenting learning in a meaningful context and providing appropriate scaffolds and enough time for application (Routman, p. 299).   

Running records provide the teacher will vital information needed when planning for their ELLs.  Adria Klein and Alison Briceño recommend pulling out some of your ELLs running records to perform a deeper analysis of the reading errors to identify “language-related” errors versus “literacy-related” errors (p. 56).  Knowing the difference between these two types of errors can not only better inform teaching but can also lead to a decrease in the overidentification of ELLs for special education services (p. 56).

Briceño and Klein’s research consisted of analyzing 123 running records from reading of ELLs.  95% of those running records contained language-related errors and 54% of the total number of errors (649) were language-related errors.  For each student approximately half of their errors were language-related (p. 58). Briceño and Klein also found that the most common errors were tolds, inflectional ending, irregular verbs, contractions, and prepositions (p. 58).  These findings emphasize the importance of being able to identify and distinguish between language-related errors.  Without this ability, the teacher will not be able to provide instruction that fits the needs of his/her student.

Although some of the needs and errors will be similar among ELLs it is important to remember that all ELLs are unique.  Each student will progress differently from another and teachers should note each individual student’s strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

In Summary

It is not too surprising that while learning another language literacy problems may occur.  While keeping the expectations high for ELLs we need to carefully examine their reading errors in order to provide the teaching they need.  Careful attention to the “language-related” needs of our ELLs will lead to greater progress and less labeling.

As a follow-up post, I will get into more specifics about what ELLs struggle with the most when reading and ways to provide scaffolds to support those areas



Briceño, Alison and Klein, Adria F. “Making Instructional Decisions:  Deepening Our Understanding of English Language Learners’ Processing in Reading.”  Journal of Reading Recovery.  Fall 2016: pages 55-64.  Print.

Fountas, Irene C. and Pinnell, Gay Su. When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

Routman, Regie.  Literacy Essentials:  Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners.  Portland:  Stenhouse Publishers, 2018.  Print.

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