English Language Learners: Supporting Comprehension During Literacy Intervention

As mentioned in my previous post, when planning reading intervention lessons for English Language Learners (ELLs) deep analysis of their running records is required to examine language-related errors versus literacy-related errors.  Noticing and understanding language-related errors helps teachers scaffold their teaching in order to support students with building their oral vocabulary and expanding their knowledge about language structures. 

When planning the introduction for a new book we need to look carefully at what aspects might be tricky for the ELL we are working with.   If the student is able to read the new book fluently with only a few stops to problem solve we know that we have selected an appropriate book and provided the supports needed during the book orientation.  


When students are learning a new language they may struggle with reading and writing.  This is especially more likely to happen if special care has not been given to support comprehension.  Sometimes ELLs learn to decode like a pro but they understand very little of what they are reading.  When this is allowed to occur for long periods of time these students will read without expecting what they read to make sense.  Can you imagine reading for the sole purpose of blending sounds together?  Students who approach reading in this manner will not find reading to be a very motivating or enjoyable experience. The following are a few areas that fall under the umbrella of comprehension that ELLs will benefit from extra thought when planning lessons.

Embed Skills 

It is important to keep isolated skill work at a minimum and embed skills in a meaningful context and spend the majority of the lesson reading.  Teaching in a whole-part-whole manner is beneficial for all students but especially helpful for ELLs.  When introducing a story, start by providing the gist of the story.  Then break the story down into the little parts that you think might be tricky such as unfamiliar vocabulary and new language structures.  Before students read the story provide a statement that gets the students thinking about the book as a whole.

Choose Texts Carefully

To support comprehension choose authentic texts that have natural-sounding language.  Choose texts with concepts, characters, or themes that students will be familiar with.  Sometimes this might not be possible so we will have to provide the background knowledge that the students need.  It can help to have the actual objects to refer to when building background knowledge.

Explain Idioms or Colloquialisms

Prepare students for any idioms or colloquialisms that might impede understanding.

idioms: A phrase or expression that cannot be understood from the meaning of the words in it.

  • “You really put your foot in your mouth.”
  • “You can’t fool me.”
  • “She’s full of herself.”

colloquialisms:  are words and phrases that are part of our everyday speech, but are not part of our formal language.

  • “ain’t”
  • “I reckon.”
  • “crib” as in one’s house
  • “What’s the buzz?”

Deepen Understanding Through Conversations

Having conversations about books is a good way to check for understanding.  We have to make sure that our “conversations” aren’t a list of questions but rather pre-planned discussion prompts that encourage discourse with other students or with the teacher.  To further support the discussion you may want to provide language that students can use.

“You could say…” 

“You might want to say something like…” (Routman, p. 305)

We shouldn’t expect perfection during the conversations.  Show acceptance of pronunciation and language structure and provide encouragement by responding back.  Acknowledging what the student has said shows that you value his/her contribution to the conversation.

Writing about reading is another way to extend and deepen students’ understanding.  Writing helps students to use new vocabulary and language structures in a meaningful context.

Support Unfamiliar Vocabulary

Students will need support with unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts.  You will notice that students may confuse words that sound alike.  For example, just this week I heard an ELL say “snack” for “smack” and another say “cheek” for “sheep”.  Homophones can also be confusing and impact the meaning of a story.   Students may have difficulty pronouncing long words and need some practice saying the word before reading.  We also want to support our students with becoming flexible with their vocabulary.  ELLs can learn a word in an isolated way and not realize how it can change meaning within the context of the whole sentence.

Think about the different ways that “went” is used in the following sentences:

“I went to the store with my mom.

“The car went ‘vroooooom.'”

In Summary

Readers should always be working to make meaning from their reading.  As ELLs learn a new language they will need extra support and thought regarding what aspects of the story will impede meaning.  Preparing students for unfamiliar vocabulary, homophones, idioms, colloquialisms, and keeping isolated skill work to a minimum will help to ensure that your ELLs will always read for meaning and increase the likelihood that they will enjoy their reading experiences.



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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