The Science of Teaching Reading to English Learners

A research-backed strategy can help teach how to decode new words and comprehend them in context.

The Simple View of Reading theory says that there are two primary areas of reading instruction required for proficient reading: knowing what words the letters create (word recognition) and knowing what the written text represents (language comprehension). All students need to develop word recognition and language comprehension skills to be successful readers.

Philip Gough and William Tunmer designed this evidence-​based framework in 1986 to better specify the essential components of successful reading. Now supported by decades of research, and with very little adjustment, it can be applied to instruction with young English learners (ELs)—students whose native language is not English.

Phonological Awareness

Word recognition begins with, and depends on, a fine-grained perception of sounds in oral language, or “phonological awareness.” In its purest form, phonological awareness is not about the visual nature of reading text. It is about the oral nature of hearing language and the ability to identify discrete sounds in spoken words.

Empirical evidence indicates that ELs can develop phonological awareness as fast as or faster than English-​only speakers. Literacy leaders, however, should be aware of several considerations to ensure student success:

ELs will likely not know the meaning of simple words such as “can” or “duck.” Therefore, it’s good to include a short vocabulary introduction with pictures of the words used in phonological awareness instruction. For example, a teacher might show a picture of a man and say: “This is a man. What is it?” Students respond “man.” Teacher: “The sounds in man are: /m/ /a/ /n/. What are the sounds in man?”

Educators can teach phonological awareness skills explicitly by explaining and modeling the strategy, then providing guided practice and allowing multiple opportunities to practice the strategy as a group or individually.

If ELs make a mistake with a phonological awareness task, correct the mistake and give the students the opportunity to practice the correct response. A teacher should stop the students as soon as an incorrect response is detected. The teacher then models the correct response and gives the students the opportunity to practice the correct response. If the teacher speaks the student’s native language, they can translate the word.

Practice phonological awareness with games, songs, and rhymes. This usually doesn’t happen in initial instruction, but it can help students practice and generalize phonological awareness strategies.

Mapping Letters and Sounds

Word recognition also requires students to connect what is heard in spoken language to print. Mapping individual letters to the most discrete sounds in the language can help: For example, the letter m can be mapped onto the sound /mmm/. And because letters map to phonemes, it is possible to write almost every word in the language based on letter-phoneme matches.

In English, mapping letters to phonemes and decoding is not a perfect one-to-one arrangement. Some sounds can be made by more than one letter (e.g., the sound /i/ can be made by the letters i and ee as in “big” or “been”), while some letters map to more than one sound (the letter a in “apple” or “artist”). Some phonemes are made using a combination of letters (like /o/ in “thought”).

When considering reading instruction for ELs that focuses on decoding, literacy leaders should look for classroom instruction that includes:

  • Teaching decoding skills explicitly by explaining and modeling the strategy, followed with guided practices and multiple opportunities to practice the strategy as a group or individually.
  • Showing pictures or making gestures of words ELs are likely not familiar with.
  • Emphasizing and providing additional time to learn the different sounds vowels make in English, because the vowels in Spanish have only one sound.
  • Making connections between the Spanish alphabetic system and the English alphabetic system, given that the majority (77 percent) of ELs in the U.S. speak Spanish as their native language. To teach phonological awareness, teachers can show students how the letter sounds of most consonants are the same in Spanish and in English (e.g., the consonant t).

Building Comprehension

Reading words accurately is not enough to be a good reader; one must also have language comprehension and understand the meaning of what is read. Overall, both vocabulary and comprehension are emphasized when supporting language comprehension development. That is, understanding text means you would know the meanings of the words in the story (ultimately, their student-​friendly dictionary definitions, as well as how their specific meanings are used in the text).

You also need to know what phrases mean and where the string of words in a phrase means something different from the combined meanings of the individual words. In some cases, understanding the text might require having some prior knowledge of a topic.

Literacy leaders might consider using teacher read-aloud interventions to support the vocabulary and comprehension of ELs. Read-alouds can provide ELs with opportunities to develop and practice their native language or English by interacting with others and with the text.

In addition, teachers who use texts that are linguistically and culturally relevant to the EL population increase student opportunities to develop their literacy skills, make connections to their own language and background knowledge, and promote diverse interpretations of text. Culturally relevant text is not only related to students’ cultural heritage, but it also has connections to students’ lived experiences.

Specific instructional look-fors for vocabulary and comprehension instruction with ELs during teacher read-alouds include:

  • Explicitly modeling vocabulary activities.
  • Preparing student-friendly definitions for vocabulary words and multiple activities in which students hear, say, read, and write the target words.
  • Providing activities that build on EL language proficiency and make connections with the student’s native language and/or cultural background.
  • For Spanish-speaking English learners, providing a translation and a definition of the word in Spanish; also preparing the same activities in English and in Spanish, given that a translation of the word might not be enough for students to understand the target vocabulary word.
  • Explicitly connecting new vocabulary to listening comprehension and retelling activities to increase student use of abstract words.
  • Making explicit connections between what students are learning during a new read-aloud, student background knowledge, and previous read-alouds.
  • Explicitly making text-to-text and text-to-self connections.
  • Engaging students in discussions with peers using “turn and talk” strategies, with explicit routines for what students need to do to carry out the activity.
  • Focusing discussions on main story elements (narrative text) and main ideas and details (expository text) to ensure students know what to do when they retell the text.
  • Including English learners in all activities and allowing them to also use their native language to build their understanding. If the teacher understands Spanish, they can paraphrase what students are saying in English or can ask a peer in the class to provide an English translation.

When applied with an awareness of reading research and students’ cultural backgrounds, the Simple View’s strategies for instruction can help ELs read and comprehend their new language more effectively.

Lana Edwards Santoro is a research professor in the Special Education program at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.

Doris Luft Baker is an associate professor in the Department of Special Education and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.