Teaching ‘reading’ to English language learners … where do we begin?


Since returning to teaching in 2003 I have been taught at least four different approaches for  how to teach ‘reading’. A fact which probably reflects the difficulty we as teachers have in crafting the perfect pedagogy to imbue our students with this life changing skill. If helping English speakers crack the ‘reading code’ in Australia is seen as difficult by some, how much harder must it be to help English language(EL) learners  who are ‘learning to read’ in an additional language whilst being expected to ‘read to learn’.

Pauline Gibbons in her text English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking(Heinemann, Portsmouth, 2015, page 81) says that, trying to develop a cohesive approach to the teaching of reading in the classroom is like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. For the EL learners she says there are further difficulties as many approaches and mainstream reading programs do not take into account the needs of EL learners, since most are based on the assumption that learners are already familiar with the spoken form of the language. 

This huge and complex topic has been tackled in the course, Teaching students from a refugee background, (State of NSW, Department of Education, 2016) in two modules. Module 3 is entitled, Reading to learn in an additional language and Module 4 is called Learning to read in an additional language. I have been privileged to attend this course at Fairfield Public School each Friday afternoon and have enjoyed the lively banter and discussions led by Cindy Valdez-Adams (Twitter @TESOLoz) and Alice Clarke (Twitter @AClarke28) as they guide us through the challenges faced by our at-risk EL learners with huge gaps in their schooling. Students who are attempting to learn a new language through a new language, that is English, with the added obstacles of a disrupted education and traumatic life experiences.

We began Module 3,  Reading to learn in an additional language by discussing what challenges these students with limited literacy experience face when learning English. Culture shock was an idea that was foremost in our minds. These students’ experience of school would be very different to our own. What is school in their minds? What books had they ever been exposed to? Were they only religious books that were not allowed to be questioned? Had they learnt from print or more by doing and watching? Were they taught through rote learning – repeating to remember the different concepts and facts?

If we look at Module 1 of Teaching Reading K-6 Framework (NSW Dept of Education)  where it says, Reading is a complex process which involves interaction between the reader and the language and ideas of the text. It involves readers in drawing upon their existing knowledge of the world, of language and of the written code in order to attend to the visual information of the text (page 9) the warning bells are immediately going off for us for our EL learners.

Our English language learners will need explicit support because reading involves:

  • interaction between the reader and the language – the language being one with which they are not familiar and in the case of English a very complex one. English is a language that has many idioms, homonyms, homophones, different grammar for spoken and written forms and rules that differ according to context.
  • interaction between the reader and …. the ideas of the text –ideas that are not necessarily ‘truths’ or ‘facts’. If these learners come from backgrounds where they were not encouraged to question or discuss what they were taught they will be less inclined to doubt what they see in advertisements or in the media. They also have more difficulty in constructing opinions of their own.
  • readers drawing upon their existing knowledge of the world – their previous ‘worlds’ being very different from that portrayed in most of the texts that are used in our schools. This makes it difficult for EL learners to make meaning of what they read and see in texts as the cultural content is so unfamiliar.
  • readers drawing upon their existing knowledge of language – The EL learners’ other language/s may or may not have a similar structure to English. In their own language/s the word order may differ, they may not have adjectives but could repeat words for emphasis, their language may have a stronger oral history than written. Their existing knowledge of language might be vastly different from English which it makes it even more difficult for them to learn this new form of communication.
  • readers drawing upon their existing knowledge of the written code-  For some of our EL learners with disrupted schooling they may never had the opportunity to learn to read or write. Even so, it is easier for students from countries like Samoa and Serbia to decode when they read than students from Lebanon or Cambodia because they have the same script as English.

With this knowledge in mind, we looked at The Four Literacy Resources Model. The version in our course was adapted from An Introduction to quality teaching literacy (c) NSW Dept of Education and Training 2009. The one below fromnaylandkindyeliteracy.blogspot.comis similar.



In Module 4, Learning to read in an additional language, we looked at the Four Literacy Resources Model, together with the challenges posed by it for our EL learners and discussed strategies to implement before, after and during reading carefully chosen texts, to provide extra support for our students.

To help our students to be meaning makers it would be beneficial to give them hands-on experiences, take them on excursions, show them videos, share rich picture books or act out scenarios to build up the field and cultural knowledge. This would assist them to understand what is happening or being spoken about in the texts. It would be necessary to teach them how to interpret visuals like diagrams, charts, photographs and illustrations because these may be a new concept for them. They may never have been taught to group, organise or summarise information and will need to be shown ways to do this as well as learning the metalanguage associated with organising ideas. Our EL learners need to be exposed to different types of text and taught how to ‘read’ or take meaning from these. To be able to predict the reader needs prior experience and knowledge . This is significant for our lesson planning and book choices as we would need to discuss common or shared experiences in order to model how to predict what will happen in texts with specific cultural content.

Most of the course participants found code breaking to be one of the hardest skills to teach. This is perhaps because most of us focus our energies on students who are newly arrived to school or Australia. Those who have little information about words and texts in print. Students from different language backgrounds have difficulty hearing and reproducing certain sounds in English  just as an Australian is challenged to copy their sounds – when we try our students have a few laughs. This makes it difficult for them to develop and use graph-phonological knowledge. The trend has moved from initially teaching the sounds only, to introducing letters by name and sound because names are constant whereas sounds vary. Other differences that challenge code breaking are; the print features which vary and so letters have to be taught, the left to right direction which needs to be emphasised by pointing, the fact that English is a syllable stressed language and others are tone stressed and because punctuation varies in English from other languages it needs to be explicitly taught in context.

Code breaking also includes using English and applying its grammar rules. If grammar is a tool for communicating meaning, then knowledge of how are words work together to communicate is essential for extricating meaning from written words. As teachers of EL learners we have to deconstruct the texts that we are planning to use before we explicitly teach and practise the vocabulary, sight words and the metalanguage through authentic learning tasks. Sometimes we may have to rewrite texts  to help our students decode the printed language because the original text is too lexically dense.

To become text users our EL learners need to be exposed to a variety of different types of texts. Reading requirements differ across the range of Key Learning Areas in our curriculum. A novel is set out differently from a text book, pamphlet, procedure, diagram or web page. Our EL learners may not have had much interaction with written text before coming to our schools and so together we must explore and deconstruct different texts to think about their specific purposes and the authors’ intentions.  Cindy and Alice stressed that a text user needs to also create something and not necessarily in writing. Once the reader has comprehended what is happening in a type of text they can then apply their knowledge using any form of innovation. Hardest of all can be when they are asked to construct and justify their own opinions as culturally, some have not been encouraged to question or think for themselves.

An example of deconstructing a text from Module 4 p.193 of ‘Teaching students from a refugee background’ (c)State of NSW (Dept of Education) 2016

Over a decade ago NSW teachers used to speak of here, hidden and head questions to assess the level of comprehension of our student’s reading. The head questions were the higher order thinking ones where the reader had to infer the answer from what was written. The text analyst has to employ higher order thinking skills and use their detective and critical thinking ability to infer from the information, ideas and language in a text. They need to ask, How the writer is trying to influence me?  

To help our students to develop their critical thinking skills and become text analysts we have to teach them with the literature to which they are being exposed and persuaded in everyday life. Think of the amount of junk mail that comes through the letter box very day, or the lotteries that need a close look at the fine print. How confusing and dangerous is this for our EL learners who have been thrown into our materialistic world? Humour is misunderstood or lost if our EL readers are not understanding references to Australian cultural norms, other texts, folk tales or movies. Visual literacy is wonderful for teaching inference because all the clues are before the reader without the barrier of language. The EL learner can express what they see in their own language and use these images with phrases, labels and sentence writing to learn English.

In Chapter 5, Building Bridges to Text,  from Pauline Gibbon’s book English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking(Heinemann, Portsmouth) 2009, are various text-related tasks designed to develop reader’ practices. Pauline has grouped them into before, during and after reading activities but some can be used at any time depending on the purpose. She says on page 87 :

One way of orienting students to a text and helping them interact with it is through various kinds of text-related tasks. Activities that are most valuable are those that fulfil two scaffolding functions:

  • They support learners in gaining meaning from a particular text they are reading.
  • They model generic reading strategies that help learners read subsequent texts. 

In Module 4 it was emphasised that as teachers of EL learners we always have to keep the language focus in mind when planning and teaching our lessons and that the activities we plan need to be transferable. We need to be constantly moving our EL learners towards being confident independent learners who can engage meaningfully with written texts using appropriate strategies. Our EL learners cannot do this on their own. It cannot be left to the specialist EAL teacher to teach them to read. All teachers are responsible for helping their EL learners to access the curriculum across all Key Learning Areas with explicit support in’learning to read’ in an additional language whilst being expected to ‘read to learn’.





3 thoughts on “Teaching ‘reading’ to English language learners … where do we begin?

  1. There is indeed a lot for our EL learners to learn; and their readiness for learning to read English depends on a great variety of factors, as you have pointed out. I worked for some time as a visiting EL teacher, working with individual children (or sometimes small groups) assisting them with what they needed to survive in class. I also worked as a class teacher in a school with large numbers of EL learners. I like your suggestion of excursions and other experiences. Using these experiences to create joint texts; for example, recounts, was very useful in developing language and reading. Using big books of words (illustrated) was also great for developing vocabulary. Cooking and crafts help develop language for those tasks, and of course, listening to illustrated stories, especially picture books, gives them a feel for the rhythms and intonations of the language. I’ll stop here before I write a blog post as a comment!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting Norah. Our next #tesoloz chat on Friday 25th November at 8pm NSW, Australia time, is about innovative learning and the EAL/D learner. It would be great if you could share some of your experience and ideas with the twitterverse on this forum.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the invite, Anne. I appreciate it. I’d love to join in, but that Friday night is already busy. I think that would be 7 pm here. I’ll see if I can have a look in. I’ll mark it in my calendar now. 🙂


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