Literacy Development for ELL Students

When planning literacy instruction for English Language Learners, teachers must accommodate each ELL student who comes into the classroom. ELL students each bring personal and cultural history to the classroom, which they rely on to create initial relationships with teachers and students. After some time in the classroom, new, shared experiences make it easier for these students to learn. Starting the year off by developing relationships is critical to the success of literacy development for ELL students; however, developing phonological understanding is the most important element of ELL student success.

Phonological Understanding for Literacy Development

The human brain uses phonological understanding to represent linguistic information. Since the sounds and letters may be different in each language, the sounds and letters of English are the first and most important stepping stone to learning the language. Once students understand the sounds that each letter makes and how to combine the different sounds, they can begin connecting to the language. Exposing ELL students to letters and sounds throughout the day will help immerse them in the language so they can begin to process it subconsciously.

Language Acquisition Is Not Always Straightforward

Although phonology is important to understanding how written language connects to spoken language, it is also critical to know that language acquisition does not always follow a straight path. There is no one way to teach the language because all students are different and they come from diverse backgrounds that influence how they learn.

Language acquisition must precede literacy development for ELL students. Teaching ELL students how to sing songs and recite poems from memory can help them understand how a language works. ELL students need regular assessment because their linguistic deficiencies may differ from those of their English speaking counterparts. There will likely be gaps in their literacy development, which may not make sense to a teacher new to ELL students.

When it comes to literacy instruction for English Language Learners, teachers must be flexible so they can respond to each learner and not simply follow the lesson plans they create. For some students, transferring understanding between languages can be beneficial, but for others it may have disadvantages. When it comes to grammar and usage, languages can be very different, which may make translations inaccurate. It is important to balance letter identification with image and text immersion.

Improving Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners

The ultimate goals in literacy are understanding, learning and interest. There are three categories under which these goals can be taught: “explicit teaching, providing practice, and adjusting the language of instruction” (ASCD).

  • Explicit teaching refers to teacher-taught lessons demonstrating what students should learn. Students learn a great deal in this manner as long as teachers follow lessons with time to practice and ask questions.
  • Providing practice allows students to observe their own work while giving them the opportunity to ask questions. If students do not understand what teachers are asking of them or what they are supposed to be learning, the teacher must rethink how the students are processing the language.
  • Adjusting the language of instruction is critical for English Language Learners because they are essentially learning two things simultaneously. First, they must learn English in the context of a particular classroom activity, and second, they must learn the new information contained in the lesson. Sometimes teachers forget to take into account that the lesson might present a specifically American understanding, which can be difficult for ELLs.

Literacy Instruction Strategies for English Language Learners

  • Do not make assumptions about prior understanding. Model everything.
  • Look for different ways to teach in order to learn more about your students.
  • Teach theme-based units so students can learn in context.
  • Employ methods that give students voice and choice whenever possible.
  • Use rubrics so students learn how assessment works.
  • Draw pictures to explain vocabulary.
  • Use repetition so students can pick up what they may have missed.
  • Color code directions posted in your classroom.

When teachers take the time to use diverse strategies, develop relationships and encourage risk-taking, ELL students are more likely to engage in literate behaviors throughout the day. The more language becomes a part of the students’ regular school days, the faster they will develop literacy.

Teachers must also take into account that ELL students may go through a silent stage while they are adjusting and learning the consequences of risk-taking. This is common, and if ELL teachers develop trust, their students will eventually speak and develop their own language skill.

Learn more about the CSUSM online MA in Education, Literacy program.


WETA: Fostering Literacy Development in English Language Learners

ASCD: Research-Based Methods of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners, Grades K-4

Choice Literacy: Understanding the “Silent Period” With English Language Learners

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