Literacy Supports for English Language Learners



What is Literacy?
Literacy is defined as a person's ability to read, write, and make educated inferences about printed materials. These skills are necessary and essential in thriving in the United States today.

Elements of literacy include, understanding spoken word, decoded words, phonics, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.

English Language Learners (ELL)

Students entering school with little to no knowledge of the English Language is matter on the rise in the United States. This is becoming more prevalent is communities with large numbers of minorities. According to the International Reading Association (IRA), this is a situation the United States will face for many years to come. IRA even predicts by the year 2050, the number of children who will begin school as English Language learners will increase to 40%. English Language learners will represent just under half of the population of new students that will eventually attend school, creating a major area of concern for districts where these students may be found.

Students learning English as a second language frequently come from backgrounds of poverty and low-income households. The direct correlation between English language learners and poverty is a phenomenon we see around the United States as well as an increased number of students who are identified as bilingual. Not only are the numbers of bilingual students increasing, they are surpassing the numbers of students speaking only one language (mono linguistic). Statistics like this one and many others exemplify the true meaning of the term “The Melting Pot”.

Literacy instruction for English Language learners is seen differently among educators, school districts, students and even parents. According to the IRA, students should be given the option of receiving instruction in their initial home language as well as receive instruction in English. The goal of the association is mastery of the first language through reading and writing. Students should strive for bilingualism or multilingualism but only instances where this attainable. In some cases student's with learning disabilities may never master two languages. Families of English Language learning students should have the option to decide whether they would prefer instruction in the dominant language or second language for their children.

This wiki will cover areas of Literacy supports for English Language learners from the prospective of educators, parents and students.

Background Information

Deciding how to educate English Language learners is a constant battle school districts around the United States find themselves battling. The University of Michigan provides insight on four different types of literacy instruction involved in educating English Language learners.

Researchers of bilingual education feel it completely necessary to teach children in their dominant language as to gain the precious skills that are required in order to thrive in America today. Ensuring that students maintain a connection with their heritage and master their native language is essential in learning a second language. Educators must decide how they will instruct their English Language learning students based on the four option below.

Traditional Modes of Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners
English Immersion

In this program, the classes and related text are primarily in English. Children with very low English proficiency are put in ESL (English-as-a-Second-Language) classes. Structured English immersion helps the students with better-planed classes focusing on building their vocabulary. It also uses direct and intense instructions to help them learn the language faster and be able to join the regular classes.

Transitional Bilingual Education

Transitional bilingual programs are known for teaching some subjects in the students' native language in the beginning of their education and then switching the language of instruction to English after some years. There are two different kinds of programs: early transition and late transition programs. These programs focus on helping children acquire the English proficiency required to succeed in an English-only mainstream classroom.

Paired Bilingual Education

This program increases the amount of time of English instruction as the child learns more English. However, the first language instruction is maintained to support literacy and cultural pride in ELL's first language. Paired bilingual methods are the most popular kind of program.

Two-way Bilingual Education

Two-way bilingual programs are also known as "dual language" or "dual immersion" education programs. It consists of teaching English Language Learners in both English and their native language at different times of the day. This part of the two-way program is the same as the paired bilingual method. The difference between the two is that in the two-way program, English proficient students are also taught in English and in a second language throughout the day.

Literacy Supports for ELL issues in Schools

Perhaps the most significant challenge teachers of students who are English Language Learners face is determining the students’ reading proficiency. On the one hand, ELLs who have well-developed reading skills in their own language do not need special instruction in reading per se; instead, they need instruction in English and teachers need to ensure that they are receiving comprehensible input. (see teaching strategies section below) On the other hand, some ELL students entering American public schools have little or no previous reading instruction. These students are often referred to special education programs inappropriately (Echevarria, p. 189).

In Connecticut, the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) who are identified for special education is increasing dramatically. For example, during the last six years, the number of public school students in the state who are English Language Learners (ELLs) increased 1.5% while during the last five years, the number of ELLs who were also identified for special education increased 33.9%. (CSDE Data Bulletin, 4) This raises several questions. First, what constitutes an “English Language Learner”? Second, what does the normal process of learning English in school look like? Third, how can we discern whether an ELL has an underlying learning disability distinct from the normal process of acquiring English language skills? And finally, what are some teaching strategies that can support the literacy of ELLs with and without learning disabilities? Each of these questions is addressed in the following sections.

What constitutes an English Language Learner?

Students who qualify as “English Language Learners” are entitled, under both the No Child Left Behind Act and Connecticut law, to receive “English language services” in the public schools from qualified personnel. They are also entitled to receive the same core academic education received by all students. (CSDE Data Bulletin, 1). According to the Connecticut State Board of Education’s “Position Statement on the Education of Students Who Are English Language Learners”, school districts are “mandated by the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Connecticut Bilingual Statute to ensure that ELLs receive specialized services to meet their language and academic needs.”

Determining whether a student is an “English Language Learner,” and therefore qualified for special services, entails a two-pronged inquiry. First, it must be determined whether the child’s dominant language is one other than English. Second, it must be determined whether the student has limited English language proficiency.

  1. In determining the child’s dominant language, it is necessary to ask:

  1. What language did the child first learn to speak?
  2. What is the primary language spoken by the adults in the home?
  3. What is the primary language spoken by the child in the home?

  1. In determining English language proficiency, these are indicators:
    1. An interview to determine proficiency
    2. A standardized English language proficiency test
    3. Consideration of academic history/performance.

(SERC, 10-16)

What does the normal process of learning English in school look like?

The normal process of learning English as a second language can look much like the process of language development in general. Any one who is learning a second language will go through many of the same stages as a very young child does when learning language for the first time. For example, they may:

  • Produce frequently used short phrases to initiate conversation
  • Use “telegraphic speech” where key word are used to convey essential meaning
  • Overgeneralize grammatical rules (“goed” used for went)
  • Develop language in a nonlinear manner
  • Acquire concrete (contextualized) language before abstract (decontextualized) language.
  • Go through a silent period in which language is being internalized but not verbalized. (CAPELL, 6)

In addition, some other normal phenomena of second language acquisition include:

  • “Interference” where grammatical rules from the first language are erroneously transferred to the second language.
  • “Codeswitching” where the speaker uses both languages over the course of a phrase or sentence
  • “language loss” where the speaker loses skills in their first language if it is not reinforced. This can be a detriment to the child’s academic and linguistic development.

(ASHA, 2)

Moreover, the normal process of learning English as a second language includes two levels of proficiency: conversational proficiency, known as BICS (Basic Interpersonal Conversation skills); and academic proficiency, known as CALPS (Congnitive Academic Language proficiency). Conversational proficiency, or the ability to use language in face to face communication, can take 1-3 years. However, academic proficiency, or the ability to complete school-related literacy tasks, can take 5-10 years. Therefore, a student may appear to be fluent conversationally in English, but still may not be proficient in academic skills. (CAPELL, 7) This “BICS-CALP” gap can also erroneously lead educators to assume that the child has a learning disability.

How can we discern whether an ELL has an underlying learning disability distinct from the normal process of acquiring English language skills?

In Connecticut, the numbers of ELLs being referred for special education is increasing in rates greater than that of non ELL students. During the school year 2009-2010, 72,592 (or 1 out of 7) public school students had a dominant language other than English. Out of these, 29,993 (41%) were determined to have limited English proficiency and therefore qualified as English Language Learners. (CSDE Data Bulletin, 1) Out of those determined to be ELLs, 4,195 (14%) were identified for special education. This 14% is greater than the rate of identification for non ELL students which is 11%. (CDSE Data Bulletin, 4) Moreover, over the last 4 years, the number of ELL students identified for special education increased by one-third, while the number of identified special education students who were non ELL decreased by 3.7%. (CDSE Data Bulletin, 4) While there is no research indicating why this disproportionality exists, the statistics certainly raise the question of how ELLs are evaluated and identified for special education and what can be done to avoid overidentification.

First, it is important to remember that students who are ELLs and students with learning disabilities both may manifest reading difficulties but for very different reasons. Students with learning disabilities, for example may exhibit low reading achievement because of an intrinsic difficulty with phonological processing and word identification. ELLs on the other hand may exhibit low reading achievement because of a lack of vocabulary or relevant background knowledge. In each case, a different teaching strategy is warranted. (Spear-Swerling, 1)Therefore, an accurate assessment of the reasons behind a student’s struggles is essential. Moreover the IDEA mandates that the assessment process be free of cultural or racial bias. (CAPELL, 32).

Notwithstanding the importance of accurate assessment, distinguishing between normal second language acquisition and a learning disability can be extremely difficult. Studies have identified the following as factors leading to both over- and under-identification: misunderstanding of the educational needs of ELLs; poorly designed language assessments; and weak psychoeducational assessment practices. (Sullivan, 320).Other factors include: the lack of assessments designed in ELLs native languages; professionals’ lack of training in linguistic and cultural differences; and the shortage of bilingual educators and psychologists. (Sullivan, 320).

When evaluating ELLs for a possible learning disability, it is first necessary to understand that some learning issues that seem like problems may be seen in typical ELLs who do not have learning disabilities.

The following is a list of difficulties a teacher might observe in an ELL student, followed by the reason that these issues may be typical for ELLs

1. Academic Learning difficulties: ELLs often have difficulty with grade-level academic language and concepts because it takes at least five years for nonnative speakers to display native-speaker like functioning in academics.

2. Language disorder: Lack of fluency and correct syntax is a natural part of learning a new language. Students may require more “wait time” as they process an utterance in one language and translate into another. This “wait time” may be misinterpreted as a language processing issue.

3. Attention and memory problems: ELLs may have difficulty paying attention and remembering if they cannot relate new information to their previous experiences in their respective cultures. ELLs may also be experiencing exhaustion due to the task of learning in a language in which they are not yet proficient.

4. Withdrawn behavior: When students are learning a new language and adapting to a new culture a “silent period” is normal. Also, this behavior might be appropriate in the student’s culture.

5. Aggressive behavior: The student may not understand appropriate school behavior and language in the US. Also this behavior may be appropriate in the students’ culture.

6. Social and Emotional problems: When students are learning to live in a new culture and using a new language, social and emotional problems often develop.

(CAPELL, 10)

On the other hand, certain patterns seen in ELLs suggest the possibility of a learning disability. These include a history of oral language delay, difficulty developing literacy skills in the native language, a family history of reading difficulties, specific language weaknesses in the native language; or the child has had research-based, high-quality reading intervention for ELLs and is not making adequate progress relative to other ELLs. (Spear-Swerling, 2)

The Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners (CAPELL) recommends an early intervention procedure for ELLs, set out in its Resource Handbook for 2011, (CAPELL, 14) and which specifies the circumstances under which a referral to special education is appropriate. The steps are similar to those for English speakers with three important differences. First, at every point in the process the ELL staff should be involved. Second, information should be collected from as many sources in as many ways as possible. Finally, a native language assessment is usually appropriate as a true disability will manifest in all languages that the student knows. (CAPELL, 13).

Finally, if a referral for evaluation for special education is made, the assessment process must be carefully tailored to avoid culturally or racially discriminatory evaluation. If an unbiased instrument is not available, then the team must take into account the limits of the assessment. A list of assessments for ELLs, including those in languages other than English is available in the CAPELL resource handbook. (CAPELL, 20)

What are some teaching strategies that can support the literacy of ELLs with and without learning disabilities?

The first important factor to note in the education of English language learners is that a rich first language in the home environment provides the basis for all future learning. Therefore, parents should not be discouraged from speaking their native language at home. Rather, they should be encouraged to communicate with their children in their own strongest language, thereby building a strong and rich language base in the child. (CAPELL, 9)

With regard to reading skills in the school environment, ALL ELLs can benefit from the following techniques:

1. Comprehensible input: This concept refers to the idea that content should be presented in ways that ensures student understanding. It involves using appropriate speech, giving a clear explanation of academic tasks, and using a variety of techniques to make content concepts clear. (Echevarria, chapter 4)

2. Instruction in the structure of English the English language: ELLs need specific instruction in the grammar and syntax of the English language.

3. Instruction in English vocabulary: Intensive vocabulary instruction is essential, including writing specific language objectives as part of the lesson, as well as emphasizing key vocabulary through specific instruction. (Echevarria, Chapter 3)

An excellent resource which includes specific teaching techniques for ELLs is Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model by Jana Echevarria.

In addition to the above types of instruction, ELLs who also have a learning disability can benefit from the following techniques:

1.explicit phonemic awareness instruction,

2. structured and systematic phonics instruction,

3. explicit instruction in comprehension strategies, and

4. peer-assisted learning. (Spear-Swerling, 2)

For further information about ELLs and special education, see Chapter 10 of Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners: The SIOP Model by Jana Echevarria.

For other resources on instructional techniques, see Hudson and Smith, "Effective Reading Instruction for Struggling Spanish-Speaking Readers: A Combination of Two Literatures (in references below).

Literacy Supports for Home

What can parents do to support Literacy Outside the Classroom?

Supporting your child's literacy begins and should be referenced in the home. Parents should be aware of the content their children are learning in school and then supplement their instruction at home. A Parent's Guide from the U.S. Department of Education lists out seven tips parents should incorporate in their homes to support literacy development in their child.

Tip 1 – Talk to your child
Tip 2 – Make reading fun
Tip 3 – Read every day
Tip 4 – Set an example
Tip 5 – Talk about books
Tip 6 – Listen to your child read
Tip 7 – Show that you value your child's efforts

The video below addresses activities promoting literacy in young children.

Controversial topics and Recent reasearch in English Language Learner Literacy Supports and What this means for Teachers and Schools

Literacy is no longer considered the ability to read and write. Lasisi Ajayi explains the definition of literacy has been expanded to include “the ability to construct and understand the different possibilities of meanings made available by differing textual forms associated with diverse domains such as the Internet, videogames, visual images, graphics, and layouts” (585). Contemporary times imply there is a crucial role of multimodal/multiliteracies. Furthermore, literacy is “context-specific, text-type specific, and social practice specific” (586). This means that teachers, no matter the subject they teach, “need to think multimodally when choosing texts for their students. Teachers need to relate their teaching materials to the life skills, social interests, and applications of multimodal texts as contemporary and important text types in English-language learners’ lives” (594).

So how can teachers support literacy for English language learners in regards to these circumstances? Professional development ought to be focused on increasing the content-area teachers’ ability to support academic literacy development, in order to help them be more responsive to the needs of ELLs. According to Julie Meltzer and Edmund T. Hamann, quality literacy professional development needs to include “much of what ELLs’ learning: explicit instruction and modeling of before-, during-, and after-reading strategies; relevance and connections to students’ lives; and multiple opportunities for reading, writing, and speaking about content in all classes. These practices fall into one of three categories: classroom practices that increase student motivation and engagement, generic literacy and learning practices, and content-specific literacy practices” (34). Teachers ought to also approach effective literacy instruction for English language learners through the gradual release model of responsibly, in regards to providing explicit instruction and then guided practice.

There are also a number of trends that are rising in relation to supporting the development of literacy in English language learners which teachers might consider.

Kelli R. Paquette and Sue A. Rieg describe how teachers can use music to support the literacy development of young English language learners. ELLs can benefit from music being integrated into literacy instruction and the classroom for a number of reasons. Research suggests, “Cognitively, songs present opportunities for developing automaticity – knowing what to say and producing language without pauses – in the language process” (228). The repetition of words and phrases in songs is also helpful. Furthermore, “Most of the language young ELLs will encounter is informal so linguistically using songs can prepare students for the genuine language they will encounter” (228). Music has also been suggested as aiding the development and extending of vocabulary and comprehension skills, improving listening and oral language skill development, improving attention and memory, and enhancing abstract thinking (228). Paquette and Rieg share examples of music supports that benefit ELLs, such as selecting songs for teaching language skills. Such songs would be intended to teach skills like sentence patterns, vocabulary, pronunciation, rhythm, and parts of speech, in addition to prosodic parts of speech like stress, rhythm, and intonation, and even to practice and reinforce consonant sounds. Paquette and Rieg also exclaim that typical instructional strategies like paired or partner reading, echo reading, choral reading, and phrasing can also be implemented successfully with song-based literature. Many literature selections are available with a CD, which is additionally helpful in that song-based literature actively engages students.

Dianna Townsend describes how academic vocabulary can be grown in middle school language learners. Vocabulary instruction has been identified as important to improving reading comprehension. Vocabulary is especially important for English language learners, and it is recommended that ELLs are presented with more opportunities got meaningful practice with language and increased instruction of reading comprehension and vocabulary using graphic organizers and direct strategy instruction. One program that has received attention is an after-school program called the Language Workshop, which is “designed with collaborative, fast-paced, and highly interactive activities combined with elements of direct instruction and text-based discussions of the target words” (244). A number of activities and games are included in Language Workshop. Picture puzzlers involve choosing pictures with contexts that suit the day’s target words and using those pictures to prompt small group and whole class discussion. They are believed to allow for exposures to words in multiple contexts, opportunities to process and personalize word meaning, and visual support (245). The responses which picture puzzlers illicit are related to the process of fast-mapping, which involves “creating initial associations with words and the contexts in which they are used.” Music puzzlers, matching games, dice games, and Pictionades (an integration of Pictionary and Charades) achieve similar results for students. Games like Academic Taboo are modifications of the original game, that provides students with practice with word meaning and connections between words, while games like Action Jeopardy engage students in active processing of many words at once. The combination of strategies being used to teach vocabulary in this Language Workshop allows for a larger impact than a single strategy, and is even more successful when placed in a larger instructional context. Townsend reiterates considerations for practice, “Academic word knowledge has the potential to increase access to academic texts for all students, and especially for ELLs,” and also suggests that when implementing such games and activities for ELL students, that visual support and extra practice are also essential.
Songs to teach grammar can be found at the Songs for Teaching website,

Another trend that is arising within ELL classrooms, particularly those in the middle years, is digital literacy projects, like “Podcast time.” Suzanne Smythe and Paul Neufield describe a podcast as being “one of several Web 2.0 digital social-networking tools, including blogs, YouTube, and Facebook, that provide platforms for the creation and sharing of user-generated content” (489). Podcasting in the classroom is especially helpful for ELLs because it engages these students, who have usually avoided and struggled with English print narrative. Smythe and Neufield also report that this approach to developing literacy contributed to the engagement of the students in reading and writing as a result of “the role of the students’ semiotic resources in creating stories and podcasts, the emergence of podcast project time as a pedagogic ‘third space,’ and the communities of learners that emerged within these third spaces as contexts for conventional reading and writing as well as more complex collaborative knowledge creation” (493). This trend in instruction is also beneficial because the serious work of improving literacy instruction for ELLs “often overshadows the importance of play in this learning, particularly play that involves the reading writing of interactive digital texts” (494), but the playful learning community that podcast time creates engages students in practicing other skills, like editing and revising.

Guided reading is a literacy program that allows for differentiated reading instruction. However, English language learners further benefit from guided reading when a modified approach is implemented, as they are “gain additional language learning opportunities that native speakers typically acquire implicitly” (318). Modified guided reading (MGR) includes modifications related to detailed vocabulary instruction, variables concerning second-language text structure (i.e. semantics, syntax, morphology), and cultural evidence (318). Research related to MGR suggests the first thing that ought to be considered is the student’s reading level in their first language. L1 literacy assessment is thus essential to guide L2 instruction. Guided reading allows for the teacher to evaluate a student’s needs whole building upon the strength the student has already demonstrated. Modified guided reading, in comparison to traditional guided reading, then takes form in an instructional cycle of three or more days in 20-30 minute sessions, where the teacher presents culturally relevant text through guided discussion connecting the content and language structure to the students’ personal lives, reads guided-reading text aloud to model fluency and generate discussion related to comprehension and vocabulary, observes and coaches the students by reinforcing correct strategies and using word-recognition prompts to problem solve, implements word work that focuses on morphological awareness, phonemic awareness, and phonics connected to the guided-reading text, and utilizes vocabulary journals and writing assignments connected to guided-reading texts (320). When analyzing text during MGR, the teacher must also address areas of confusion, such as metaphors and similes or homophones. MGR is also beneficial to ELLs because it enables the embedding of skills within a context, which provides meaningful instruction and allows ELLs to learn from authentic uses of the skill as opposed to isolated, workbook exercises.
A helpful resource for clarification of confusing metaphors, similes, and expressions in the English language, refer to “The Expressionary” by Mark Schmidek.

Additional Resources
Teaching Diverse Learners - Includes suggestions for additional support for students in the home and school.

ESL Literacy Network - Support and retain for young adult Learners with Interrupted Formal Education (LIFE).

ERIC - the Education Resources Information Center - is an online digital library of education research and information. ERIC is sponsored by the (IES) of the . ERIC provides ready access to education literature to support the use of educational research and information to improve practice in learning, teaching, educational decision-making, and research.


Title: A Synthesis of Research on Language of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners.

Looking for a more Engaging way to answer your support questions. Join the community and share your questions, ideas and solutions with other members and the Engage support staff.


Literacy support Applications- Assistive Technology

Early Literacy Support is an intervention programme for children who need additional support. It includes a training programme, a screening package, and 60 extra literacy sessions to be run by a teaching assistant. Good first teaching will meet the needs of mostchildren, but provision must be made for those who may experience difficulty with early literacy learning. Early identification and support is the most effective approach to preventing long-term difficulties.


Apps for Literacy Supports on IPHONE/IPAD

  1. International Reading Association
  2. Different Language, Same Goal
  3. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s Normal, What’s Not” (retrieved on 11/19/2011 at
  4. Connecticut Administrators of Programs for English Language Learners (CAPELL), “English Language Learners and Special Education: A Resource Handbook. Retrieved on 11/19/2011 at
  5. Connecticut State Department of Education, Division of Assessment, Research and Technology, Bureau of Data Collection, Data Bulletin, November 2010.
  6. Dray, B., and Wisneski, D., “Mindful Reflection as a Process for Developing Culturally Responsive Practices,” Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol.44 No. 1 pp. 28-36. 2011.
  7. Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., and Short, D., Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners The SIOP Model (Pearson Education Inc. 2008).
  8. Hudson, R., and Smith, S., “Effective Reading Instruction for Struggling Spanish-Speaking Readers: A Combination of Two Literatures,” retrieved on 11/19/2011 at
  9. Rinaldi, C., and Samson, J., “English Language Learners and Response to Intervention: Referral Considerations” Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol.40 No. 5 pp. 6-14. 2008.
  10. Special Education Resource Center (SERC), "Administrative Resource Handbook for Coordinators of Programs for English Language Learners in Connecticut's Public Schools," retrieved on 11/19/2011 at
  11. Spear-Swerling, L., “Learning Disabilities in English Language Learners” (retrieved on 11/19/2011 at
  12. Sullivan, A., “Disproportionality in Special Education Identification and Placement of English Language Learners,” Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol.77 No. 3 pp. 317-334. 2011.
  13. Tips for Parents
  14. Ajayi, L. (2009). English as a Second Language Learners' Exploration of Multimodal Texts in a Junior High School. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(7), 585-595.
  15. Avalos, M. (2007). Modified Guided Reading: Gateway to English as a Second Language and Literacy Learning. Reading Teacher, 61(4), 318-329.
  16. Meltzer, J. T. (2006). Literacy for English Learners and Regular Students, Too. Education Digest, 71(8), 32-40.
  17. Paquette, K. (2008). Using Music to Support the Literacy Development of Young English Language Learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(3), 227-232.
  18. Smythe, S. (2010). "Podcast Time": Negotiating Digital Literacies and Communities of Learning in a Middle Years ELL Classroom. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(6), 488-496.
  19. Townsend, D. (2009). Building Academic Vocabulary in After-School Settings: Games for Growth With Middle School English-Language Learners. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(3), 242-251.

Created By:

Eileen McCarthy

Karina Bober

Theresa Kemp