By: Maggie Downs

Pioneering educator Mary McLeod Bethune once said, “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read.” And that’s the goal for every educator — to open the world for our students, to pique their curiosity, to help them along their journey of discovery.

For young English learners (ELs), teaching reading presents a rewarding challenge that demands strategic, evidence-based methods. Recent scientific research illuminates effective strategies, emphasizing systematic instruction, early intervention, and culturally responsive teaching. By incorporating practices, such as systematic phonics instruction, early intervention, vocabulary and comprehension development, and culturally responsive teaching, educators can significantly boost the reading skills of young ELs.

For those of you looking to hold a CLAD through CTEL authorization or pursuing a supplementary authorization in English, it’s possible to create an inclusive, supportive, and effective learning environment, empowering young ELs to become proficient and confident readers.

Systematic and Explicit Phonics Instruction

A cornerstone of teaching reading to young ELs is systematic phonics instruction. Research has shown that a structured phonics approach, where letter-sound relationships are taught sequentially and clearly, is highly effective. This method aids ELs in mastering the fundamental aspects of reading by focusing on phonemic awareness, decoding skills, and vocabulary development. Direct instruction plays a vital role here, with teachers modeling how to sound out words and providing guided practice. Multisensory techniques, such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic activities like letter tiles, flashcards, and finger tracing, help reinforce phonics concepts. Additionally, conducting frequent assessments is essential to track students’ progress and identify areas needing reinforcement.

Early Intervention and Support

Early intervention is crucial for preventing reading difficulties, according to multiple studies, and ensuring that young ELs do not lag behind their peers. The sooner educators can identify and address reading challenges, the more successful students will be. Implementing early screening tools helps identify students at risk for reading difficulties, while continuous progress monitoring allows for tailored interventions. Providing targeted support through small-group instruction or one-on-one tutoring can address specific areas like phonological awareness or vocabulary. Whenever possible, engaging parents in their child’s reading development by providing resources and strategies for at-home support fosters a collaborative approach to literacy.

Vocabulary and Comprehension Development

For ELs, building a robust vocabulary is essential for reading comprehension. Studies indicate a strong foundation in vocabulary helps students understand and make meaning from texts, which is critical for reading proficiency. This vocabulary instruction is fundamental, with teachers introducing new words using definitions, context, and examples, and reinforcing learning through repeated exposure and practice. Interactive read-aloud sessions are also beneficial, as they introduce new vocabulary and discuss word meanings in context, encouraging students to ask questions and share their thoughts. Creating a language-rich classroom environment, where students are surrounded by words and have ample opportunities to use language meaningfully, further supports vocabulary development.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive teaching acknowledges and incorporates students' cultural backgrounds into the learning process. This approach not only makes learning more relevant and engaging for ELs but also supports their identity and self-esteem. An inclusive curriculum that reflects the cultural diversity of the classroom, with texts and materials that resonate with students’ experiences, is essential. Showing respect for students’ cultural heritage and validating their linguistic backgrounds fosters a positive learning environment. Encouraging students to share their stories and experiences enhances this approach. Additionally, fostering strong connections with families and the community, involving parents in school activities, and seeking their input on culturally relevant teaching practices further enriches the learning experience.