In teaching second language learners how to read, some approaches of traditional methods of teaching native English speakers to read do not work with English learners because they face several additional challenges. Some of these challenges include lack of vocabulary, background knowledge and study skills. This hinders them from being able to comprehend simple material.

Many language learners must first be taught the correct text directionality (that is that we read left to right). This is done through modeling. Students who already read in this direction in their own language have already developed the proper eye movement of reading left to right.

Many language learners do not know the English alphabet. It is important to know that reading opportunities are an essential way to learn the alphabet. It is pointless to teach the alphabet out of context, what is most essential is acquiring meaning. Use time wisely, don’t spend time teaching the alphabet, instead students can learn the letters within the context of a meaningful book.

Teaching phonics to a beginning language learner usually should be addressed through context-embedded material. Phonics instruction should be geared towards learning the most commonly used letter-to-sound relationships. These will most likely reflect the alphabetic principle. At the beginning, the time spent on phonics should be minimal in comparison to time spent countering meaningful print. Explicit phonics instruction should be delayed until the student has acquired sufficient oral language proficiency and vocabulary base or what Krashen identifies as speech emergence level in oral language development. The most important goal of reading is to get meaning from print. Many students can only decode which means that they can sound out the words but don’t understand the meaning of the text.

As soon as possible, language learners need frequent opportunities to read, in other words, plenty of literature immersion. There will be many students who have never seen a book in their countries of origin or have never been read at home. Another critical goal is to help these students to develop first a love for reading and all kind of books. This is not accomplished by drilling them with phonics but by reading for fun! Teachers, tutors and other community members can still have plenty of instructional objectives based on this type of reading. There are many teaching strategies and activities for developing reading proficiency that have proven more effective for second language readers such as the Language Experience Approach (LEA). Other beneficial practices include a supportive environment and plenty of independent and shared reading time.

Remember that it is critical to assess each individual student’s reading proficiency by using as many strategies and instruments as possible so reading instruction that is appropriate for that particular student can be planned and implemented.

When testing for reading proficiency:

  • Find out if the student is literate in the second language … Does he/she read left to right and up and down the page? Does he/she hold the book properly? Does he/she know which way to turn the pages? Click here for a list of scripted questions/activities to assess these basics.
  • Give the student a brief questionnaire asking questions about his/her reading habits. Click here for the list of questions.
  • Always ask the student to read a passage or book silently first if you want to assess reading COMPREHENSION. Students tend to focus on form (e.g. if they are pronouncing the words well) instead of focusing on meaning. Click here for a list of reading comprehension questions you may want to ask.
  • Ask students to read aloud when testing for phonemics or decodification (how well they can read the word and sentences, to identify mistakes they make when reading. Mistakes that can change the meaning of the message(s). Click here for an example of running records which is a way to assess mistakes made when reading aloud.