My specialty is teaching students how to read. I also teach ESL reading.

ESL stands for English as a Second Language. This means that the student (child or adult) is learning English; this is their second language. ELL is now the term used instead of ESL. ELL stands for English Language Learners.

The question that I hear most often is, “How do you teach someone to read English?” There are several ways. Follow these tips when teaching ESL to younger children and you will have great results.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is no different than an English person learning a foreign language. There are teachers who specialize in teaching English just as there are French teachers or those who teach Spanish.

When a student takes a foreign language course in school, he doesn't just learn to speak the language but he usually learns to read and write it at the same time. This is the same process when someone is learning English. He will learn to read and write it at the same time.


Much of teaching an ELL student how to read depends on their first language. If the ELL/ESL student has a first language that uses the Roman alphabet (i.e. English, Spanish, French) it will be easier than a student who uses a series of lines/symbols as Chinese and Japanese.

For instance, teaching a Spanish speaking learner how to read is very easy because many words are close to English words. The pronunciation of their letters is close to English.

If you are helping an English language learner, the best way to teach them to read English is by using a multi-sensory method called Orton-Gillingham. Many students who are learning English as a second language won’t hear it at home because their parents can't speak English.

In order for a second language learner to comprehend what she is learning, she will also need to be learning some background knowledge. Background knowledge is very important to comprehension.

ESL/ESL students also need time to listen to the language. This can be done with books on tape, by watching movies, or with group interaction with English speakers. If the ELL student is wanting to learn to speak the English language fluently, then a native English speaker makes the best teacher.

for the Elementary Student

The same process that is used when teaching a native English learner how to read needs to be followed when teaching ESL reading. Determine the starting point. Does she even know the sounds of the English letters? If she does, can she read CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant words)?

First, determine what she can read. Then, start from that point. Second, she will need to learn the sounds of the language, or phonics.

Phonemic activities are important to help develop a good phonics foundation. Reading alphabet books is a good activity for the younger student, preK-2nd grade. For older students just start teaching the alphabet sounds and words that contain those sounds.

Next, begin using decodable books or I Can Read books. These type of books will help the ESL student gain confidence in reading. Using these kinds of books will also help with the student’s fluency. A student’s self-confidence increases when their reading becomes more fluent. They realize they can do it!

When the student has mastered reading one syllable words, then she needs to learn how to divide multi-syllable words into syllables. When she can divide words successfully, then she will be able to start reading chapter books. Once she can read chapter books, she’ll be able to start reading content books.


ESL students also need a strong background knowledge. This means that in order to UNDERSTAND WHAT she is reading, she needs to KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT what she is reading.

It may be a slow process for the ESL reader to gain background knowledge. Gaining background knowledge depends on the age of the student and what is happening at home. Since most students will have parents who do not speak English, their background knowledge of America's history and its people MAY be very limited.

Prior knowledge (or background knowledge) is VERY IMPORTANT for comprehension.

One way to impart this knowledge is to read fictional historical books to the student. Asking her questions about what was read to her will help her focus on important information.

Try to bring the student’s cultural into activities when possible. For instance, try to find some alphabet books that show the student’s cultural. If the student is older, find a fictional or historical book about her native country.

I suggest using the same materials for ESL reading as I use when teaching a learning disabled student. IN FACT, teaching reading with the Orton Gillingham method is the best way to teach reading to ANYONE.

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