English Language Learners and the Road to Reading

Speech Therapy Staff
September 19, 2018

Children who are English Language Learners (ELL) are at higher risk for having difficulty learning to read.  “When bilingual children’s vocabulary levels are too low in the language in which they are learning to read, these young learners will…encounter difficulties” (Uccelli & Páez, 2007).  Children who are learning English may need extra support as they develop spoken English and literacy skills.

As professionals, parents, and adults in the lives of children that are ELL, what can we do to better help them avoid anticipated difficulties learning to read? We can approach it the same way we would approach a young child learning language for the first time.

Supporting ELL and literacy development

Provide opportunities for language use and interaction

  • Provide rich and interesting activities “worth talking about.”
  • Allow quiet times when teachers are not talking and children can initiate conversation.
  • Arrange the environment so that not all materials are readily accessible in order to promote discussion.

Provide focused stimulation on particular language features

  • Model target sounds or words for children; encourage repetition of models.
  • Recast children’s utterances to  maintain semantic information but extend syntactic use.
  • Recast adult utterances in the same way.
  • Develop routines to help children connect events and language.
  • Establish familiar daily routines like arrival time, circle time, snack time.
  • Develop scripts related to sociodramatic play activities including discussion/demonstration about roles, props, and activities.
  • Use event casting/self-talk (talking while doing) to model problem-solving strategies.

Using native English-speaking peers

If the English language learner is already in a social situation where they interact with native English speakers, the native English speakers can also be used to provide modeling to the ELL children.

  • Initiation: Teach native English children to approach other children, establish eye contact, and ask the children to play with them or a specific toy.
  • General Linguistic Aspects: Teach native English children to speak slowly with good enunciation.
  • Re-initiation: Teach native English children to repeat the initiation, if met with non-response.
  • Request Clarification: Teach native English children to request clarification of a response by the second language learner if the response was not understood.
  • Recast/expansion: Teach native English children to repeat an utterance with slightly different wording when the second language learner indicated a lack of comprehension through non-response, non-contingent response, or other nonverbal signs.

If children have difficulty reading, then this will impact them academically. Therefore, the language stimulation that we provide at a young age has the potential to change the course of their entire academic career.


Uccelli, P. & Páez, M. M. (2007). Narrative and vocabulary development of bilingual children from kindergarten to first grade: Developmental changes and associations among English and Spanish skills. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 225-236.


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