Reading Instruction for English Language Learners

Science of Reading, Text-dependent Instruction

Did you know that more than 10% of all public school students in the United States are English Language Learners (ELLs)? We want to ensure that the strategies we use when teaching these students support their specific needs. In this post, we’ll look at special considerations and reading strategies you can use when working with ELLs. 


Background Knowledge

We know from research that having relevant and sufficient background knowledge of a topic is important to comprehending texts. Since our students are coming to us with different lived experiences, they may not all be familiar with the concepts and terminology presented in the classroom texts we use.

Getting to know who your students are and what their past educational experiences were like is important; once you have a better sense of what prior knowledge they bring with them, you can determine what (if any) background knowledge needs to be provided. For example, a 2nd grader from El Salvador may not have knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, but you could talk with them about their home country’s Independence Day—what it means to them and how it’s celebrated. Making these connections and focusing on key vocabulary words like “independence” can help activate prior knowledge and set the context before reading about the Declaration of Independence. Anticipation guides are also a great way to activate and better understand the background knowledge students have about a topic.


Text-Dependent Questions

Text-dependent questions are often used during close reading and require students to draw conclusions or provide evidence from the text. In theory, students should be able to answer questions using just the information found in that text. But in crafting text-dependent questions for ELLs, be aware that students may need scaffolds to understand the layers of meaning in the text. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    • It’s likely that some degree of background knowledge will be needed even when questions are drawn from the text. For questions that go beyond surface-level details, students will need to be able to synthesize facts from the text with what they know. Graphic organizers like schema maps can be a helpful tool to help students see connections between pieces of information.


    • ELLs may need extra practice with the academic vocabulary words that appear in texts. Choose the most important ones to focus on so that students aren’t overloaded with new information. Remember, it can be a lot to try and absorb so many content areas throughout the day in a second language! When teaching vocabulary words, helping readers build phonological, orthographic, and semantic representations of new words in memory will make it easier for them to recognize, produce, and comprehend them both orally and in writing (Ehri, 2011).


    • Understand that what is challenging for native speakers may differ from what is challenging for ELLs, and scaffold your questioning and assessments accordingly. 



For more information on text-dependent questions and how to best support ELLs, check out this article by Diane Staehr Fenner.