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Reading Success: Literacy Strategies for English Learners

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Updated on
Modified on May 1, 2024
Quick Takeaway

This article focuses on effective strategies for teaching literacy skills to English learners (ELs). It emphasizes the importance of building a solid foundation in literacy, addressing language challenges, and promoting reading fluency and comprehension. It also encourages a multifaceted approach, including small-group settings, graphic organizers, open and summarizing strategies, and cross-curricular connections. It highlights the significance of educators in setting the groundwork for ELs’ English literacy and provides additional solutions for implementing these strategies effectively.

Students who are learning English as a second language require mastery of foundational reading skills to become proficient readers and writers in English. Effective instruction tailored to English learners (ELs) is vital for achieving literacy mastery in the classroom.

ELs encompass a broad spectrum of students across various grade levels, from elementary school through high school. Learning a second language poses challenges regardless of age. To ensure ELs acquire a strong foundation in the English language, educators must employ effective reading strategies that promote language development and reading skills. This article explores practical instructional practices to equip ELs for success.

Foundations of Literacy

A solid foundation in literacy sets the entire stage for a student’s academic success in both elementary and high school. In elementary school, ELs rely on understanding the fundamental components of the English language. As they progress to middle school, these foundational literacy skills become crucial for success across all subjects, which demand more abstract and critical thinking skills. By the time they reach high school, ELs should possess well-rounded reading and writing proficiency in English, preparing them for future careers.

Since ELs may primarily practice English literacy skills within the school environment, it is incumbent upon educators and district leaders to establish an adequate literacy foundation. Explicit phonics instruction is essential for ELs of all grade levels, as it teaches systematic letter-sound relationships, aiding in the development of decoding skills necessary for blending sounds to form words. This phonics instruction serves as a building block for effective reading and writing skills. Various elements contribute to this solid foundation, including:

  • Decoding and Phonics: Educators can support ELs in acquiring English by offering explicit phonics instruction through activities like segmenting, blending, and rhyming, either in small-group or whole-class settings.

  • Oral Language Development: Teachers should foster ELs' oral language skills, which are crucial for reading development, by facilitating opportunities for dialogue and delivering explicit instruction, focusing on building vocabulary and syntax.

  • Connecting With Content Areas: Educators can integrate literacy skills with content areas by incorporating biographies, reading comprehension strategies, and research skills. They should encourage the use of content themes to enhance comprehension and practice chronological sequencing, identifying key details, and acquiring content-specific vocabulary.

Instructional Strategies for EL Success

EL classrooms are dynamic environments with students whose reading and English language skills vary widely. To effectively support these students, teachers must employ strategic instructional approaches that cater to diverse language proficiency levels.

One common challenge ELs face is learning to decode and acquire advanced work study skills in order to then subscribe meaning to what they have read. Without the decoding skill, comprehension can be hindered and lead to disengagement. Teachers can address this issue by providing explicit instruction in phonics, morphology and vocabulary to help students comprehend what they read. For example, introducing subject matter that relates to students' interests or cultural backgrounds can help them feel seen, valued, and less frustrated with the reading and writing process.

By creating an inclusive learning environment where ELs can thrive, teachers play a crucial role in determining their success in the classroom and their enjoyment of learning a new language. Here are some instructional strategies teachers can implement for EL success:

  • Small-Group Settings: Teachers can implement small-group instruction to provide personalized attention and facilitate peer collaboration. For instance, EL students can be divided into small groups based on language proficiency levels, allowing for targeted instruction. Groupings can be rotated regularly based on ongoing evidence-based assessments to ensure students receive appropriate instruction and additional support in targeted skills tailored to their needs.

  • Graphic Organizers: Incorporate visual aids such as graphic organizers to promote comprehension and language development. Teachers can use tools like concept maps to help ELs visualize relationships between concepts, or utilize sequence of events charts to aid in understanding narrative structures. Providing ELs with opportunities to create their own graphic organizers based on the content they are learning can also enhance their comprehension and organization skills.

  • Open and Summarizing Strategies: Educators should foster language development and critical thinking through open-ended discussion strategies. They can encourage students to engage in activities such as think-pair-share discussions, where they can share their ideas with a partner before sharing with the whole class. Additionally, teachers can use summarization techniques such as "one-sentence summaries" or "exit tickets," which are brief written responses completed by students at the end of a lesson to assess their understanding of key concepts and encourage reflection.

  • Integrating Interventions: Implementing early, explicit interventions in phonics to build decoding skills and establish a foundation for English language proficiency is crucial. Teachers should provide targeted interventions that include the five essential components of reading such as phonics games or word sorts to reinforce letter-sound relationships. Using data from ongoing assessments to identify specific areas of need and tailoring intervention plans accordingly is essential. Collaboration with colleagues to share insights and refine intervention strategies based on student progress is also recommended.

Language Development and Vocabulary Building

English learners (ELs) bring with them the vocabulary in their home language, which can help in making connections to vocabulary in English. This existing vocabulary can assist in their ability to grasp the English language, especially when coupled with systematic and explicit instruction when teach vocabulary. The following practical strategies can support the language development of ELs:

  • Acquiring New Vocabulary: To support ELs in acquiring new vocabulary, teachers should expose them to a variety of authentic language materials, such as texts, audio recordings, videos, and real-life situations. One effective strategy is to have students highlight familiar and unfamiliar keywords using a color code. This practice empowers students to identify words they aren't sure of and reference those they understand, providing them with more control over their learning process and opportunities to apply their background knowledge.

  • Academic Language Strategies: Teachers can support ELs develop academic language skills by implementing strategies such as providing explicit instruction on academic vocabulary, offering ample opportunities for practice and application in authentic contexts, integrating language-rich activities like academic discussions or debates into lessons, and scaffolding instruction to meet the diverse needs of students.

  • Bridging First and Second Languages: Regardless of whether students speak Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, or another language, they should not be made to feel inferior. Their proficiency in their first language demonstrates their ability to excel in English. Incorporating learners' home languages into classroom activities or labels whenever possible will help them connect their home language to English, boosting confidence and facilitating language acquisition.

Reading Fluency and Comprehension Skills

Reading fluency and comprehension are essential for the literacy development of ELs. Fluency enables smooth and accurate reading while strong comprehension skills allow students to extract meaning, make connections, infer information, and critically analyze texts. Teachers can implement targeted strategies to enhance fluency and comprehension, ensuring ELs' proficiency in English.

  • Improving Reading Fluency: Strategies such as repeated readings, choral reading, and paired reading activities are effective. Repeated readings benefit students practicing fluency and oral language. Choral reading models expression and engages the whole class, while paired reading fosters peer learning and comprehension. Implementing these strategies with diverse, engaging materials at appropriate proficiency levels minimizes frustration and sustains interest in reading.

  • Teaching Reading Comprehension: Read-aloud sessions model fluent reading, build vocabulary, and activate working memory while requiring active listening. Additionally, strategies such as summarizing, predicting, questioning, and applying background knowledge are valuable for enhancing reading comprehension.

  • Utilizing All Content Areas: Instructing with all content areas can enrich ELs’ understanding of a variety of topics such as historical events, scientific advances,  mathematical processes, and political vocabulary while further developing their reading comprehension skills. For example, a teacher incorporating a unit on the Civil Rights Movement could utilize primary source documents, such as speeches or newspaper articles, to engage ELs in analyzing historical events and understanding the significance of key figures and concepts. These cross-curricular connections ultimately equip ELs with critical thinking skills essential for academic success.

  • Interventions for Improved Comprehension: Targeted interventions designed to enhance reading comprehension may include explicit instruction, scaffolded support through graphic organizers or peer tutoring, and differentiated reading activities. Ongoing formative assessments, such as quizzes, exit tickets, or class discussions, provide feedback on ELs' understanding of content and language development throughout instruction. 


A range of strategies exists to boost literacy skills for English learners (ELs). Explicit and systematic instruction that includes the five essential components of reading will help students acquire not only the English language, but also crucial literacy skills. Classroom teachers should consider exploring and implementing the strategies discussed in this article to enhance ELs' reading and language abilities in English.

Seeking ways to implement these literacy strategies effectively? Voyager Sopris Learning® can help. Explore these solutions to help students master foundational skills in reading and writing.

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