Category Archives: English as a second language (ESL)

Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

Teaching vocabulary

If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?

But how to solve this problem?

CVC means consonant-vowel-consonant, and refers to one syllable, short vowel words beginning with a consonant.

For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”

I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.

With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”

What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in  pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”

Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence.  (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)

When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.

Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.

Will avatars improve learning how to read?

What’s the future of reading?

Kindle pronunciation and definition pop-up

Already available on the Kindle, readers just touch unfamiliar words and a definition pop-up appears. (shown is an excerpt from “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett) CLICK on the picture for a link to the pronunciation.

A student who knows she has trouble reading long words creates an avatar—say an owl—to help her.  Then whenever she is reading online, the avatar would appear before every long word.  The avatar will help her to figure out long words–three and four syllable words.

The student could skip the avatar if she thinks she knows the word.  But if she  needs help, she could click on the owl and the owl might segment the word into syllables, making the word easier to deconstruct.  “Conversation” might show in a tiny screen as “con-ver-SA-tion.”

If the word does not follow the rules of phonics, the word might be shown as it is pronounced.  “Business” might appear as “BIZZ-ness.”

An option for the avatar to pronounce a word might also exist.  If a student can figure out “discreet” but not “discretion,” the avatar might pronounce the latter word.

With technology, we have the ability to personalize reading instruction, offering individual help for students.  Fast learners could have an avatar which acts as a high speed dictionary and thesaurus, allowing students to read difficult words without a word search.  Slower learners’ avatars could offer private tutoring help, allowing students to progress at their own slower pace with no one the wiser.  ESL students could get help with pronunciation.

Even older students reading advanced text books could use this help with the avatar segmenting the word, perhaps showing its root, pronouncing it, and defining it.  It could refer to previous pages in the book where the word is used the way an index does—all at the click of an avatar.

Sound farfetched?

With Google’s Alexa, some of this technology already exists.  If a student is stumped by a word, the student can spell the word and ask how to say it or what it means, and Alexa, after a split-second of “thinking.” would respond.

It’s only a matter of time before this kind of technology will be custom fit to meet individual students’ reading needs.

Diagrams help students read

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners, ESL students and students with comprehension issues understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to read a biography of Coretta Scott King.  To help the student see the organization of Mrs. King’s life, the teacher could draw a color-coded diagram of important activities in Mrs. King’s life.   Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.   Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the reading passage breaks down into smaller chunks.

Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children learning English or children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

ESL, ESOL, ELL—Do they mean the same thing?

Yes, they mean approximately the same:  someone whose primary language is not English is now learning English.


ESL stands for English as a Second Language.

ESOL stands for English to Speakers of Other Languages.

ELL stands for English Language Learners.

EFL stands for English as a Foreign Language.

ESP stands for English for Special Purposes.

TESL stands for Teaching English as a Second Language.

More and more I am seeing ELL as the current politically correct term in the US.  Just a few years ago it was ESL. But I hear that in the UK and Ireland, ESOL is the preferred term.

Should my kindergarten son read aloud to me? How about my third grade daughter?

Reading aloud to a parent or teacher has two purposes:  to show that the child can decode words properly and to show that the child can read with fluency.  If the child is learning English as a second language, showing proper pronunciation is also a purpose.

child with adult helping to read

First decoding.  Probably your kindergarten son is at the decoding stage, that is, learning how to link language sounds with letters to form words.  If he is at this stage, then yes, he should read aloud.  That way you can tell what he knows, what he needs more practice on, and what he needs instruction on.

If you know from previous reading aloud that your third grader has mastered decoding, then your daughter needn’t read aloud for that purpose.  You might sit next to her as she reads.  If she has questions about pronouncing an unfamiliar word or if she asks about the meaning of a new word, you can help.  Occasionally you might ask her to tell you what she has read to be sure she has understood.

If your older child comes to English from a second language, she might be able to pronounce words perfectly yet have no idea what they mean.  If so, ask her to underline words she doesn’t know so you can talk about them.  If there are context clues, you might help her identify them.  With such a child, you should work on vocabulary development.

As for fluency (reading at a normal speed with voice inflection, pauses for punctuation and emotion in the voice) the kindergartener and ESL child should read aloud.  Some readers who are at the decoding stage spend so much energy on decoding that they miss the meaning.  By listening to how you say a line and then mimicking the way you say it, the child can pull together decoding and fluency.

Your third grader should be able to read fluently within her head.  However, if you notice that your child has trouble with comprehension even though she can decode well, then her reading aloud could help you to figure out why.  Is she ignoring punctuation and lumping parts of one sentence with another?  Is she sliding over longer words without decoding them because she is lazy or in a hurry?  Does she have short term memory problems, allowing her to forget the beginning of a sentence or paragraph before she gets to the end?  Is her emotional voice flat?  Is she missing inferences?  Some of this you can tell by listening to her read aloud, and some by asking her about what she has read.

In general, newer readers should read aloud with instruction and monitoring while experienced readers should read silently.

How lack of vocabulary stymies reading comprehension

Three superior ways of acquiring new vocabulary were found by the National Reading Technical Assistance in 2010.  They are

  • Higher frequency of exposure to targeted vocabulary words
  • Explicit instruction of words and their meanings
  • Questioning and language engagement

child with adult helping to read

Working with children daily, I see firsthand how a lack of vocabulary stymies their efforts to comprehend what they read.  For example, in the past week, a fourth grader reading aloud to me

  • pronounced “archaeological” as “architectural” and didn’t realizing his mistake.
  • did not know the meaning of the word “bid” as it was used in the passage. When I questioned him further, he admitted not knowing any meanings of that word.
  • did not know the meaning of “ancestral.” Questioning him showed me he did know what “ancestor” means.  When I pointed out that the roots of “ancestral” and “ancestor” are the same, he was able to figure out “ancestral.”
  • did not know the meaning of “interwoven.” Questioning showed me he did not know what “weave” means.  When I explained “weave” and “interwoven,” he still had no idea what “interwoven” meant in the passage because it was being used as a metaphor.
  • could not pronounce or understand “initial” used as an adjective. When I pronounced it, he still had no idea.  When I reminded him about the initials of his name, he recognized the word, but had no idea what it meant in context.  I explained that initials are the first letters in his name, and that “initial” in context meant “beginning” or “first.”  Then he understood.
  • could not pronounce or understand “notoriously.” He knew “famous,” so I said “notorious” means famous for doing something bad.  Still he was confused.  “Like Hitler.”  “What’s Hitler?”

Even though this boy was reading near his Lexile number, he either missed or misinterpreted chunks of the reading passage because of lack of vocabulary.

I will recommend to his mother that he works on vocabulary each lesson, using one of the many good vocabulary-building series available.  He also needs to read more and widely.

But doing one lesson in a vocabulary book, and then moving on to the next, is not enough.  He needs to hear the new vocabulary words often, review them, be questioned about their meanings, and be able to use them correctly in sentences.

If you are a parent, I recommend you either begin using a vocabulary-building series of workbooks, or if your child uses them at school, review past “learned” words with him or her.  My experience working with children, especially ESL children, shows me they need to engage with the words often in order for the words to become part of their vocabulary.