Successful Strategies for Teaching Reading to Middle Grades English Language Learners

Carlos (a pseudonym) moved from Guatemala to the United States when he was in sixth grade. When Carlos started school, his teachers expected him to speak only in English and practice English in his Spanish-speaking household. Carlos’s state test scores showed that, at the end of sixth grade, he was significantly below his grade level peers in reading. Sadly, Carlos began to state that he hated school and wanted to move back to Guatemala. That summer, Carlos moved again. At his new middle school in Illinois, Carlos’s teacher allowed him to write in Spanish while learning English content at grade level and to read bilingual books (English and Spanish). He also received daily small-group reading instruction that focused on vocabulary in context and comprehension. That year on his reading tests, Carlos’s scores grew significantly from the year before, and his motivation to learn became evident by the smile on his face and his desire to excel at each task his teacher assigned.

Carlos’s story is not unique; similar educational experiences happen to English language learners, or ELLs, every year in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (2010), in 2008 there were approximately 10.9 million children in the United States who did not speak English in their homes. Unfortunately, today too many of the 10.9 million ELLs still receive instruction similar to Carlos’s sixth grade instruction. ELLs face many challenges as they attempt to learn English and form their linguistic identities; the more languages students know, the more complex their linguistic identities are. Simply treating ELLs just like everyone else will not close the achievement gap between these students and their grade level peers. In an age of differentiated instruction, middle level educators need to be cognizant of specific reading strategies that will allow their ELLs to achieve their true potential.

The benefits and challenges of biliteracy

ELLs have a variety of unique characteristics that teachers should consider when determining appropriate instruction. Because students come to schools with varying levels of first language proficiencies, the amount of language instruction required varies from one student to the next. Before instruction begins, it is essential for teachers to gauge each student’s language proficiency level to guide future instruction. However, when teachers assess a student’s language proficiency, it is important for them to keep in mind that a student may sound fluent in English when, in fact, he or she is not. According to Cummins (1981), students have two levels of language proficiency: “basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)” and “cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)” (p. 16). Generally, students who sound fluent have strong social language skills (BICS) because these skills typically develop in the first three years of learning a new language (Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). In social situations, such as lunch time in the cafeteria, ELLs might have lengthy conversations in English about the past weekend. It is important that listeners do not equate these conversational skills in English as a gauge of students’ academic proficiency level in English. ELLs often struggle with academic vocabulary (CALP) because it is a skill that takes a minimum of five to ten years to develop in a new language (Collier & Thomas, 1989). Content-specific vocabulary and specialized vocabulary for discourse have a greater linguistic complexity and require more complicated language structures. Thus, it takes students significantly more time to learn the new vocabulary, to talk about the vocabulary, to practice it, and to make it part of their knowledge base.

However, middle grades educators should not distress. When students have knowledge of reading in their native languages, that knowledge can facilitate the acquisition of English by giving students a knowledge and skill base from which they can build new English skills. According to Cummins (1979), a common underlying proficiency (CUP) exists between two languages; concepts, skills, and ideas learned in a student’s first language will transfer to a student’s second language. The more similarities that exist between the home language and English, the greater the transfer (Lems, Miller, & Soro, 2010). Language development is interconnected by a positive correlation; if teachers can increase a student’s home language reading proficiency, the student’s English language reading proficiency will increase as a result (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2009). Cloud and associates (2009) further explained that “linking literature instruction in English with the home language engages ELLs in the learning process because they can demonstrate what they know long before their competence in English is fully developed” (p. 86). In addition, students who know how to read in their first language have numerous advantages when learning to read in English. According to Freeman and Freeman (2009), “Students who read in their primary language … understand reading is a process, … subconsciously use cues from the linguistic cueing systems,” and have a clear understanding of both the text’s organization and text features (p. 104). Therefore, it is beneficial to encourage ELLs to use their home language to assist with English language acquisition. When teachers value the home languages of their students, it strengthens the linguistic identities of their learners. While there are certainly students who come to school with little or no literacy knowledge in their first language, teachers can still make connections between instruction and the students’ life experiences (August & Shanahan, 2006). Although it is beneficial to link a student’s first language with English literacy instruction, the challenge for middle grades educators remains to implement this instructional task in their classrooms.

Strategies for teaching reading to middle grades ELLs

In recent years, an emphasis on higher test scores has pushed teachers to focus on best practice reading strategies. Over the last few decades, a great deal of research has been done on the effectiveness of the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model and the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) (Herrera & Murry, 2005). Indeed, both methods have proven to be valid and reliable and should be considered when planning effective ELL instruction. However, three additional methods stand out among the research as effective instructional strategies for language learners. According to the research, interactive read-alouds, comprehension strategies, and vocabulary enrichment are three categories of reading instruction techniques to consider when planning lessons for middle grades ELLs.

Strategy 1: The interactive read-aloud
According to Freeman and Freeman (2006), “effective teachers … read aloud to their students every day … whether they are kindergarten teachers or high school teachers” (p. 132). Reading out loud to middle level students might seem like an elementary level idea; however, when they read aloud to older students, teachers model the process of reading for ELLs. Calderón (2007) stated, “In secondary schools, teachers read aloud to model reading fluency and comprehension skills—not to read for the students” (p. 52). With careful planning, teachers can model the use of reading strategies, fluent reading, and careful comprehension. It is important for teachers to plan an instructional focus for their read-aloud rather than simply to read the text to the students because they are learning to read. During an interactive read-aloud, teachers make predetermined stops throughout the reading. These frequent pauses support struggling ELLs by chunking the text into manageable parts and allowing for checks in student understanding throughout the reading (Chen & Mora- Flores, 2006; Freeman & Freeman, 2006). Teachers can also build students’ background knowledge for a unit of study by carefully choosing texts for a read-aloud. With difficult text, a “read-aloud plus strategy” is often helpful. Herrell and Jordan (2008) explained that the read-aloud plus “involves the teacher reading text aloud to students while adding visual support, periodic paraphrasing, and … [an] extension” (p. 209). This can be an especially effective strategy for ELLs because it makes the text comprehensible to readers. According to Herrell and Jordan (2008), the following components are important to the effective implementation of a read-aloud plus:

  • The teacher first prereads and chooses a text, considering the vocabulary and concepts that may be foreign to students.
  • The teacher then gathers appropriate support materials (such as visuals, realia [photos or objects], or paraphrasing in simple language).
  • Next, the teacher sets the purpose for the lesson, explaining the directions to all students in a clear and concise manner, followed by the teacher reading the text aloud to model fluency.
  • During reading, the teacher needs to engage the students with the text to help students make connections between what is being read and the new vocabulary.
  • As the lesson continues, the teacher checks students’ understanding of the key vocabulary and concepts.
  • Finally, the teacher assesses student learning in a manner that is appropriate for the lesson, such as creating a visual or paraphrasing what was read.

Although the read-aloud plus strategy requires significantly more planning than just opening up a book and reading out loud, incorporating this strategy into reading instruction will greatly assist ELLs in making reading comprehensible and vocabulary understandable (Herrell & Jordan, 2008).

When choosing a text to read aloud, teachers should first consider their learners. While most middle grades students are capable of handling larger portions of text, many ELLs will need the text chunked into smaller, more manageable pieces (Calderón, 2007). In addition, successful read-alouds require practice and careful planning before instruction (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). While the read-aloud is a useful strategy for instructing ELLs, it is also a wonderful opportunity to incorporate comprehension strategies.

Strategy 2: Comprehension strategies
A great deal of attention has been given to reading instruction in recent years, and one conclusion experts have drawn is that successful readers employ the use of comprehension strategies. But what are comprehension strategies? According to Kendall and Khuon (2005), comprehension strategies include “making connections, asking questions, visualizing, inferring, determining importance, and synthesizing” (p. 5). Successful readers use comprehension strategies to make sense of the texts they read. Many teachers are highly effective at teaching mini-lessons on comprehension strategies. Yet many ELLs may not learn the strategy through mini-lessons taught to the whole class (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). According to Calderón (2007), “explicitly teaching reading … skills is just as important in secondary as it is in elementary schools, notwithstanding adaptations in delivery” (p. ix). When instruction occurs in a smallgroup setting, ELLs have more opportunities to interact with both their teacher and other students in the group in a low-anxiety environment; it is also much easier for the teacher to check for understanding and personalize instruction to meet the needs of his or her individual students (Kendall & Khuon, 2005).

One way teachers can teach comprehension strategies is through shared reading. Shared reading has traditionally been used with elementary students. However, according to Freeman and Freeman (2006), shared reading is crucial for middle grades students who find it challenging to read grade level texts. In shared reading, the teacher demonstrates fluency by reading a text aloud. The students then read the text aloud with the teacher while practicing fluency together. Teachers can also incorporate think-alouds to demonstrate the use of comprehension strategies during reading (Freeman & Freeman, 2006). As students gain proficiency with the strategies, teachers can gradually transition to a guided reading lesson with a shared reading component within the guided reading lesson. Guided reading is a beneficial teaching practice for ELLs because it focuses on vocabulary development, allows for individual instruction, and provides verbal interaction between the students and the teacher (Herrell & Jordan, 2008). Because grouping for this strategy is flexible, guided reading allows teachers to easily differentiate instruction based on their students’ needs, interests, and abilities. To implement this method, teachers select a small group of students at the same stage of development, choose a culturally relevant text to read, model fluent reading, and provide detailed vocabulary instruction (Cloud et al., 2009). While all of these methods for teaching comprehension strategies are beneficial to ELLs, it is important to choose the method that best fits the linguistic needs of the specific students being taught.

A plethora of resources is available to educators for teaching comprehension strategies (see Appendix A). It should be clarified that these strategies are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to comprehension. Many lessons that teachers already use in their classrooms can be easily adapted for ELLs, if vocabulary, reading ability, and interest are taken into consideration. Further, teachers can provide ELLs with authentic opportunities to practice English and communicate with their peers about literacy by incorporating technology into the reading classroom, such as online discussions, recording oral reading, and blogging (Aguilar, Fu, & Jago, 2007).

At the end of any reading lesson, it is critical for teachers to debrief (Calderón, 2007). Debriefing allows teachers to reinforce the key components of the strategies that were taught during the whole-class minilesson and small-group instruction. Although students can employ many comprehension strategies, if they do not, for example, understand the vocabulary words they are reading, they will not achieve comprehension.

Strategy 3: Vocabulary enrichment
Teaching vocabulary and fluency are both important parts of reading instruction for ELLs (Jiménez, García, & Pearson, 1996; Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). The type and depth of vocabulary instruction will vary from lesson to lesson based on the specific language needs of the students. At the middle level, teachers can: (a) rephrase dense text into simpler language, (b) allow students to draw pictures, (c) allow ample time for discussion about the words, and (d) provide questions or sentence stems. These are all strategies that allow ELLs to comprehend and demonstrate understanding of vocabulary (Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). It is important to note that vocabulary instruction should be infused within reading instruction and words should not be taught in isolation. Without context, students are less likely to learn and retain new vocabulary words.

Frontloading is one method for teaching vocabulary prior to the start of a lesson. Using cognates, word walls, or student-developed definitions with pictures are a few popular ways to preview vocabulary with students before they encounter the words within a reading (Cloud et al., 2009). Teachers who incorporate “realia” in their reading instruction (e.g., photos, illustrations, objects) can teach vocabulary in a kinesthetic and visual manner (Vogt & Echevarría, 2008). For example, when teaching vocabulary, educators can present a photo or model of the item being defined along with its definition. This will allow students to pair something visual and concrete with the definition to make it more meaningful. Another powerful vocabulary strategy for ELLs is identifying cognates, or words that come from the same base language and have a similar form. According to Jiménez and associates (1996), the most successful language learners read using “a variety of techniques to construct working definitions of unknown vocabulary such as using context, invoking relevant prior knowledge, questioning, making inferences, searching for cognates, and translating” (p. 100). Teachers can employ a multitude of vocabulary strategies during their reading instruction, some of which are highlighted in Appendix B.

Another vocabulary strategy teachers can employ is the use of graphic organizers to organize thinking. Using graphic organizers can be very beneficial to vocabulary instruction within the reading classroom because these tools “integrate language and thinking to highlight key vocabulary in a visual display of knowledge” (Calderón, 2007, p. 60). When teachers use graphic organizers for vocabulary instruction, ELLs benefit from the clear breakdown of the vocabulary words and their meanings. Semantic word webs, such as attribute charts, are “helpful to ELLs because they reduce the language demands while presenting information in a highly conceptual way” (Cloud et al., 2009, p. 138). Graphic organizers are beneficial for teaching difficult or abstract vocabulary concepts such as prefixes, root words, and suffixes. When using graphic organizers, such as the Frayer Model, students (a) write the vocabulary word, (b) write the definition of the word, (c) use the word correctly in a sentence, and (d) draw an illustration (Cloud et al., 2009; Vogt & Echevarría, 2008). The more tools teachers have for teaching vocabulary—whether cognates, realia, games, or graphic organizers—the more likely ELLs will successfully learn new words.

Implications and conclusion

In looking at the best methods for teaching reading to middle level ELLs, it is important to understand that a variety of program options may be available. Depending on the school district the students attend, they may have the option for English as a second language classes (ESL), bilingual classes, dual language classes, or mainstream classes (Herrera & Murry, 2005). When choosing instruction for ELLs, it is important to consider not only the students’ linguistic needs but also the students’ personal learning styles. By building on what students already know, teachers can avoid oversimplifying the curriculum for their ELLs. According to Freeman and Freeman (2006), “a skill is a strategy that has become automatic” (pp. 133–134). Ultimately, teachers can facilitate the transition between short-term comprehension strategies and lifelong comprehension skills. Another important consideration for reading instruction is that all the strategies discussed are strategies that will benefit all learners, regardless of their language needs or the programs in which they are placed. Whether reading instruction occurs in the mainstream, special education, ESL, bilingual, or dual language classroom, all students can benefit from reading strategy instruction. No matter the program, teachers should work hard to ensure that students do not ever encounter the negative school experiences that Carlos felt when he first moved to the United States. The ultimate goal is for ELLs to experience success in reading and achieve their full potential.

Appendix A: Comprehension Strategy

Appendix B: Vocabulary Strategy


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Kendall, J., & Khuon, O. (2005). Making sense: Small-group comprehension lessons for English language learners. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to English language learners: Insights from linguistics. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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Vogt, M. E., & Echevarría, J. (2008). Ninety-nine ideas and activities for teaching English learners with the SIOP model. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Watkins, N. M., & Lindahl, K. M. (2010). Targeting content area literacy instruction to meet the needs of adolescent English language learners. Middle School Journal, 4(3), 23–33.

Nicole Bolos is a dual language teacher in Crystal Lake, IL and is a recent graduate of the Master of Education in Literacy program at Judson University. E-mail:

Previously published in Middle School Journal, November 2012