25.  When is an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) student ready to begin reading?

The answer to this question depends on two factors: (1) The AGE of the student and (2) whether the student is already literate in (h)is/er own language.

  1. The AGE of the student is a very important factor in learning to read in the primary or the second language.

A young student, pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten, first or second grade ESOL student, is ready to begin reading in English the moment the student has learned to understand and speak any English words or expression. For example, in my own classroom I always greeted students at the door, saying "Good morning!" We would practice saying our greetings with other students present or arriving at my first-second grade combination class. The moment a student who was learning English, an English Language Learner, ELL, would come in and greet me –giving me evidence (s)he understood the function of the greeting—I would flash at the student a sentence strip that read "Good morning!" and from then on, I would always greet and flash to the student the greeting. We also learned to say "Good bye!" and the moment my ELL’s would use "Good bye!" appropriately, I would also flash at them a sign with the printed expression. I would do this activity constantly, with all classroom objects, with commands and expressions I would use in the classroom for daily routines. My classroom routines, after students could verbalize them, were all printed on sentence strips and displayed in clear plastic sentence strip holders, or were posted on charts in the classroom. Whenever I would implement the routines, all my students, including my ELL’s, had the opportunity to read the posted routines BY SIGHT.

To obtain evidence of reading BY SIGHT, sometimes I would greet my students in the morning flashing at them the "Good bye!" or "Good afternoon!" or "Good evening!" strip. Students would correct me, indicating the sign did not read what I was saying.

From the many signs I had in my class, from sentence strips, from posted routines or instructions, and AFTER STUDENTS GAVE ME CLEAR EVIDENCE OF READING BY SIGHT WITH FULL UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT THEY WERE READING, then and only then would I begin to point out similarities in spelling patterns: Good in "Good morning!," "Good afternoon!," and "Good evening!" We would build many other sentences with Good and many of the other posted words.

Concurrently with this type of activity I was helping ALL my students build a very large oral language vocabulary, through pictures of the real objects or actions they were learning to name. I would group the pictures by meaning categories, for example: colors, parts of the body, actions we perform with different parts of the body, animals, types of dwellings, names of utensils we use for cooking, clothing for the different seasons, etc. Also I would group pictures by a characteristic, for example, "purple things," "round things," "things we can hear," "living and non-living entities," etc. AFTER STUDENTS WOULD GIVE ME EVIDENCE THEY UNDERSTOOD when I used these words, and they USED THE WORDS CORRECTLY IN SPEAKING, I would prepare flash cards to place on top of the posted pictures. All the pictures for these activities were brought by the children from discarded magazines that many of my neighbors donated to my class.

At the same time these activities were progressing in my class, I was also building on phonograms OF WORDS THEY COULD UNDERSTAND, SPEAK AND READ BY SIGHT only. For example, they had learned to recognize, understand, say and read by sight the name of the color Pink. They could recognize Pink as a characteristic in a huge collage we had done with pictures of pink things. They also recognized, understood, said and read by sight words like sink, wink, blink, stink. These printed words were grouped together for students to begin to see "word families."

Because in my class I had many Spanish-speaking students, and due to the fact that English and Spanish share thousands of cognates, that is, words that sound similarly, are spelled similarly, and have similar meaning in both English and Spanish (e.g., "class"/CLASE; "animal"/ANIMAL, etc.), I emphasized all of these words through pictures and through printed flash cards, always writing the English words in one color and the Spanish words in another color to help students understand in which language they were observing the words.

I read many stories to the students, FIRST LOOKING AT THE PICTURES, AND TALKING ABOUT THEM. When the students, especially the ELL’s, could tell me ORALLY the story using the many vocabulary words introduced through pictures, then it was time for me to "READ" the story with the words the author had written. By now, ALL the words used in the story were fully understood and used in speaking by ALL the students. The story was understood completely the very first time I "READ" it. Words from the story printed on flash cards were provided for the students to find them in the book and match them with the book pictures and with the printed words in the book.

Along with these many activities, I also introduced, USING PICTURES ONLY, the many initial sounds of English words. This activity to practice phonemic awareness NEVER INCLUDED PRINTED WORDS. It was done exclusively through pictures. The sound-symbol (letter) correlation of initial/middle/final sounds in English words is very poor. Too many initial letters represent the same sound, while at the same time one single letter serves to represent many sounds. Phonemic awareness, then, should never include the printed form of a word, only the picture of what the word represents accompanied by the corresponding oral expression of the word. These pictures would be grouped under a key picture that served to remind students of the SOUND the names of the pictures had in common.

Many of the activities described above included writing opportunities. Writing was always interrelated to reading as students wanted to copy word families, copy words grouped by meaning, copy words from collages and other displays, write their own thoughts, etc. Dictation to the teacher and reading back what the student had dictated were also activities used in my class.

Many of the activities described above are also effective activities for OLDER learners. The key idea in beginning reading with older ESOL students or older ELL’s, is to remember that a student can never read at a level higher that (s)he speaks. Thus, there should be no reading until the student –ANY STUDENT, BUT ELL’S IN PARTICULAR-- has provided evidence of UNDERSTANDING the topic (s)he is about to read, evidence of LISTENING WITH UNDERSTANDING when the teacher speaks or reads about the topic, evidence of APPROPRIATELY USING IN SPEAKING the words (s)he is about to read, AND evidence of RECOGNIZING all words from flash cards or categories or groupings PRIOR to the reading. Recognition and understanding of the concept expressed by the words, listening, speaking and visual recognition of the printed words MUST PRECEDE reading from a textbook or a reading selection.

(2) Is the ESOL student or ELL literate in (h)is/er own language?

A student who already reads in (h)is/er own Primary Language (L1) is a student who understands what reading is all about. That student only needs to know how you go about reading IN ENGLISH. If the student’s L1 is a language that uses the same letters or symbols as English –for example Spanish, French, Portuguese, and many other languages that use the Roman alphabet for writing, learning to read in English may be an easier task than if the student’s L1 uses other types of alphabets or symbols, like Korean, or Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages of the world. Students literate in these other languages may need an extended period of time to learn to recognize and write the letters of the Roman alphabet used in English.

Literate students tend to be older and have developed the understanding that print is a representation of speech or thoughts. They now need to know how English represents speech or thoughts in print.

The key idea in beginning English reading for ESOL L1-literate students or L1-literate ELL’s is that understanding of a concept (through L1, if needed) must precede listening in English with understanding, speaking in English about the concept, and recognizing the printed English words that are used to read and write about the concept. Thus, (1) understanding, (2) listening, (3) speaking, (4) development of vocabulary including oral and printed vocabulary words, (5) reading and (6) writing represents the most effective sequence of steps in learning to read in English for ALL students, and especially for L1-literate ELL’s.

Teachers, thus, need to provide plenty of visuals, manipulatives, realia, opportunities for listening, speaking, and vocabulary development BEFORE they ask an L1-literate ELL to attempt reading or writing in English. These students need also to become aware of word families (pink, sink, wink, etc.), spelling patterns (homonyms [bore/boar], and heteronyms [tear/tear], homophones, homographs [bow/bow], etc.), and irregular patterns of words (swim/swam, come/came, etc.)

For L1-literate ELL’s who speak, read and write languages that share with English thousands of cognates, teachers should take advantage of this commonality and extensively introduce, practice, and develop the vocabulary of cognates, especially in science, mathematics, music, the arts, etc.




For more in-depth information, classroom demonstrations, and "coaching" of new and/or experienced teachers, Dr. CARMEN SANCHEZ SADEK offers:

1. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
2. Cross Cultural Diversity - Multicultural Strategies
3. Effective Instruction for English Learners (L.E.P. students) Parts 1, 2, 3, 4
4. Promoting Academic Success in Language Minority Students
5. Cognitive - Academic Language and Vocabulary Development
6. Oral Language / Literacy Skills / Higher Order Thinking Skills
7. 50/50 Dual Language Programs: design, planning and implementation
8. The Structure of English / The Structure of Spanish
9. Transition: Introduction to English Reading

Web Site Programs for Teachers: Numbers 1, 5, 7, 8, and 9.
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Identifying / Responding to Students' Language Needs
Phonemic Awareness: Teaching English phonics to L.E.P. students
Relationship Between Reading, Writing and Spelling
Improving Reading Performance -- Building Oral Language Skills)

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