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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 … 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

  • 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 ,
    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


Allen, J.


Tools for teaching content literacy.

Portland, ME:

Aguilar, C. M., Fu, D., & Jago, C.

(2007). English language learners
in the classroom. In Beers, G. K., Probst, R. E., & Rief, L. (Eds.),

Adolescent literacy: Turning promise into practice

(pp. 105–126).
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

August, D., & Shanahan, T.

(Eds.). (2006).

Developing literacy in
second-language learners: report of the National Literacy Panel on
Language Minority Children and Youth.

Mahwah, NJ: Center for
Applied Linguistics.

Calderón, M.


Teaching reading to English language learners,
grades 6–12.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Chen, L., & Mora-Flores, E.


Balanced literacy for English
language learners, K–2.

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E.


Literacy instruction:
English language learners.

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Collier, V. P., & Thomas, W. P.

(1989). How quickly can immigrants
become proficient in school English?

The Journal of Educational
Issues of Language Minority Students, 5

, 26–38.

Cummins, J.

(1979). Linguistic interdependence and the
educational development of Bilingual Children.

Education Paper Series, 3

(2), 27–34.

Cummins, J.

(1981). Empirical and theoretical underpinnings of
bilingual education.

Journal of Education, 163

(1), 16–29.

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E.


Teaching reading and writing
in Spanish and English in bilingual and dual language classrooms.

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Freeman, Y. S., & Freeman, D. E.

(2009). Effective reading
instruction for English language learners. In Z. H. Han &
N. J. Anderson (Eds.),

Second language reading research and
instruction: Crossing the boundaries

(pp. 102–116). Ann Arbor,
MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Herrell, A. L., & Jordan, M.


Fifty strategies for teaching English
language learners.

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Herrera, S. G., & Murry, K. G.


Mastering ESL and bilingual
methods: Differentiated instruction for culturally and linguistically
diverse (CLD) students.

Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Jiménez, R. T., García, G. E., & Pearson, P. D.

(1996). The reading
strategies of bilingual Latina/o students who are successful
English readers: Opportunities and obstacles.

Reading Research
Quarterly, 31

(1), 90–109.

Kendall, J., & Khuon, O.


Making sense: Small-group
comprehension lessons for English language learners.

Portland, ME:

Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M.


Teaching reading to
English language learners: Insights from linguistics.

New York, NY:
Guilford Press.

McLaughlin, M., & Allen, M. B.


Guided comprehension: A
teaching model for grades 3–8.

Newark, DE: International Reading

Robb, L.


Teaching reading in middle school: A strategic approach
to teaching reading that improves comprehension and thinking.

York, NY: Scholastic.

Samway, K. D., & Taylor, D.


Teaching English language
learners: Strategies that work.

New York, NY: Scholastic.
United States Department of Education. (2010, May). The
condition of education 2010. Retrieved from

Vogt, M. E., & Echevarría, J.

(2008). N

inety-nine ideas and activities for
teaching English learners with the SIOP model.

Boston, MA: Pearson

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

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

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Best Way to Teach Child to Read, Help My Child Learn to Read, How to Teach Phonics to Children, Phonemic Awareness Research, Teach Children Letter Names & Sounds, Teach Your Child to Read Early, Teaching Children Reading at Home, Teaching Children to Read and Write, Teaching Phonemic Awareness, Teaching Phonics to Children


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