How to Help Children Learning English as a Foreign Language

July 11, 2023

Learning English as a Foreign Language

Many school districts accommodate lessons for students who are English Language Learners. Some communities could have a large number of students who lack full fluency in English, and, for these students, the learning process and daily assignments can seem more challenging.

Learning English as a foreign language is not simple. While younger children could gain fluency in a second language easily, older students could have trouble as they learn to master English. In addition, teachers and parents might notice that children learning English as a foreign language struggle with reading. How does learning English as a foreign language impact reading skills and proficiency? ELL students can struggle with:

  • Vocabulary skills
  • Decoding
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reading fluency

How Language Mastery Impacts Vocabulary

Children learn new words by hearing them at home and by discovering words as they read. One study showed that a child whose parents read them five books a day started kindergarten knowing more than one million more words than a child whose parents never read to them. Hearing books read aloud and reading independently both help to introduce children to new words and ideas. In addition, children gain vocabulary knowledge through conversation and through daily activities.

Parents of young toddlers probably remember their child picking up new words and asking many questions about the world. Children learn through doing and even through play. However, for those learning a new language or students who are suddenly immersed in lessons taught in a foreign language, mastering the vocabulary of a new language can be challenging. Children need to learn the words from a new language that correlate to the same objects, feelings, places and ideas of their own language.

Reading fluency and reading proficiency requires that children have a mastery of vocabulary skills that correlate to the benchmark expectations of each reading level. If a child doesn’t understand a word, they can miss the meaning of a sentence or a major plot element. Lack of vocabulary mastery can lead to decreased reading comprehension.

Learning English as a Foreign Language

Decoding in Another Language Poses Unique Challenges

Each language has a unique code. The code that allows readers to decipher the words of any language is known as the alphabet. The English alphabet is similar to the Spanish alphabet; however, the English alphabet is very different from the Chinese alphabet. The ‘love language’ (e.g. Italian, Spanish and French) and the English language alphabets are all derived from the Roman alphabet.

In order to learn a language, children must learn the code of the language. They need to master the letters of the alphabet and the sounds of those letters. For ELL students, phonics lessons could be crucial to helping them gain mastery of letters, patterns, sounds and sound blends. Once children understand the ‘code,’ they can begin to decode each word.

The code is complicated by another factor: language structure. The structure of sentences differs per language. For example, in English, the adjective is placed before the noun but in Spanish, the noun is placed before the adjective in a sentence. Verb conjugation also is designed differently in each language. When learning a new language, children must master an entirely new structure and even different linguistic rules.

Problems with Decoding and Vocabulary Can Lead to Comprehension Barriers

If a student doesn’t have a full grasp of the letters and sounds of the English language, they will struggle to decode words, read sentences and determine the meaning of what they read. In addition, a lack of vocabulary mastery also can impact overall understanding leading to a drop in reading proficiency.

Learning English as a foreign language requires children to master the English alphabet and the sounds of each letter, but children also have to learn the rules of sentence structure, verb conjugation and vocabulary, too. If a child lacks mastery in any of these skills, their reading proficiency and fluency could be impacted.  

Challenges with Reading Fluency

Reading fluency is measured in words read per minute minus any errors. Fluency denotes how precisely and easily a child can read. A low reading fluency could indicate that the child struggles to decode the words they are reading.

For children who are learning English, problems with decoding might impact reading fluency. However, children who are learning English as a second language might be struggling to master the alphabet and its sounds. The English alphabet could be vastly different than their native language alphabet.

Learning English as a Foreign Language

Strategies to Improve Reading Skills for ELL Students

Teachers and parents might notice that children who are learning English as a second language are struggling to read at grade-level and meet appropriate benchmarks. One strategy that parents can use to help children on their reading journey is to encourage children to read in their native language; children who can read in their own language might find that learning to read in English is easier.

In addition, Reading Rockets explains that teachers can help support ELL students by using audiobooks. Hearing the book (and perhaps following along) could be beneficial for students as they learn to master the English language.

Phonics lessons can be a crucial component to the reading journey for ELL students, too. As Reading Rockets explains, children whose native language isn’t supported by the Roman alphabet might need more support in learning the English alphabet and understanding the sounds and letter patterns.

To support reading comprehension, teachers (and parents) also could encourage children to utilize visual tools like graphic organizers and reading comprehension bookmarks. According to Reading Rockets, “Visual depictions of information allow ELLs to better understand the material while learning important vocabulary.”

How Can a Reading App Help Children Learning English as a Foreign Language?

Children who are learning English as a second language might need more support at home. While teachers and school districts might be prepared to provide guidance for these students in the classroom, children also need help at home as they learn to master a new language and gain reading proficiency in this language.

A reading app like Readability isn’t designed specifically for ELL students, but the app can help these students feel more confident reading in English and help them build fluency and proficiency, too. Readability offers an AI reading tutor built into the program; this tutor learns and recognizes each child’s voice. Since lessons via Readability require children to read books aloud, the tutor listens for a change in the child’s voice that indicates they need help. If a child stumbles on a word or cannot pronounce the word, the tutor guides them and helps them sound out this word.

The tutor also gathers information as the child reads aloud. The tutor measures the child’s reading fluency and leads a comprehension quiz at the end of each book. Children can only advance to a more difficult reading level if they demonstrate mastery in both reading fluency and reading comprehension.

Vocabulary skills also impact reading comprehension. At each reading level in the program, children have access to a library of books; each book has a list of vocabulary words that the child should master. In addition, children can tap any word in the story to hear the word’s definition or hear the word used in a sentence.

ELL students also can benefit from listening to audiobooks. Readability offers a feature called Storytime; this feature allows children to hear their favorite Readability books read aloud to them. Storytime is another resource ELL students can use to help them better understand and master the English language.

Parents who want to help their children with reading at home can explore Readability for free. Sign up for a free seven-day trial to discover all the features of the program and learn how it can make the reading journey easier for ELL students.