How Learning English as a Second Language Can Impact Reading Proficiency

May 26, 2023

Learning English as a Second Language

For children whose native language is not English, learning to read in English can be a struggle. Mastering a second language can be difficult for children—especially if they are older. When non-English speaking students are still in the midst of learning English, daily classroom lessons can be a major struggle. After all, these students must learn all their core subjects in a language in which they are not fully fluent.

Teachers might understand how learning English as a second language can impact reading proficiency. English as second language (ELL) students could read below the benchmark expectations and struggle with phonics and comprehension. How can teachers (and parents) help these students?

Translators Could Help Acclimate Students

Some school districts provide ELL students with a translator to help them understand lessons so they don’t fall behind. However, not all school districts might have access to a translator and some students might be fluent enough in English that they don’t qualify for a translator.

However, just because a child can seemingly speak English doesn’t mean they are fully fluent. English is a difficult language even for individuals who have grown up speaking it. Every language, including English, has unique colloquialisms or slang phrases that don’t translate easily into another language. In addition, English doesn’t always follow precise rules. Word spelling can be confusing and sentence structure can become complicated.

Learning English as a Second Language

Tech Translates, Too

For ELL children who don’t have access to a translator, tech can be helpful. Google and other online sites offer translators or translation programs. While technology isn’t always a perfect translator, it can help bridge the gap for students who aren’t fully fluent in English.

Teachers (and parents) can help students by introducing them to these tools. However, the New York State Education Department encourages teachers to be cautious with relying too much on translators or translation services; the department explains that translation services should be a support but they aren’t a solution. In fact, the department offers a detailed presentation to help teachers understand how to support ELL students beyond translators and translations. This presentation could be helpful for teachers in other areas, too.

Learning English as a Second Language

For the Beginner Learning English Language

If kindergarteners are beginning school and aren’t fluent in English, they will learn English as their second language. However, children at a younger age might grasp a second language easier than older children or adults.

Teachers can work with the district to find resources to help early ELL students learn English and plan out strategies to help them with reading as they are gaining proficiency in the English language. Children might read a story both in their native language and in English to help them learn.

Educators might advise that students should immerse themselves in a language to help them gain proficiency; this requires hearing, seeing and speaking in the non-native language. However, this might not be the best way to help all students become acclimated to a new language.

To Learn English as a Second Language, Start with the Alphabet

For young students—especially kindergarteners—who are learning English as a second language, mastering the English alphabet is the first step to understanding the letters that make up each word; in addition, learning the alphabet also helps students hear and understand the sounds of each letter.

The English alphabet and the Spanish alphabet are different. The alphabet for Spanish includes a special character that isn’t in the English alphabet: ñ. The Spanish alphabet letters also sound different when used in a word. For example, a “ll” in Spanish is pronounced as a y. The “rr” in Spanish is a rolled ‘r’ sound. The letter ‘x’ can sound like a ‘k,’ and ‘qu’ also has a ‘k’ sound. J in Spanish sounds like ‘h.’

When learning the English alphabet and the sounds of each letter, non-native speakers could be confused. In addition, while the Spanish alphabet might only differ slightly from the English alphabet, the alphabets for other languages could be very different.

Does Television Help ELL Students?

While some parents are strict about screen time, a little television exposure might help children learn English or at least gain more exposure to the language if they aren’t fluent. Again, immersing in a language could be beneficial. Some students in college who are learning a new language watch movies or shows in the language to help them as they learn (and test their understanding).

Young children might watch educational shows on PBS like Sesame Street to gain exposure to English. In addition, many televisions allow captions to be printed on the screen to further help children see the language as they listen and watch a show.

Not all parents might be wild about turning on a television to expose their child to the English language. Again, screen time is a personal parenting decision.

Using a Reading App to Help Students Learn English Second Language

A reading app like Readability also could help ELL students who are struggling to read proficiently in English. While Readability doesn’t offer translations or specific bilingual assistance for ELL students, the program could be used as a tool to help students gain understanding of English.

Students should begin Readability at one reading level below their current level. This helps children feel more confident as they read. The program can be beneficial for ELL students as it offers a 24/7 built-in AI tutor. The tutor learns the child’s voice and is programmed with voice recognition software; children read books aloud in the program, and the tutor gradually learns how each child pronounces words.

Readability’s tutor provides help, guidance and feedback like a real tutor. If a child struggles to pronounce a word, the tutor offers assistance and encouragement. As the child reads, the tutor also gathers reading data to assess the child’s progress.

The program features numerous built-in tools that help guide the reading journey. For example, every book includes a list of vocabulary words. This helps ELL students expand their vocabulary skills; children also can tap or click any word in the story to hear the word’s definition or listen to the word used in a sentence.

Readability offers audiobook capabilities, too. Through a feature called Storytime, children can listen to their favorite Readability stories as they follow along. Hearing the story and seeing the text can be beneficial as students are learning English.

At the end of each story, the tutor also assesses the child’s understanding of what they read. These comprehension quizzes help the program measure the reading comprehension mastery of each child. However, if a child answers a quiz question incorrectly, they don’t necessarily lose points. Instead, the tutor shows them a section from the book that provides clues to help them accurately answer the question; the tutor reads the section aloud and the child is provided with another opportunity to answer the question.

Teachers (and parents) can follow every child’s progress through a private portal in the program. This portal shows the child’s current reading level, their reading fluency (measured in words read per minute), their comprehension mastery and how long they used the program.

Teachers and school districts might wonder if Readability can help ELL students in their classrooms gain reading proficiency. Schools can explore Readability via a free trial period; sign up today!