How One California School Increased Reading Success for ESL Students

June 13, 2023

Reading Success for ESL Students

An article in EdSource highlighted the successful literacy curriculum of Frank Sparkes Elementary in Winton, Calif. Half of the school’s students are learning English as a second language, and by third-grade more than half (54 percent) of the school’s ESL students hit grade-level reading benchmarks.

How does the school create a learning environment conducive to facilitating reading proficiency in children still mastering the English language? The secret to the literacy success of the students at Frank Sparkes is that teachers take a multi-modal approach to literacy. Here’s how Frank Sparkes Elementary increased reading success for ESL students and how other schools can follow their lead.

How Frank Sparkes Elementary Teaches Literacy

While the science of reading is utilized, the school places emphasis on creating a love of reading, too. The teachers at Frank Sparkes don’t simply focus on phonics and helping students learn sounds, blends and patterns, they make these lessons fun and engaging.

In addition, reading lessons at the school emphasize an emotional connection to stories. EdSource explains that when teachers read books aloud (like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), they ask students descriptive questions that help them connect to the story. The article in EdSource commented on a teacher asking students if they could “smell the chocolate.”

Phonics lessons also are integral in the literacy curriculum. However, these lessons also are immersive and engaging. Children use arm actions to help them master how “bossy E” behaves at the end of a word. As children learn through play, an engaging approach to teaching phonics can help children better synthesize and master the skills necessary for decoding words.

A Rewards System Helps Motivate Students

At Frank Sparkes Elementary, the student who reads the most books during the year wins a prize; one year, the school awarded the most voracious reader with a bicycle. While not all schools might want to create a rewards system, prizes can be incredibly motivating for children.

Even if a child doesn’t win the top prize, they score an educational win through the exposure of reading many books during the year. Encouraging children to compete can help motivate them to read more.

Some schools could offer prizes when children reach a specific reading milestone. Schools might structure their contest like a summer reading program. After the child reads a specific number of books, they might be eligible to receive an extra recess pass, a free homework pass or another prize. Teachers could structure a grade-level reading program, too.

Teachers at Frank Sparkes Elementary Understand ESL Students

The principal at Frank Sparkes Elementary learned English as a second language. In addition, grade-level teachers also are bilingual and learn English as a second language. These educators understand the struggles of their students. They also might be able to better identify what methods work best in helping ESL students gain proficiency in learning English and learning how to read fluently in English.

Many teachers at the school have taught there for many years; some have taught at the school for several decades. The article from EdSource cited the family-like community of the school; teachers have a vested interest in their students, and they likely have a vested interest in the community, too.

“We have little or no teacher turnover here. Some of our teachers are actually our former students whose parents still live in the community,” Randall Heller, Superintendent of the Minton School District explained to EdSource. “All of our principals used to be teachers here. I was a teacher here. All of our assistant principals were the same.”

Reading Success for ESL Students

Boosting Reading Scores for ESL Students

Learning English as a second language impacts reading proficiency as children must learn to decode and understand books written in English. However, teachers can implement strategies to help ESL students gain proficiency and hit grade-level benchmarks.

ESL students who read proficiently in their native language might be better equipped to learn to read in English. Encourage students to read in both their native language and in English, too.

Instruction should be leveled for each child. Frank Sparkes Elementary meets children at their level when teaching literacy; the EdSource article explained that if students needed slower-paced instruction, teachers provided this individualized accommodation.  

Focus on phonics. While teaching the science of reading is important for children to master the fundamental skills of decoding, phonics and phonemic awareness can be immersive. In fact, lessons that keep children engaged are an essential component of a successful literacy curriculum.

Help children develop an interest in books and reading. If children believe books and stories are another assignment, they likely won’t be too motivated to read at home or consider reading a form of entertainment. Encourage children to read for fun and help children understand that books are entertaining. The teachers at Frank Sparkes Elementary told students to write in a way that enabled the teacher to see the words as a television show in their mind; teachers also taught students how to invoke sensory responses as they read. For example, when a teacher read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to students, the children were asked if they could smell the chocolate.

Storytime is important for learning to read in English. Storytime or listening to stories is important to help ESL students learn English and learn to read in English, too. Encourage children to listen to audiobooks or read aloud to students.  

Teachers might need to begin literacy instruction by introducing children to the alphabet. Not all languages use the Roman alphabet. Children whose native language is French and Spanish (or another of the ‘love languages’) might not struggle much with the sounds in the English language. Although some phonemes are a bit different in these languages, many remain the same. However, other languages might be very different from English in sound and in the letters that make up each word. The Chinese alphabet is very different from the English alphabet. Some children whose native languages are vastly different from English in sound and structure will need to master the alphabet (and the sounds of each letter) before they can learn to read or learn to decode words.

Reading Success for ESL Students

Use a Reading App

For some children, a reading app like Readability could be beneficial in helping them gain confidence and hit grade-level reading benchmarks. Readability isn’t designed as an ESL reading program, but ESL students could benefit from the program’s tutoring features and guided approach to reading instruction.

Readability is leveled for each child’s reading abilities. Teachers should set the program to begin one reading level below the child’s current reading level; this helps children feel more confident. Readability includes a built-in AI reading tutor that guides the lessons and provides feedback, guidance and encouragement.

At each reading level in the program, children have a library of fiction and nonfiction books. They read these books aloud in the program; as the child reads, the tutor learns their voice and understands if the child struggles to pronounce a word. The tutor also assesses the child’s reading fluency (this is measured in words read per minute). At the end of each book, the tutor leads a quiz to gauge the child’s reading comprehension.

Each book in Readability also includes a list of vocabulary words that the child masters. In addition, the child can tap or click any word in a story to hear the definition of the word or hear the word used in a sentence.

ESL students benefit from listening to stories. Readability includes a feature called Storytime; this feature lets children listen to their favorite Readability books. They can enjoy these narrated stories as often as they like.

Teachers who are interested in using Readability with their ESL students can explore the program for free. Sign up for a seven-day trial period to learn how Readability can help ESL students gain confidence and reading proficiency.