Teaching Techniques to Scaffold Reading for English Learners

by Valentina Gonzalez

reading scaffolds

“Learners who know the language can concentrate on the academic content. But learners who do not know the language, or do not know it well enough, must devote part of their attention to learning and understanding the very language in which the content is taught” (Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010).

Imagine that for a moment. Let it soak in. If you didn’t yet know a language well enough, you would need to spend energy understanding the very words and not just the reading. Maybe you’ve experienced this before. It’s a literal struggle, trying to decode and put together sounds, then figure out and translate the words. One. By. One. This can take a toll on a person! 

Now imagine a child doing this daily. Or for that matter, doing this all day long. Picture a newcomer in a high school biology class at the end of the day. If they are new to the language, they will most likely have to translate complicated text word by word after having spent every previous class that day translating each word. To help students, we can adapt and scaffold reading instruction to fit their unique needs. 

The National Literacy Panel (2000) identified phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing as the five key components of literacy. With these components in mind, let’s look at a few scaffolds (temporary supports meant to be gradually released) for reading that may work to enhance English learners’ success with comprehension. 

These reading scaffolds can be implemented in any grade level and content area through whole group, small group, or individual settings for differentiation: 




Chunking is a technique that breaks larger reading texts into smaller portions for students. When texts are dense or lengthy, they can seem overwhelming. By breaking them down into smaller pieces, we help to lower students’ anxiety. Think of a large pizza. Would you eat the entire pizza in one bite? Probably not. It’s sliced for us to hold a piece at a time. Then we take small bites from that one piece. It’s manageable that way. Chunking texts is especially useful in areas like social studies and science, where text has the tendency to be vocabulary heavy. 

Adding in opportunities to talk makes content even more comprehensive. For instance, a routine such as Nancy Motley’s Talk, Read, Talk, Write offers students chances to access prior knowledge and build background before reading. Students discuss with a group or partner. Then students read a text with a purpose for reading that is given to them by the teacher. Once everyone has signaled that they are finished reading, they participate in structured discussion again. And finally students write about their reading while using the discussions they’ve had to support their thoughts. Teachers can chunk reading even more for students who are at beginner levels of English proficiency: talk, read, talk, read, talk, read, talk, write.  


Shared Reading


Shared reading (Holdaway,1979) is the act of reading together in unison as a group. All students have access to the text. Shared reading is not just for elementary levels. In primary grades, teachers may read from big books, but in secondary classes, shared reading can be poetry, brochures, an excerpt from a chapter, a paragraph, song lyrics, etc. Teachers can provide each student with a copy of the text or can project the text on a screen for everyone to see. First the teacher models expectations by reading the text. Then the teacher invites the class to read together. This oral reading practice provides students with an opportunity to gain fluency in a risk-free setting. Everyone is reading aloud. Shy students can listen and read aloud as they feel brave enough, and more vocal students gain practice, too. Students benefit from practicing intonation and appropriate rate of speed. 

Three ways to differentiate shared reading are Echo reading, Choral reading, and Reader’s Theater. 

  • Echo Reading is perfect when students need to hear the teacher model each sentence first while they are tracking print. Then students repeat the sentence. This technique is best for students at beginner proficiency levels or when a new language structure is being shared. 
  • Choral Reading is a typical shared reading experience in which students and teacher read in unison, often with the teacher tracking print. English learners gain fluency and benefit from the low-risk environment. They have the ability to listen and join the reading at their comfort level. 
  • Reader’s Theater is an excellent method to use with students after they have had a chance to hear a text in its entirety. Reader’s Theater can be done by dividing a text into parts and assigning students or groups to read certain lines or paragraphs. English learners benefit from rehearsal time with the lines or paragraphs they will read aloud to the whole group. Some teachers ask students to create props for their characters or parts. Acting out a story is both enjoyable and engaging for students as they participate in listening, speaking, and reading with expression.

 Adapted Texts



Adapted texts are texts that have the same content but are at different reading levels. Using adapted texts helps English learners continue to learn content while they are learning English. Many teachers create their own adapted texts, which allows them to control the vocabulary that is embedded. However, creating adapted texts does take time. There are also many online platforms that offer adapted texts such as Newsela, Newsinlevels, and Wordify


Partner Reading


Providing time and space for students to read together, or partner read, supports English learners with reading comprehension, listening, and speaking. Peer-to-peer interaction is important for English learners’ language development. Partners usually read the same text and hold their own copies. In primary grades, and many times in secondary too, students are more successful when the teacher offers explicit modeling of expectations ahead of time. For example: 

“During partner reading, I’m looking for partners who are sitting with their knees close to touching. You will take turns reading a page. After your partner reads, you will share what the main idea of their reading was. I’m listening for sentences like: ‘The main idea was…’ or ‘I didn’t understand…’” 


Primary Language Support


When I was an ESL teacher, the students I taught spoke Korean, Urdu, Japanese, Russian, etc. I was not able to speak all of their languages, but I could still provide primary language supports. I provided my ELs with bilingual dictionaries and taught them how to use them. We also worked hard at valuing all languages. It was important for me to show my ELs that the literacy they had in their primary language was valuable and useful as they acquired English. We labeled the classroom in the students’ home languages. I also made it known to them that continuing to read, write, and speak in their primary language was important, and so I encouraged them to read books in their primary language. Anytime we had extra funds, I asked to purchase books in our students’ primary languages for the library. 

Another way to include primary language support is through preview-review. This technique is sometimes referred to as preview-view-review and takes only a few extra minutes before and after a lesson (Wright, 2015). It has been found to be effective in increasing comprehension, especially for students at beginning levels of English proficiency. Preview-review includes providing students with primary language support before and after a lesson or a read aloud. Let’s look at a classroom example: 

The second grade class is preparing to learn about living and nonliving things. The ESL teacher gathers English learners prior to the lesson to preview in their primary language. She asks them what they know about living and nonliving things. They discuss and make a chart in their primary language. The teacher reads a short passage and checks for comprehension, and then they return to the whole group. 

The mainstream teacher conducts the whole-class lesson on living and nonliving things in English. The teacher shelters instruction to ensure that ELs comprehend the lesson. She uses repetition, visuals, and gestures. Then she sends them off to read and write with a partner in English. 

Following the English lesson, the ESL teacher pulls the ELs back together once again to review what they learned in their primary language. This is an excellent opportunity to clear up misconceptions. 

Note that, In this example, the ESL teacher is able to speak the students’ primary language. But that is not always the case. It is suggested that if the teacher cannot speak the students’ home languages, a same-language-speaking paraprofessional can provide the preview-review. 

The bottom line of all this is that, when students enjoy what they are reading and they understand what they are reading, they will feel successful. The more often this feeling occurs, the more they will want to read, and the more their comprehension will increase.


3 thoughts on “Teaching Techniques to Scaffold Reading for English Learners

  1. This article is just what I was searching for. Differentiation during shared reading can be difficult and overwhelming for teachers. This article really breaks down and makes shared reading comprehensible for me as the coach and as a teacher in the classroom. Bravo!


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