Building on the Foundations for Reading

by Valentina Gonzalez, coauthor of Reading and Writing for English Learners

Learning to read is one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of school and education. Reading is critical and necessary for all content areas and remains critical for success after the school years. Reading allows us to continue to grow our knowledge base, increase our vocabulary, become stronger writers, speak more eloquently, and so much more. But how exactly do we build the foundations for our students to become strong readers? 

In reality, the forming of reading foundations begins long before students walk into our classrooms. Think back on how you developed literacy. Before you learn to read, you learn to speak. Before you learn to speak, you make sounds. You communicate. You learn to listen with comprehension. As young children, our oral fluency is greater than our reading ability. But at some point, there’s a shift. At first, it’s oral proficiency that strengthens reading achievement; later it swings the other way, and it’s reading that begins to promote better speaking ability (Goldenberg & Coleman, 2010). 

Students joining a class in their native language come having already acquired oracy in that language. A student joining a class not in their native language usually does not have the same acquired oracy; native English speakers who have heard and spoken English for years will have acquired oracy in English, whereas a student whose native language is Vietnamese, for example, may not have those same English language experiences, but she does have oracy in Vietnamese. This difference should not be seen as a negative. In Literacy Development with English Learners (2016), Lori Helman reminds us that “Emergent bilinguals also have a language foundation on which to grow their literacy: their home language” (p. 141) Our EL students are not entering our classrooms with blank oracy slates. Their slates are merely filled with different experiences. Adding English oracy to those slates requires time and scaffolds, particularly as our ELs are learning to speak and listen in a new language in addition to learning to read and write in it. 

What If a Student Can Already Read in Their First Language? 

English learners are not all the same. As all teachers know, each child is unique, so it’s important to know them well beyond what is found in their permanent record folder. The better we know our students, the better we can help them accelerate their language development. Some will come to our classrooms fully literate in their first language, while others will not. Some will be able to speak in their first language but lack the ability to read or write in it. Others will join our classrooms with little experience in first language literacy. No matter the circumstance, we can leverage what they bring to the table. Our first step is simply knowing what they bring. 

Students who can already read in their first language have already discovered the letter-sound relationship. They understand that sounds make words, and they know how to connect sounds to build words. They can decode. “EL students who bring literacy skills from a first language to English reading learn to read more quickly and easily than do students without native-language literacy” (Genesse et al., as cited in Helman, 2016, p. 5).

Let’s leverage students’ first languages! Literacy in any language is a stepping stone to literacy in a new language. Learning to read in a second language includes some of the same processes as learning to read in a first language. In other words, if a student can read in L1 (first language), many of the skills they have are transferable. One way we can facilitate transfer of literacy skills is to encourage reading and writing in L1 at home and at school. We can listen to students read in L1 even if we can’t understand the language. We can still learn a lot about the reader’s habits by observing their reading behaviors. 

A Focus on Foundations

In 1997, Congress convened the National Reading Panel (NRP) to review existing research on reading. The NRP was asked to determine the effectiveness of different approaches. Although not without controversy, the major findings of the National Reading Panel have stood the test of time. The NRP focused on these five areas: phonemic awareness, phonics, oral reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Let’s take a closer look at each one. 

Phonemic Awareness

“Phonemic awareness is the ability to focus on and manipulate the phonemes (sounds) within words” (Cárdenas-Hagan, p. 33). English has some sounds that other languages do not, and that offers a challenge to some ELs, especially newcomer students. For example, my parents still struggle with the “th” sound and vowels, likely because in Serbian there isn’t a “th” sound. Another difference between Serbian and English is that, in Serbian, vowels only make one sound whereas in English, vowels can make many different sounds. When we work with ELs, it helps to consider how similar their native language is to English. If the language is more similar, it might be easier for the ELs to acquire English. If the language is very different, it could be more difficult (Helman, 2016).

One way to model for and guide students in acquiring phonemic awareness in our language-rich classrooms is through Write-Alouds and Shared Writing. Both of these techniques help make foundational literacy visible to English learners within authentic learning rather than through isolation. In our book Reading & Writing with English Learners, Dr. Miller and I write that “shared writing is especially helpful for English learners and struggling readers, as it helps students hear and see words as they are written” (p. 100).


No matter how old ELs are when they begin learning English, phonics will be an important facet to their reading success. Earlier learners will receive phonics instruction in their classroom alongside grade level peers. Older ELs (such as newcomers in grades 3-12) may need targeted phonics instruction as well. 

Phonics that is purposeful, interactive, hands-on, and engaging is most effective for learners. In Appendix I of Reading & Writing with English Learners, we share several ways to incorporate phonics into authentic lessons. “Phonics is not an end in itself; it’s a tool to help students access print in meaningful ways in their world” (Helman, 2016, p. 176).

In order to decode, readers must have a grasp of letter-sound correspondence. This skill is critical for early readers but continues to be important even for proficient readers. Think of a time recently when you read something, perhaps a news article, instructions, or a legal document, and you came to a word you weren’t familiar with. What did you do? How did you tackle the word? Likely you sounded it out using what you remember about letters, sounds, blends, chunks, and patterns. Then if you hadn’t heard the word before, you tried to gather context clues to figure out the meaning, because reading is not simply decoding. Adding comprehension turns decoding into reading. 

Oral Reading Fluency

Oral reading fluency can be described as the ability to read with accuracy, automaticity, and prosody. As students become more fluent readers, they become more proficient in constructing meaning from text. The goal of oral reading fluency is not to become a speed reader. Rather, a natural rate of reading with intonation and expression that increase comprehension is ideal. “Reading too slowly or too fast can both interfere with comprehension” (Goldenberg &Coleman, 2010, p. 45). 
One way to promote oral reading fluency is through repeated reading of texts. Many teachers do this as a shared reading experience. Repeatedly reading a text as a class (shared reading) is particularly helpful to ELs because it allows students to hear their teachers and peers read, it actively engages students as a community of readers, and it lowers the students’ affective filters, creating a safe reading space. “Research shows that when children reach primary grades, repeated readings of the same picture book (at least three times) increase vocabulary acquisition by 15 to 40 percent, and the learning is relatively permanent” (Trelease, 2019, p. 5). Teachers can lead the class in Echo Reading or Choral Reading the text, which supports English learners because it provides a safe space to practice fluency, builds confidence, models prosody and English language structures, and fosters community (Gonzalez & Miller, 2020, p. 53) .


Vocabulary is an essential component to reading, as it deeps comprehension. When I was in school, typical vocabulary instruction consisted of receiving a list of words on Monday, looking up and memorizing definitions, and taking a test on Friday. Repeat. Unfortunately this model still happens in classrooms, though research shows that effective word learning is not limited to word exposure but rather includes repetition, contextualization, and authentic reasons to use the words in speaking, reading, and writing (Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2016).

Vocabulary begins with listening. We all first grew our vocabularies by listening to our caregivers. Our vocabulary banks grew, and we began to speak the words we knew from our listening vocabulary (Trelease, 2019). This is one reason Read-Alouds are excellent sources for continuing to grow students’ vocabularies. Surprisingly, picture books are often filled with low-frequency words that children won’t come across in everyday conversations. 

Two additional ways to support English learners’ vocabularies are through independent reading and word work (also known as word study). Word work can be a fun, interactive method for students to play with words, letters, and sounds while building a vocabulary bank. 

Reading Comprehension

Years ago, I had a newcomer EL from Russia in my third grade classroom. When I sat down to informally assess her, I found that she was able to decode at a second grade level, but after asking her some questions about the passage, it was clear that there was a misalignment with comprehension. Though she could decode, she was unable to comprehend the full message of the passage. 

As mentioned above, reading is a combination of both decoding and comprehension. Going one step further, reading comprehension is influenced by phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, and vocabulary. Since my student was new to the United States and had limited experience with English, she was still acquiring the language and vocabulary necessary to understand the text she read. On the other hand, a native English speaker her age might have already been exposed to this vocabulary, since they’d had more time to hear English in social and academic settings. 

While the National Reading Panel (2000) found that systematic phonics instruction does have a positive impact on reading comprehension for learners in kindergarten and first grade and for struggling readers, they also conclude that phonics should be “integrated with other reading instruction to create a balanced reading program” (p. 2-136).

How Can I Support the Foundations of Reading in Virtual Classrooms? 

No one has to remind educators of the challenges distance learning creates. What we can do is find subtle yet effective ways to make the experience work better. 

  • Gamify to increase engagement. As a people, we tend to enjoy the social aspect of games, the immediate feedback, and the challenge. Some teachers have found success with creating online lessons using BoomLearning, Kahoot, Quizlet, and other applications. 
  • Do it synchronously. Young learners and young or older English learners may benefit more from distance learning that is in unison, where students and teacher gather at the same time regularly for direct instruction, modeling, and practice. 
  • Maximize caregivers’ support. If we are in the homes for virtual learning with students and caregivers are there, let’s leverage them! Ask them to participate, engage them in lessons, pull them in if they are up for it! After all, they are partners in educating their child with us. When caregivers participate in lessons, they see and hear models of how to practice with their children.

Final thoughts…

I’ll leave you with four key questions to ponder and discuss among colleagues when you plan reading instruction for English learners:

  1. What are your goals for readers? 
  2. What are the challenges you face teaching students to read? 
  3. What are the challenges students face learning to read? 
  4. What assets do students bring as readers or emergent readers? 

Maya Angelou, the amazing poet and civil rights activist, is famously quoted for saying, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his needs, is good for him.” My hope is that we balance instruction to foster the love and joy of reading with the tools students need to be successful readers. 

Want to learn more from Valentina about supporting English learners in balanced literacy classrooms? Check out Reading and Writing for English Learners, co-written by Valentina Gonzalez and Dr. Melinda Miller, and join us for related trainings and events!

References cited in this article:

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. A. (2016). Visible learning for literacy: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning: Grades K-12. Thousand Oaks (California): Corwin.

Goldenberg, C. N., & Coleman, R. (2010). Promoting academic achievement among English learners: A guide to the research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Gonzalez, V., & Miller, M. S. (2020). Reading & writing with English learners: A framework for K-5. Irving, TX: Seidlitz Education.

Hagan, E. C. (2020). Literacy foundations for English learners: A comprehensive guide to evidence-based instruction. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Helman, L. (2016). Literacy development with English learners: Research-based instruction in grades K-6 (2nd ed.). New York,, NY: The Guilford Press.

National Reading Panel. (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel–Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Trelease, J., & Giorgis, C. (2019). Jim Trelease’s read-aloud handbook (8th ed.). New York, NY: PENGUIN BOOKS.

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