Reading Teacher

Science of Reading for English-Language Learners: Where Are We Today?

Time to pick some apples: this week, we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week 2022. In honor of their efforts, we’re highlighting the commitment of teachers to a specific group of young readers: students who are learning English as a second language. Teachers face the dual challenge of crafting reading lessons that incorporate the science of reading and the unique needs of English-Language Learners students (ELLs), also called English Learners/ Emergent Bilingual (EL/EB) students. Today, we question whether - and how - the science of reading can work for ELLs and consider how schools and educators can best support them.

science of reading for english learner

Science of Reading for ELL Students


As of 2022, at least 17 states now encode the science of reading into law. While this is a positive step toward reading success for all students, many of these laws fail to address how revised literacy curricula will support ELL students. Partially in response to these legislative changes, the National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) was formed in February 2022 to answer a pressing question: where do English learners need more tailored reading support relative to native English speakers?


A foundational 2006 report by the National Reading Panel indicated that the five essential components of reading - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension - were useful for a majority of students and had “clear benefits” for ELL students. Relative to native English speakers, ELLs are likely to need more opportunities to speak English, listen to other English speakers, and practice their vocabulary and syntax. Language researchers emphasize the need to discuss the meanings of words with all students, but especially those learning English. English is a notoriously tricky language, and words with multiple meanings - “run,” “park,” “date,” and “play,” just to name a few - will need to be reviewed frequently with ELL students in both reading and speaking formats.

reading books

Reading Strategies and Resources for ELL Students


In an idealized classroom, early reading instruction would combine the five essential components of reading with additional support from trained bilingual intervention teachers. In consideration of budget and staff constraints, however, this scenario is not possible in many elementary classrooms. Despite the barriers faced by both students and educators, our three takeaways highlight the advocacy, reading materials, and overall mindset that teachers can adopt to provide high-quality reading instruction to EL/EB students.


  1. Support dual-language programs. Research suggests that teaching students to read in their first language can actually enhance their English reading skills and their sociocultural development. In terms of their accessibility and curricula, many dual-language programs are still in their infancy; nevertheless, the rise of bilingual programs creates more opportunity for students to thrive as readers and writers in their native, non-English language(s).
  2. Recognize that literacy is not just about phonics. Holistically, reading and writing empower students to express themselves and understand their environments and peers more deeply. As they learn to express themselves and understand others through creative collaboration and conversation, a student’s world can expand through the acquisition of vocabulary and overall confidence.
  3. The Internet is a resource. While your school may not offer or be a part of a dual-language program, this does not mean that EL/EB students are left behind. The digital NCEL publication dives deep into effective literacy education for English Learners. NCEL and other online ELL resources offer strategies to support ELLs in the mainstream classroom, with a continual emphasis on comprehension: both on the page and in verbal communication with peers and teachers.
science of reading for elementary students

To our reading teachers: we wish you a happy Teacher Appreciation Week 2022, and another year of guiding all students - English learners included! - to reach their reading goals.

To our reading teachers: we wish you a happy Teacher Appreciation Week 2022, and another year of guiding all students - English learners included! - to reach their reading goals.

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