Literature Review

There is general agreement that becoming a proficient reader in a second language is a difficult task. Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) and August and Hakuta (1997) underscore the enormous cognitive challenge faced by young ELLs who must acquire oral and literacy skills in English simultaneously. ELLs who are already literate in a home language are able to transfer some of their skills for use in English reading (Garcia, 2000), but that does not imply that learning to read well in English will be an easy task. Reading involves the use of both "higher level cognitive knowledge, ... abilities... and learning strategies," as well as "low level linguistic knowledge and processing strategies" (Birch, 2002, p. x). Throughout the elementary grades, ELLs are likely to encounter difficulties with both "high" and "low" levels of the reading process, especially as they tackle increasingly complex readings (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998).

Knowledge of the relationships between sounds and letters is essential for learning to read English (Ehri, 1998). Verhoeven's (1999) work cautions teachers that it is unrealistic to expect ELLs to decode words independently until they are familiar with the sound system of English. To help ELLs become adept at using sound-letter relationships, Birch (2002) recommends practice in a variety of tasks: identifying a particular phoneme in words, discriminating between that phoneme and similar ones, linking the sound to the printed letter, visually discriminating the letter from other visually similar letters, recognizing and printing the letter in both upper and lowercase forms, finding the letter at the beginnings and endings of words alone and in connected text, and drawing things that begin with the letter and labeling them (p. 72). Other teaching suggestions include: playing games with rhyming words and alliterative words to develop students' awareness of how sounds combine to form words (Antunez, 2002; Kaufman & Franco, 2004), and, in the case of Spanish-speaking ELLs, building upon the similarities and differences between the sound systems of the two languages (Helman, 2004).

Many researchers point out the difficulty of comprehending text when one has a limited vocabulary (Verhallen & Schoonen, 1993; Garcia, 1991; McLaughlin, 1993; Jimenez, Garcia, & Pearson, 1995, 1996). ELLs of any age often know too few words or only a single meaning for a word. McLaughlin et al. (2004) have had promising results in increasing ELLs' vocabulary knowledge through an intervention that pre-selected challenging and high-utility words from a reading selection. The intervention involved direct teaching of word meanings; teaching and raising awareness of words with multiple meanings; systemic teaching of word analysis skills including roots and affixes; engaging students in word games, riddles, and other activities designed to promote deeper understanding and use of the words in new and meaningful contexts; and finding the words outside of school. The intervention also focused on increasing Latino students' awareness of Spanish/English cognate words and ability to use cognate recognition as a legitimate and productive comprehension strategy.

Several researchers have documented that ELLs benefit from cognate recognition training (García & Nagy, 1993; Durgunoglu et al., 1993). Kress (2002) contains a useful reference list of Spanish-English cognates. Similarly, Au (1993), Nagy (1988), Dixon and Nessel (1983), and others recommend that teachers integrate vocabulary instruction with content instruction and with story reading. Hickman et al. (2004) describe a successful approach to teaching vocabulary to primary-grade ELLs during storybook reading. The approach involves careful selection of several storybooks or informational texts that focus on a theme of interest to the students in the class and are at a reading level above students' grade level. Teachers carefully select from the texts those vocabulary words that students could encounter and use in other contexts. Over the course of five days, the class previews the story and the vocabulary words, and the story is read aloud, discussed, re-read, and summarized. Discussions focus on using the vocabulary words and encouraging children to relate these words to their own life experiences.

Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) and Carrell (1983, 1984)have demonstrated the positive impact that prior knowledge of a topic or situational context has on ELLs' reading comprehension. However, stories and other texts often contain cultural contexts and assumptions that are unfamiliar to young ELLs and make comprehension difficult or impossible. Researchers advise teachers to support comprehension before students read by eliciting and building upon ELLs' prior knowledge and experiences relevant to story theme, setting, and content. Many researchers also support the value of teaching content reading strategies such as previewing a chapter before reading it and formulating questions, self-monitoring, and using imagery during reading (Carasquillo et al., 2004; Chamot & O'Malley, 1994; Echevarria et al., 2000; Schifini, 1994). Researchers agree that teachers should model and support comprehension before, during, and after reading by teaching text structures; using graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, cause and effect charts, and story maps; and creating study guides that students can complete (Carasquillo et al., 2004).

One recommended approach to increase comprehension and engagement is the use of culturally relevant texts and multicultural literature (Au, 1998, 1993; Barrera, 1992; Harris, 1994). Larrick's 1965 landmark article, "The All-White World of Children's Books" (reprinted in Muse, 1997) pointed out that minority children had few opportunities to read about characters like themselves or see themselves in these books. In Larrick's review, these children's books often depicted those minority characters in offensive or demeaning ways. More recently, Singer and Smith (2003) pointed out that:

Multicultural children's literature provides self-affirmation for readers when it conveys that people like themselves have lives worth knowing about and worth sharing with others (Bishop, 1997; Tenorio, 1994). This is particularly significant for readers who are members of marginalized groups. (p.17)

Daphne Muse's book, Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (1997), contains an extensive annotated bibliography of such literature likely to engage ELLs readers and to build upon their experiences and prior knowledge.

Students' knowledge and experience are the starting points for The Language Experience Approach to reading, used with beginning English readers of all ages (Moustafa, 1987; Tharp & Gallimore, 1989; Tinajero & Calderon, 1988). Through questioning, teachers prompt students to speak about their individual or in-class experiences. The teacher writes down students' oral narratives, and the resulting text becomes the basis of reading instruction. Often teachers plan a group activity (e.g., taking a walk) to provide a common experiential base for reading.

Hoggard's 1996 review of the "critical attributes of classroom culture" for ESL literacy learners includes "the teacher as guide," "meaningful literacy experiences, a sense of ownership," "a community of learners," and "interactive classroom discourse" (pp. 5-9). Other researchers have also highlighted the importance of student participation in conversations that relate book themes to students' personal experiences and to other books. The instructional conversations (IC) approach is one way of structuring such book-centered interactions. Teachers promote general participation in small-group discussion by not calling on children but waiting for them to volunteer to speak, by responding to student contributions, and by encouraging students to connect their comments to those of previous speakers and build upon what they said (Rueda et al., 1992; Saunders & Goldenberg, 1999). IC also promotes skimming, scanning, and careful reading by requiring students to find text passages that support their opinions and interpretations (Goldenberg, 1991, 1992/1993; Goldenberg & Gallimore, 1990). Literature circles are another discussion format that promotes comprehension and academic language in a social context. Ruby (2003) discusses their effectiveness when properly scaffolded for English language learners. Gordon (2003) offers another good example of how teachers can effectively use literature response journals with English language learners.


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Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 20, 297-319.

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Barrera, R. B. (1992). The cultural gap in literature-based literacy instruction. Education and Urban Society, 24, 227-243.

Birch, B. (2002). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bishop, R. S. (1997). Selecting literature for a multicultural curriculum. In V. Harris (Ed.), Using multiethnic literature in the K-8 classroom (pp. 1-19). Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Carrell, P. (1983). Background knowledge in second language comprehension. Language Learning and Communication, 2(1), 25-34.

Carrell, P. (1984). Schema theory and ESL reading: Classroom implications and applications. Modern Language Journal, 68, 332-43.

Carrell, P., & Eisterhold, J. (1988). Schema theory and ESL pedagogy. In Carrell, P., Devine, J., & Eskey, D. (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 73-89). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Carasquillo, A., Kucer, B., & Abrams. R. (2004). Beyond the beginnings: Literacy interventions for upper elementary English language learners. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Chamot, A. C., & O'Malley, M. J. (1994). CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive academic language learning approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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Droop, M., & Verhoeven, L. (1998). Background knowledge, linguistic complexity, and second language reading comprehension. Journal of Literacy Research, 30(2), 253-271.

Durgunoglu, A., Nagy, W. E., & Hancin-Bhatt, B. J. (1993). Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(3), 453-465.

Ehri, L. C. (1998). Grapheme-phoneme knowledge is essential for learning to read words in English. In J. L. Metsala & L. C. Ehri (Eds.), Word recognition in beginning reading (pp. 3-40). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., Short, D. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP Model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Garcia, G. E. (1991). Factors influencing the English reading test performance of Spanish-speaking Hispanic children. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(4), 371-392.

Garcia, G. E. (2000). Bilingual children's reading. In M. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, D. Pearson, R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Volume III. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

García, G. E., & Nagy, W. E. (1993). Latino students' concept of cognates. In D. J. Leu & C. K. Kinzer (Eds.), Examining central issues in literacy research, theory, and practice. Chicago: National Reading Conference.

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Goldenberg, C., & Gallimore, R. (1990). Meeting the language arts challenge for language minority children: Teaching and reaming in a new key. Progress Report, University of California Office of the President, Presidential Grants for School Improvement Committee, Los Angeles.

Gordon, T. (2003). "Romeo and Juliet come to New York": Integrating reading and writing through literature response. TESOL Journal, 12(3), 49-50.

Harris, V.J. (1994). Multiculturalism and children's literature. In F. Lehr & J. Osborn (Eds.), Reading, language, and literacy: Instruction for the twenty-first century (pp. 201-214). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Helman, L. (2004). Building on the sound system of Spanish: Insights from the alphabetic spellings of English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57, 452-460.

Hickman, P., Pollard-Durodola, S., & Vaughn, S. (2004). Storybook reading: Improving vocabulary and comprehension for English language learners. The Reading Teacher, 57(8), 720-730.

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Jimenez, R. T., Garcia, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1995). Three children, two languages, and strategic reading: Case studies in bilingual/monolingual reading. American Educational Research Journal, 32(1), 67-97.

Jimenez, R. T., Garcia, G. E., & Pearson, P. D. (1996). The reading strategies of bilingual Latina/o students who are successful English readers: Opportunities and obstacles. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 90-112.

Kaufman, D., & Franco, L. (2004). What's different about teaching reading to students learning English? McHenry, IL: Delta Systems.

Kress, J. E. (2002). The ESL teacher's book of lists. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McLaughlin, B. (1993). Myths and misconceptions about second language learning: What every teacher needs to unlearn. Santa Cruz, CA: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.

McLaughlin, B., August, D., Snow, C., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., White, C., Lively, T., & Lippman, D. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 188-215.

Moustafa, M. (1987). Comprehensible input plus the language experience approach: A long-term perspective. The Reading Teacher, 41(3), 276-286.

Muse, D. (Ed.). (1997). Multicultural resources for young readers. New York: The New Press.

Nagy, W. E. (1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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Tenorio, R. (1994). Race and respect among young children. In B. Bigelow, L. Christensen, S. Karp, B. Miner, & B. Peterson (Eds.), Rethinking our classrooms: Teaching for equity and justice (pp. 24-28). Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools.

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Verhoeven, L. (1999). Second language reading. In D. Wagner, R. L. Venezky & B. Street (Eds.), Literacy: An international handbook. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.