Working with English Language Learners

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For students whose second language is English, learning to read in an English-speaking school may provide a unique set of challenges. English Language Learners (also called ELL students, English Learners, or ELs – you may hear all or any of these terms at your school!) are students whose home language is not English and who have not yet acquired proficiency in English. Because KOREH L.A. volunteers are working within the Los Angeles Unified School District, it is very common for our volunteers to be paired with an ELL student – LAUSD has more ELL students than any other school district in the country, with about a third of its student population classified as ELL students with over 90 different first languages spoken. About 94% of LAUSD ELL students’ first language is Spanish, however, volunteers have worked with students whose first language is Russian, Thai, Korean, Armenian, Hebrew, and more.

As a KOREH L.A. volunteer, it is not your responsibility to try to teach a student English. LAUSD has a uniformed, standardized process for identifying ELL students, notifying parents, and assessing and placing the students to give the support and services they need to help them succeed. As a KOREH L.A. volunteer, your role is to help foster a love of reading in your student, and to help make reading fun!

With that said, there are a number of strategies and methods for engaging students who are English Language Learners, as well as resources for helping to make your reading sessions both productive and fun!

Providing a Supportive Space for Learning

Many students participating in KOREH L.A., whether they are ELL students or not, struggle with some of the same challenges. They tend to be reading one or two grades below grade level, and are often shy. Younger students tend to be easily distracted, and may struggle with the alphabet and sight words, and older students tend to struggle with confidence and comprehension.

ELL students may face a variety of challenges in the classroom in addition to the ones listed above. They may become discouraged while trying to pay attention in class, or feel anxious, confused, or frustrated. Or, they may feel shy or self-conscious, especially when reading with a new person.

Therefore, it is extremely important to try to create a supportive and non-threatening environment in your reading sessions. Having the ability to make mistakes in an encouraging, supportive space can help build self-esteem and confidence, in addition to reading skills! Below are some tips for how to create an environment in your reading session that is welcoming:

  • Get to know your student. Try to find out their interests, their favorite subjects in school, and what is important to them. Something as small and simple as knowing that your student has a pet cat is an opportunity to bond with them!
  • Don’t overcorrect. Make sure that your student knows that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you make mistakes, too – in fact, everyone makes mistakes! Encourage them not to be afraid of making mistakes, but also to learn from them, and to try not to make the same ones over and over again. Make sure to give them a chance to spot their own mistake.
  • Be patient and give your student plenty of time. It might take an ELL student longer to respond to a question, and it can be intimidating or cause anxiety if you are impatient with their responses. When asking comprehension questions while reading a text, wait around 20-30 seconds before you even expect an answer – make sure to tell the student to take their time, and that you are giving them time to think about it. If it seems like they are still having trouble after the 30 second timeframe has passed, try to figure it out together.
  • Consider having a “warm-up” game or activity. Warm-up games at the beginning of your reading session can help get your student ready for your time together! Fun activities can help your student become relaxed, and put them in a positive frame of mind for your reading session! Examples of some warm-up games could be “Twenty Questions,” “Categories,” “I Spy,” “Word Chain,” “Would you Rather,” and “Two Truths and a Lie.”
  • Allow them to speak freely. In addition to modeling language for your ELL student, be sure to provide a safe space for them to practice speaking and conversational skills.

Choosing Books for English Language Learners

Like with all KOREH L.A. students, volunteers should encourage self-selected reading, which allows a student to choose books themselves on topics or subjects which especially interest them. As a volunteer reading partner, however, your guidance in choosing books that are appropriate for your student can be especially helpful in building their reading and literacy skills and helping to foster a genuine love of reading!

In the KOREH L.A. Training Packet, you can find general tips for helping to guide your student towards books that are appropriate for their reading level – with ELL students, all of these tips and techniques still apply! However, when guiding your student towards books, choosing texts and materials that are culturally relevant can be especially beneficial. This allows for students to connect to the books that they are reading on a personal level and help them understand the context of the story. Check out some resources below for help determining whether a book is culturally relevant to your student.



Colorin Colorado:

Read, Write, Think:


Bilingual books can also be an excellent choice for ELL students, and many are available at public libraries – just ask your local children’s librarian if you need assistance! This helps to push slightly outside of a student’s comfort zone, while still giving them an anchor and point of reference in the language. This also allows them to take the book home, and practice with their family!

For more ideas on book selection, visit Multicultural and Diverse Books.


Tips and Strategies for Your Reading Sessions

There are a variety of ways in which you, as a KOREH L.A. volunteer reading partner, can help make the most of your sessions with your ELL student.

  • Check your assumptions and expectations. As mentioned above in Providing a Supportive Space for Learning, try to create a space that is a welcoming and non-threatening environment. Keep in mind that ELL students might be accustomed to different cultural norms or have different expectations for what learning looks like, and what relationships with teachers, tutors, or mentors should look like. For example, they might be used to rote learning and memorization, or may not feel comfortable speaking freely. This may affect how they approach your time together, how they complete the activities you present to them, and how they interact with you. Make sure to remain open, patient, and give your student plenty of space to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes in a supportive environment.
  • Explain and/or modify your speech. Students learning a second language often understand a great deal more than may be apparent to you, so it can be useful to keep talking and explaining concepts that you are working through together, even though you may not see an immediate response. Speak slowly, but with regular fluency, and try to de-complicate certain words or phrases you may use in everyday life, particularly idioms or figures of speech built on specific cultural understandings.
  • Model language use. Language functions are phrases used for specific purposes and goals – for example, asking a question, greeting someone, or apologizing. Focusing on these functions helps to model grammar and vocabulary in real-life contexts instead of looking abstractly at grammar rules or vocabulary lists. Develop activities that require your student to engage with function-based language – for example, try to get your student to ask for an object, respond to questions, express likes/dislikes, describe a past event, describe an object or person, or give instructions on how to complete a certain task. This develops a real dialogue and conversation, and allows for your student to both hear your language and construct a response.
  • Focus on rhyming and repetition. Repetition is non-threatening and helps with pronunciation. Incorporate the same language functions, vocabulary, and sentences in many activities, and try to find books that incorporate rhyming, song-like rhythm, and repetition. This will help your student hear and learn new words, and internalize the flow of the English language.
  • Use reading strategies or choose activities that will help them develop language skills. For younger readers, this could include picture walking, or going through the book page by page and asking them to explain what is happening in each picture. By asking good questions, this encourages both comprehension and oral storytelling skills, as well as familiarizing the student with the story so that it may not seem quite as intimidating when you begin reading. For older students, consider pre-teaching words or concepts that may come up in a story. This will give a sense of comfort when encountering new words or ideas, because you will have already gone over them! It can also help solidify vocabulary and concepts. Echo reading, where you read a sentence and then have the student repeat the same sentence back to you, also builds comfort, models language, and encourages language development.
  • Engage with your student’s language and culture. Knowing another language and having a different culture are positive qualities, and that should be communicated to your student. In addition to choosing culturally relevant books, talk about cognates, which are words in different languages that share similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. For example, in Spanish, familia means family, and in French, it is famille. This is a good way to talk about similarity and differences in language, and also a way to let your student share what they know with you!

Ask an expert: What are some tips and strategies for better engaging English Language Learners?

In February 2016, KOREH L.A. had the opportunity to hear from Hilda Maldonado, the Executive Director of the LAUSD Multilingual and Multicultural Department. Here are some tips that we learned from her!

  • When starting to work with an ELL student, first try to get a sense of how proficient they are in the language. ELL students are often divided into three groups: beginning, middle, and advanced. Understanding your student’s level of proficiency will help guide your reading sessions, as it will affect how you work with your student. Keep in mind these three things when reading with and choosing books with your student: grade level, English proficiency, and number of years (or months) in the country. Many students go through a silent period when first learning a new language – and that’s okay! They are taking in a lot of new information about a new language and culture. Be supportive and patient!
  • Make sure not to teach vocabulary in isolation. ELL students need to read and be read full stories and to learn to love reading, even at the very beginning stages of learning English. Teaching vocabulary solely in isolation can deprive the student from learning contextual clues that may alter a word’s meaning.
  • Be aware of phonemic awareness and phonics (though, don’t just focus on that!) Understand that phonemes and sounds are different in different languages, and depending on what level an ELL student is, they may still need to learn certain sounds, or may find some sounds very challenging. In Spanish, for example, words almost never end in a consonant, so English words that end in consonants can be difficult for Spanish-speaking students. Some languages use a different alphabet, and depending on a student’s prior education, they might need to re-learn things such as sound-letter relationships.
  • When reading with students, work on reading comprehension skills. Ask questions about what the text is about, and check in to see if they need you to clarify anything before moving on. Asking if they need any clarification can be very helpful in providing you with insight into what they do and do not understand. Ask your students to make predictions about what will happen next, and also check in with them by asking them to summarize what you have read together so far. Make sure the student isn’t just practicing the skill of reading, but that they understand what’s going on in the text.


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Choosing Books to Read