Working with children who have had formal reading instruction in their first language

What you need to know if your student has had some reading and/or writing instruction in his or her first language.

Children reading Children who have had reading and/or writing instruction in their first language will probably be in second or third grade. They may come to the reading process having already "broken the code," or they may still be learning to read in their own language. These children know what reading is all about. They understand that texts convey information, that words are made up of individual letters which represent sounds, and that there is a relationship between spoken and written words. The task for these students will be to transfer their skills and knowledge into English. Here are suggestions for working with these students:

You can be the learner too

  • Try to gauge your students' reading level in his or her first language. (You can ask his or her teacher or parent or other relative, or you can bring a variety of reading materials such as different books, magazines, newspapers, or packaging from food or toys that are often printed in a variety of languages and allow the student to look over what you have brought.) Find two or three books in the child's native language and at his or her approximate reading level. If the child feels comfortable, s/he may want to read them to you. Listen even if you don't understand what the child is reading. Try to learn some of the vocabulary in the child's first language and play the role of the learner for a while.

Stress oral language first:

Before, during and after reading book model how you would talk about the story. For example you might say: "I think this book is going to be about a caterpillar who eats and eats and eats."

After reading a few pages of the story you might say: "I wonder why he is eating so many things?"

And at the end of the story you might say: "Oh, look, he turned into a butterfly!"

Encourage communication:

  • Write your own name down and ask the child to write his or her name. This is a skill that most children learn in school very early on regardless of their native language, and this can be a very nice beginning activity.
  • Label everyday objects that you use together or that you see, such as pencil, paper, window, and book.
  • Encourage the child to label common objects in his/her first language as well as in English.

Model good word solving skills:

  • Bring a variety of alphabet books to help students learn about the relationship between first letter sound and word, and whole word and pictures, and categories of words such as alphabet books about animals, or food.
  • Once the child has mastered some oral vocabulary, you may begin to introduce initial and final sounds or words. For example, you may point out that the word "Window" begins with a "w" sound, and a "w" sound is represented by the letter "W."
  • Use a range of different games that can help to reinforce what ever you and have been working on with a child such as: initial sounds of words, word families, or labels for common objects.

Go to the games section for more suggestions.

Keep in mind:

  • Expect that the child will use what she or he knows about his/her first language in order to learn the second language. For example, some languages do not pronounce "th" as we do, and students who see this letter combination will pronounce it as they have been taught in their own language. Be aware that a students' incorrect pronunciation or grammar in English, may reflect correct pronunciation or grammar in the students' first language.
  • Your student will make pronunciation mistakes when learning a new alphabet. Do not correct these mistakes, rather, model the correct pronunciation.
  • Be patient and don't expect your student to remember too much early on. Memorization may be difficult depending on how comfortably the child can begin to deal with two different language systems.
  • Create games for you and your student to play. Games offer many learning opportunities including: learning about rules, learning informal language that accompanies game playing, learning within a context that can be fun and encourages verbal exchanges, learning that can include other students and can help ELL students feel more comfortable with peers. Game ideas include:
    • Concentration: pairing a picture of an object with the English label for that object. (Begin with only a few objects and then build up as your student becomes more confident and has a larger vocabulary.)
    • Go Fish: using letters of the alphabet, or using words and concentrating on their initial sounds (for example: Cat, Hat, Mat, Rat, Fat).