Reading and Writing Skills for Beginner ELL Students

There is debate whether or not to teach beginner students reading and writing skills before their oral language has developed. I say yes! Go for it! Even though my ESL students did not know any English, I began teaching them letter names, sounds, basic sight words as well as phonological and phonemic awareness skills from the very beginning. Since the ESL teacher’s goal is to catch ESL students up to their peers as quickly and effectively as possible, there is no time to waste! Also, I never encountered any problems with teaching all four skills right from the beginning. In addition, oral and written language often overlap since beginners are reading and writing simple sentences that reflect how we speak. For example, ESL students can learn common sight words from the simple sentences they learn from grammar instruction such as I, am, is, are, come, from, can, like, have, etc. In addition, students read these words in simple texts at their instructional reading level as well as write these words in writing pieces.

Bilingualism/Multilingualism: Literacy and Bilinguals

If you have a bilingual child, what is the best way to develop their literacy skills in both languages?  There are a variety of  programs for learning to read and write in both languages.

The dual language model is where both languages are used for literacy instruction and development throughout the day. 

The immersion bilingual education program is where children learn to read in their second language before they learn to read in their native language.  Literacy in the native language is added to the child’s education and not replaced. 

Another program is the opposite of the previous model.  Children develop their literacy skills in their native language first and then develop literacy skills in their second language.  Educators who support this model claim that it is easier to understand texts in a language that you already know and understand. 

The goal of these models is additive bilingualism where a second language is added to the child’s native language without replacing their native language.

Research has concluded that literacy skills in a student’s first language is a strong predictor of their development of reading skills in their second language.  The more literacy skills a student has in their first language, the easier and quicker it will be for that student to acquire literacy skills in English.  If a child understands the concepts of print and uses comprehension strategies (scanning, skimming, visualizing, using background knowledge, making inferences, etc.) in their native language,  the child transfers these literacy skills from their first language to their second.  Many educators believe that because of this research, it may be more effective to develop the child’s literacy skills in their native language first and later on, develop the child’s second language literacy skills.   

Reading and writing skills need to be explicitly taught, especially the differences between the two languages.  The child’s writing system in their first language and whether or not the child’s first language is a literate language may affect the ease and rate at which English literacy skills are acquired.    

An important point to language success is language development.  The more a parent develops their child’s native language in all four domains (speaking, understanding, reading, and writing), the more successful the child will be in acquiring a second language.  

Incorporating All Four Language Skills

Effective English language teaching involves incorporating all four language skills (reading, writing, listening, understanding) into a lesson. Including culture is important as well. For example, when I would teach food, I would teach the student food vocabulary words as well as the phrase “I like” for learning grammar. We would discuss food that the student likes. This includes foods from their native culture and how they eat food (hands, chopsticks, on the floor) to tie in the student’s culture. We would then read texts about food that are at the student’s instructional level (practicing decoding, sight word recognition, and comprehension skills). We would then write about the foods that the student likes applying the grammar structure “I like”. The student sometimes put a pattern breaker at the end of their book stating what the student does not like, adding interest to their book while learning about pattern breakers.


Receptive and Productive Skills

There are two aspects of language:  receptive skills and productive skills.  Knowing about receptive and productive language enables you to understand the natural process of language development.

Receptive skills include understanding and reading the English language.  Receptive skills pertain to receiving information. When a student is spoken to, the student is receiving what the speaker is saying by listening to the speaker and understanding the speaker.  The student is listening to the person’s speech and observing their body language to understand what the person is communicating.  The same is true for the reading process.  When a student is reading, the student is receiving information such as letters, sight words, punctuation, etc.. Receptive skills are easier, and therefore faster, to acquire than productive skills.  In other words, typical ESL students will develop understanding and reading skills easier and faster than speaking and writing skills.

Productive skills include speaking and writing the English language. Productive skills refer to producing or expressing language or information.  When a student speaks or writes, the student is producing or expressing information.  Producing information is much more difficult than receiving information.  Therefore, productive skills are more difficult and slower to develop than receptive skills.  Writing skills in particular are the most difficult skills to learn and will be acquired last.

It is important for parents and teachers to know this natural process, so they are able to exhibit understanding and patience when a child is speaking or writing (or when evaluating a presentation or writing piece).  Knowing about receptive and productive skills can alleviate a parent’s or teacher’s confusion and/or frustration when, for example, a child has stronger reading skills than writing skills and stronger understanding skills than speaking/expression skills.

What do receptive and productive skills have to do with identifying an ESL student with a learning disability?

It is important for ESL teachers to understand how typical English language learners develop language skills.  It is necessary for ESL teachers to know that their students will develop understanding and reading skills faster than speaking and writing skills and to not, for example, misdiagnose an ESL student having a speech and language disability because their speaking skills are not as fully developed as their understanding skills.  Knowing about receptive and productive skills is helpful when identifying an ESL student having a reading disability.  An indication of an ESL student having a reading disability could be that their reading skills have developed much slower than their other skills.  This is atypical of English language development and could be a sign that the ESL student may have a reading disability.

Personal Experience:

I had a student whose understanding and speaking skills were much more fully developed than his reading and writing skills. Since understanding and reading skills are acquired faster than speaking and writing skills, this student was developing his English language skills in an atypical way than most ESL students.  This child entered the school district in kindergarten, was in the second grade, but reading at the kindergarten level.  Again, reading skills are acquired at a faster rate, so this discrepancy would be atypical of an ESL student.  ESL students who begin their education in kindergarten would typically be reading at grade level or close to grade level by the second grade.  Because I knew about productive and receptive skills and the natural process of English language development, I was able to identify a reading disability.  The student received special education services for reading in addition to his ESL services.