Finding the Right Starting Point for ELLs

How could a student be in ELL classes for six years and not know how to read?

Well, at first it seemed like she could read. If you gave her a text filled with high-frequency words, you would have thought she was reading (at least I did). Then I asked her to read through a few short non-sense words and came to a different conclusion. Immediately I realized that she couldn’t decode words. If “decoding” is a strange word to you, I simply mean she wasn’t “sounding out” the individual letter sounds and consonant blends. The reason she seemed to be reading at first, is because she had memorized the sound and appearance of certain high frequency words. The teachers in her classes assumed that she was a regular Low Beginner student in their ELL class and started instruction at the wrong place.

The Impact of the Wrong Starting Point

Starting at the wrong level doesn’t set students up for success because they are constantly being asked to do things they can’t do. The result is like running on a treadmill. You are moving quickly and working hard but never moving forward. A skilled teacher that gives sheltered instruction and scaffolds concepts in a variety of ways can read a wide audience. But can they reach far enough to extent to a student with a decoding gap? I don’t think so and here is why.

Stunted Vocabulary Growth

A pre-decoding student often has not past the one true stage of reading development–the point where words change from being pictures into groupings of little sound units that they put together to make meaning. One massive consequence of this void is a delay in vocabulary building. When someone learns to decode, the world around them comes alive with words. The possibilities for gathering words are endless. Decoders begin to notice words on traffic signs, billboards, posters, brand names and store names. Words that were static images in the past are suddenly full of meaning.

For non-decoders, the phonological landscape is barren and the impact on their learning is colossal. A decoding gap can put language acquisition in a hold pattern for several years–like it did for my student. Not because students aren’t working hard to learn language, but because they missed the moment that holds the keys to an exponential explosion of language. As a result, they are left to the dismal alternative of memorizing vocabulary words one-by-one.

Syntax Confusion

Another predicable result of this decoding gap was increased difficulty to organize words at the sentence level. You and I read words as little building blocks, like pieces of lego put together in different constructions. We categorize different words and get hints at their meaning by paying attention to the little parts. You see the word submerged and think, “Adding ed to this verb will turn it into the past tense. It has the prefix sub on the front of it so it probably means under.” By looking at the word ending, you can also guess that its a verb. You intuitively the verb in its spot behind the subject in a sentence. All of these cues are absent when you have a decoding gap. You don’t understand words as building blocks of sound or meaning. You are lost.

Blinded by Speed and Pressure to Graduate

Many primary teachers who have taught Grade One will immediately understand this difference and it’s impact on the learner but encountering it with ELL students in high school is different. It’s assumed that students intuitively understand the sound to symbol relationship at a secondary level because they have already learned at least one language. Its also easy to ignore a significant literacy gap in a fast-paced high school where there are increased pressures to graduate and attend select colleges and universities. Further, those who are new to language learning may not possess the tools to identify these learning gaps and take the necessary steps to intervene. In the paragraphs below, I will outline a few different ways to identify a decoding gap.

Story of an L1 Literacy Gap

Many newcomers to Canada are not completely literate in their first language and it’s great first clue that a decoding gap exists. For example, one day I had a Arabic speaking student who was having trouble with a short piece of English text that I gave to the class. I translated it for him with an iPad and watched to see if he would be able to read the translated text. He looked confused so I took him aside and asked him to read the Arabic words aloud. I don’t speak Arabic but I was listening for fluency. After he struggled through the first sentence, it was apparent that he couldn’t read Arabic. Later, I had a settlement worker confirm this for me. This was my first clue that this student would be starting at completely different point than the rest of the class.

Strategies to Identify L1 Literacy Gaps

Other strategies to identify an L1 literacy gap are:

  • Asking the student directly if they can read and write in the first language using a translation device.
  • Asking a trusted student, settlement worker or multicultural worker who shares the same first language if they are able to read and write their L1
  • Giving the class a list of simple English nouns and encouraged them to translate them into their first language, if some of them can’t do it may be because they can’t write in their L1.

Strategies to Identify Decoding Gaps

An alternative step for identifying decoding gaps is using some form of English reading assessment. Here are a few the assessments that I have found useful:

  • Ask the student to decode a nonsense word list and listen to see if they know vowel teams, individual letter sounds, consonant blends, common word endings etc.
  • Have them read through the graded word list in the Jerry John’s Reading Assessment. Some of the words may be sight words (or memorized words) for them but unfamiliar words may also hint that they having a significant decoding struggle.
  • Word Their Way has a spelling assessment that may also help shed some light on sounds and blends that they are struggling.
  • Just Words also has a WADE assessment that I’ve heard is really good but I haven’t got a chance to try it yet.

Exploring Solutions

Once you have identified a decoding gap, there needs to be a meaningful literacy intervention made. As hard as it is to believe, an L1 illiterate (or non-decoding) may not be ready for a typical Low Beginner ELL class. That isn’t to say that they couldn’t benefit from it. However, to be successful they will also need to work on phonological awareness.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working with the wonderful Helping Teacher in our district and several colleagues to determine helpful interventions to this decoding gap in high school. There are so many programs out there that address decoding for primary-aged children but not as many for adults. The best resource that I have found for high school students is Just Words. It is an awesome program to use with a small, pull-out group. I haven’t used the program myself yet, but I have read through many of the materials and am looking forward to trying it with some students at my school.

Where will I find time?

“Where will you find the pull-out time?” you may ask. That is an excellent question–one that I can’t answer. I only know that there should be a moral imperative that drives every teacher to make room for students that need help.

Share Your Solutions and Strategies

If you happen to be reading this post and have some advice on how to address the kind of literacy gap, in teenagers or adults, please leave me a comment. You can also send me a message at: Even if you have an experience that relates to this one, I would love to hear how you are trying to address it in your classroom.

Since writing this blog post, I had the privilege of speaking with Carol Salva on her Boosting Achievement ESL Podcast! Carol is such an amazing host. Even though we were in different parts of the globe, she made me feel like I was sitting by the fire in her living room. If you’re interested in digging deeper into this topic, grab a coffee, sit back and take a listen. I should also mention that Carol’s website is a great resource for ELL strategies and resources.

Header photo by Hello I’m Nik 🍌 on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Finding the Right Starting Point for ELLs

  1. Susanna says:

    Sadly this situation is not limited to ELLs (see link below). I’ve had success w Orton Gillingham’s Recipe for Reading…once my older students who are ELL and do NOT have additional learning challenges like dyslexia get through ALL the lessons up to the end of syllable types in 15-30 pull-aside sessions, they do quite well and can transition to Word Their Way… As we learn the phonics, when applicable, I have older students relate it to their more challenging class/content vocabulary (

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jtmayer says:

      Susanna, thanks for sharing from your experience. I’ve heard about the Orton Gillingham programs but don’t have much experience using them. I’ll definitely check into it. I also really enjoyed reading the article you linked. It has some excellent points to consider for anyone teaching reading.


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