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Tips for Teaching Phonics to English Language Learners

Just like all students, English Language Learners need to learn letter-sound relationships (phonics). But when you're teaching phonics to English Language Learners, how should your lessons look different? Should they look different at all? That's exactly what we're going to explore in this post!

What's the Same?

The good news is that the same best practices for teaching phonics apply to teaching phonics to students learning English as a second (or third, or fourth!) language. Here's a quick summary of principles to follow:

Follow these principles when teaching phonics to any students, and you'll be setting yourself up for success. Next, let's discuss additional ways to help English Language Learners successfully master phonics.

What's Different About Teaching Phonics to English Language Learners?

English Language Learners (ELLs) benefit from intentional scaffolds that make it easier for them to comprehend phonics lessons, participate in lessons, learn new words, and make sense of texts. It's also important to note that these practices, while helpful for ELLs, are actually helpful for many students! So, if you're teaching phonics in a whole group setting, including to children whose first language is English, you're certainly not "hurting" anyone by incorporating these scaffolds!

Strategy #1: Use Pared-Down Language

Pay attention to how "wordy" your "teacher talk" is. It's easy to over-explain or simply talk too much when you're trying to get students to understand something. However, explicit phonics instruction is most effective when teacher directions are clear and to the point. ELLs - and all young learners - benefit when your modeling and explanations are clear and simple!

Strategy #2: Use Modeling, Pictures, & Other Visual Aids

We need to "show" as well as "tell" ELLs what we expect of them. If you want students to cover up part of a word to decode it, show them exactly how to do that. When you're having students read or spell a word that you think may be unfamiliar to them, do an internet search and pull up a picture that represents the word. When students have to complete tasks (i.e. a word sort), use clipart or photos to show them the steps of completing a sort. Of course, all students benefit from more visual demonstrations, not just ELLs!

Strategy #3: Explicitly Define Vocabulary

If you're working exclusively with ELLs, it can be helpful to reduce the total number of words you ask them to read or spell - so that you can spend a little more time teaching the definitions of those words. When you have a word that may be unfamiliar to students, don't ask them to guess its meaning. Simply define the word, show a picture if possible, and move on. Your main focus is still teaching phonics, but with ELLs, you'll want to spend a little more time helping them learn the meanings of words. Plus, knowing the meaning of a word actually increases the likelihood that any student will remember how to read and spell the word!

Here's an example of a poster from the first grade version of our phonics program, From Sounds to Spelling. Each week, you're provided with a few vocabulary posters for words that students will be practicing during the week!


Note: When working on phonemic awareness, you don't necessarily need to spend as much time defining words for students. The focus there is on the individual sounds in words, and that skillset can be practiced without students knowing the meanings of the words.

Strategy #4: Break Up Decodable Texts Into Smaller Chunks

Decodable texts are reading materials given to help students practice applying their phonics knowledge to real reading. They contain specific phonics rules / phonics patterns / letter combinations, as well as high-frequency words (common words that are sometimes called sight words), so students can practice exactly the skills that they're learning. Decodable texts are a great tool for in-context phonics practice!  

However, in addition to helping our early readers learn to decode the words in these texts, we also want to use decodable texts to build comprehension skills. (Remember, a main goal of phonics instruction is to help students learn to read - and the whole point of reading is to comprehend!) Some students may be able to read an entire text and then discuss its meaning. However, some ELLs will need more support. To help, you can break up a decodable texts into chunks. Have students read a chunk, then stop and discuss with them. If they understood this part of the text, you can have them continue reading. If not, you can provide clarification.

For this reason, it can be especially helpful to work on decodable texts in small groups. That way, you can really have a sense of whether or not students are understanding the text (this is harder to do if you're working with a large group of students).

Strategy #5: Use Sentence Starters

It can be challenging for ELLs to express ideas orally and in writing. To help with this, providing sentence starters is a good idea (these are also sometimes called "sentence frames"). Sentence starters not only help students express themselves, but they also help them learn the structure of English.

For example, if students are expected to identify consonant blends in words, you might give them the sentence starter, "The blend in this word is ___." Or, if students are discussing or writing about a decodable text, give them a sentence starter like "The problem in the story was _____."

Sentence starters can be given orally, but it's also very effective to have them written out.

โ€‹Strategy #6: Create Frequent Opportunities for Oral Language Practice

For students to learn a language, they need to actually use the language! If you are in the habit of calling on only one student at a time, consider incorporating more frequent turn-and-talks. In a turn-and-talk, you ask the class (or small group) a question, provide thinking time, and then have students respond to a partner. This gives many more students opportunities to speak than when you only call on one child. This is a great way to increase student talk time!

Strategy #7: Partner Students Strategically

Students can learn a lot from each other! Pairing an ELL with a more proficient English speaker can be powerful. The more proficient English speaker can serve as a language model for the ELL. You can partner students strategically for turn-and-talks, completing activities to practice phonics skills, playing phonics games, reading or re-reading decodable texts, and so on.


โ€‹The main principles of teaching phonics apply to helping English Language Learners learn phonics, too. The additional scaffolds listed in this post benefit students learning English, but they're also an effective way to help many other learners be successful, too!

If you're looking for a phonics program that includes many visuals and other supports that are beneficial to ELLs and all learners, take a look at From Sounds to Spelling.


Happy teaching! 

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