It is no secret that the new Language curriculum in Ontario places a strong focus on the development of foundational literacy skills. In response to the new curriculum and the Right to Read report, elementary schools across Ontario have been engaged in utilizing resources, such as the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI) Foundations, that focus on the explicit development of decoding skills. These resources work by teaching students the different letters and letter combinations that make different sounds in English. In most cases, they would be used from grades 1-3, when children are in the throes of learning how to read.

Given the effectiveness of such resources, many educators of multilingual learners have started to use the same strategies as part of ELD (English Literacy Development) programs. Students that receive ELD program adaptations have 2 or more years of interrupted schooling for reasons such as crisis or political conflict. Because many students in ELD programs have not had the opportunity to develop literacy skills in their home language, resources that teach decoding would seem to be ideal.

But are such resources appropriate for emergent speakers of English in ELD programs? Aren’t they primarily designed for students that already speak English?

Like so many other things in life, the only way to find the answer is to experiment, explore, and of course make mistakes along the way. I was pleased to discover with so many colleagues in different schools that teaching foundational decoding skills to students in ELD programs does work – but it is important to keep some important factors in mind.

Here are some key takeaways I have gathered from using foundational literacy resources to teach students in ELD programs.

Provide Opportunities for Newcomer Students to Build an Oral Foundation in English

If you are using decoding resources with newcomer students in ELD programs, be mindful of the cognitive load they have of learning to read in English while also learning the language. Decoding resources focus on sound and letter combinations, not communication and comprehension.  A lot of resources that teach decoding skills presume that the student is already familiar with the sounds and words of English.

Newcomer students are still in the process of building their speaking and listening skills in English, and need time to orient themselves in their new learning environment and develop social communication skills through play and interaction with other students. They should have exposure to the sounds of English and opportunities to build an oral foundation at the same time, if not before, they start learning English sounds and alphabetic code.

Adjust the Pace of Instruction as Needed

When working through a program like UFLI Foundations it can be tempting to move quickly to stay within the suggested time frames. With ELLs, you will want to be flexible and provide additional time for students to build vocabulary as they experiment with reading new words. Have a laptop or tablet with search engine at the ready for a quick visual dictionary. Ask students if there are words they do not know yet, and take the time to show them the meaning and practice using them in sentences. Again, be mindful of how different the cognitive load will be for early speakers of English, and stop the lesson early if it seems appropriate.

Use Decodables Strategically

When you use decodable books with ELLs, be sure to use ones that are illustrated for meaning-making. Some decodables on the internet are text only, which limits opportunities for vocabulary acquisition. The experience of reading even a decodable text can also be brought to life when the content reflects information or experiences that are familiar to newcomer students. I read a decodable with a newcomer student in an ELD program recently and she was excited to see pictures of seagulls. It turned out that when she first moved to Canada she went to Lake Simcoe with her family and watched seagulls at the beach. Connecting that experience to the book made the reading much more enjoyable and meaningful for her.

Leverage Your Students’ Oral Foundation in the First Language

Like any other language, English may have sounds that do not exist in others. English also has sounds that can be heard in other languages. For example, Spanish speakers have a rolling “r” sound that is not used in English, but both languages have a “d” sound. When practicing phonemes with newcomer multilingual learners, check to see if the same sound exists in their home language by asking the student or checking a resource like Some students may need additional practice saying sounds that are new to them.

Literacy is Empowering at Any Age

Many students in ELD programs tend to be older students (grade 3 and up). Students in the intermediate grades can feel self-conscious reading books that are designed for much younger learners, or learning concepts they perceive to be inappropriate for their age. A tutorial (one-to-one) or small group support model is much more conducive to teaching foundational literacy skills to older students. Furthermore, there are some publishers like Saddleback that have decodable texts that are designed for older learners. If you do not have these books at your school, consider using decodable texts with a non-fiction theme.

In my board we have many success stories of intermediate aged students in ELD programs learning decoding skills that have shared how impactful the instruction has been. These students similarly express the joy and excitement of being able to read a word “without looking at the pictures,” or feeling confident about spelling.

Summing it Up

Teaching English decoding skills through foundational literacy programs is a powerful way to accelerate learning for students in ELD programs. However, it is important to be flexible in your approach and to understand that their learning experience will be significantly different from their peers.

Finally, always keep in mind that students, particularly those in ELD programs, bring a variety of background experiences before entering the classroom. Newcomer students that have experienced separation, political conflict, extraordinary stress, and other traumatic situations may need to focus on other areas of orientation and development to be available for learning. Be in touch with settlement workers and staff that can help connect students to resources to support their social and emotional needs.


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