Teaching Reading if English Isn't the First Language (Ages 4 to 8)

Teaching Reading if English Isn't the First Language (Ages 4 to 8)


This blog post is specifically for teachers teaching reading to children from 4 to 8 years whose first language is not English.

You'll learn about

These are considered the "essentials" of reading instruction, which became common knowledge after the US National Reading Panel reviewed some research.

Most studies seem to agree that it isn't so much the method of reading instruction as the amount and consistency of whatever approach you choose. It's also evident that the more complex the language, the more direct instruction is needed to learn to read.

Now, in countries around the world, English is often a second or third language. This poses a whole new set of challenges to English Language Learners (ELL), which we'll discuss here.

Basic Techniques

First, a quick dive into general language learning:

Any and all languages are developed according to the same general pattern. Knowing this pattern can help with teaching ELLs, because often you're not just teaching reading, but actual language skills as well.

The sequence of development can't be changed, shortened or rushed. It is influenced by a child's experiences, environment and, for second languages, affected by the first language skills.

Second, reading is the ability to look at and comprehend the meaning of written or printed matter. This is important to keep in mind.


To be able to read well, children have to know a lot of words. The ideal is to make as many words as possible into "sight words" - words you can recognise on sight (i.e. without having to mechanically read them).

Sight words affect fluency and comprehension and are greatly determined by a child's vocabulary:

Our brains work by association. New knowledge and concepts are connected to existing bits. Every spoken word a child knows can easily be connected to the matching written word.

However, if they don't know a word, they not only have to learn the written and spoken word, but also its meaning(s), uses, pronunciation and nuances.

In a child's mother tongue, they have a good four to six years of complete language immersion before being introduced to reading. So, they know all the words meanings, inflections, declinations, uses, etc. For ELLs, they often have to learn to read while learning English.

(Side note: children have it a bit easier if they are already reading in their first language.) 

So, building vocabulary is vital to teaching reading to ELLs. Spend a lot of time on songs, rhyming, word games and stories for general vocabulary. You can use a 3-Period Lesson to teach specific words.

Phonemic Awareness

Phonemic awareness is the skill to distinguish units of sound in a language. You know how Chinese sounds like one connected string of sound to English speakers? That's because they haven't learned to be aware of Chinese phonemes (the smallest meaning-determining unit in a language).

Phonemic awareness in one language is both hindered and helped by phonemic awareness in another language.

It's hindered because sound differences between languages may make it more difficult for children to hear certain sounds in the second language (like l and r in Ovambo or Japanese).

It's helped because those sounds that are the same don't need to be relearned.

So, each teacher has to take into account their children's language backgrounds while teaching English and tailor supplementary activities to focus on sounds they may struggle with.

Incidentally, the activities that build vocabulary also develop phonemic awareness (because the child hears and reproduces English sounds). You can add tongue twisters, puns, and word family games to your vocabulary activities to specifically target phonemes.

English has 44 phonemes (individual sounds). Try our I Spy Mats and Reference Poster for learning those made by letter combinations or weird spelling rules.


Phonics are the sounds that letters and letter combinations correspond to. Italian and German, for example, are very phonetic languages - each letter or letter combo represents only one sound. Easy, right?

English... not so much. See the poem below.

To teach phonics to ELL/ESLs, you need to simultaneously develop language understanding so their ability to decode words doesn't exceed their ability to comprehend the words.

Pro tip: If English isn't your own first language, you're going to have to make sure that your pronunciation is up to scratch!

Start with the most commonly used phonemes first. That's the phonetic alphabet and then phonograms such as "ch" and "oo". You should spend a lot of time on phonics and make sure to show your students that we read words for their meaning, not just their sound.

Activities to build phonic skills are 

  • 3-Period Lesson to teach letter-sound correspondence
    • Make sure the child has enough phonemic skills (pronunciation and distinguishing of sounds) to easily pronounce the letters
    • Introduce continuous sounds first (m, l, s, etc.)
    • Introduce vowels second, then plosives (b, p, g)
    • Introduce letters in groups that contain sounds and letter shapes that are as different from each other as possible (pair a, m, t, s)
  • Matching words to pictures and objects
    • Start with 3-letter consonant-vowel-consonant words, like "man" (continuous initial sounds first - "man" before "pan")
    • Explicitly teach blending or "sliding" sounds together to form a word 
    • When you get to phonograms and digraphs, teach the most common phoneme first
    • Explicitly teach the different letter combinations that can make a certain sound
  • Silently reading, then acting out words and phrases

Using the Montessori Method, children are normally taught writing before reading. This is firstly because children aged 3-4 years are still developing their muscles and stereognostic (coordinative) memory skills. For them, learning how to form letters is just another movement, like learning to navigate stairs. Older children's muscle memory is already formed and learning a new skill - like letter formation - is now a conscious effort.

Secondly, writing makes use of "encoding" skills - that is, translating spoken words to written symbols. Encoding is a synthetic skill. That means it builds up. Reading - decoding - on the other hand is analytic, it breaks down.

Dr Maria Montessori reckoned that people who build things have a much deeper understanding of their intricacies than people who tear things down. Do you agree? To practise encoding skills, try let your child build words (provide objects or pictures to start with) with moveable letters.

You can have a look at our Phonogram/Green Reading Picture Cards here.


Fluency is the ability to read freely, in a state of flow and without having to stop. It can only be achieved if the child can recognise many words by sight and quickly decode unknown ones.

So, before even thinking about worrying about fluency, make sure you cover your basics.

Then, encourage reading different formats, fonts and genres for a variety of purposes to make reading fun and meaningful.

Try our Green Reading Series to extend your child's reading skills once they know the alphabet!


To understand the written text is the ultimate goal of reading. Comprehension is aided by fluency because being able to read smoothly makes it easier to string together phrases and generate meaning.

It's also affected by the size of the child's vocabulary - the more words they know, the more likely they are to understand what they're reading.

To target comprehension during reading lessons, aim for higher order thinking.

  • Ask children to remember facts about a story
  • Let them act out parts of the story
  • Encourage them to write a spin-off or follow-up story
  • Teach them how to identify cause and effect

Let's Sum This Up

English is a complex language to learn, but it's easy to use once you have the basics. You've seen today that language learning cannot be rushed (native speakers have twelve years!) and that reading in a second language needs to be accompanied by vocabulary and phonemic skills in that language.

Children under 4 have the benefit of being in a sensitive period for language, so they pick up phonemes and vocabulary fairly quickly. They are also not yet conscious of the fact that they don't understand this different language, and much less inhibited about learning and participating.

Children above 8 are usually literate in their first language already and can consciously apply such knowledge to learning to read in English.

Children between 4 and 8 years are in an odd space: they quickly catch on that they might not be able to do something, they don't necessarily have previous literacy skills to draw upon and they may be learning to read in two or more languages.

It's important to know the best practices for teaching reading, and even more important to be patient and allow time for the intrinsic work of phonemic awareness.

Focus on vocabulary and phonemic skills. Teach phonetic letter sounds and explicitly point out different phonograms and digraphs. Foster a general culture of reading in your classroom and above all, don't make reading a chore.

A Word on Montessori Reading

Dr Montessori (The Advanced Montessori Method Vol. 2) suggested that when learning to read, children should start from phonetic words (that sound exactly like they are written) and then work towards weird spellings and phonograms.

Many Montessori schools use a pink, blue and green series, which breaks this approach down into purely phonetic consonant-vowel-consonant words like cat (pink), still phonetic words with blends like drum (blue), and phonogram words like chess (green). Additionally, they use 3-Period Lessons to teach sight/puzzle words (words that can hardly be decoded).

To put together a reading program is a massive amount of work. Here are some Montessori companies who have done the work for you.

One Tree Montessori: Green Reading Series

This PDF printable is available for USD 49.99 if you buy the bundle. Each activity set is available to purchase individually.

Our Green Reading Series covers 23 phonemes using 35+ phonograms and includes over 660 unique words. It comes with a Master List, student placement & tracker as well as labels for all activities.

The activities are sequenced and include I Spy Mats, Phonogram Cards, a Reference Poster, Sound Sorting, Picture Cards, Word Lists, Phoneme Books and Interpretive Reading Cards.

Buy it here.

Absorbent Minds Montessori: Green Series Phonics Reading Cards

Also a PDF printable, this is available for USD 5.99. It includes 16 phonograms, with 6 pictures per sound and 27 reading lists (10 words per list).

Buy it here.

Cathie Perolman: Phonogram Reading Materials

This PDF set costs between USD 30-35. It covers 18 phonograms with picture cards, one-word booklets, word lists and sentence cards for each of them. A student tracker is included.

Buy it here.

Hardcopy Reading Series

No time to print? No problem - have a look at these providers:


ETC Montessori

Childrens House

Disclaimer: The prices and links were correct at the time of publishing. Please report changes or broken links to admin@onetreemontessori.com. The links on this page are NOT affiliate links and I do not receive any compensation when you purchase through them.

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