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Phonics Instruction for English Learners

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 2 Comments

I recently watched a video of Elsa Cardenas-Hagan titled What do we need to do to support our multilingual learners? sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education. She noted the following:

“English learners are needing to develop their second language as well as develop literacy… What we know from the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth is that those pillars that you know from the science of reading, those evidence-based practices of phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension – they apply to these students who are multilingual. However, you have to make some adjustments… understanding what is their level of language proficiency, how can you scaffold that language, and how can you further develop that vocabulary, that comprehension, while also working with those foundational skills, phonological awareness and phonics to build that fluency to get to the ultimate goal of reading comprehension.”

This post focuses on instruction of phonics for English learners, drawing from wording I am updating in the phonics module of the Keys to Beginning Reading training course. As Elsa points out, English learners benefit from the same explicit instruction of literacy skills, including phonics, as native English speakers, keeping in mind the special considerations of English learners regarding oral language proficiency, vocabulary and background knowledge, and attention to addressing new sounds (phonemes) of English. A structured literacy approach to teach phonics should be used: explicit, systematic, cumulative, and diagnostic.

Phonology and Phonics Challenges for English Learners

Review the reasons why learning phonics can be more challenging for English learners:

  • Phonemic Awareness: Some languages have different spoken phonemes than those used in English. It is sometimes difficult for English learners to develop phonemic awareness because they have difficulty hearing and saying the sounds in the English language that do not exist in their first language. Teachers should emphasize the similarities and differences between English and students’ native language phonemes. Teachers should also give more attention and practice to recognizing and producing English phonemes.
  • Sound-Letter Correspondences, Spelling: Learning how letters and letter combinations represent sounds in English is a challenge for all students because English has a complicated orthographic (spelling) system. There are over 200 ways to spell the 44 English phonemes! Some languages have a less-complicated system, where there is typically one way to spell each sound. For students who have already learned phonics for a first language that has different letter-sound correspondences, teachers need to provide explicit instruction and practice to help students learn the new correspondences.
  • Lack of Vocabulary Knowledge: When students try to apply phonics knowledge to  decode a word, the task is easier if they know what the word means. While they “sound out” a word they know, it is easier to make a connection between the letters and the sounds to read the word. English learners who do not know words they are decoding will have a more difficult time. Teachers should discuss the meaning of the words students are decoding, even the short, single-syllable words that native speakers readily recognize. Phonics instruction for all students should go hand in hand with vocabulary and comprehension instruction, but this is even more important for English learners.

Reading Skills in First Language

It will be easier to learn to read in English for those students who have phonics and reading skills in their first language. Often, if students can already decode words in their first language, they are able to reduce the amount of phonics that is needed to the extent there is overlap between the two languages. However, the amount of overlap will determine how much transfer students can derive from their first language. Many western European languages share Greek and Latin origins, providing points of transfer (similar phonemes, spellings, meaningful word parts). When the first language has less overlap with English, the opportunities for transfer are diminished. (Cardenas-Hagan, 2020)

Instructional Suggestions

The following considerations and suggestions for teaching phonics to English language learners are adapted from the Colorin Colorado website.


  • Literacy skills in native language: If a student has learned to read in their native language, they can apply the skill of matching a symbol with a sound in a new language. Students who have learned to read in their native language have an advantage because they were able to learn this concept with familiar sounds and words. Students who have not learned to read in their native language may struggle to put together the sound/symbol correspondence concept, new words, and new sounds all at once.
  • Unfamiliar vocabulary words: It is difficult for students to distinguish phonetic components in new vocabulary words. Pre-teaching vocabulary is an important part of good phonics instruction with ELLs so that students aren’t trying to figure out new vocabulary items out of context. This is also a reason that decoding “nonsense words” is not a good strategy for ELLs.


  • Help students make a connection between their first language and English: For students with native language literacy skills, help them understand that the process of sounding out words is the same across languages. (Even if students don’t have literacy skills in their first language, you may be able to point to the sounds letters make that are familiar.) Explain that some letters may make the same or similar sounds in both languages. Knowing this can help Spanish dominant students, for example, as they learn to decode words in English.Teach phonics in a systematic and explicit way: Explicit and systematic phonics instruction benefits ELLs. However, it is most effective when tied to meaningful language that students already know and when connections are made to students’ home language. If these kinds of considerations or strategies are not part of your phonics curriculum, it is worthwhile to bring this up to administrators and request additional training and professional learning from school and district leaders to support ELLs.
  • Use a word study approach: Word study is a powerful approach that connects letters, sound, meaning, word parts, and usage so that students are learning explicit foundational skills within a meaningful context. For example, ELLs need lots of opportunities to connect the sounds, letters, and words they are learning.
  • Look for opportunities to reinforce phonics in context. Using literature and content material, you can introduce and reinforce letter recognition, beginning and ending sounds, blends, rhyming words, silent letters, and homonyms.
  • Use hands-on activities to help teach letter-sound relationships: This can include using manipulatives such as counters, sound boxes, and magnetic letters.
  • Have students write for sound: Say a short sentence that includes one or more words that include the target phonics feature(s). Ask students to listen carefully and then write what they heard. This activity trains students to listen for the individual sounds in words and represent them phonetically in their writing.


  • Cardenas-Hagan, E. (2020). Literacy Foundations for English Learners: A Comprehensive Guide to Evidence-Based Instruction. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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  1. Jo-Ann

    Thank you for starting this blog. I appreciate your insight.

  2. Ross

    Thank you so much for this informative article.

    That decoding “nonsense words” is not a good strategy for ELLs is something I just learned from you.



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