Phonics for English Learners?

  • 15 July, 2017

Teacher question: 

I am interested in understanding how phonemic awareness and phonics can support students who do not have a structure for learning the English language. For example, English Language Learners who have no structure for language in their home language or in English. If you can suggest resources that address this matter, I would be so grateful.  

Shanahan response:

The research on these aspects of second-language literacy learning is limited. However, the work that has been done indicates that English learners benefit from explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics for English reading (Shanahan & Beck, 2006).

That shouldn’t be surprising. No matter what your background, if you are trying to learn to read English, you will have to learn to decode. You’ll need to learn to perceive English phonemes in oral language, the relationships between letters and sounds and spelling patterns and pronunciations. (If we are speaking of non-readers, this need would be true at any age level).  

However, such instruction tends to have a smaller impact on overall reading achievement (e.g., reading comprehension) than is the case with first-language learners. Phonics instruction helps one to translate from print to pronunciation. If you don’t know the meaning of the word you have translated, then pronouncing it properly won’t increase comprehension.  Native English-speaking children are likely to know the meanings of more English words than will their English Learner classmates, so phonics has a bigger positive impact for them (phonics helps, just not as much).

Second-language learners, like all learners, bring knowledge with them. I’ve written before about my experiences in teaching myself to read French. My knowledge of the sound-symbol relationships in English is helpful because I can often apply my knowledge of English to French. Take a word like, “danse.” Except for the medial vowel, all the sound-symbol relations are the same as in English… and the replacement of the /ah/ sound for the “short a” sound is not jarring or foreign to my English ears. Reading a word like “danse” is easy for me because I can still make use of my knowledge of English phonemic principles and sound-symbol relations.

What you know in your home language can be helpful.

It can also be misleading. When I was first learning French, I would read a word like “ecoutent” as AY-COO-TAHNT… what I assumed to be the French pronunciation of those letter combinations. However, that isn’t actually how the French pronounce that combination of letters. What they say is more like, “AY-COOT.” In English, we pronounce those last letters, but in French, not so much. I had to learn to swallow most final consonants in my approximation of French pronunciation.  Generalizing from my home language boosts my decoding ability in some cases, and it misleads me in others. Fortunately, it has been more of a help than a hindrance.

The same is true with students who speak other languages. The more similar a home language is to the one you are trying to learn, the more transference that is possible. I can translate much English decoding to French, and I’ll do reasonably well. That kind of transfer would not be possible with Arabic or Russian (since their scripts are not the same as in English). The greater the differences between the languages, the more the learner will have to deal with to learn to read the second language.

You write that these students have no “structure for language.” I suspect that you mean they come to school not being literate either in their home language or in English. If a Mexican youngster can’t read Spanish, then he won’t be able to transfer those common sound-symbol relations from Spanish to English. But that doesn’t mean that he or she couldn’t learn to hear the English sounds or to decode with them. (That’s why some authorities argue for teaching children to read in their home language: it should be easier to learn the language that you speak and then to transition from that written language to written English. Research suggests that can be helpful, though not necessary).

Even when students aren’t literate in their home language, they may have relevant knowledge to bring to the task. For example, phonemic awareness is the most transferable aspect of language. If youngsters can hear the sounds within words in their home language, they should be able to hear those sounds within English words. Of course, there are languages that lack some of the English phonemes (Japanese doesn’t have “l” or “r”), or some sounds may be combined with other phonemes in ways that we don’t combine sounds in English. Those instances can benefit from direct instruction.

What does all this mean?

1.      Teach phonemic awareness and phonics to beginning English readers no matter what their language background or how much literacy they have. (If you’re teaching kids to read in their home language first, then teach the decoding for that language, and provide additional instruction as needed when the transition takes place).

2.      If students can already read in the home language, you should be able to reduce the amount of phonics to the extent that there is overlap between the two languages.

3.      If students are phonemically aware in their home language, you shouldn’t have to do as much with that (though there can be a benefit from focusing on those English sounds that are unfamiliar).

Finally, second-language students in U.S. schools often underperform in reading. That means they may need some kind of intervention to provide additional support. Many schools rightfully provide special interventions that target skills like phonemic awareness and phonics.

However, just because a young reader is struggling doesn’t automatically mean the problem is with decoding. That is especially true for these second language learners. They, too often, are assigned to extra decoding work even when their decoding skills are adequate. For them, the extra focus should be on developing their English language.

Here are a couple of relevant resources that you should find helpful:

Reading 101 for English Language Learners

What Does Research Tell Us About Teaching English to English Language Learners?


See what others have to say about this topic.

Gail Darby Jul 18, 2017 06:15 AM

From my limited experience with ESL and reading, have had a student that has had decoding intervention. He is able to decode well now but his comprehension is compromised due to his lack of vocabulary- not only his understanding of words in English but also due to his understanding of words in his home language. So thank you for your discussion and links to resources.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 19, 2017 01:57 PM

Many schools only have decoding/fluency when an ELL is struggling to read that is the only place to put him. This just makes it look like we are trying to help when we are not (if that isn't really the problem).

Luqman Michel Jul 20, 2017 09:47 AM

“….learn the relationships between the letters and spelling patterns and those sounds or pronunciations.
However, just because a reader is struggling doesn’t automatically mean the problem is with decoding.”

This is a very interesting topic. When I went to school most of my classmates and I could not speak a word of English but we had excellent teachers who taught us phonics the way it ought to be taught and we all learned English quite easily.

Dr. I have been teaching kids who had shut-down for more than 10 years now. I started learning everything I can from my students whom I teach on a one on one basis.

If you are willing to have an open mind and grill me in all that I can tell you about why kids shut-down in school and why there is such a high rate of students leaving school as illiterates then we can have a discussion like you have said here in your blog.

I can prove to you that the main cause of illiteracy is the teaching of the relationship between letters and their sounds.
A struggling student does have a problem with decoding because of being taught wrongly.

“Most struggling children are struggling because what they learned in the past is inadequately resourcing or maladaptively directing their current learning.
The most important step toward improving the health of our children’s learning is recognizing, understanding, and minimizing, unhealthy learning.” (James Wendorf)

Timothy Shanahan Jul 20, 2017 12:09 PM

The point isn't that phonics is an important thing to learn for English Learners, it is that it is not the only thing they need to learn. There is a reason that English proficiency is the top predictor of literacy learning for English learners.

Luqman Michel Jul 21, 2017 10:10 AM

Hi Dr. I agree with you completely. Obviously there are many things besides phonics one has to learn. English proficiency can come only when a kid in grade one has not disengaged from learning to read. I have found that all my students who have come to me for tuition had shut-down because they have been taught phonics wrongly. They shut-down because they are confused. Please spare a few minutes to listen to just one video which is what creates confusion.

If we teach the sounds of F as Fuh, M as Muh, S as Suh - about 20% of kids shut down.

Thank you for your response Dr.
Wish you well.

Timothy Shanahan Jul 23, 2017 02:35 AM


You can make that claim about phonics but research doesn't support the claim--in fact, it goes the other way (not teaching kids such clues is a serious problem).

Debbie Hepplewhite Jul 24, 2017 06:45 AM

Hi Tim,

I wonder if Luqman Michel was actually referring to the pronunciation of letters with an added "uh" which can be misleading rather than suggesting it is 'phonics' as such that is causing the problem?

I've watched part of the video and note that the pronunciation of phonemes as beginning sounds in words is not that great.

Instead of saying /k/, for example, the narrator/singer says /k+u/. Instead of /s/, /s+u/, instead of /m/, /m+u/ and so on.

Luqman Michel Jul 25, 2017 09:22 AM

Thank you Debbie. that is what is causing kids to be confused and thus disengage from further reading. Why won't a kid (prone to shutting down) shut down when he is taught buh/air/luh/luh is ball; or cuh/oh/tuh is coat?

I have been doing my own research on this since a friend asked me to teach his 'dyslexic' child in 2004. This kid could read well in Malay and romanised Mandarin which both use the same 26 alphabets as does the English language.

I quit my job and decided to study more such children and have taught about 50 kids in the last 14 years. All the kids I have taught can read well in Malay and those who go to Chinese schools can read in romanised Mandarin and yet could not read in English.

I then slowly began to realise that these kids had shut-down from reading in English because they had been confused by what the teachers had taught them.

There are two matters that I know which cause the confusion:
1. Adding vowel sounds to consonants. Please read a post in my blog where I have explained an actual incidence. You can find it here:

2. Not telling kids upfront that alphabets in the English language have more than one sound. Teachers teach 'a' is for apple; 'b' is for bed, 'c' is for cat and so on. All children learn this with ease.

Soon after that the teacher teachers sound of 'a' that is different from what they have been taught for example: 'a' as in arm; 'a' as in ace; 'a' as in also; 'a' as in around.

A majority of kids have no problem learning but about 20 percent of kids who are predisposed to shutting down do indeed shut down/disengage from reading. These are the kids referred to by Ms.Nancy Hennessy when she said " “……even if we settle on a middle number, let us say 10%; that still leaves a lot of children who are not dyslexic, whose brains are not wired any different way, who have reading difficulty."

Dr. I have studied these kids on a one on one basis and am convinced if they are taught alphabet sounds correctly and also informed at the onset that alphabets have more than one sound (including consonants) a majority of kids will not shut -down.

This year I took in 2 students who could not read a single sentence in English despite having been in kindergarten for 2 years. I managed to get them to grade level and weaned them in less than 4 months of one hour 3 times a week.

I wrote in my blog about one of these kids when I started to teach her and said that I will be able to get her to read within 4 months and I did. A simple test devised to find out shut-down kids gave me that confidence.

You may read all about what I know in my blog at:

Please let us continue with this discussion. Feel free to grill me on this subject.
Wish you well.

Luqman Michel Jul 25, 2017 11:28 AM

Please listen to this video. Just listen to the first word 'all'.

Please ensure it is 'Endless learner Full level 1'. The link keeps changing.

Surely - air-luh-luh can't amount to 'all'. If this does not confuse the kids prone to shutting down to shut down then nothing will.

Buh/air/luh/luh for ball is further down the same video.

Here is another video from down under which is just as confusing to kids who are prone to shutting down.

You can hear it under skill 2 between minutes 1.48 and 3.05 in the video.

Children in many schools in UK. Australia, NZ and US are taught phonemes this way and then millions of dollars are spent on intervention.

If phonics is taught the way it should be (per Dr. David Kilpatrick's Books) then I bet the number of kids leaving school as illiterates will be reduced drastically.

When you add vowel sounds to consonants you confuse kids who end up shutting down.

Jan Hasbrouck Sep 22, 2017 04:28 PM

A couple of other resources on this topic that might be helpful:

Riccio, C., Amado, A., Jimenez, S., Hasbrouck, J. E., Imhoff, B., & Denton, C.A. (2001). Cross-linguistic transfer of phonological processing: Development of phonological processing in Spanish. Bilingual Research Journal.

Denton, C. A., Hasbrouck, J. E., Weaver, L., & Riccio, C. (2000). What do we know about phonological awareness in Spanish? Reading Psychology, 21(4), 335-352.

Caroline Smith Oct 04, 2017 11:53 AM

Great.I love this post! We as teachers need little reminders that our students are still kids and can learn in fun and creative ways. This is a great post with so many great ideas! I need some more.
Phonetics learning

Caroline Smith Oct 04, 2017 11:54 AM

Great.I love this post! We as teachers need little reminders that our students are still kids and can learn in fun and creative ways. This is a great post with so many great ideas! I need some more.
Phonetics learning

Caroline Smith Oct 04, 2017 11:54 AM

Great.I love this post! We as teachers need little reminders that our students are still kids and can learn in fun and creative ways. This is a great post with so many great ideas! I need some more.
Phonetics learning

Caroline Smith Nov 02, 2017 08:54 AM

Learning english phonics is a very good idea. Really it is very important for children to reduce errors and improve english writing. Your techniques are very good. Thanks for sharing this helpful blog.
spelling test practice

Caroline Smith Nov 02, 2017 08:55 AM

Learning english phonics is a very good idea. Really it is very important for children to reduce errors and improve english writing. Your techniques are very good. Thanks for sharing this helpful blog.
spelling test practice

Caroline Smith Nov 02, 2017 08:55 AM

Learning english phonics is a very good idea. Really it is very important for children to reduce errors and improve english writing. Your techniques are very good. Thanks for sharing this helpful blog.

Cesar Vargas Jul 22, 2020 03:41 AM

It is fundamental for English Learners to receive explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. English Learners are benefited with this foundational reading skill when learning to read a second language. However, since they speak another language than English at home, they need more phonemic instruction in class. They require more practice in hearing, saying, reading and spelling the sounds they learn. I consider highly beneficial if English Learners receive extra instruction (intervention) focusing on the areas of reading comprehension and writing skills.

Regina Paglia-Smoler Oct 23, 2020 07:52 PM

Thank you for this concise information. I couldn't agree more with your conclusions that ELLs need comprehensive reading program that includes phonics instruction. What is often not discussed, is that reading is a process and takes time. There are no one size fits all solutions. Engaging all learners, keeping them motivated in the process is key to success.

Rosemary Nov 11, 2020 03:20 AM

I learned that English learners may need extra interventions with targeted teaching. They most definitely need phonemic awareness as a building block for reading and writing to be successful in comprehension. The challenge is it is hard for them to hear the letter sounds and associate it to letters.

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Phonics for English Learners?


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