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Learning to Read in a Second Language

Hi everyone

I want to spend part of this term looking a little deeper at the process of teaching reading. I am particularly interested in what we as teachers do at the pre-reading stage of a reading lesson. My interest in this has arisen from writing ESOL content for the School Journals Teacher Notes and reflecting back on what I did as a classroom Teacher and on a number of books and research readings that I have read recently.

 I have always believed in taking some time at the pre-reading stage to connect what we are about to read to the students backgrounds and knowledge. I also usually introduced a few vocabulary words as well; that I thought may be problematic for some students. However due to time pressures I usually focused more on actually reading the text and post reading discussion and activities. I think I sub-consciously thought that pre-reading was the least important stage of the process. The older I get and the more diverse our classrooms become I realise that the pre-reading stage is crucial to student understanding of the text and it should not be rushed. I will suggest some pre-reading activities and ideas in later posts however today I want to particularly look at the differences between learning to read in a first language (L1) and a second language (L2). As this will form the foundation on which we can build our understanding. 

Teaching and researching reading is my main reference for this post.

Grabe,W. and Stoller, F. (2011) Teaching and researching reading, 2nd Edition. Applied Linguistics in Action Series, Edited by Candin, C. and Hall, D. Longman, Pearson. Harlow.

The Differences between L1 and L2 Reading

1.       Varying L2 proficiencies as a foundation for L2 reading. L2 readers are influenced by their level of L1 reading abilities. Students can use their first language reading skills and transfer what they have learnt to use in learning to read in a second language. However they can’t transfer what they haven’t learnt.  English language learners (ELLs) are a very diverse group some such as many refugee students have never been to school or learnt to read in their L1. Others have broken schooling, or they only speak their language and have never learnt to read and write in it. Many others have very good literacy experiences and are very fluent readers in their L1 and have unbroken schooling in first world countries.This is why it is so important to take your time to ‘know your learners'.

2.       Differing amounts of lexical, grammatical and discourse knowledge at initial stages of L1 and L2 reading. New Zealand L1 students usually begin to learn to read formally at age 5 when they start school. By this time they have learned most of the basic grammatical structures of their L1 as tacit knowledge. Further learning of the language structures commonly used in written texts continues through the age of 12, but most of the basic structures are already well learned. By the time they start school L1 speakers will generally already have a 5,000 word range vocabulary level when reading instruction begins. These linguistic resources provide a good boost for young L1 students beginning to read. However, many L2 students begin to read simple sentences and passages almost at the same time that they learn the language orally.

In most cases, the vocabulary and grammar knowledge of the beginning L2 student is at a very different starting pint from that of the beginning L1 reader. E.g. Having an L2 reader ‘sound out’ a word to discover its meaning is not likely to be effective as L2 students do not yet know the word orally therefore they can’t match it.

A lack of a tacit L2 grammatical and discourse knowledge also means that L2 students need some foundation of structural knowledge and of text organisation in the L2 for more effective reading comprehension.  Therefore explicit teaching of genre often benefits L2 students. For example in Chinese arguments are structured in a more circular fashion than in English with the person’s point-of-view not known until the end of the argument. 

3.       Varying linguistic differences across any two languages and varying language transfer influences. Any two Languages are likely to vary considerably, and these differences may influence L2 reading comprehension variably when students come from different L1s and are in the same L2 classroom. How similar are the languages? It is much easier to learn a language that shares a similar alphabet system and come from the same language family than those that are further removed. E.g. Spanish, Portuguese and Italian all share thousands of useful cognates with English as they are all Romance languages which is a significant resource to use when learning to read in English. Unlike Chinese where there are very few cognates to assist in L2 reading development.

Transfer as interference – at beginning L2 levels, students’ strongest resources are their L1 language abilities, their L1 reading abilities and their knowledge of the world. At times, these resources provide enough support to carry out certain comprehension tasks; at other times, these same resources misled students or slow L2 processing routines. Such interference s are normal. The instructional goal at early levels of reading in L2 is for students to develop enough vocabulary, reading practice and processing fluency in their L2 so they rely less on L1 resources that might interfere.  Students should be given sufficient opportunities to read texts that are easy to read and enjoyable. At higher levels explicit teaching is often required to shift interference. 

4.       The interplay of working with two languages can also have an influence e.g. for bilingual learners the rate of language acquisition is different when learning both languages together. It also helps learning when students can use their L1 as a resource for learning in L2 within the classroom. 

5.       Different Individual motivations for reading in L2, as well as different senses of self-esteem, interest, involvement with reading and emotional responses to reading. Some of these difference is motivation are based on varying academic goals, socialization practices from home and community, prior educational instruction or broad cultural frameworks for literacy uses. Understanding these may lead to more effective instruction. Parent teacher conferences, Home-school partnerships and surveys can all be used to help unpack some of these factors. Motivation to learn the language plays a big role in language learning success. This was highlighted to me when I began to interview some of my students. I chose two high achievers and two students who were more disengaged and explored their level of motivation to learn. The top achievers both had real intrinsic personal reasons for learning English connected to the careers they wanted, whereas the other two students were learning because their parents wanted them to.  

6.       Differing exposure to L2 reading- The total amount of exposure to L2 reading and printed texts. Most L2 readers are simply not exposed to enough L2 print through reading to build fluent L2 processing. Nor to build a large recognition vocabulary.

A summary Table 2.4 Differences between L1 and L2 Reading 

(Gabe& Stoller, 2011, page 55)

Linguistic and processing differences

1.       Differing amounts of lexical, grammatical and discourse knowledge at initial stages of l1 and L2 reading

2.       Greater metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness in L2 settings

3.       Varying linguistic differences across any two languages

4.       Varying L2 proficiencies as a foundation for l2 reading

5.       Varying language transfer influences

6.       Interacting influence of working in two languages

Individual and experiential differences

7.       Differing levels of L1 reading abilities

8.       Differing motivations for reading in theL2

9.       Differing amounts of exposure to L2 reading

10.   Differing kinds of texts in L2 contexts

11.   Differing language resources for L2 readers

Socio-cultural and institutional differences

12.   Differing sociocultural backgrounds of L2 readers

13.   Differing ways of organisng discourse and texts

14.   Differing expectations of L2 educational institutions


Teaching a student to read in L2 can be a very complex process. There is a lot to know and a lot that is still unknown. I hope you will all find one small take-out from this post.  

Reflection Questions

These questions are aimed at helping you to think a little deeper on this topic and to relate it to what you do in your classroom or as a leader in your school.

1.       What aspect of learning to read in L2 do you think is most relevant to you in your classroom?

2.       Does your reading programme address the needs of your L2 learners?

3.       How well do you know your students? Do you know their home literacy practices and socio-cultural literacy practices? How can knowledge of these practices help you to teach them to read in English?

4.       Do you know the main differences between your students’ first languages and English and what language Interference differences that you might expect? Do your students’ display evidence of language interference in their reading and writing? Is some explicit teaching required? (The internet is a good starting point to learn about these differences)

5.       Are there any aspects of learning to read in L2 that you feel you need to research further?

6.       What do you currently specifically do to support your L2 learners in your regular class reading lessons? What works well, what could be strengthened? Does anything more need to be added?

7.       What big question do you have? Please share it with this community or with your colleagues.

The English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) document also has very good sections on Reading which would make a great starting point for many teachers to think about how to support ELLs' reading.  


Do have a great week. I would love to hear your thoughts and responses. What works well for you in teaching reading? What do you see as being important?