Classroom, Curriculum, ell, Junior High, school

6 Ways to Assess and Build ELL Reading Skills

Reading skills are generally easier to assess than something like listening skills, but there are a lot more ways to build and assess them than simply using standardized tests.

In fact, reading skills can be some of the most fun to build and grade because there are a ton of ways for teachers to be creative when doing so. Personally, I love thinking of fun new ways to work on these skills in the class!

Here are some of my top tips for fellow educators.


Generally, English language learners get stuck while reading, not because they can’t decode words, but because they don’t know what words mean. It’s like gibberish. We can sound it out and speak it out loud, but that doesn’t give it any meaning.

It can be helpful for these kiddos to teach them specific vocabulary before a reading task.

This will look different depending on what you’re teaching, the student, and the level of language acquisition they’re working at.

For very new English language learners, I always provide them with a translator (generally online) and for each word I have them write the definition in their home language and in English. If they’re younger or artistic, I’ll also have them draw a picture.

As kids develop more skills, I start having them move away from writing the definition in their home language, though I always still provide them a translator. Instead, I’ll have them start writing the definition in enlighten and then using the word in an English sentence.

Finally, I’ll just provide them with the important words well be using before a unit and trust them to learn them on their own.

At this stage, they’re high enough to be getting graded on the content and this is just an extra accommodation, while the earlier activities would take longer time and generally replace learning the same content as the rest of the class while my English language learners work on language acquisition.


Thankfully, translators are now digital and kids are basically never without their phones. So it’s easy for an English language learner to be using a translator on their phone and look just as “normal” as their peers.

That being said, a lot of students still don’t choose to use translators on their own. They may not understand that they’re allowed, or they may feel like using a translator is “cheating”, or believe that they are “smart” so they don’t need to use one. Make sure you tell them that this is a very basic and necessary tool they should be using while they build English language skills.

If you notice a student not using a translator and making errors which you know could be alleviated if they had one (such as understanding what they are being asked to do), encourage them to use one. If they still don’t want to, have a sit down with them and try to get to the root of why.


Students who don’t know what to do can be very good at making it look like they’re on-task and doing just fine, even if they’re totally lost.

I always walk around the classroom and check in with all the students as they work. This way, kids don’t have to come up to my desk, which could cause anxiety.

Even if you are wandering around and checking in with kids, they may be hesitant to talk about what they’re stuck on. They may be worried that other kids will see them asking for help and think they’re “dumb”. In this case, I set up check-ins with all students. This way, every student is coming to see me and I can make sure that each one of them is on task. With this tactic, you can hone in to what each student needs support with and give them specific advice.


We all have varying amounts of background knowledge on various subjects. However, we often completely ignore or overlook this when we begin to read about or learn something.

Sometimes, it’s effective to explicitly teach how to hone into background knowledge. By working with kids specifically on pre-reading or pre-learning techniques, you can ensure there’s a knowledge base for them to build upon.

Before every unit, I always start with at least one or two lessons building background knowledge. Depending on what you’re teaching and your timeline, this may look different. Of course, always let English language learners use tools like translators in these activities. I also find it really beneficial to compare and contrast with things from their home country and Canada (or wherever it is you’re teaching).

For example, because I generally teach social studies and language arts, I can have them compare things like how governments are run. Or, if we’re reading a novel like Holes, we can chat about how school, camp, punishment, and so on look different in different parts of the world.


This should be standard practice for all classes and all learners, not just our English language learners. We can never just assume that students can read something and understand exactly what they’ve read.

This is important for all courses, from language arts to science. For example, in science you’ll want to go over what was read by students to ensure they full understand the content. This is a good time to go over vocabulary, give examples, show visuals, and so on, to ensure students fully understand what they’ve read.

In a class like language arts, you may have students read a text in which there are many different interpretations, themes, subtext, and so on. In this case, we don’t want to just leave kids with their own interpretations and assumptions.

Instead, it’s important to discuss with peers and the class to see various different perspectives and discuss how and why different people interpreted the text differently. If we just leave kids with what they’ve read and don’t go over it, we’re missing out on ensuring they’ve actually understood the reading and layering in others’ perspectives.


Finally, explicitly working with students on reading fluency is an important aspect of improving their reading skills.

This is something that becomes harder to do as we work with older students, or if we aren’t working in a specific ELL class.

Reading fluency tends to be taught in the younger grades, as students learn how to read and understand commas, periods, reading with expression, emphasizing certain parts of words, and so on. If you’re teaching a class like junior high math, there’s not a lot of opportunity to work in fluency with a student.

However, this can be something you work on in a class like language arts, or if you have students do reading or presentations.

Do things like have students take turns reading out loud in small groups. Make sure you group kids strategically with peers they feel comfortable with and who will help them. You can also use programs like flip grid, or assignments where kids have to video or audio record themselves. This type of practice will help them to read with more fluency.

As teachers, we are always swamped, so this skill probably isn’t one you can work one-on-one with a student on. However, if you can, or if you can have them work with an educational assistant or volunteer, it’s a great way to have them read out loud to you and provide instantaneous feedback.

Well, what do you think about these ideas? Are there any you’re already using? And that just won’t work in your class? Let me know!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s