Tips on teaching ESL children to read

Tips on teaching ESL children to read
Teaching your child to read. Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst

Recently, a young mother who learned English as a second language asked me how to teach her daughter phonics and vocabulary. This woman actually has an advanced command of English. I thought, if she wants input on this subject, then there must be other ESL learners at different stages of English learning who also have the same question. So I came up with some tips for teaching ESL children to read.

Actually, it is possible that the children are not ESL learners in the pure sense of the word. Although their parents teach them their native language at home, it is probable that at school, these children are picking up American English rather quickly. After all, children learn language naturally, unlike many students who studied grammar first before conversing in the language. So how would ESL parents go about helping their children learn to read English?

How to help ESL children learn phonics

One of the skills that will help children and adult ESL learners sound out a word is phonics. It’s the art of interpreting letters into sound. For example, the sound “old” can help children to learn other words by adding different consonants. Bold, cold, fold, gold, hold, mold, sold, told. By learning how “b” sounds, and how “old” sounds, your child now know how to say 8 words instead of just one.

To learn phonics, you can either watch phonics videos on YouTube, or look into learning kits such as Hooked on Phonics. They have their own website, but perhaps you can try some of their free videos on YouTube first to decide if you like them enough to buy them. Some of their videos are over 2 hours long.

Help children to read for meaning, not words

Another skill to teach your children is reading for meaning. The article How ESL learners can teach their children to read goes into depth on this topic. Many of us learned to read word by word instead of phrase by phrase. The first way helps us to become clearer in pronunciation; the second in understanding. So if the purpose is to understand, then express the meaning by reading a whole phrase or sentence before you pause. This way, it’s easier to grasp the story.

You can read more details on this topic in How ESL learners can teach their children to read. If you find this blog helpful, here is one on How to learn word order in English.

Estrella Chancoaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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