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Expert Q&A

How do I help ELL first graders who have difficulty remembering sight words? How is it different to learn sight words in a new language than in your native language?

In first grade , the beginning reader is faced with the task of learning to match sound to print. This can be particularly difficult for English language learners, who are often trying to make sense of sound-letter correspondences when they are not familiar with the sounds themselves. ELLs often have particular difficulty with sounds that are not part of their first language’s phonology. Spanish speakers may have problems reading and spelling English words that have short vowel sounds because most of the English short vowel sounds are not found in Spanish. For example, the /a/ sound in the English word “hat” and the /u/ sound in “cut” are both sounds that do not occur in Spanish words. Because of differences such as these, ELLs may acquire skills in a manner that seems out of order when compared to native English speakers. While English speakers characteristically master short vowel sounds before long vowel sounds in both reading and spelling, Spanish-dominant ELLs may master the more familiar-sounding long vowels first. English language learners may also be accustomed to hearing English spoken by non-native speakers, making it even more difficult for them to sort out the sound-letter correspondences.

Although it is certainly a challenge when you have multiple languages in your classroom, the more you can learn about your students’ first languages, the better you will be able to understand the mistakes they make in English. If individual students fail to respond, try working with them first on sounds that are the same in English as in their first language (Gutiérrez-Clellen, 1999; Helman, 2004). If problems persist, you may need to administer a literacy assessment in order to rule out the possibility of a specific reading disability. The best approach is to assess the child’s phonological awareness and literacy skills in his/her primary language, as well as in English. If assessment in the primary language reveals appropriate literacy development, then the child’s problems with reading in English probably result from a lack of English proficiency. On the other hand, if literacy development is not on schedule in the primary language or in English, this would suggest a reading deficit rather than simply a lack of English language development (Durgunoglu, 2002).

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