ICYMI: Sylvia Vardell on Lit for ELL Readers

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In case you missed it, check out Sylvia Vardell’s recent editorial from reVIEWS+ for our issue on English language learners.

Did you know?

  • It is estimated that there are 4.4 million public school students in the United States who are English language learners (ELL).
  • English language learners represent approximately 10.3 percent of the total public school student enrollment in the U.S.
  • Twenty-one percent (21%) of all urban public school students across the U.S. are English language learners.
  • The English language learning population is the fastest-growing population of public school students in the U.S.
  • An increasing number of English language learners are newcomers to U.S. schools, having just recently immigrated to the United States.
  • There are 400 languages spoken by English language learners across the U.S.

The great majority of students learning English claim Spanish as their native language (79%), followed by Vietnamese (2%), Hmong (1.6 %), Chinese, Cantonese (1%), Korean (1%), and other (15.4%).
If you work in public schools in the U.S., particularly in cities, you have certainly encountered students who are learning English as a new language. They may have recently emigrated from other countries or have grown up in families within the U.S. who don’t speak English fluently. Many years ago, that was ME! My parents were born and raised in Germany and immigrated to the U.S. shortly after I was born. German was my first language and I learned English from neighbor children, television, and then at school. So, I have a lot of compassion for kids like me who are figuring out this country while they figure out the curriculum and the language too. One of the things that saved me was books! As soon as I could, I was looking at books, listening to books being read aloud, and then reading, reading, reading. I feel strongly that the library is an essential component for young people as they are developing their knowledge in general and their knowledge of the English language, in particular. And I’m not alone.

Krashen on Literature

Professor Stephen Krashen has written widely about the importance of literature for students learning English. Most recently, he wrote about two studies of interesting relevance. First, in “Can Second Language Acquirers Reach High Levels of Proficiency through Self-Selected Reading? An Attempt to Confirm Nation’s (2014) Results” with Beniko Mason, he found that ELL readers gained about one-half a point on the TOEIC test for every hour of independent English reading. In “The Naruto Breakthrough: The Home Run Book Experience and English Language Development” written with Vinnie Jordan Henkin, he references the concept of the “home run book” introduced by Jim Trelease who hypothesized that one positive experience can be enough to create a permanent interest in reading. Krashen and Henkin reported on an ELL teenager living in Arizona whose interest in manga appeared to be the cause of a “dramatic improvement in his school performance and English language development.”

The library can play a critical role in immersing students in their new language, since frequent access to books has been shown to encourage more frequent reading. Placing meaningful books in students’ hands helps them develop and practice as readers and writers in their new language. As librarians and educators begin to think about the needs of English language learners and select appropriate books for their libraries and classrooms, some general recommendations emerge.

Picture Books

Picture books may be the most appropriate literature choice for students at the beginning stages of English language learning, even with older students. Many picture books can have great accessibility across grade levels and age ranges. Indeed, the sophisticated illustrations and controversial content and themes of some recently published picture books make them more suitable for older audiences. Highly visual books provide scaffolding as students begin by “reading the pictures.” This can build confidence and independence, too. In addition, some picture books have no (or very few) words, and the pictures tell the story, but through the illustrations alone. This format challenges students to use their imaginations to create or narrate their own text. This can provide an excellent opportunity for storytelling, writing captions, developing oral fluency, assessing visual literacy, and developing vocabulary skills.


Much of the nonfiction literature published for young people today is packed with illustrations and photographs, often in full color. Skimming through just the pictures and captions provides a “bird’s eye view” of the overall content of the book. It also helps to fine-tune students’ visual literacy skills, guiding them in using illustrations as informational cues in the reading process. Showing pictures and sharing captions in a read-aloud session can be a kind of “sneak preview” for the book as a whole. Often, less able readers need “permission” not to read the entire page, not realizing that skimming and scanning are appropriate and necessary skills. Students with further interest in the topic may then choose to check out the book for individual reading. Through nonfiction literature, students encounter concept-related vocabulary in more authentic contexts that help in understanding vocabulary at a deeper level, especially for English language learners.


The brevity, richness, and structure of poetry can provide an ideal entry for students who are learning the English language. Poetry offers short, accessible text that’s engaging and can be shared orally, with kids taking an active role. Start with poems that rhyme and have a strong rhythm. This enables students to use their developing language knowledge to “guess” at how words and phrases should sound. Ideally, poems should have a clear focus and accessible vocabulary. If you can also find poetry that represents the cultures of the children, that adds a connection of relevancy, too. Humorous poetry, on the other hand, is not necessarily the best choice since it requires culturally specific knowledge that may not yet be familiar. Sharing poetry aloud can provide opportunities to hear vocabulary, practice pronunciation, listen for meaning, learn new concepts, and experience language in a fun, supportive, and appealing way.


Once we have sparked student interest, we need to step back and provide a regular time and freedom of choice for students to enjoy the books in the library. Offering a wide variety of resources communicates the importance of literacy to students and places materials in English language learners’ hands so they can practice and develop their new language. This might include books, as well as audiobooks, magazines, newspapers, cookbooks, catalogs, posters/signs, maps, puppets, drama props, etc. With such variety in the library and time to pore over these books, ELL students will notice the many powerful ways the written word can be used—to inform, to entertain, to persuade. In short, they can discover the power and pleasure of their new language through good books. We can strive to create a low risk, acquisition-rich environment where the focus is on meaning and exploration.

Helpful Resources:

Hadaway, N., Vardell, S., and Young, T. “’Just Right’ Books for the ESL Library.”  Book Links 11, no. 4 (2002), 56-62.

Hadaway, N., Vardell, S. M., and Young, T. Literature-based Instruction with English Language Learners.” Allyn &Bacon, 2002.

Hanauer, David Ian. 2004. Poetry and the Meaning of Life; Reading and Writing Poetry in Language Arts Classrooms. Pippin, 2004, pp. 67-70.

Vardell, S. M., Hadaway, N.L., and Young, T.A. “Matching Books and Readers: Selecting Literature for English Learners.” The Reading Teacher 59, no. 8 (2006), 734-741.

Works Cited:

“Fast Facts: English Language Learners” National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=96

“Research Talking Points on English Language Learners” National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/home/13598.htm

“ELL Information Center” Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/ell-information-center

Stephen D. Krashen. http://www.sdkrashen.com



Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Vardell circleTexas Woman’s University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA’s Book Links magazine.

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