ESL Tips for Teachers from ESL Specialist Dorit Sasson

Welcome to day three of Dorit Sasson’s 6-day NWFCC February Specialist Showcase tour as she presents “Ways to Use Children’s Books to Build Oral Literacy and Vocabulary Skills for ESL Students.”

Before they even begin school, ESL children have already absorbed the grammatical structures, sounds, and vocabulary of a language. This assumption takes into account that parents speak with their children in their own mother tongue from a very young age. But what about building literacy skills for a second language? Research shows that ESL students are not reaching the same levels of reading proficiency as their native English speaking peers by the time they reach third grade.

Using children’s trade books (i.e. read-alouds) is a great way for parents and teachers to help build literacy skills for ESL students.

Bridging Oral Work with Vocabulary Development

Teachers and parents can make sure specific aspects of oral instruction correspond to vocabulary development and story comprehension of their respective curriculums. Young ESL students at the first stage of reading development (ages 6-7) are generally aware of sound-letter relationships, can map speech to print and sounds out words, attempts to break code of print and uses decoding to figure out words (Roskos, Less skilled readers however, do not have the automaticity in lower-level process (i.e., letter, word levels) to process information at the vocabulary level without expending a great deal of cognitive effort.

Use Language Scaffolds

In a read-aloud context, teachers and parents can provide a range of language scaffolds so that ESL students can map out the basic story components of plot and character and understand basic vocabulary integral to the read-aloud.

Such language scaffolds that naturally bridge the oral and written aspects of the curriculum include:

  • Using simple and concrete language to introduce and discuss new vocabulary
  • Using modeling strategies to help facilitate with comprehension
  • Anticipating and predicting further content
  • Encouraging ELLs to make connections with what they have heard

In order to ensure that ESL students understand 99% of a spoken text, teachers need to provide opportunities to discuss vocabulary in context, otherwise ESL students may spend an inordinate amount of their cognitive energies trying to guess at the word’s meaning thus losing the flow of the story. The read-aloud story gives teachers a framework with which to teach the letters, words or other stories.

Before teachers focus on new vocabulary words, they may need to check students’ familiarity with the context. In the story Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, for example, the word gloves should be associated with cold and hands. Teachers will want to teach new vocabulary, such as the word gloves, in the context by providing contextual clues to help students recognize the meaning either independently or with the teacher’s help.

Other examples include:

  • Teacher discusses the word ‘grouchy’ as the underlying theme for Eric Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug using a picture of a grouchy face.
  • Teacher explicates the word ‘snores’. What does the bear do when he is sleeping?

Non-verbal (i.e. gestures) and verbal clues (i.e. pictures) facilitate the process of scaffolding between hearing words and seeing them in their respective contexts before students have the necessary reading skills to acquire vocabulary independently.

The stages for discussing new vocabulary should follow several teaching principles relating to a particular pattern of development.


  • Passive exposure using techniques such as brainstorming as in the example of the word birthday. Teacher asks: What happens on a birthday? Teacher asks for dates of students’ birthdays.
  • Active exposure using presentation techniques such as showing pictures, guessing, and simulation.


Practice has important implications for vocabulary retention. Opportunities should be provided for reinforcing the meaning following the read-aloud.

  • Use questioning techniques for ‘snore’ in Bear Snores On. Parents and teachers can ask: Where is bear snoring? Who comes in the cave while bear is snoring?

While every teacher’s approach to oral work is different, strengthening performance is promoted through constant recycling, repetition and review of sound/symbol correspondences, phonics and vocabulary.

Works Cited

Carle, E. (1996). The Grouchy Ladybug. HarperCollins.

Wilson, K. (2003). Bear Snores On. Simon and Schuster.

Roskos, Kathleen A., Tabors, Palton, O., Lenhart, Lisa. Oral Language and Early Literacy in Preschool. Delaware: International Reading Association. 2004.

NOTE: This article is only part of a presentation regularly offered by Dorit Sasson as part of her in-service training programs for teachers of English language learners. For more information about speaking engagements and in-service, contact Dorit Sasson at or visit the Teachers’ Diversity Coach, at and click on the “speaking” page.

Follow Day 4 of Ms. Sasson’s tour tomorrow at Leave a comment and your name will automatically be entered to win a Three Angels Gourmet Co mug and a package of Divine Dill Dip Mix – at the end of the month, provided by the National Writing for Children Center.


One response to this post.

  1. Dorit, you give such helpful ESL tips and advice to teachers. I am shocked you didn’t get many comments of approval. ESL classes are a vital part of our school systems, especially where many kids need to integrate and learn our language. You do great work, mate.

    Margot’s Magic Carpet – all 11 books on one page.


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