Guiding Questions

How can I teach English Learners (ELs) to:

  1. Read more closely?
  2. Develop reading independence?
  3. Cultivate critical thinking skills through deeper reading?
  4. Follow a process to construct meaning from text?

The Article’s Goal

Welcome to the Visible Literacy Series.  It is a set of articles that cover the topics of reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary instruction specifically for ELs.  Speaking is integrated throughout the entire series because reading, writing, thinking rise from a flood of talk.  These are the core practices in my class.  

They have been created after reading peer-reviewed articles, attending conferences, and books on adolescent literacy specifically for ELs.  The goal of the series is to provide specific strategies and processes that support ELs literacy development.

The goal of this article is to share a process that develops ELs’ ability to read closely and think critically about texts.  If the process of reading critically is made visible, ELs are more likely to recall and independently apply the steps to future readings.

Past Practices

When working with ELs, I used to do three things – none of which were effective in teaching ELs to develop their reading skills:

Modified Text
:  I use to modify  grade-level texts for ELs by substituting difficult academic words with easier words, cutting out paragraphs or details that I deemed “unimportant.”

I wanted to make the text more appropriate for their reading skills, but by doing that, I took away the opportunity for students to practice the process of reading challenging texts.

This approach is similar to lifting weights that are too lighter.  You feel some tension, but your muscles are not forced to strain to lift, which is where the potential for growth resides.

Read Aloud & Ask: This was a version of guided reading where we would read a section of the text aloud, and I would ask students questions.  Most of the time, they would not understand the text, so they could not answer the question. This approach left both students and me frustrated.

Guided Reading:  When the guided reading didn’t work, I would have to give them hints such as summarizing most of the section for them and asking them to fill in the remaining details. In this approach, I was the one constructing the meaning of the text for students and packaging it in a nice accessible format.

All students had to do was fill in the most simple details, which usually were one-word answers.  I felt that I had to do this because students did not have the skills to read the text, and I needed to “cover” the material because it was taking too long.  

I am not suggesting that guided reading does not work, but my approach of questioning didn’t because I was the one formulating the questions.  It should be the students thinking about the text and asking questions of each other.

None of these approaches worked because students were not the ones who were engaging with the text and constructing meaning.  They were passive and allowed me to provide them with most of the information.

Current Practices

Now I use a student-centered and student-led  approach to teaching.  The new method is essentially teaching ELs a process that is similar to what close-readers do to understand the text at a deep level.  The process is called “Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12” (affiliate link), which is taught in Kelly Gallagher’s book by the same name.  

Deeper Reading “Is a book about teaching adolescent students to become good readers of challenging works of fiction and nonfiction they will encounter in junior high school, high school and beyond” (Gallagher, 2004).

I modified the process to meet ELs’ needs, but the principles remain the same as Gallagher’s approach.  The following steps are my interpretation of Gallagher’s structure but modified to fit my teaching style.  Even though my process was created with ELs in mind, it can be adopted for proficient speakers as well because the literacy challenges that ELs experience are shared by native speakers too.

If you would like resources on Gallagher’s original version, you can download this PDF created by Amy Goodman from Anchorage School District.

Step 1: Setting the context

The purpose of this step is to activate ELs’ background knowledge and to set a context for reading without telling students the background of the text, the author, or details related to the text.  It is setting a context that is connected to the theme or a concept such as growth, challenges, or relationships.  

Research suggests that educators can tap into ELs’ background knowledge and link it to academic content (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, 1992).  This empowers ELs to access content because it is more connected to something they are already familiar with.  

Below is a video of my 7th grade ELs before we start reading Sold by Patricia McCormick to explore the concept of family.  I asked them “What makes family so important?”  Watch as the conversation develops.  This engagement shows students are thinking, which readies them to talk about the concept of family later.

I will use Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank you, Ma’m” to demonstrate the process.

The story is related to many concepts such as relationships, learning, teaching, trust, and growth.  I picked the concept of teaching to set the context for reading.  I asked students, “How should children be disciplined?”  Then I allow ELs to think about the question, write their thoughts in their notebook, then share it with a partner or in small groups.

By this point, the ELs are thinking, using their background knowledge, and talking collaboratively about a concept.  They are now ready to read the text.  

Step 2: The First Read

Before we read the text for the first time, I tell students that this text is connected to the concept of “learning.”   I invite them to read to find out what the author is trying to communicate about “learning.”

Then I begin to read the text aloud to the students.  There are various reasons why reading texts aloud to adolescents fosters reading skills (Serafini & Giorgis, 2003). When asking ELs to engage with unfamiliar texts for the first time, I want to remove cognitive barriers such as decoding for students.  

Often, ELs are occupied by decoding the words because of their developing English.  When this occurs, students are using their mental capacity to decode instead of comprehending the text.

Then when the teacher asks them comprehension questions, ELs are not able to answer because they were decoding while other proficient students were comprehending.  I read the text aloud during the first reading to give all ELs access to the text.  It’s a form of equality.

Step 3: Second Reading

Now that the students have some understanding of the text because of the reading aloud, ELs can now return to the text to read on their own.  Before they do, I give the ELs a task during the Second Reading.  For “Thank you, M’am”, I have students highlight details that reveal Mrs. Jones’ character traits.  Students then read independently and read specifically for details related to Mrs. Jones.

My ELs often complain that there is no point in re-reading the text because they already read it the first time.  They are unfamiliar with its benefits, so they often protest.  Proficient readers, however, often return to the text to find specific information.  By setting a task during the Second Reading, the re-reading becomes meaningful.

Step 4: Collaborative Discussions

After students have highlighted evidence of Mrs. Jones’ character traits, I then have them form small groups to share evidence that they found.  The Second Reading gives students a chance to talk about the text in a focused manner.

I often find that ELs miss details, and when they share their findings in collaborative groups, most of the details are discovered.  Collaboration often clarifies events and details in the story related to the characters and their problems. Collaboration is a form of peer-lead checking for understanding.

Together, they clarify events and things missed.  Additionally, it enables the ELs to have more critical whole-class discussions about the text’s themes and concepts instead of being bogged down by the simple details that are on the “identify” level.

Most importantly, collaboratively discussing the text in small groups gives ELs an opportunity to speak.  Research suggests that when ELs use their English skills, their English develops (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002). This form of communication enables ELs to use their English authentically and for a purpose.  

ELs feel that they are contributing to the group by sharing their details. The ELs are not expected to find all the details, but identify and share the ones that they are able to.  This structure allows the ELs to be active participants in their small groups and the EL’s value in the class is elevated.

After discussing in small groups, we open the same discussion to a larger class to help the discussion go even further.  I start by asking the students to share what evidence best reveals Mrs. Jones’ character.  Then after these details have been shared, I ask students what the author is trying to reveal about Mrs. Jones as a “teacher” character.  

Or I ask students to share what they think the author is trying to share about the concept of “teaching and learning.”  Rich discussion then ensues.  This only occurs because of the steps prior to discussion.  These mini-steps help scaffolded comprehension and the small group conversation get started and make students think more critically.

Step 5: Metaphoric Response

By this point, students have actively engaged in the text through an oral reading, a focused Second Reading, and by collaboratively talking about the text.  By step 4, they have started to think critically about the text by attending to the details.  ELs also develop the habits of a thoughtful reader.  They are now ready to think even more abstractly and critically about the text’s themes and concepts.  

Gallagher uses metaphors as a structure to help students think on this higher-order level.  Kelly asks students to create a metaphor related to the central theme or concept of the text.  For example, I asked my ELs to pick a color for Mrs. Jones and explain their reasoning for this metaphor.  

Some said that she is the color of a pink rose because she is both gentle but not to be messed with.  Another said she is a dark evergreen because she has matured in life while Roger, the protagonist who attempted to steal her purse, is still a light green because he has yet to learn these life lessons.

I can push ELs to think even more conceptually by asking them to create a metaphor for concepts such as “teaching” and “learning.”  A student once said that teaching is a fire because becomes it requires you to be burned to learn a lesson.  

Metaphors enable students to think abstractly and conceptually.  

We want our ELs to be able to develop both their communication and thinking skills regardless of their current phase of language development.  


The main takeaways from this post are:

  1. ELs can read challenging, grade-level texts.
  2. We can create different processes to facilitate the development of reading skills.
  3. Skills develop when students actively engage in a process of creation.
  4. The process helps ELs internalize the skills close readers needed to be independent readers.

More Kelly?

I love Kelly too.  He is a superhero in the adolescent literacy world (among others such as Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, and Penny Kittle).  You can find him at his website. You can also find more Gallagherism on David Stuart Jr’s blog, which is one of the most extensive blogs on Common Core and literacy.

Other Structures

There are two more structures that I highly recommend that also promote ELs’ ability to critically talk about texts.  One was created by one of the oldest and most prestigious American boarding schools, Phillips Exeter Academy, and is used in many of the top American universities.

Phillips Exeter’s approach is called the Harkness Table Discussion. I use the Harkness Discussion method to give students a chance to collaboratively construct the meaning of the text and to also analyze its meaning. This process is entirely student-led.  I devote one post to this method in this series.

[Update February 2, 2017:  I just found this article by Business Insider entitled “Why the Classes at Phillips Exeter are Different Than Any Other Private School.  The article talks about the Harkness Method].

The second structure that places students at the center of reading analysis is Shared Inquiry by the Great Books Foundation.  

Shared Inquiry is essentially the same process as Gallagher’s Deep Reading with a few minor changes. The Great Books Foundation produces anthologies that align well with their process.  However, it can be used with any stimulating text, so ordering their anthologies is not necessary.

Download the infograph for this article

Infograph of 5 Steps to teaching ELLs Deeper Reading


Gallagher, K (2004). Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Moll, L. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132–41.

Serafini, F., & Giorgis, C. (2003). Reading Aloud and Beyond: Fostering the IntELectual Life with Older Readers. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from https://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/E00522/chapter2.pdf