Visible Reading is Part 3 of the Visible Literacy Series, which focuses on sharing strategies that support ELs language development.

ELL strategies literacy reading

Wherever I taught, be it New Orleans, Philadelphia, China, or Laos, I always had students whose home language was not English.  These students often struggled to read challenging texts.  Many of my students were 10th graders who read a 3rd grade level.  To support them, I frequently took texts and modified the language structure, vocabulary, and the length.   This made the text easier, but it didn’t actually teach them how to read complex texts.

Looking back, this approach completely limited students’ access to authentic, academically rigorous text. My ELs grew their skills but at a rate that guaranteed their literacy gap would continue to widen. I wrongly believed ELs should not be exposed to texts or asked to complete tasks beyond their skill level.  There was a voice that sneered, “There is no way that an 8th grader on a 2nd grade reading level can comprehend this 8th-grade-level text.”

But I was wrong. It’s imperative that we provide ELs with exposure to grade-level text (Scarcella, 2003) because students will be in content classes that require interactions with them.  Student engagement in rigorous environments like these supports academic language development (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000; Pressley, 2002).  Specifically, their vocabulary improves (Ulanoff & Pucci, 1999) and so do their writing skills (Elley, 1991; Tsang, 1994; Tudor & Hafiz, 1989).

Interaction-based Reading

The solution to helping ELs read these rigorous, on-grade level texts is to use Visible Reading.  This process teaches ELs to interact with the text like proficient readers do. It’s different from guided reading in that the interactions, not the teacher, shepherd the students.  Therefore, Visible Reading is a more student-centered and process-driven reading strategy that weans them away from teacher hand-holding and towards independence.

ELL teachers can differentiate Visible Reading based on the level of the students they are working with. For Beginning ELs, focus on word level interactions, for Developing ELs, on sentence level interactions, and for Expanding ELs, on page-level interactions.

Let’s look at how to help Beginning ELs first:

Word-Level Interactions: Translate Words

Please read this sentence:

I đi bộ my chó by the river every Chủ Nhật.

How’d you do? Probably not great if you don’t know Vietnamese.  I have two options to teach you: 1). Spend 10 minutes creating context for each of these Vietnamese words or 2) have you translate the unfamiliar words and continue reading.

I see you reaching for Google Translate. “Walk” is “đi bộ”, “dog” is “chó”, and “Sunday” is “Chủ Nhật”.

This is what reading is like for many of our Beginning ELs.  They are familiar with some words, but many others have to be looked up.  This happens to us too as proficient readers.  I recently had to look up the word “erudite” while listening to a podcast.  The context clues didn’t help, so I stopped and Googled it. Once I knew the meaning, I was ready to continue listening.

I encourage you to let your EL translate unfamiliar words (not whole sentences).  Translating only the unknown ones still requires them to figure out the meaning of the text.  They’re still required to make sense of English words. 

Word-Level Interactions: Search Images

Translating words is effective about 80% of the time.  The other 20% when it doesn’t work is when the EL doesn’t understand the translated word in their home language.  For example, in the following video, Shungo and Olivia stumble on “rural”, but they’re still stumped after translating it into Japanese and Danish respectively.  I had them search for an image of “rural” in Google Image.  They combined the spread of pictures Google returned to understand its meaning.

Sentence-Level Interactions: N V D  

For Developing ELs who understand most of the words and are learning to comprehend text at the sentence level, I teach them a different way to interact with it.The most fundamental language structure is one that consists of a noun (N) followed by a verb (V)  followed by details (D). To summarize a sentence, I ask students to look for the main noun, what the noun is doing, and the details, which means the “what, where, when, how much, and why.”  This structure supports ELs in focusing on the main details in the sentence so that they can formulate a correct summary. It teaches them to deconstruct the sentence into mini-parts, then sequence them to create meaning.

[Click here to learn more about how to teach context clues to ELs,]

NVD: A Worked Example

We use a  BBC article on the Zika virus in my 8th grade English class.  On line reads: “The CDC announced that Puerto Rico is to receive $3.9m in emergency Zika funding as the number of cases there doubles every week” (BBC, 2016).

To teach my students NVD, I first read the sentence aloud.  Then we deconstruct the sentence by finding the noun (CDC), then the  verb that the CDC did (announced), and then the details such as where, how, and why (Puerto Rico to receive $3.9 million in emergency Zika funding).

However, just because ELs can find the NVD does not mean that they understand the sentence.  So I model rewording the NVD in my own words – substituting academic words for social language.  It might sound something like, “Puerto Rico will get $4 million dollars to fight the Zika virus.”  

Deconstructing the sentence with the students themselves sounded like this:

S1: What is the noun?

S2: I think it’s CDC.

S3: Why do you think that?

S2: Because it is all capitalized, which means it might stand for the letters of a long name – maybe the name of an organization

S1: Oh, I think we have to go back to an earlier part of the text to find out.

S3: Found it.  It’s Center for Disease Control. C D C, see!

I could have easily told them what CDC stands for but I wanted them to go through the process of carefully re-reading the text to find their own answers.  The skill is what we’re developing, not the ability to recall what CDC stands for.

[If you want to see a 2-minute video of me teaching students how to find the NVD, you can click here].

This practice is my go-to reminder for students when they don’t understand the sentence even though they comprehend the individual words.  It usually is because of the way the sentence is structured [dependent clause preceding an independent clause].  Teaching NVD empowers them to construct the meaning of the text by identify the essentials of the sentence.  It forces them to closely re-read multiple times.

Sentence-Level Interaction: Using Context Clues

Because developing ELs are able to understand many words and can handle extended sentences using the NVD method, they can also decipher the meaning of vocabulary words using the context clues around the unfamiliar words.  When you read a shared text with students and you notice a vocabulary word that has context clues, make sure to stop and say, “The meaning of this word can be understood by the details before and after it.  Can you go find the details that give you the meaning of the word?”

I’ve devoted an entire article entitled “Don’t Pre-teach Vocabulary: Cluing ELs into Context Clues” to describe this process in detail.

Page-Level Interaction: Targeted-Second Readings

What if you have Expanding ELs who understand most of the words and comprehend most of the sentences, but they struggle with synthesizing the important details in an extended text or going beyond the literal details? How do proficient readers interact with a text?  They often re-read it multiple times looking for something specific.    

After I read a few pages aloud for students, I have them return to the text to find something specific.  For example, when reading Patricia’s McCormick’s National Book Award free-verse novel called Sold, I had student return to the text to find details that revealed the type of relationship the characters had with each other.  Fishing out these relationship-based details developed his close-reading skills. We then analyzed how the details revealed the relationships characters have with each other in a Harkness discussion.

The first article in this blog covers these targeted-second readings extensively in an article entitled “Five Steps to Teaching ELLs Deeper Reading”, a process developed by renowned adolescent literacy coach, Kelly Gallagher.  


I now recommend teaching students how to interact with the text from day one.  As proficient readers, we ourselves stop to synthesize the ideas, make connections, look up unfamiliar words, use context clues, search, adjust the pace of our reading and much more.  For many ELs, their only interaction with the text is a mindless charge through rugged terrain on until they reach the end when they wearily proclaim, “I don’t get it”.

Instead of changing the difficulty of the text ELs read, we should teach them to move through different interactions with the text to learn how to distill and construct meaning.  English language teachers like myself are inclined to over help ELs when they struggle with texts, and I’m still learning to allow the struggle to be the teacher.

But struggle means to stretch, not snap.  These different interactions ELs can have with the text will help them stretch and wrangle with rigorous works.  After all, that’s our responsibility: to prepare them for days when they won’t have us modifying texts and experiences for them.  They’ll have to rely on the skills they’ve learned from us before they snap from those the world gives them.

Next post

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog.  I hope that the process and principles presented will help your students develop their close-reading habits. To continue the theme of reading instruction, the next article will progressing from strategies at the sentence level to strategies for summarizing an entire text.  The featured technique we will use for this  comes from one of my edu-heroes: Kylene Beers.

[Below is a previous infographic used for this blog.  The content you just read was updated on April 7, 2017]

Making Reading Visible to ELLs


Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Fisher, P. (2000). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Elley, W. (1991). Acquiring literacy in a second language: The effect of book-based programs. Language Learning, 41, 375–411.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Tudor, I., & Hariz, F. (1989). Extensive reading as a means of input to L2 learning. Journal of Research in Reading, 12, 164–178.

Scarcella, R. (2003). Academic English: A Conceptual Framework. The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Technical Report 2003–1.

Tsang, G. M. (1994). Teacher collaboration in integrating language and content. TESL Canada Journal

Ulanoff, S. H., & Pucci, S. L. (1999). Learning words from books: The effects of read aloud on second language vocabulary acquisition. Bilingual Research Journal, 23(4), 319–332.