How free books bolster ELL literacy skills

'It's one of the most powerful things you can do for a second-language learner'
By: | April 29, 2020
Schools and communities across U.S. are giving lower-income student free books to support literacy skills while they are forced to stay at home.Schools and communities across U.S. are giving lower-income student free books to support literacy skills while they are forced to stay at home.

In several cities, teachers, school districts and community organizations are getting books into the hands of ELL students to maintain literacy and reading comprehension skills while classrooms are closed.

In Massachusetts, administrator Anne Day says her first goal as school closures loomed last month was to figure out how to get books to English-language learners in her district.

“It seems simple but it’s really one of the most powerful things you can do for a student who is a second-language learner,” says Day, the director of ESL and bilingual education at Holyoke Public Schools.

The district has about 1,3000 English-language learners, most of whom speak Spanish. A large number of those students are Puerto Rican children who came to the district after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.


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The district is giving out books and magazines in English and in Spanish because educators simply want students—particularly those who can’t fully access online learning—to continue reading while school are closed, Day adds.

The district is also handing out games.

“English is not our priority,” Day says. “Getting kids into reading and feeling safe at home is our top priority.”

Focus on literacy gaps

Educators in Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa have also focused on getting books into the hands and homes of English-language learners, particularly those who have recently arrived in the U.S, says Noemi Mendez, the ELL curriculum coordinator.

The district has distributed about 150 middle school ELL packets that include five non-fiction books, a workbook, journals and pencils.

Teachers are now creating assignments to include in the second round of packets and as well as lessons for K-5 classes, which will be mailed to students.


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The district’s bilingual family liaisons have been reaching out regularly to keep families apprised of learning resources and other services, says Pablo Ortega, director of Des Moines’ ELL program.

“Our language learners and kids in poverty already have an achievement gap,” Ortega says. “We’re hoping that, at the very least,  the gap isn’t allowed to get wider during this period of time.”

Maintaining ELL reading skills

In Springfield Public Schools, also in Massachusetts, handed out books to ELLs when the students picked up laptops at their middle and high schools.

Teachers in Springfield Public Schools in Massachusetts, created lessons in several languages to go along with free books ELLs students received with laptops.“We need to provide equitable resources for students that may not have access to the general curriculum with resources in their native languages,” says Kerry Martins, the English Language Learner Program director.

Teachers have also been delivering books to students’ doorsteps and mailboxes. Teachers also created lessons in several languages to go along with the books, Martins says.

“Reading is an essential component of education,” Martins says. “We did not want the skills they have worked so extremely hard to acquire to lose practice.”


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