learning to read: issues related to second language learners, learn with emily dot com

Learning to Read: Issues Related to Second Language Learners

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I recently had a reader ask about the prerequisite skills for reading in regards to second language learners. I decided to write my response here as I thought other readers may also find this information interesting.

Reader’s Question about Phonics Skills for Second Language Learners of English

The reader asked about the prerequisite skills and background knowledge for learning to read through phonics for students who learn English as a second language. The reader also wanted to know, “…how do they differ, if in any respect, from the ones for kids who are native speakers of English?”

Phonics for Second Language Learners of English

Similar prerequisite Phonetic Skills

The basic prerequisite skills for reading words through phonics are the same for both native and second language learners.

  1. The student will need to have visual discrimination skills to recognize and remember the difference between printed letters.
  2. The student will need to have phonemic awareness skills.

CLICK HERE to read more about the prerequisite skills for learning to read.

Differences Between Native vs. Second English Language Learners

second language learners, challenging of learning to read and comprehend written english, learn with emily dot com

Students who have the prerequisite skills for learning to read could be taught the sounds and sound combinations of a printed phonetic system and be able to decode the words accurately within that system. Assuming that the goal of learning the phonetic system to accurately read and comprehend passages within the target language, there are other factors that need to be considered.

CLICK HERE to read about the factors influencing reading comprehension.


When a child is born, they have the potential to develop the phonemes (sound) within any human language systems. As the infant is exposed to their native language, the child’s brain naturally focuses in on the phonemes they are exposed to. Over time, the infant will only develop the phonemes within the language(s) they are exposed to. After this time period, it may be very difficult to hear the difference between some phonemes in a foreign language. It may also be difficult to learn to produce phonemes that are not present in the student’s native language.

Langauge Comprehension

A native speaker will automatically understand words that they accurately decode if the word is familiar to them. A second language learner may have a smaller repertoire of oral language comprehension, which may also make it more difficult to understand written passages. At the same time, a second language learner who is a strong reader and has learned to understand English as a printed language (learning both the syntax and grammar of the target language), may have difficulty understanding native speakers whose dialects may vary.

Cultural Contexts

Another factor making reading comprehension more difficult for second language learners is access to prior knowledge to make connections to understand the text. Limitations may improve as the student learns more about the cultural contexts that may come up in writing within the target language. The prior knowledge factor becomes particularly problematic when trying to learn academic content in a foreign language. It can take 3-5 years to become proficient in conversational English and 5-7 years to become proficient in academic English.

Summary on Issues Second Language Learners May Come Across in Learning to Read English

Although the prerequisite phonetic skills for learning to read English are the same for both native and non-native English speakers, differences in phonemes, language, and culture may make reading comprehension in English more challenging in comparison to native English speakers.

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