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How to Teach Reading to ESL Students? Your comprehensive guide to teach Spanish native speakers!

Are you helping an ESL (English as a Second Language) student whose native language is Spanish learning to read?

If so, this blog post is just for you. Today, we’ll be looking at effective strategies for teaching reading to ESL students, specifically those with a background in Spanish literacy.

In today’s article, you’ll learn:

  • How learning to read is normally approached in Spanish-speaking countries.
  • How this approach is different from the way it’s approached in English-speaking countries.
  • What both systems have in common (apart from, obviously, using the same alphabet, the Roman alphabet, which is going to be an advantage, of course)
  • What can be especially troublesome for these ESL students, including which sounds can be especially confusing for these speakers.
  • Other areas you’ll need to reinforce.

My experience teaching my child to read English and Spanish

I started this blog and the Learning Reading Hub YouTube channel to share my own experience teaching my first child to read in English while grappling with conflicting advice on literacy instruction.

I got really into this topic—so much so that I not only started blogging and shooting videos about it, but also got certified in Teaching English to Young Learners. It all, obviously, sprang from wanting to help my daughter. I felt I needed to share my experience to help others, because..

Do you know what?

We were using the common guidelines given to us about sight word instruction and memorizing words, and…

She was very confused…

And I was very confused.

The really funny thing in this story is that when we started with reading instruction in English, she was able to read quite decently for her age in Spanish. Especially taking into account that she had never lived in a Spanish-speaking country!

I guess that’s what turned on my radar… There was something fishy with this method of learning to read by memorizing endless lists of words.

Anyway, we ended up figuring things out for English as well. Not with sight words, by the way… Just the opposite, using phonics, the same system that is used in Spanish, but obviously with a few tweaks.

Anyway, my point here really was is that I actually taught my first child to read in Spanish first, and English second.

How is reading taught in Spanish-speaking countries?

To be honest, everything starts in the same way – learning letters and letter sounds.

Many of these letter sounds are very similar to the sounds these letters have in English, so that’s fantastic!

Once children know their letter sounds, they can start blending. Very similar to English, right? However, there’s a key difference: learning to read is normally approached at the syllable level in Spanish.

What does this mean?

Rather than sounding out words sound by sound, as we do in English (for instance, m-a-t– mat), in Spanish children are normally trained -from the very beginning!- to actually sound out words in chunks of two sounds at a time, and later on of three sounds at a time.

What are these chunks?

These chunks are the syllables in words. That is why I say blending is approached at the syllable level.

Children are not trained to say /m/ /a/ – ma, but “ma” straight away, or /m/ /e/ – “me”, but “me” straight away.

In order to do that, children normally learn their vowel sounds first. Then, when they are introduced to consonant sounds, they go like this:

Example: Learning the letter “m” – Spanish approach

This is the letter “m,” it says /mmm/

Let’s try adding the /m/ sound to all the vowel sounds we already know.

/m/ /a/ – ma

/m/ /e/ – me

/m/ /i/ – mi

/m/ /o/ – mo

/m/ /u/ – mu

I still remember reciting “la ‘m’ con la ‘a’, ‘ma;’ la ‘m’ con la ‘e’; ‘me’, etc.). We had to recite exactly the same sentence, for every single new letter. The direct translation of this would be something like: “‘m’ with ‘a’ makes ‘ma’, ‘m’ with e, makes ‘me’, etc”


We are not memorizing these syllables. We are still using phonics (it doesn’t make any sense NOT to use it -especially in such a phonically regular language as Spanish is), but for faster reading children are normally trained to immediately say ‘ma’, ‘me’, ‘mi’, ‘mo’, ‘mu’ or ‘ba’, ‘be’, ‘bi’, ‘bo’, ‘bu’ or ‘la’, ‘le’, ‘li’, ‘lo’, ‘lu’, etc.

This is very similar to successive blending in English, if you are familiar with this technique. If you are not, let’s not overcomplicate today’s article talking about it. However, if you are curious to learn more, check out this article!

Why reading in Spanish is taught at the syllable level and what does it mean for you, as an ESL/EL teacher?

Why do we take this shortcut of let’s call it “pre-blending” two sounds at the time when we are learning to read?

I think it makes a lot of sense for a number of reasons:

  • Vowels in Spanish only say one sound. So, the combination of /m/ and /a/, is always /ma/ (there aren’t long vowel sounds. “a” is always short, it always says /a/)
  • Syllables ending with a vowel are way more frequent syllables ending with a consonant. In English it’s the opposite. (By the way, syllables that end up with a vowel are normally referred to as “open syllables,” and syllables that end with a consonant are normally referred to as “closed syllables.”) Learn more here.
  • In Spanish, words tend to be longer. Using this strategy allows students to very soon, very fluently, start to read two-syllable words (two-open-syllable words). These words would be the equivalent to English CVC words in terms of simplicity.
What are English CVC Words?
CVC stands for “consonant/vowel/consonant.” These words are formed by a consonant followed by a vowel and a consonant. Examples: cat, dog, mat, hop. They present one of the simplest of all word structures in the English language, and they are the easiest to sound out

I know, you are thinking: two-syllable words so soon? In general words are longer in Spanish than they are in English. So, yes, these words are pretty simple and short for Spanish standards!

Just by knowing ma, me, mi, mo, mu (the first set of syllables normally taught in Spanish), we can already read a whole sentence: “Mi mama me mima” (my mom gives me love/cuddles).

What does this mean for you if you are trying to help as mentioned before an ESL/EL student that has learned to read in Spanish first?

This child is probably going to be very good at blending! The skill is sort of automatically right there from the beginning, as explained before.

This is a really positive right!

However, I believe there’s a reason why the most common way to learn blending (in English) is by going sound by sound.

The reason is that letters, especially vowels, can say many different sounds!

So, children that have learned to read Spanish first might just attempt to always read ma, me, mi, mo, mu, or ba, be, bi, bo, bu… Because it’s deeply ingrained in them! Plus, it’s going to be extremely confusing the concept that letters say different sounds.

Also, bear in mind that the short vowel sounds in Spanish and different from short vowel sounds in English.

Click below to listen to the differences!

Which brings me to the next point…

Confusing vowels!

Confusing vowels for ESL/EL students

Confusion with vowels is a very common problem with children that speak both English and Spanish.

Especially exchanging the letters “e” and “i.”

Up to this day, it’s a problem in our house!

If I say to my daughter please write down “chica”, which means “girl” in Spanish, most likely I’m going to get “checa”, which means a from a person from the Czech Republic.

I have probably explained this to my children at least a thousand times (if not more), but it remains a problem.

I actually fully understand where the confusion comes from.

In English we call this letter “e” /ee/, and that’s the actual name and the sound of the letter “i” in Spanish.

With the letters “i” and “e”, another extremely common problem among ESL students, is not being able to hear the difference between /ee/ and /i/.

So, in their ears, the words “ship” and “sheep” probably sound the same!

This, of course, will have an impact in their reading and spelling abilities.

Another pair of confusing vowel sounds is:

/oo/, as in “moo” or “moon”.

/ʊ/, as in “book” or “look”.

I personally had to overcome issues with these sounds myself in the past, as a non-native English speaker. I had to train my ears to hear the “subtle” differences between these vowel sounds.

I know the difference is not subtle at all for native English speakers! I get it! It’s actually not subtle for me anymore, after a lot of training and repetitions and living in English speaking countries for 17 years now…

But I had to work on this!

I didn’t know the name at the time but now I know I was working towards my Phonemic Awareness skills.

This is a such a crucial skill for all beginning readers.

For your ESL/EL students, I’d say it’s even more crucial, if that’s even possible!

Finally, I know some ESL/EL students have problems with the letter “o”, especially with the American way of saying it because it’s not rounded, as it is in Spanish and also in British English or, even Australian English.

In American English, there’s this jaw-dropping, as in “hot.”

Well, in British English, it’s more like hot, that’d be pretty similar to the sound of the letter ‘o’ in Spanish.

Listen here:

Vowels can be especially confusing for ESL/EL students.
Kids may attempt to always use Spanish short vowel sounds for vowels.
EL/ESL students may not be able to tell certain vowel sounds apart.

Similarities in English/Spanish spelling systems and spelling rules

In this section, we will go through similarities in the spelling system and the rules, so you can actually point to them with your ESL/EL kids.

1. Will children that have learned to read in Spanish first be used to letters saying more than one sound at all?

Does this ever happen in Spanish?

It does, but not as often as it happens in English.
See summary box below.

Same letter, different sounds – Spanish.

  • There’s a soft and hard c sound for the letter ‘c’
  • There’s a soft and hard g sound for the letter ‘g’
  • There’s soft and a hard r sound for the letter ‘r’
  • The letter ‘y’wh can say /y/ or /i/

By the way, did you know that the rules for hard c and soft c and hard g and soft g are exactly the same both in Spanish and English?

Again, take advantage of similarities! If you know the rule in Spanish, you know the rule in English.

2. What about when different letters say the same sound?

Is this something that exists in Spanish as well?

Yes, but very rarely.
See summary box below.

Different letters, same sound – Spanish.

  • Letters ‘b’ a ‘v’: many Spanish speakers don’t make a distinction between these two letters. They pronounce both /b/
  • Letters ‘s’, ‘c’ and ‘z’: many Spanish speakers don’t make a distinction here either. They pronounce these three letters /s/
  • Letters ‘c’ and ‘z’: they both sound the same. In my way of speaking Spanish, they both sound /th/. Some other Spanish speakers say /s/

3. Digraphs.

Will this concept be new to your ESL students?

Not really. I mean, they probably won’t know they are called “digraphs”, but in Spanish there are a few.
See summary box below.

  • ‘c’+’h’ sounds /ch/: Very similar to the English /ch/ sound, which is also represented by the letters ‘c’ and ‘h’.
  • Double ‘l’: sounds /y/ or /sh/ (in Argentinian/Chilean Spanish)
  • Double ‘r’

4. What about silent letters?

Will children know what this is? Or will they be shocked by the fact there are letters on the paper you don’t even pronounce?

They won’t be shocked, this is something that also happens in Spanish. However, I can only think of two letters in Spanish where this happens.

See summary box below.

Silent letters – Spanish.

  • The letter ‘h’ is silent. Examples: hola, hombre, hora.
  • Silent ‘u’. Examples: guitarra, guerra, guiso.

By the way, did you notice how the letter “h” is also silent in some English words (hour, herb, honor)?

And did you know that the letter “u” (in Spanish words, such as guitarra) is there to stop the letter g from saying its hard sound.

Believe it or not, it’s exactly the same rule in English!
Think of words like guitar, guess. The letter “u” is silent, it’s there to prevent the letter ‘g’ from saying its soft sound /ʤ/, as in gym or gem.

Remember, understanding the similarities in the spelling system and pointing to them can help your EL/ESL students.

5. What about double letters? Are there double letters in Spanish?

Not so many.
See summary box below.

  • “ll”, as in llave or llover
  • “rr”, as in correr or carro.

Double “ll” and “rr” are digraphs in Spanish, meaning that these two letters team up to represent a new sound.

6. What about consonant blends?

Spanish has consonant blends, but oftentimes they are not taught explicitly. In the same way that they should probably not be taught explicitly in English. Learn more here.

7. What about team vowels?

There aren’t any team vowels in Spanish. Vowels never team up to say another sound that is different from their original sound.

What are other challenges ESL students will have to face?

Very similar to the ones that all children face, but you’ll probably have to put extra work on:

1. Vocabulary: Having a rich vocabulary is a key component for reading success. Children with rich oral language usually pick up reading more quickly and easily. Besides, it is also key for reading comprehension.

2. Phonemic Awareness: They will probably need extra support with their phonemic awareness skills. Check if they can hear the right sounds in words. Remember the sounds we’ve been through! Maybe they can’t tell ‘ee’ (feet) and i (fit) apart, or ‘oo’ (moo) and ‘oo’ (book).
Until they don’t hear the right sounds, they won’t be able to reproduce them either.

3. Access to support in their mother tongue: Ideally, they should get access to support in Spanish as needed. Put yourself in their shoes. Maybe they won’t be able to understand everything that is said in English, and they will probably be shy to speak up. That can make them fall behind in class. Quick explanations, when needed, in their mother-tongue could fix this. Foster a supportive environment that values bilingualism and cultural diversity.

Reading Rope by Scarborough: How to apply it to ESL/EL students?

Finally, I thought it would be a good idea if we looked at The Reading Rope developed by Scarborough in 2001.

This is a great diagram that summarizes everything that is involved in skilled reading.

The upper strands represent the skills involved in Language Comprehension and the Lower strands represent the skills in involved in word recognition.

When we automate all of these skills, we get ‘skilled reading’.

Scarborough Reading Rope
Scarborough Reading Rope – Upper Strands + Lower Strands equals skilled reading.

I’ve gone through them one by one, and I will highlight now the areas where these students are likely to have more problems than their native counterparts.

  • Background knowledge: Depending on the topic, EL (English Leaners) students could have more difficulties than native speakers. Example: say you are talking about something they haven’t seen before or something about the country you live in, and they are brand new in the country.
  • Vocabulary: As discussed before, this is definitely something they will need extra help with. You could even warm up to the words in text that you anticipate they are going to have problems with. .
  • Language structures: While there are some commonalities (plural is made by adding the letter ‘s’ in both languages, for instance), other language structures differ. For example: In Spanish, we say “tengo calor,” (direct translation would “I have warm” to say “I am hot”). If your ESL/EL student constructs sentences in a strange way, this can be reason behind it.
  • Phonological awareness: As seen before, this a key skill for everyone, including EL/ESL students. With them, bear in mind they don’t have the advantage of knowing the language. As discussed, there could be new sounds in the language they have to get used to, they can have difficulties in sounds discern, and they can have problems reproducing/replicating the sounds correctly.

Recap and advantages of being an EL/ESL student

Teaching reading to English Learners with a background in Spanish will require a thoughtful approach that acknowledges their unique needs and challenges.

Key takeaways:

> Leveragie similarities between Spanish and English
> Address areas of confusion
> Provide targeted support

This way, educators and parents can empower EL/ESL students on their journey to literacy.

While the road may have its obstacles for these students, bilingualism offers great advantages.

So, please, be careful not to make them feel as if speaking two languages is a disadvantage. On the contrary, always stress out how lucky they are.

Besides, having the base of a Latin language (as Spanish) can help them become better spellers.

In fact, that is a great reason to learn a second Latin-based language. It helps a lot with spelling!

I can assure you it really does based on first-hand experience!

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