How ESL Learners can teach their children to read

Last Updated on May 30, 2024 by Estrella

teaching your child to read
Teaching your child to read. Photo by Nicole De Khors from Burst

Is it possible for ESL learners to teach their children to read? Of course! Maybe you think just because your English is not perfect yet, that you can’t teach your child to read English. But you CAN. Whether you are an advanced or beginning ESL learner, the principles are the same. And as your English improves, the more you would be able to help your children improve their reading. This blog was originally published on February 22, 2019, and was updated May 30, 2024.

How to teach your children to read even if you are learning English yourself

Introduce your children to phonics

One of the skills to teach your children is phonics. How to interpret what they see into sounds. For example, combine the sound “at” with certain consonants, and your child will be able to say a few more words. Bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat. Combine the sound “oil” with other consonants, and you’ll get the following. Boil, coil, foil, soil, toil. Or, try combining the sound “ot” with c, d, g, h, j, p, r, s, t. You’ll get cot, dot, God, hot, jot, pot, rot, sot (not used very often) and tot.

One tool you can use is Hooked on Phonics. You can buy the kit, or you can go on YouTube to watch some free videos. It was one of the popular learning tools that came out. Although it’s geared for children, adults learning English phonics can also benefit from it.

Show your children how to read for meaning instead of words

Another skill to teach your children is read for meaning instead of words. In many reading classes, students are often asked to read a paragraph or so aloud. If the purpose is to correct pronunciation, reading aloud has a purpose. Or if it’s to tell a story.

However, reading out loud with the intent to understand the content is not effective. Have you ever read something aloud only to go back to reread it because you didn’t get the meaning the first time?

Our brain thinks a lot faster than we can speak. That means if we read without moving our mouth, we can keep closer to the pace of our brain, which helps us to comprehend the content much better.

However, there is something to observe when you read silently.

Do you move your lips when you read silently?

Have you ever seen people moving their lips when they are reading, even if they do not say the words out loud? If so, the result is pretty much the same as reading aloud. When you read each word (even if it’s just with your lips and not your vocal cords), it’s easy to miss the meaning of the sentence. That’s because you are paying attention to the individual words, not the meaning of the sentence. Unless you are able to read it the way audio book narrators can. They read the content like they are telling a story.

So how does this apply to teaching your children to read? If the purpose of the session is to teach pronunciation or phonics, then do focus on individual words. If the intent is to read for meaning, and you want to read aloud to your children, then do what narrators do. Read an entire phrase before you pause. Phrasing helps us grasp the meaning of the sentence.

Do you understand more when you read slower?

Reading speed also makes a difference in comprehension. You might think reading slowly will help you understand more. However, that’s not necessarily the case.

I remember an English professor who read classic novels aloud in class. He read faster than anyone I’ve met. Over time, I saw why he did that. His reading speed matched more closely with the speed of my brain, therefore I could process the information more efficiently. If he had read slowly to match how fast I could speak, then it could have slowed down my processing of the information. Try this, and experiment for yourself.

To summarize, it IS possible for ESL learners of various stages to teach their children to read.

Phonics can help your children (and you) combine vowel sounds with consonants to pronounce words clearly. And this also helps with spelling.

And if you want to help children understand what they are reading, then read entire phrases before you pause to convey the intent of the message. The purpose of reading is to understand the idea as a whole. Focusing on individual words is for building a separate skill, not reading for comprehension.

If you find this article helpful, you might also enjoy reading How to pronounce the sounds r, p, v, and th for ESL learners.

Estrella Chan coaches immigrants and international professionals in English fluency, interview skills, and public speaking.    To schedule a session with her, please email

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