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English Learner Profile: The Language and Literacy Novice

According to Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, there are four types of English learners:

  1. newcomers who are literate in their first language

  2. newcomers who are not yet literate in any language

  3. students who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English proficiency as expected

  4. long-term English learners with conversational English who have not developed academic language and literacy in any language.

In this series of posts, we go into depth about what these learner profiles mean for planning effective instruction. We unpack each learner profile and offer suggestions for designing effective instruction that builds on multilingual students' strengths and supports their English language and literacy development.

In this post, we discuss our second English Learner profile, the Language and Literacy Novice!

PROFILE 2: The Language and Literacy Novice

Newcomers to US schools who do not know how to read and write in their first language have a very different learner profile. They often require support that is more intensive and offered earlier than multilingual students with other learner profiles. Students in this group should receive timely, high-quality intervention for both English language development and emergent literacy. There is no time to waste!

There is good reason for this urgency. MLs in this group are learning how to read and write in a language they are still developing. They are working on acquiring new vocabulary and language structures while also learning abstract concepts about how speech relates to print in this unfamiliar language. And they are doing all this while acclimating to a new school, culture, and relationships!

For students whose first language is English, learning to read and write is still a huge task. But these students have the benefit of a robust English oral language foundation to help them make sense of print. Their ears are sensitive to the individual sounds of English, and they can tell if what they have read makes sense.

Since they are already fluent in English, monolingual students can give their attention to learning concepts about print, how letter-sound relationships work, and making meaning from text. They don’t have the added challenge of doing all of this in an unfamiliar language.

At the elementary level, it is common to have newcomers who are not yet literate in their first language. Even at the K-2 grades, it is important not to delay literacy support until newcomers develop a certain level of oral language. Research has shown that multilingual learners at the earliest stages of English language proficiency make the largest gains in literacy when they receive early intervention.

It’s clear that newcomers who are learning to read for the first time deserve all the support we can offer.

Tips for supporting the Language and Literacy Novice:

  • consider offering a short-term newcomer program where students can learn the routines of school, acquire survival English, become familiar with letters and letter sounds, and make friends in a smaller, sheltered environment

  • provide access to grade-level curriculum as quickly as possible using scaffolds to support language development

  • identify and monitor MLs to ensure they receive timely intervention from a language and/or literacy specialist

  • intervene with additional supports as soon as concerns are noted

  • provide high-quality language and literacy instruction across all RtI tiers

  • immerse MLs in a print-rich classroom and provide multiple opportunities to hear, discuss, write about, and enjoy texts

  • incorporate a variety of text types into your instruction, including rhymes, songs, poems, fiction, and informational texts

  • encourage families to continue reading to their children in whichever language they are most comfortable–students will transfer their understanding of the literacy concepts modeled in their first language to English

  • model concepts about print, including where to start reading, how to track print left-to-right across the page, the difference between a letter and a word, and the difference between “first” and “last”

  • read texts to and with your MLs more than once–repetition builds fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and confidence

Continue the Series

We hope this series will be helpful to you as you get to know your multilingual learners! Continue reading the series here:

The Four Profiles of English Language Learners (and How to Teach Them)

Profile 1: The Literate Newcomer

Profile 3: The Progressing English Learner

Profile 4: The Persistent English Learner

What have been your experiences working with Language and Literacy Novices? What challenges have you encountered, and what successes have you had? Share in the comments below!


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2010). Implementing RtI with English learners. Solution Tree. [Amazon]

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