How Language Influences Reading for ELL Students

Instructor: Ralica Rangelova

Rali has taught Public Speaking to college students and English as a Second Language; She has a master's degree in communication.

Learn about first language literacy effect on reading in a second language. Similarities and differences are taken into account to describe positive and negative influence. Also, find out what factors predict second language reading development.

First Language Literacy and Reading in English

Reading is a complex task that involves a lot of steps, processes, and strategies. Reading in a second language gets even more complicated as it involves the same complex steps plus more. Basic reading foundations and strategies from the first language can be transferred to the second. In fact, beginner level learners rely more heavily on such transfers when they face a second language text. Therefore, literacy in the first language can facilitate second language reading development and comprehension. Learners who are already good readers in their native language have a better-equipped resource box to draw skills and strategies from to support their decoding, comprehension, and retention attempts in their second language. Nonetheless, even an excellent first language reader may be thrown off by big conceptual differences between the two languages. In other words, it is easier to transfer reading skills across languages that share some similarities.


Directionality in reading relates to the reader's ability to identify and follow the orientation and arrangement of graphemes, such as left-to-right, right-to-left, or top-down. When we first learn to read in our native language, we learn how to move our eyes across the page. It becomes so natural and automatized that we don't even think about it. Well…until we try to read a text that is oriented differently. If you are an English speaker and you take up Arabic, at least for a while, your brain will find it very challenging to read the Arabic texts that are oriented right-to-left.


Orthography is the writing and spelling system of a language. There are alphabetic systems which use letters to represent sounds, such as English, and there are syllabic systems which use characters or symbols to refer to syllables, morphemes, or words, such as Chinese. Readers need to know individual symbols and their identities. With this being said, first language transfer may occur at the orthographic level as well. If an English language learner uses a different type of alphabet in their language, Cyrillic (Russian) or Hangul (Korean), they will need to remember what a letter looks like and discriminate between familiar letters: Letter ''P'' exists both in Latin and Cyrillic alphabet but it corresponds to different sounds.

Phonemic Awareness

When sounds are combined together, they make words: ''book'': has four letters, three sounds. There are 26 letters in English but they can represent 44 sounds. To read fluently, English learners need to be able to hear, identify, and manipulate each sound. If a sound is not a part of a student's first language system, they may not be able to detect it. That will affect their reading comprehension and spelling as they cannot relate sounds to letters.


Morphology studies how words are formed in language. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful grammatical unit of a language: miscommunication (mis- is a morpheme). Usually, prefixes and suffixes help native speakers determine what part of the speech the word is and then guess its meaning or convert it. When a student's first language is similar to English, and they are literate readers in their native language, they can easily transfer knowledge about parallel morphemes and apply it to English: -tion (English); -cion (Spanish): both form nouns. However, in other cases, learner's first language can provide misleading information about morphemes, which can affect reading comprehension in English.

Sentence Structure

Sentence structure is essential for reading comprehension as it directs readers' attention to important text information, and helps them create schema and expectations and with recalling information. Strong first language readers know how to identify structures and navigate through texts. If English learners have solid knowledge of how English sentences are structured, they can build text expectations and decipher unfamiliar words. However, first language transfers can hinder the reading process. If something in the sentence violates a norm they are familiar with from their native language, they may take longer to work out how each word fits into the sentence until they decipher the meaning. For instance, passive forms are more commonly used in English than in Korean; thus, a learner from Korea may struggle with deconstructing such sentence structures.

Factors that Affect Second-language Reading Development

As we already established, reading is a complex task in any language as it involves a lot of processes and strategies. While skills acquired in first language reading influence the reading competence in English, there are other factors which affect a learner's development of second language reading proficiency.

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