Teachers may have some students in their class who cannot read or write English. Their home language may have a non-Latin alphabet, or they may not be literate in their home language. Other students’ speaking skills may be at a higher level than their reading and writing ability.

Pre-beginning or preliterate learners present a unique challenge to the ESL teacher accustomed to students who can write the Latin alphabet... Should we delay communication functions while teaching the writing system? Or should the learners first study by listening and repeating without using the written language?

There are several ways for the instructor faced with this problem to develop skill-building exercises to aid the nonliterate students in the class without delaying communicative functions (Magrath, D., December 13, 2016).

Teaching hint: Music

Music can be a source of inspiration and incentive for second language students. Learning musical notation is a type of reading and music can be helpful in the language learning process. Students learn left right orientation while reading the notes and focus on diacritics: sharps (#) and flats (b) along with accents, rests and hold symbols.

Here is what Bryan Campbell, band teacher, has to say:

In band class, we don’t spend a lot of time on passages of text, but you might be surprised by how much our rehearsals focus on reading skills. Students are learning a set of symbols we convert to sounds to convey meaning—it’s literacy in a different language (Campbell, B., February 11, 2020).

Students in band have to focus on their instruments and parts while hearing others play different parts. All the parts together blend in together, but they must be good readers, otherwise the piece just doesn’t sound right (I play alto sax. I learned as an adult, and I know how they feel).

Reading in band has an additional hitch: Students have to read their parts while hearing several other parts at the same time, which requires them to be strong, independent readers—and sheds light on a common weakness in beginners that occurs in the reading of text as well (Borrowing a literacy strategy from band class).

Signs that students in band are having problems include the following:

  • looking away from the page while playing (relying on memory or outside cues)
  • needing to hear how a passage goes before trying to play it,
  • getting lost when hearing different parts or others’ mistakes,
  • mixing up similar spots in the music, and
  • playing the same spot differently each time

Readers undergo similar problems:

  • The same problems can show up when students read text. Teachers should be on the lookout for students:
  • looking at others, or the teacher, for cues when reading or reciting aloud,
  • reading without inflection, or ignoring punctuation completely,
  • skipping or replacing minor words like for, of, a or an, etc.,
  • replacing words with those of similar “shape” (strength/straighten, every/very, etc.), and
  • reading a word correctly in a familiar passage but differently in a new context.

Music is a good way to connect with the larger community. Besides the school bands in middle and high school, there are community bands available for students who are college age and beyond.

The bands are either free to join or are low-cost, and most are affiliated with the local community college while others are independent. They generally meet one evening a week and have performances in fall and spring. For those who like to sing, there are community courses, too. Activities outside of the classroom will help students build language skills by doing something they enjoy.

Scientists have been studying the relationships between music and language development.

The connection between music and language development is one that neuroscientists have long studied. Northwestern’s Nina Kraus, director of that university’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratorytheorizes that regular music-making strengthens non-musical brain functions, such as memory, attention, language skills and readings kills (Barshay, J., August 24, 2015).

Music can be combined with acting for even more benefits.

There are life-long benefits to theater training even if students do not go to make acting their career. Theater builds communication skills, collaboration, and creativity, and it improves academic performance providing a transformative stage for young students (Franxman, L., February 29, 2020). The author has witnessed these effects for regular and ESL students:

Zachyra, who found her voice, and embraced school, when cast as a lead. English as a second language students who sang their hearts out to tell the story of the “American Melting Pot” from the show “Schoolhouse Rock Live Jr.” (A 12)

Reading and writing work together

Reading should be part of the comprehensible input in the ESL class. Reading and writing can be combined if students write stories or essays and then read them to each other in small groups or to the larger class.

The most common forms of input in the classroom are listening and reading. Teachers make input comprehensible by refining it, speaking slowly, and using a great deal of visual support. Input is controlled by the provider (teacher), but only the learner can control how that input is processed internally, subject of course to numerous internal and external factors (i.e., physical state, emotional state, developmental readiness, linguistic data that is or is not already present, etc.) (Gaab, C., February 4, 2020).

Students select the readings themselves for their own enjoyment, not just for an assignment. The results are enhanced L2 acquisition:

Moreover, the finding that the amount of free reading was strongly related to gains in literacy and language development is highly consistent with many previous studies (Krashen, S., October 2015).

Finally, here is another suggestion

Encourage students to write in the margins or ask questions when reading materials, as this is a much more active process and students engage with the text, which helps them to make meaning at a deeper level. This also serves as a reminder that texts are part of ongoing discussion and are not the last word on a given subject.


Barshay, J. (August 24, 2015) Education by the Numbers, Hechinger Report, http://hechingerreport.org/small-study-shows-high-school-music-classes-improve-language-skills/

Campbell, B. (February 11, 2020) Borrowing a literacy strategy from band class, https://www.edutopia.org/article/borrowing-literacy-strategy-band-class

Franxman, L. (February 29, 2020) Theater is an important part of a student’s development, Orlando Sentinel, V.144 No 60

Gaab, C. (February 4, 2020) Adding Madness to Method, Language Magazine, https://www.languagemagazine.com/2020/02/04/adding-madness-to-method/

Krashen, S. (October 2015) Can Second Language Acquirers Reach High Levels of Proficiency Through Self-Selected Reading? An Attempt to Confirm Nation's (2014) Results. International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 10, 10-19

Magrath, D. (December 13, 2016) The Challenge of ESL literacy, MultiBriefs Exclusive, http://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/the-challenge-of-esl-literacy/education