|Elementary Literacy :||Understanding Challenges|
Understanding the Challenges
Attaining age-appropriate English literacy skills poses many challenges to English language learners (ELLs). ELLs must make progress in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. As English-proficient students make progress in developing literacy skills, ELLs must make even faster progress in order to catch up and close the achievement gap.
Advanced levels of literacy require many types of linguistic, cultural, and world knowledge. According to the National Reading Panel, research indicates that basic reading and writing require competence in the following five areas:
Each of these areas has specific implications for ELLs.
1. Phonemic Awareness
In order to learn to read and write English, a learner must be able to perceive the small units of sound called phonemes that make up spoken words.
To those of us who can already read and write English, it is apparent that a word like boat has three component sounds, or phonemes: /b/ /o/ /t/. However, there is evidence that the ability to perceive a spoken word as a sequence of phonemes varies from individual to individual.
In addition to individual differences, phonemic segmentation of English words is particularly difficult for those with little prior experience listening to English speech sounds. Phonemic segmentation of English words is also particularly difficult for those with little experience in English rhyme, alliteration, or other word play.
ELLs may find it difficult to differentiate certain phonemes of English. For example, /v/ and /b/ may sound alike to some Spanish speakers, and /l/ and /r/ may be indistinguishable to some Japanese speakers. Similarly, while English speakers would identify pot and spot as both containing the phoneme /p/, Hindi speakers might perceive the /p/ in pot and the /p/ in spot as two distinct phonemes differentiated by the presence or absence of an initial puff of air (aspiration).
To read and write in English, a learner must have phonics skills, the ability to match sounds to letters and letters to sounds. That is, learners must know how to connect particular letters and letter combinations with the component sounds (phonemes) of familiar spoken words.
In order to read English, an English language learner must
In order to write English, an English language learner must also be able to
3. Vocabulary Development
In order to truly read and write in English, ELLs must understand English word meanings. Some ELLs may be able to repeat or pronounce English words and phrases without really understanding them. They may be able to decode words and produce the appropriate sounds without extracting or constructing meaning.
ELLs initially learn word meanings best through explicit instruction in combination with rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. Learners link word sounds to meanings through the context provided by predictable routines, concrete objects, pictures, gestures, physical movements, and experiential activities. ELLs also learn word meanings through listening to repeated readings, explicit explanations, and discussions of picture books on a variety of topics in fiction and nonfiction.
In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need multiple exposures to new words in different contexts. They also need opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts. For example, two ways to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding are (1) choosing which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation and (2) ranking words according to meaningful criteria.
ELLs may learn a single meaning for some words, such as fair, kid, log, will, and mean, and then fail to make sense of spoken or written language where these words represent alternative meanings. Homophones, such as to, too, two and due, dew, do, require explicit explanation, as do homographs, such as wind (noun) and wind (verb). ELLs may need explicit help in matching pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos).
Most ELLs acquire the vocabulary involved in daily routines, play, and social interaction before they learn academic and rare words. Inferring the meaning of unknown words from context can be difficult for ELLs who may not fully understand that context.
ELLs need explicit instruction and practice in word analysis. Learning word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes helps ELLs to understand many unfamiliar words.
Fluency in speaking English is an important factor underlying fluent oral reading. Reading quickly, accurately, and expressively can pose a challenge to ELLs. They need rich opportunities to listen, speak, and internalize the sounds, rhythms, and patterns of English over a period of time.
If the vocabulary or the sentence patterns of a passage are unfamiliar, ELLs will find it difficult to read aloud fluently. With repeated exposure and practice, ELLs can develop the ability to automatically identify English words seen frequently in print.
Even ELLs who are quite proficient in reading comprehension and fluent silent reading in English may feel self-conscious about reading orally, especially in large-group settings. Criticism, ridicule, and public correction are likely to exacerbate anxieties that ELLs may suffer over having an accent or being different.
Effective teachers provide ELLs with opportunities to listen and follow along during read-alouds. Teachers prepare ELLs to read a text orally on their own by reading it to them a few times. This will help students understand the story better and to hear the sounds and rhythms of its language. Sometimes teachers move their fingers under the text as they read so that students can match what they hear with what they see. Sometimes students move their own fingers under the text as they listen. Such experiences give ELLs the linguistic information and the confidence they need to practice reading and rereading a book until they can read it fluently by themselves.
In order to read English with understanding, ELLs must have developed phonemic awareness, phonics skills, word recognition skills, vocabulary knowledge, and the ability to read somewhat fluently.
It is easier for students to comprehend their reading when they can personally relate to the reading materials. Reading selections that have familiar topics, settings, concepts, references, and cultural contexts are easier for ELLs to understand. When selecting readings, effective teachers consider the types of prior knowledge that ELLs may or may not possess. In pre-reading discussions, teachers draw out students' relevant knowledge and help students make explicit connections to the text. When students choose their own reading materials to pursue their personal interests and goals, they are more likely to persist in trying to make sense of difficult texts.
Most readers find it a challenge to read materials containing new concepts and new information to be learned. This is especially true for ELLs. Comprehension is even more difficult when the style of English in a reading selection is very different from the English spoken in the ELL's daily life. Some excellent ways to prepare ELLs to comprehend unfamiliar material include experiential activities (e.g., science experiments, nature studies, or examination of historic photographs); accompanied by rich talk using key vocabulary from the reading material. Other ways to boost reading comprehension are anticipation guides, focus questions, graphic organizers, and conversations about readings.
Effective elementary literacy instruction develops students' thinking skills by integrating reading, writing, speaking, and listening into daily classroom activities. As you explore the five sections of this spotlight, consider which combination of practices is most appropriate for your students. In addition, review each section for specific insights and strategies pertaining to all students, including English language learners.