Teaching Diverse Learners
Reading: Grades K - 3
Considerations for ELLs
From kindergarten through grade 3, learning to read is a particularly intense endeavor for both teachers and learners. During this critical time period, students are "cracking the code" and building the foundations for lifelong literacy. To support this process, effective teachers carefully integrate reading into daily classroom activities, capitalizing on how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support one another. As you read these practices, consider how children learn many things through emulation. You serve as a literacy model for your students to emulate when you read, write and talk about your thinking processes
ELLs who have not learned to read in their primary or home language face the enormous challenge of acquiring the initial concepts and skills of literacy in English, a language they have not fully mastered. Others who have already developed literacy and academic skills in their home languages must apply their literacy knowledge to the task of reading English, with its distinct sound system, spelling patterns, vocabulary, and sentence patterns. In addition, ELLs often have to make meaning from texts that require cultural knowledge different from their own. Finally, many ELLs find reading difficult because they have not previously experienced consistent schooling or appropriate instruction in either language.
1. Teachers combine multiple research-based methods and strategies into a coherent plan for reading instruction that meets the diverse learning needs of their students.
In any class, students represent a range of strengths and instructional needs. Effective teachers recognize that students, especially ELLs, come to school from varied backgrounds and with different prior knowledge. Therefore, multiple approaches to reading instruction are especially important. For example, teaching ELLs to recognize and use cognates ("sister words" that share origins and meanings across languages) gives students a valuable comprehension strategy. Spanish-speaking students and students who speak other Latin-root languages have a great advantage when they are able to read and understand words like ancient and enormous because of the Spanish cognates anciano and enorme. But for ELLs from other language backgrounds, teachers need to provide additional explanations, definitions, and examples of these same words. In contrast, proficient English speakers might already know these words or infer their meaning from the context of the reading material.
Some beginning ELL readers benefit from approaches that reinforce the relationships between experience, talk, and print. For example, in the Language Experience approach, students' attention is focused on an everyday or school experience such as taking a class walk to collect leaves, blowing bubbles, making popcorn, going to pick apples, or experimenting with magnets. The teacher leads a discussion of the experience, eliciting narratives from the students and supplying needed vocabulary. Discussion culminates in the oral composition of individual or group stories, which the teacher transcribes and rereads with students.
In this approach, teachers say things like:
2. Teachers use systematic and explicit instruction to develop students' 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. For example, it is apparent to those of us who can already read and write English 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). ELLs who experience difficulties with the sounds of English do not require referral to a speech language pathologist. That is only appropriate for students who have language difficulties in their native language as well.
ELLs can develop phonemic awareness through listening to read-alouds, songs, poems, and chants. Listening to the sounds, rhymes, and rhythms of English provides ELLs with the auditory experiences they need to pronounce and read English. It is important for teachers to understand that listening to well-chosen, engaging language creates the necessary foundation for reading.
Effective teachers explicitly model phonemic segmentation (how to divide words into individual phonemes). They illustrate concepts, such as onset (the beginning of a syllable) and rime (the ending of a syllable), which enable us to rhyme words like cat, mat, pat, and bat or low, toe, and go. To further clarify these concepts, teachers often use visual aids and props, such as colored blocks or rods, which can physically represent phonological units.
Teachers who familiarize themselves with the similarities and differences between the students' primary languages and English will be able to anticipate and address areas of potential confusion. For example, if teachers are aware that the consonant sounds /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/, /m/, /n/, /f/, /s/ and /l/ are found at the beginnings of words in both English and Spanish, teachers may expect Spanish-speaking students to be successful in recognizing and distinguishing them. Knowing that most Spanish words end with a vowel, not a consonant, teachers can provide extra practice to help Spanish speakers distinguish and pronounce consonants at the ends of words. Similarly, knowing that in Korean /p/ and /f/ are not distinct phonemes, teachers can provide extra practice distinguishing between words such as pat/fat and pill/fill.
Aware that some English phonemes such as the sounds represented by /th/ in either and ether are present in few other languages, teachers can demonstrate how the /th/ sounds are formed (with the tongue and front teeth) and can help their students practice pronouncing words that feature these sounds.
To obtain information about students' primary languages, teachers can consult reference materials, ask bilingual adults, and listen carefully to sound patterns of English and other languages.
Effective teachers say things like:
3. Teachers develop students' phonic skills through systematic instruction on sound-symbol relationships, spending appropriate time to meet individual needs.
In order to learn to read English, a learner must be able to connect particular letters and letter combinations with the component sounds (phonemes) of familiar spoken words. To do this, an English language learner must:
Students must also be aware of the various and most frequent letter combinations that represent particular sounds as in meet, mete, and meat or fold, phone and tough.
Effective teachers are aware that in some languages like Spanish, decoding words is much easier than in English because the relationships between sounds and letters are more consistent. This may cause students to try to pronounce silent letters like the l in walk and talk and should when they read these familiar words.
Teachers, reading coaches, and administrators are aware that ELLs may need more time than English-proficient students to master the phonological and vocabulary knowledge upon which phonics instruction builds.
Effective teachers adapt and tailor their phonics instruction to emphasize the sounds that affect particular language groups in the class. When teachers model their writing for students, teachers think out loud, explicitly discussing the relationship between sounds and letters.
They say things like:
4. Teachers frequently engage students in oral reading to develop their reading fluency.
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 silent reading in English may feel self-conscious about reading orally, especially in large-group settings. Criticism, ridicule, or public correction is likely to exacerbate anxieties that ELLs may feel about having an accent or being different.
Effective teachers provide English language learners (ELLs) with opportunities to listen and follow along as they read stories aloud. To prepare ELLs to read a text orally, teachers read it to them a few times. The goal is for students to understand the story well and to hear the sounds and rhythms of the 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.
Often, teachers have students dictate their stories for initial fluency practice because the language and the concepts will be familiar. Some teachers work with students to standardize spelling and sentence structure before the stories are practiced and read aloud. Predictable pattern books also help young ELLs to develop fluency. Other good read-aloud choices are short skits and simple call-and-response poems, where the teacher reads a more difficult part and students join in for a predictable refrain
After hearing the text repeatedly, students can read it with the teacher and then practice reading it aloud to themselves and others. They can practice reading aloud as a class chorus, in small groups or pairs, and at home to family members. Librarians, community volunteers, parents, and "reading buddies" from the upper grades can read with students. Classmates can also take turns reading aloud with "reading buddies" in class. Hearing their classmates read aloud often has a motivating effect on ELLs.
5. Teachers use numerous research-based methods for both direct and indirect vocabulary instruction.
Limited vocabulary knowledge is often a major hindrance to reading comprehension for ELLs. 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 through explicit instruction and rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. They 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 fiction and nonfiction topics. 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. Speakers of languages that share commonalities with English, such as Spanish and Portuguese, may find cognate or "sister words" (e.g., intelligent; intelligente) to be a valuable resource when reading English.
When English-proficient bilingual students explain English word meanings to less-proficient classmates, they are providing a valuable service while increasing their own interpretation and metalinguistic (about language) skills.
Vocabulary is of critical importance to ELLs. In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need repeated exposure to new words in a variety of contexts, as well as opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts. Thematic teaching across the curriculum and reading many books on the same or related topics are two ways to provide students with repeated exposure to the same words and to word forms (e.g. immigrant, immigrate, and immigration).
Effective teachers promote vocabulary learning through multiple strategies. For example, they can have students choose which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation, discuss semantic features that differentiate close synonyms, and rank words according to meaningful criteria to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding.
Teachers say things like:
In addition, teachers provide explicit explanation of potentially confusing words such as homophones (e.g., to, too, two; due, dew, do) and homographs (e.g., wind, wind; sow, sow). They also help students match pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos). Explicit instruction and practice in word analysis, including word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes, help ELLs understand many unfamiliar words.
Cognates are "sister words" sharing common origins and meanings across languages. Recognizing and using cognates is a valuable comprehension strategy that can and should be taught to students. Students have a great advantage when they read words like ancient and enormous and are able to understand them because of their Spanish cognates anciano and enorme. However ELLs and their teachers should be aware that some words appear to be related but are not. The English word pie (a dessert) and the Spanish word pie (a foot) are examples of such false cognates.)
To promote word awareness, teachers:
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the contribution and skill of bilingual students who provide translations to less proficient students who need and want such help. Translating develops the linguistic skills of the interpreter and may provide less-proficient students with access to academic content.
6. Teachers promote students' reading comprehension through research-supported techniques and explicit strategies.
An individual student's reading comprehension varies from text to text. One important variable is prior knowledge of the topic. When students read about familiar topics and cultural contexts, they comprehend and retain information better than when they read about topics of which they have little or no background knowledge.
Other factors that affect students' ability to comprehend are the presence of unknown vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, complex sentence structure, and an unfamiliar style such as a formal academic style or a regional dialect. Texts vary in the degree to which they provide background information or require that readers have the knowledge necessary to "fill in the blanks." This is especially true for ELLs.
The following eight types of comprehension instruction identified by the National Reading Panel (2000) are highly appropriate for ELLs but may require additional scaffolding and practice:
Teachers can help ELLs increase reading comprehension in a number of different ways. Effective teachers of ELLs examine reading selections ahead of time for linguistic features and cultural material that may require explanation prior to reading. Often, teachers assess, activate, and build students' background knowledge through the use of pre-reading discussion of illustrations, titles, or issues. It is beneficial to precede nonfiction readings with demonstrations, visual media, or experiential activities related to the topic. Students are more successful readers when they have a framework for understanding the new information presented in the text.
It is important to find reading material with settings, characters, problems, and topics that are familiar or meaningful to students. When teachers help students to select their own reading materials, teachers promote students' motivation, enjoyment, and sense of efficacy.
Graphic organizers and story maps provide support to ELLs who may tend to get lost in the words and not see organizing ideas or patterns. Effective teachers are aware that these devices work best with repeated explanations of their purpose and demonstrations of use. They introduce graphic organizers and story maps by applying them first to easy or familiar texts. This enables students to focus on learning why and how to use these organizers before applying them as tools for comprehending more demanding texts.
Summarizing is a valuable and surprisingly difficult skill that teachers must model and explain. Teachers explicitly discuss their decisions about what constitutes the main points in a summary. To become effective summarizers, ELLs need instruction in combining sentences and in the use of superordinates, so that they can use category words (e.g., relatives, hobbies, injuries, mammals, countries) rather than enumerating lists.
Learning to answer and generate questions about the text can be very productive for ELLs. Teacher modeling and guided practice help students gain an understanding of how to ask productive questions in various linguistic forms (e.g., Why John went West?/ Why did John go West?/ Why do you think John went West?).
When teachers ask students to provide evidence from the text to support their opinions, students read and reread more closely.
Effective teachers say things like:
7. Teachers use computer technology to support reading instruction.
Computer programs and multimedia products (e.g., books with audiotapes) enable ELLs and others to develop reading skills through the synergistic effects of visual images, printed text, and audio text. These technological tools allow ELLs to exercise control over the pace of instruction and to replay or review as many times as they wish without self-consciousness. Having quick access to definitions while reading in some computer programs also helps students sustain momentum.
Despite the many benefits that technology offers, one pitfall is that it can be isolating. For ELLs, face-to-face interaction with others is an important way to learn. Effective teachers have students work at computers or listening centers in pairs or small groups, where talking with each other about the activities and their content provides an important social dimension.
Much educational software is now available in multiple languages. Bilingual students often enjoy using both primary language and English versions. Comparing texts enables them to confirm their comprehension and to increase metalinguistic awareness.
Carefully guided Internet visits provide access to reading materials on a wide range of motivating topics at various reading levels and in multiple languages. Like pen pals, "key pal" arrangements with other "sister" classrooms also provide great connections, reading material, and learning opportunities.
There is general agreement that becoming a proficient reader in a second language is a difficult task. Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) and August and Hakuta (1997) underscore the enormous cognitive challenge faced by young ELLs who must acquire oral and literacy skills in English simultaneously. ELLs who are already literate in a home language are able to transfer some of their skills for use in English reading (Garcia, 2000), but that does not imply that learning to read well in English will be an easy task. Reading involves the use of both "higher level cognitive knowledge, ... abilities... and learning strategies," as well as "low level linguistic knowledge and processing strategies" (Birch, 2002, p. x). Throughout the elementary grades, ELLs are likely to encounter difficulties with both "high" and "low" levels of the reading process, especially as they tackle increasingly complex readings (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998).
Knowledge of the relationships between sounds and letters is essential for learning to read English (Ehri, 1998). Verhoeven's (1999) work cautions teachers that it is unrealistic to expect ELLs to decode words independently until they are familiar with the sound system of English. To help ELLs become adept at using sound-letter relationships, Birch (2002) recommends practice in a variety of tasks: identifying a particular phoneme in words, discriminating between that phoneme and similar ones, linking the sound to the printed letter, visually discriminating the letter from other visually similar letters, recognizing and printing the letter in both upper and lowercase forms, finding the letter at the beginnings and endings of words alone and in connected text, and drawing things that begin with the letter and labeling them (p. 72). Other teaching suggestions include: playing games with rhyming words and alliterative words to develop students' awareness of how sounds combine to form words (Antunez, 2002; Kaufman & Franco, 2004), and, in the case of Spanish-speaking ELLs, building upon the similarities and differences between the sound systems of the two languages (Helman, 2004).
Many researchers point out the difficulty of comprehending text when one has a limited vocabulary (Verhallen & Schoonen, 1993; Garcia, 1991; McLaughlin, 1993; Jimenez, Garcia, & Pearson, 1995, 1996). ELLs of any age often know too few words or only a single meaning for a word. McLaughlin et al. (2004) have had promising results in increasing ELLs' vocabulary knowledge through an intervention that pre-selected challenging and high-utility words from a reading selection. The intervention involved direct teaching of word meanings; teaching and raising awareness of words with multiple meanings; systemic teaching of word analysis skills including roots and affixes; engaging students in word games, riddles, and other activities designed to promote deeper understanding and use of the words in new and meaningful contexts; and finding the words outside of school. The intervention also focused on increasing Latino students' awareness of Spanish/English cognate words and ability to use cognate recognition as a legitimate and productive comprehension strategy.
Several researchers have documented that ELLs benefit from cognate recognition training (García & Nagy, 1993; Durgunoglu et al., 1993). Kress (2002) contains a useful reference list of Spanish-English cognates. Similarly, Au (1993), Nagy (1988), Dixon and Nessel (1983), and others recommend that teachers integrate vocabulary instruction with content instruction and with story reading. Hickman et al. (2004) describe a successful approach to teaching vocabulary to primary-grade ELLs during storybook reading. The approach involves careful selection of several storybooks or informational texts that focus on a theme of interest to the students in the class and are at a reading level above students' grade level. Teachers carefully select from the texts those vocabulary words that students could encounter and use in other contexts. Over the course of five days, the class previews the story and the vocabulary words, and the story is read aloud, discussed, re-read, and summarized. Discussions focus on using the vocabulary words and encouraging children to relate these words to their own life experiences.
Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) and Carrell (1983, 1984)have demonstrated the positive impact that prior knowledge of a topic or situational context has on ELLs' reading comprehension. However, stories and other texts often contain cultural contexts and assumptions that are unfamiliar to young ELLs and make comprehension difficult or impossible. Researchers advise teachers to support comprehension before students read by eliciting and building upon ELLs' prior knowledge and experiences relevant to story theme, setting, and content. Many researchers also support the value of teaching content reading strategies such as previewing a chapter before reading it and formulating questions, self-monitoring, and using imagery during reading (Carasquillo et al., 2004; Chamot & O'Malley, 1994; Echevarria et al., 2000; Schifini, 1994). Researchers agree that teachers should model and support comprehension before, during, and after reading by teaching text structures; using graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams, cause and effect charts, and story maps; and creating study guides that students can complete (Carasquillo et al., 2004).
One recommended approach to increase comprehension and engagement is the use of culturally relevant texts and multicultural literature (Au, 1998, 1993; Barrera, 1992; Harris, 1994). Larrick's 1965 landmark article, "The All-White World of Children's Books" (reprinted in Muse, 1997) pointed out that minority children had few opportunities to read about characters like themselves or see themselves in these books. In Larrick's review, these children's books often depicted those minority characters in offensive or demeaning ways. More recently, Singer and Smith (2003) pointed out that:
Daphne Muse's book, Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (1997), contains an extensive annotated bibliography of such literature likely to engage ELLs readers and to build upon their experiences and prior knowledge.
Students' knowledge and experience are the starting points for The Language Experience Approach to reading, used with beginning English readers of all ages (Moustafa, 1987; Tharp & Gallimore, 1989; Tinajero & Calderon, 1988). Through questioning, teachers prompt students to speak about their individual or in-class experiences. The teacher writes down students' oral narratives, and the resulting text becomes the basis of reading instruction. Often teachers plan a group activity (e.g., taking a walk) to provide a common experiential base for reading.
Hoggard's 1996 review of the "critical attributes of classroom culture" for ESL literacy learners includes "the teacher as guide," "meaningful literacy experiences, a sense of ownership," "a community of learners," and "interactive classroom discourse" (pp. 5-9). Other researchers have also highlighted the importance of student participation in conversations that relate book themes to students' personal experiences and to other books. The instructional conversations (IC) approach is one way of structuring such book-centered interactions. Teachers promote general participation in small-group discussion by not calling on children but waiting for them to volunteer to speak, by responding to student contributions, and by encouraging students to connect their comments to those of previous speakers and build upon what they said (Rueda et al., 1992; Saunders & Goldenberg, 1999). IC also promotes skimming, scanning, and careful reading by requiring students to find text passages that support their opinions and interpretations (Goldenberg, 1991, 1992/1993; Goldenberg & Gallimore, 1990). Literature circles are another discussion format that promotes comprehension and academic language in a social context. Ruby (2003) discusses their effectiveness when properly scaffolded for English language learners. Gordon (2003) offers another good example of how teachers can effectively use literature response journals with English language learners.
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