K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Reading comprehension and English language learners
Teaching reading comprehension and helping English language learners are the responsibility of every teacher, but they are also within the abilities of every teacher. These articles provide strategies for building content-area reading comprehension before, during, and after reading that can help English language learners — and all learners.
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So, Mr. or Ms. Content Area Teacher (and Mr. or Ms. Classroom Teacher, you too!). You’re sitting there in a faculty meeting listening to the dire results of your school’s latest reading tests, especially for your English Language Learners (ELLs). You’re thinking, "I don’t have anything to do with bringing up those scores—I’m not the reading teacher or the ESL teacher!" Well, think again! Answer these questions:

  • Do you require students to learn vocabulary specific to a content area?
  • Do you assign textbook passages or articles for students to read?
  • Do you test students on their comprehension of those passages?
  • Do you have ELLs in your classroom?

If you answer "yes" to even one of these questions, guess what? You are a reading teacher! And an ESL teacher!

In these days of increasing pressure to raise test scores while meeting the needs of widely diverse students, teachers have less and less time to accomplish more and more. With growing numbers of ELLs in the classroom, you have to help students master not only content area curriculum but also English and reading skills. But rather than panic, you can rest assured that folding reading instruction into content area instruction is within their abilities, even if you don’t think of yourself as a reading or ESL teacher. What follows are a few tried and true strategies for teaching reading within content areas that work particularly well with ELLs.

Before reading: building background and making connections

First, find the "hook" to pull students in to reading the assigned material. The right hook will engage what students already know about the subject — which is sometimes substantially different from what teachers expect — and encourage them to expand that knowledge, so that they can tackle the subject more easily.

KWL charts

The easiest way to find out what students know is simply to ask them. Do this with a KWL chart. Divide a sheet of chart paper into three sections. Label the parts Know, Want to Know, and Learned, or simply, K, W, and L.

For example, when beginning a unit on the American Revolution, ask students what they know about it. As they mention items, jot them down under the K column. These might be items such as "Americans fought the British," "George Washington was the leader," or "the soldiers wore red coats." To learn how to prod students’ memories, try searching the curriculum standards to see what students might have learned in previous years. After students have exhausted their knowledge, lead them into thinking about what they want to know. They might ask questions such as "Why were they fighting?" or "How long did it take?" Write these questions under the "W" column as students mention them. Then orally review or summarize the two lists.

Know Want to know Learned
  • Americans fought the British
  • George Washington was the leader
  • Soldiers wore red coats
  • Why were they fighting?
  • How long did the war take?

Students should now realize that they know something about the topic and, more importantly, that there is more that they can learn. Once they have read their textbook or trade book on the subject, revisit the chart and ask students what they have learned from the reading. Add these items to the "L" column. This strategy works well for readings in science or social studies, as it helps students see that they can control even complex subject matter. For a variation on this activity, students can work on KWL charts in pairs or small groups, then share them with the class.

Circle maps and brainstorming webs

Another variation is to use a graphic organizer such as a circle map or a brainstorming web to visually collect everything students know about a topic. Start with a circle with the topic or central theme in the center — for example, "habitat." For a circle map, draw a larger concentric circle outside that one, and in the space in between the two circles, write down what students associate with the term — for example, "place to live," "desert," "rainforest" etc. For a web, write these new ideas in their own circles, and then draw lines to connect the ideas as appropriate.

circle map brainstorming web

These organizers help students verbalize their ideas and free-associate about them. They are great for ELLs because students can concretely see what they already know about a topic. Brainstorming with their peers also lets them support and expand one another’s learning using their speaking and listening skills, which usually develop sooner than their reading and writing skills.

Concept sorts

Another way to introduce a topic and prepare students for reading about it is to introduce the vocabulary for the topic via concept sorts. Based on the research of Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, Johnston and others, word sorts are a constructivist way of letting students discern spelling and meaning patterns and formulate their own theories about spelling (see Words Their Way, New Jersey: 2003, Prentice-Hall, for more). Concept sorts are a spin on word sorts in which the teacher gives students a list of important concepts from a subject and lets them figure out how they relate to one another. This technique is a good one to use when there is a lot of specialized vocabulary to introduce.

For example, to introduce a book about habitats, take the following terms related to the theme:

  • forests
  • grasslands
  • mountains
  • deserts
  • water
  • freshwater
  • adapted
  • camouflaged
  • coniferous
  • deciduous
  • grazing
  • oasis
  • rainforest
  • canopy

Write the terms on index cards, one term to a card, and make serveral sets. Have small groups of students sort them. They can sort the cards in whatever way they want to, but they should be able to explain why they grouped the terms as they did. As you monitor the small group work, you will get a sense of how much the students already know about the topic and can tailor instruction accordingly.

Before beginning, you can demonstrate and explain your own sort:

"I’m making columns with each of these words: forests, grasslands, mountains, deserts, water. Then under each word I’m going to put the other words. These are things that you might find in each of these places.

Forests Grasslands Mountains Desert Water
  • rainforest
  • canopy
  • deciduous
  • coniferous
    grazing
  • oasis
  • freshwater

"I’m not sure how "adapted" and "camouflaged" fit in with these words, but I guess we’ll see."

A more structured way to use concept sorts is to create categories and have students guess where certain terms go. For example, before reading the story Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (New York: 1995, Lee and Low Books), give students words that come from the story:

  • tower
  • Jap
  • camp
  • bat
  • desert
  • fence

Ask students to guess where they should put them under these headings:

  • character
  • setting
  • problem
  • solution
Character Setting Problem Solution
  • Jap
    camp
  • desert
  • tower
  • bat
  • fence

Then, based on the chart they come up with, ask students to write a short prediction of what the story will be about. (The idea for this strategy came from a lesson plan called "Probably Passage" by Jamie Rettke.)