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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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You’ve prepared students for reading with KWL charts, graphic organizers, or concept sorts. Once students understand the theme of the reading and realize how much they already know about it, they are ready to read. They’ll have to do that on their own, but you can prepare them for the task. These techniques will help ELLs and struggling readers better comprehend what they read.


To ease students into material that may be complex or written at a level of some difficulty for them, use the technique of "think-pair-share." Have students read a passage by themselves, read in pairs, or listen as you read the material aloud to them. At an appropriate point, pose a question about the text and have them think for a moment to themselves, then share their ideas with a partner. After a moment or two of discussion, the pair can share their ideas with the class.

This technique works well with ELLs because it allows them to formulate their ideas on their own, test them out in a non-threatening way with their partners, and then, reinforced by their partner’s feedback, share the ideas with the class. They can thus rehearse what they want to say before they say it in front of a large group. It also lets them work out meaning with their partners, expanding and possibly correcting what they gathered from the reading.

For example, after reading half of the story Amelia’s Road by Linda Jacobs Altman (New York: 1995, Lee and Low Books), a story about a Mexican-American migrant laborer’s daughter who dreams of having her own permanent place to live, you might have students think about how Amelia might solve her problem. First they consider the problem by themselves; then they talk it over with a partner.

This technique can also work with textbook passages or other nonfiction texts. For example, when reading about the social climate in the American colonies before the American Revolution, the teacher could pose an inference question about causes of the Boston Tea Party. Students discuss possible causes with a partner, based on what they have read, and ultimately share with the class. Once they finish reading the text, they can compare their predictions with what actually happened.


Another strategy teachers can use to help students understand how to approach a passage is a think-aloud. Read a passage aloud to students and stop frequently to make comments about what you are thinking as you read. The idea is to reveal thought processes to the students so that they can emulate them when they read a similar passage. This technique is useful for interpreting poetry as well as for coming to grips with dense text like that in a science or social studies textbook.

For example, the following is the introduction to the book Weather by Seymour Simon (New York: 1993, Morrow Junior Books). Highlighted are things you could say to show students how they might try to make sense of unfamiliar words or concepts and relate them to things they already know:

Earth’s weather is driven by the intense heat of the sun. “is driven by”: another way to say that would be “is caused by,” so that must mean that the heat of the sun makes our weather happen here on earth The sun’s energy travels through space in the form of visible light waves and invisible ultraviolet and infrared rays. “visible” means I can see it, “invisible” means I can’t. I’ve heard of ultraviolet and infrared rays, but I’m not sure what they are — I think they can burn you if you don’t put on sunblock. About one third of the energy reaching Earth’s atmosphere is reflected back into space. reflected like with a mirror? What makes it reflect back into space? The remaining two thirds is absorbed during a process called insolation (from incoming solar radiation). I’ve heard of “insulation” but not “insolation” — wonder how these things are different. “Insulation” helps you keep warm, sounds like “insolation” would make something warm, too.

The atmosphere lets sunlight pass through. Sunlight heats the ground, which in turn warms the air near the surface. But the atmosphere prevents most of the heat from escaping into space. This makes the atmosphere sound like something solid, like a wall — I thought it was just air! This is called the greenhouse effect, because the glass windows in a greenhouse trap heat in the same way. A greenhouse — that’s where they grow baby plants — I think they have lots of windows — maybe the atmosphere is like a window, you can see through the air, but not everything can pass through it.

After reading the passage, encourage students to discuss what they observed you doing and have them practice the technique with a partner.


Another way to make sense of a passage is to try to summarize it. GIST (Generating Interaction between Schemata and Text) is a technique for letting students internalize a passage by selecting important words from it and writing a summary using those words. (see Using the SIOP Model by Deborah Short et al, Center for Applied Linguistics, 2002). Display a passage on the board and then read it with the class. With the students, pick out eight or ten of the most important words from the passage and underline or circle them. Then write a summary of the passage in a sentence or two using those words. Do this as a class for several passages of text, then ask students to try the technique on their own or in pairs.

This technique works well with non-fiction text, especially dense, complex text. For example, the following is a passage from Titanic, a non-fiction book from the Magic Treehouse series:

As dawn broke on Sunday, April 14, the Titanic was heading into dangerous waters. Captain Smith had already received several warnings from other ships that there was ice in the area.

At first, the captain was not overly concerned. There was often ice in the sea lanes between England and America at that time of year.

By 2:00 that afternoon, though, Captain Smith had received four more ice warnings. To avoid the ice, he ordered his crew to change the course of the ship. The Titanic would now travel farther south than originally planned.

From this passage, you and your students might select these words:

  • avoid
  • warning
  • ice
  • dangerous
  • not concerned
  • sea lanes

As a class, you might create a summary statement such as the following:

The ship received warnings about dangerous ice in the sea lanes, but the captain wasn’t concerned. To avoid the ice, he headed the ship farther south than normal.

The students then work in pairs or small groups to do their own summary for the next passage.