Making reading passages comprehensible for English language learners
English language learners can read the same content-area material as their peers, but they may need special help. Teachers can make difficult reading comprehensible by building vocabulary, decoding difficult syntax, and teaching background knowledge.
You’ve got a new student who’s just arrived from Mexico or India or some other distant corner of the world. With EOGs or EOCs looming, it’s imperative to bring her up to speed as quickly as possible. But when you assign reading homework, she just can’t handle the same reading assignments you give your native English-speaking students. You tell her she doesn’t have to read as much as the others, but that doesn’t help. She uses a dictionary as she reads, but that takes so long and doesn’t really seem to do much good, anyway. So just what is going on here, and what can you do to help?
As you’ve realized by now, there are many factors that play into your student’s comprehension of whatever it is she’s reading. She has to decode the words she sees. She has to know what the words mean. She has to be able to break complex sentences down into parts that she can understand. And if she has no knowledge about the subject at all, she has to wrap her head around that, too, for the first time. The further along in school she is, the tougher the reading gets, and the more difficult it is for her to perform these tasks at all, let alone in a timely manner. And that’s not even taking into account that she may have had very spotty schooling in her native country.
The best way to help students improve their reading is to help them select material that is not overly difficult for them, as well as material that they can “buy into,” in other words, material that they have some interest in reading. In addition, there are certain skills they need to read well. You can teach them these skills (and they need all the explicit instruction that they can get!).
When you think about teaching vocabulary, especially to a student who has not been in the country for very long, the task can seem huge. Where do you start? How do you teach it? How do you decide which words to teach, without overwhelming the student?
Well, first of all, don’t haul out the dictionaries. Asking students to look up new vocabulary words and write down the meanings is an ineffective way for a student to learn and internalize a new word’s meaning. Instead, researchers Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan recommend choosing vocabulary words by determining their usefulness, frequency, and ease with which a student can restate the meaning in her own words. The authors distinguish three types of words:
- Tier One words are basic words that rarely need to be taught, such as baby, clock, and jump.
- Tier Two words are words that a student will see frequently but are difficult enough that special instruction is needed. Examples are fortunate, maintain, and coincidence.
- Tier Three words occur infrequently and are mostly specific to certain content areas (lathe, refinery, isotope).
In a given reading, words to pull out for special vocabulary instruction are Tier Two words, as well as any Tier Three words necessary to understand the story.
Researchers Camille Blachowicz and Peter Fisher similarly suggest choosing the following kinds of words:
- comprehension words (necessary for understanding the subject at hand)
- useful words (useful across several domains)
- academic words or phrases (used in an academic setting, such as “in contrast to”)
- generative words (often of Greek or Latin origin, whose prefixes, suffixes, and roots can be broken down and applied to other words)
For more on these kinds of words and the STAR model for teaching them (Select—Teach—Activate/Analyze/Apply—Review), see “Integrated Vocabulary Instruction: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners in Grades K–5.”
Especially difficult for ELLs are idioms, slang, and double-entendres. “Paul ran past at breakneck speed” is a colorful description of how Paul was running, but it will take a lower-proficiency student awhile to unpack the meaning of “breakneck,” if she is able to understand it at all. And just imagine her frustration if she runs into “He let the cat out of the bag,” which of course has nothing to do with cats or bags! Familiarity with idioms can pique a student’s interest in reading, but idioms with which she is unfamiliar may add nothing but frustration to her experience.
Strategies for teaching vocabulary
When starting your own vocabulary instruction, try taking a brief passage and choosing three or four words that you feel students may not know but that they will run across with some degree of frequency in other reading assignments. Be sure to include idioms and other colorful words and phrases that they will run across in their reading. As you introduce these words, find ways to help students create associations for them: through synonyms or antonyms, for example, or by using them with words they are often associated with (shining with bright, for example). Have students define them using their own words. You’ll need to model this step several times, and you may want to work out definitions as a class for awhile until you’re certain your students have the hang of this process. This step is a good one for English learners to do with a more fluent partner. You’ll certainly want to check their definitions before continuing, to make sure they have truly understood the word’s meaning.
Next, help students cement the associations they are making with the words by acting them out or drawing an illustration of their meaning—or both! Movement and images are proven ways of helping English learners absorb and internalize meaning. Finally, have students find an example of the word’s usage in the passage at hand, or help them generate their own sentences. Again, spot-check sentences, especially when you first start doing this, to make sure they’re using the words correctly.
Students can keep track of these words in various ways, including vocabulary notebooks or on index cards that they hold together with rubber bands or ring clips. As they expand their entries, you’ll need to review the words frequently to help them internalize the meanings. You can do this in a number of ways:
- maintaining word walls with words and their pictures on display
- playing games such as Jeopardy or charades, where students guess or act out the meanings
- having students complete sentence stems that will show their mastery of the meaning (“The students were exuberant when their teachers told them…”)
- creating uses of the words in a variety of contexts (“We could use the word ‘exuberant’ to describe how Charlie felt when he found the Golden Ticket.”)
Resources for teaching vocabulary
For more suggestions and discussion on teaching vocabulary, see these resources:
- Steven Stahl and Barbara Kapinus, Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know About Teaching Vocabulary. National Education Association, 2001.
- Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford, 2002.
- Camille Blachowicz and Peter Fisher, Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill-Prentice Hall, 2005.
- Camille Blachowicz, “Integrated Vocabulary Instruction: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners in Grades K–5.” Naperville, Ill.: Learning Point Associates, 2005.
“See Jane run. Look at Spot. Run, Spot, run!” Remember those early days of reading? Remember writing sentences like “I like to play with my toys”? There’s a reason we start out reading and writing simple sentences like these: they’re easy to process! It’s the same story for your student learning English. The very techniques that can make an article interesting or challenging for a fluent reader can make the less-proficient student moan in despair. Dependent clauses, conjunctions, adverbial phrases are all tricks of the writing trade that can enrich our reading — or for those less fluent, confuse and obfuscate it. If you are sensitive to the presence of these tools in the reading assignments you give, you can help your students navigate the more difficult situations they may find themselves in.
- The sky was growing dark. Nevertheless, the hikers kept on moving towards the top of the mountain.
- First, they built a fire. Later, they set up their tent.
Words like those italicized above help link one sentence or one thought to another. They contrast ideas or sequence actions. It can be devilishly hard to remember what these little words mean when you’re first learning them!
You can help students learn sequencing words by physically manipulating sentences that convey a sequence. Write out each sentence on a sentence strip and have students put the sentences in the proper order, either by pushing them around on a table in front of them or by having several students physically arrange themselves while holding the sentence strips. Have students fill out a flow chart with events in the proper sequence, and be sure they highlight the sequencing words. Teach words and phrases like nevertheless or in addition to with their synonyms: but or and. Don’t teach them all at once, but once you’ve presented them, be sure to point out these words and phrases as they occur in later readings.
“I looked at the fish” tells you first who carried out the action of looking. “The fish was looked at by me” puts the emphasis on the thing I was looking at. Linguistic studies have shown that passive sentences like this are harder to process than active sentences. New language learners especially have a difficult time with passive sentences. Help students by recasting sentences in active voice. Draw pictures that show who did the action and who received the action. Help them recognize the passive form so that they can learn to recast it themselves. Be especially mindful of passives in scientific or technical writing, where they lurk notoriously often.
- While the original intent was to monitor eye conditions, the goggles will also be able to measure blood sugar and cholesterol levels without taking blood samples from the human body.
- When people think about science, they usually think about topics like biology, chemistry, and astronomy.
If authors only wrote Dick, Jane and Sally kinds of sentences, our books would be as two-dimensional as those early-reader heroes. If you can help your students unpack the more difficult sentences, you can pave the way for their later enjoyment of more complex material and even help them learn how to add some variety to their own writing. Help them learn to zero in on the subject and verb of the main clause. Put the parts of the sentence on two separate sentence strips and move the dependent part around to show that it can be in different places.
Some writers are long-winded, no doubt about it, but you can help your students break down a really long sentence by helping them spot the linking words, the dependent clauses, and the punctuation that holds the whole sentence together; you might then try having them rewrite a long sentence into several short ones, thus driving home the point that brevity is the soul of wit (and much easier to process!). There.
Teaching background knowledge
Imagine that your student newly arrived from Bombay, is asked to read about the civil rights movement in the United States. Realize that, unlike her American classmates, she has not grown up listening to the “I had a dream” speech every January on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, nor has she ever heard the story of how Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. Throw her into a text without any explanation of who these people were or what their efforts resulted in, and she will have headaches and little desire to understand the events that led up to the Civil Rights Act.
But start your study of that era with eliciting what she knows of Gandhi, and you’ll open the door to establishing connections she can make between him and King, Parks, and other leaders of the civil rights movement in this country. Help her see that what they did was akin to Gandhi’s accomplishments in her own country, and she will develop a much deeper understanding of the civil rights movement in the U.S.
It’s human nature to want to connect new ideas with ideas we already know. And it’s human nature to be bored or even repelled by subjects that we feel no connection to. So part of your job as teacher is to find the connection that your students can make to a topic, and then go to the flip side: use that connection to build their knowledge about the subject.
Strategies for building background knowledge
You can start by asking students what they know. A good tool for doing this is the KWL chart, with three columns labeled “Know,” “Want to know,” and “Learned.” First, elicit what students know about a topic and write it in the column under “Know.” Then ask what questions they have about the topic and put that under the “Want to know” column. Finally, at the end of the unit, revisit the chart and have students tell you what they have learned.
Another useful tool for determining students’ prior knowledge is a graphic organizer called a circle map. Write the topic in the center of a large circle on chart paper. Ask students what they know about the topic, and write their answers down inside the circle. Visual organizers like the circle map and KWL chart help students see what they know, and they give you a sense of where you need to go with the topic as well.
Once you have an idea of what students already know, give them the background they’ll need to comfortably make the step from where they are into the content you want them to learn. Picture books are an invaluable resource, even in the upper grades. Look for thoughtfully and vividly illustrated books that convey the concepts students will need to understand the content coming up. Even if you don’t read all the text, the pictures often convey the necessary ideas. Try role-playing such books, acting out important scenes. Students could, for example, act out the story of Rosa Parks’ protest on the bus after you read a picture book about it. Debrief afterwards, talking about how it felt to be Parks, or the driver, or the other bus passengers. From there, you can talk about what it means to be on the giving or receiving end of prejudice. And there you suddenly are, discussing the Civil Rights Act.
Carefully chosen videos are another valuable resource for building background knowledge. You may want to show only part of a video to get your point across. Be careful not to depend too much on the dialogue or narration for conveying the message: your student who has trouble reading may also have trouble understanding spoken English. Depending on the difficulty of the video, and the proficiency levels of your students, you might want to use the closed caption setting on your television, or in some cases, turn off the sound entirely, making it a purely visual experience.
Additionally, you can encourage students to get into the habit of making overt connections between their past experiences and what they are studying or reading. Author Ellin Keene of Mosaic of Thought talks about the importance of metacognitive thinking about what we are doing as we read. When we help students realize and verbalize the understanding they already have about a subject, we are activating their “schema” about it; in other words, we are reminding them that they are already knowledgeable about the subject and will be interested in the reading and discussion about to take place.
Once they are reading, get students into the habit of jotting down their connections on sticky notes or in a notebook. Good readers make connections constantly between current and past experiences. If your students get into the habit of noting when they have a connection, their understanding of the text will grow. You can also check their comprehension of a text by having them complete a graphic organizer.
Resources for building background knowledge
For more discussion of metacognitive reading strategies you can teach to help your ELLs make connections and understand more when they read, see these books, which all address these concepts, but for different audiences:
- Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997. Provides a general discussion of these concepts.
- Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis, Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2000. For upper elementary grades and up.
- Debbie Miller, Reading with Meaning:Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2002. For primary grades.
- Juli Kendall and Outey Khuon, Making Sense: Small Group Comprehension Lessons for English Language Learners. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2005. For English learners.