Teaching reading comprehension isn’t easy in students’ first language, let alone an additional one. There are a number of different methods to teach students to comprehend what they read or how to try to understand a reading that is difficult. With EAL/ESL students this is especially difficult because their comprehension depends on, not necessarily just the understanding of the story sequence or topic, but on their level of English proficiency as well, on what vocabulary they do or do not know in the reading and whether they know that vocabulary in their L1 (first language).
According to Birch (2002) it is important to be aware that reading and
writing require both bottom-up and top-down strategies. Bottom-up strategies refer to
language processing strategies, including chunking words into phrases, accessing
word meaning, letter recognition and word identification, as well as language
knowledge such as sentences, phrases, words, letters and sounds . Top-down strategies, in comparison, involve different cognitive processing strategies, including inferencing, predicting, problem solving and constructing meaning, combined with world knowledge (Birch, 2002).
I have found that most of my students (who are at the high school level) come to Canada with bottom-up strategies. This always amazes me since English is such a difficult language to learn to read with our confusing, opaque English orthography (spelling) where the letter to sound correlation is not consistent, as opposed to other alphabetic languages that have very transparent spellings (Birch 2002). Of course my students still need to practice reading fluency, including pronunciation and proper syllabic emphasis, but most seem to have basic decoding skills in English. I do have some students that are starting from the beginning stages of learning to read English, but for the purpose of this blog post, will focus on those who have “bottom-up” reading skills and already know how to read (decode) in English, but are still working on reading comprehension and vocabulary building.
My Strategies for Helping ELLs to Develop Reading Comprehension in English
- Vocabulary Building. Obviously. In order for students to understand what they are reading, they need to further develop their English vocabulary. Check out my blog post “On Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs” for more information on how I support students with this. Currently, I am also looking into getting a subscription to the site Vocabulary.com, which looks amazing. I’ve done a trial with a few students and they love it. Fingers crossed.
- BDA Skills. This might seem like another obvious one as all teachers from the elementary level up use Before, During and After Reading Skills to plan their ELA lessons, but it’s especially helpful to make EAL/ESL students aware of these strategies, instead of just using them to plan lessons. Tell the students what they can do Before, During and After Reading to help them comprehend.
- Paraphrasing/Summarizing.I often get my students to read a paragraph, stop and put it in their own words. This works best with a partner, but it is also something that they can get in the habit of doing on their own. I model doing this for my students. Read the paragraph and then talk it out, put it in your own words. What are they trying to say here? What is this paragraph about? Get the students to explain it in their L1 if it works better.
- L1 Support. My last point leads into this one. Get students to use their L1 (first language) for support. Read about the topic they are learning about in their L1 first. (See my blog post “Tips for Working with EAL Students” for more info. on this.) Furthermore, have students talk things out in their L1 or make notes in their L1. In addition, there is so much amazing information out there on translanguaging these days that can be very beneficial to students learning English and in helping with reading comprehension. Check it out.
- Questions Questions Questions. Having students ask questions to check comprehension (a BDA reading skill) is really helpful in getting students to check their own understanding. Have students read with a partner, stopping after a paragraph and asking each other a question about it, or writing down questions to ask the class. Make it into a fun game.
- Highlighting, Key Words and Notes. I always show and encourage my students to highlight key words and make notes in the margins. This helps them comprehend as they read and be able to go back and find information easily.
- Scaffolding. Who doesn’t love graphic organizers and visuals? They help organize thoughts and information, supporting reading comprehension.
- Inferring Meaning from Context. I always teach my students a lesson on how to understand words in context without having to look up or translate every word they come across that they don’t understand. I get them to think about how it fits into the context, what might the word mean and would it make sense in this context. What part of speech is the word? Do they need to know this word in order to understand what they are reading? Does it impede their understanding or can they move on from it?
- Instructional Reading Level. Reading often is one of the best ways to implicitly build vocabulary, become a better reader, develop better comprehension skills and even become a better writer. However, students should read at their instructional level. They shouldn’t be reading something where there are a ton of new words on the page making the reading overwhelming and barely comprehensible. The reading also shouldn’t be too easy where the student isn’t learning any new words. There should be new words that students are learning, but they can still read with ease while learning these new words as they read.
- Real Life Experience and Connections. Students need to be able to make connections to what they are reading in order to really comprehend it and enjoy what they are reading. When choosing readings for my students, I try to choose something that they can relate to, might be interested in and will get a good discussion going.
- Realia and Different Reading Genres. I think it’s important to expose EAL/ESL students to things they’ll need to read in their real lives, whether it’s information pamphlets on cell phone plans, the school’s student handbook, a government website on steps to citizenship or the driver’s education handbook. In addition, it’s important for students to be aware of and exposed to different genres and styles.
- Interest. This one seems like another no brainer, but I had to add it as students will be better able to improve reading comprehension skills if they enjoy what their reading, are able to make choices in what they read, and want to read.
- Model. Model. Model. As I mentioned in the paraphrasing bullet, I really like to model to my students how I would go about comprehending something I find difficult from paraphrasing and talking out what a section or paragraph is about (as mentioned earlier), to rereading something or reading aloud, to thinking what I already know about a topic, to making a visual, graphic organizer or a picture in my mind.
- Discuss Purpose. Students should be clear on why they are reading something. Is it simply to build vocabulary and/or reading comprehension skills? Are they reading to learn something new or for personal enjoyment? Do they need to understand the text deeply and completely or do they need to skim and scan for particular information? Are they reading something for school or something they need in the real world like a form they need to fill out or information about an extra curricular activity they are interested in joining? Will they be tested on what they read? Will they need to answer questions about what they read or create questions? Will they need to discuss what they read? And so forth…
Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction
Something else I always consider when getting my students to read something is whether the reading is fiction or non-fiction. When I taught mainstream elementary school and had to do reading benchmarks on my students, the leveled program that we used had a fiction and a non-fiction reading at each level. In my personal experience, I found that my Canadian born students whose L1 was English had a much easier time with reading comprehension when reading a piece of fiction than reading the non-fiction piece at the same level as it was easier for them to remember and relate to a story than animal adaptations, for example. My EAL/ESL students on the other hand did much better with non-fiction. This was also true of my EAL husband. English is his third language and his English proficiency when coming to Canada was at a level where, when tested, he did not need to take any EAL/ESL classes in order to do his Master’s degree at a Canadian university in English. However (though now his English is completely fluent), he had difficulty at the time comprehending certain movies or sitcoms, as well as some of the fantasy books I had on my bookshelf. Yet, if we were to watch a documentary or he was to read a scientific journal article or a newspaper article on politics or even a biography, he comprehended with little difficulty.
Non-fiction readings are probably easier for a number of EAL/ESL students for a number of possible reasons. Firstly, more cognates (words that are very similar in English and a student’s L1) exist in academic language and certain subject areas like science or math. Secondly, students may already have some background information about certain non-fiction topics. Thirdly, fiction stories in English may be culturally biased or something that students have no experience with or cannot relate to. Finally, another possible reason why I’ve found that non-fiction is easier for my EAL/ESL students to comprehend is that fiction may use a lot of descriptive language that is not used in everyday English or even in academic English that students have yet to learn, and may also use idioms and figurative language (such as similes, metaphors, personification and so forth) or literary elements (such as foreshadowing, suspense or symbolism) that students have difficulty picking up on in an additional language. Therefore, I think it is important for teachers to consider what their students are reading and how best to support them, make them interested and feel successful. Of course, I am not saying that fiction should not be taught and most students seem to prefer reading fiction, but merely that non-fiction seems easier for EAL/ESL students to comprehend so certain considerations need to be made when teaching fiction readings as opposed to non-fiction and that a student may have difficulty comprehending a piece of fiction that is at the same level as a piece of non-fiction that the student easily understood.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, teaching reading comprehension is not easy. First, students need to be able to decode in English and develop reading fluency and then need to build enough vocabulary and learn enough of the structure of English to comprehend what they are reading. Students also need to be able to make some connections to what they are reading, be able to ask questions, make inferences, have discussions and so forth. They also need to learn from what they are reading, improve their language skills and, hopefully, enjoy what they are reading. Let me know if you have any tips and tricks for teaching reading comprehension to ELLs.
Birch, B. (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Inc.