Note: This article originally appeared in ASCD Express: Vol. 5, Issue 11, "Reading to Learn."
Comprehension is the reason for reading, but it can be the most difficult skill to master — especially for English language learners (ELLs). ELLs often have problems learning science, math, or social studies concepts, for example, because they cannot comprehend the textbooks for these subjects.
- read more accurately
- follow a text or story more closely
- identify important events and concepts in a text
- master new concepts in their content-area classes
- complete assignments and assessments
- feel motivated to read in school and for pleasure
There are a number of ways to build ELLs' comprehension skills. Often standard strategies that are used in mainstream classrooms are a good starting point — they just need to be tweaked with ELLs' language and academic needs in mind! This article focuses on strategies that are part of three main approaches: building background knowledge, teaching vocabulary explicitly, and checking comprehension frequently.
I. Build background knowledge
Draw on students' existing knowledge
Students may already possess content knowledge that they cannot yet demonstrate in English. Look for opportunities to make associations between students' experiences and new content. Allow students to use their native language with peers for a quick brainstorm about what they know about a topic before presenting their ideas to the whole class.
Build students' background knowledge
Students with limited or interrupted schooling may not have that same level of knowledge as their peers, especially when it comes to historical or cultural topics. When starting a new lesson, look for references that may need to be explicitly explained.
Take students on a "tour of the text"
At the beginning of the year and each time you hand out a new textbook, take students on a "virtual tour." Show them different elements of the text, such as the table of contents and the glossary, and discuss how these sections can be helpful. Explain how the text is organized, pointing out bold print, chapter headings, and chapter summaries. Once students learn how to recognize these elements, they will be able to preview the text independently. Remember that students need to know how to use a tool in order for it to be useful. Learn more about this strategy in Teaching ELLs to Navigate Textbooks Effectively.
Use a "picture-walk"
This strategy can be used for fiction or non-fiction books. "Walk through" the book with the students, pointing out pictures, illustrations, and other graphic elements. Ask them what they notice about the pictures and how they think those details may be related to the story or content.
Use outlines to scaffold comprehension
Provide a brief, simple outline of a reading assignment or an oral discussion in advance of a new lesson. This will help ELLs pick out the important information as they listen or read.
II. Teach vocabulary explicitly
Focus on key vocabulary
Choose vocabulary that your students need to know in order to support their reading development and content-area learning. Provide student-friendly definitions for key vocabulary.
Include signal and directional words
Remember that students may also need explicit instruction in signal or directional words ("because" and "explain"), in addition to key content vocabulary ("photosynthesis" and "revolution").
Use a "picture-walk" for vocabulary
Once students know a new word's definition, ask them connect those new words to the pictures they see in the text.
Teach students to actively engage with vocabulary
Teach students to underline, highlight, make notes, and list unknown vocabulary words as they read.
Give student practice with new words
- Define a word
- Recognize when to use that word
- Understand multiple meanings (such as the word "party")
- Decode and spell that word
Incorporate new words into discussions and activities
For students to really know a word, they must use it — or they will lose it. Use new words in class discussions or outside of class in other contexts if appropriate, such as on field trips. Give the students as many opportunities to use and master the new vocabulary as possible.
III. Check comprehension frequently
Use informal comprehension checks
To test students' ability to sequence material, for example, print sentences from a section of the text on paper strips, mix the strips, and have students put them in order.
Test comprehension with student-friendly questions
- Literal level (Why do the leaves turn red and yellow in the fall?)
- Interpretive level (Why do you think it needs water?)
- Applied level (How much water are you going to give it? Why?)
No matter what the proficiency level of the student, ask questions that require higher-level thinking
- What ideas can you add to…?
- Do you agree? Why or why not?
- What might happen if…?
- How do you think she felt…?
Use graphic organizers
Graphic organizers allow ELLs to organize information and ideas efficiently without using a lot of language. Different types include Venn diagrams, K-W-L charts, story maps, cause-and-effect charts, and timelines.
Provide students lots of different ways to "show what they know"
Drawings, graphs, oral interviews, posters, and portfolios are just a few ways that students can demonstrate understanding as they are beginning to develop their reading and writing skills in English.
- Retell what you read, but keep it short.
- Include only important information.
- Leave out less important details.
- Use key words from the text.
It may be challenging to get ELLs' comprehension skills where you want them to be, but the extra effort it takes will be well worth it as you put them on the path to becoming successful readers.