Building Vocabulary and Fostering Comprehension Strategies for English Language Learners: The Power of Academic Conversations in Social Studies

By Colombo, Michaela; Fontaine, Patricia | New England Reading Association Journal, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Building Vocabulary and Fostering Comprehension Strategies for English Language Learners: The Power of Academic Conversations in Social Studies


Colombo, Michaela, Fontaine, Patricia, New England Reading Association Journal


Stacey and Lin, high intermediate and transitioning English language learners (ELLs) and their pre-service teacher tutor are in the middle of their seventh one-hour Historical Tutoring session.

Stacey: They had to stay in the back but this lady Rosa Parks sat down because she was tired and they took her to jail for that.

Lin: I have a connection. My cousins used to pick on me because I wasn't the same as them.

Tutor: Why don't we talk about what you wrote, Lin?

Lin: I wrote I would play with Betty [a doll in the photo] if I was white. I would feel mad to walk to school or sit in the back of the bus. I would be mad not to have a desk. I have a connection to playing with Betty because my cousins used to pick on me and I had to play with my dog.

Stacey: I would feel disappointed at the fact that they wouldn't play with me and they would point and me and laugh at me. I have a connection with the black because I am the only Cambodian in my class and my friends laugh at me when I always answer.

Meaningful interactions, such as this exchange between Stacey and Lin, enable ELLs to develop academic vocabulary, English language abilities, (Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, Sc Yamauchi, 2000), as well as strategies for making text connections, and inferences, all associated with reading comprehension. Yet, curricula have narrowed as Annual Yearly Progress, which is measured almost entirely by student results on standardized testing, has become a growing concern in many schools across the country. Prepackaged reading programs, designed to improve test performance, may be replacing thoughtful conversations between students and between students and teachers. Thought-provoking and language rich social studies content, which has the potential to enhance literacy while building citizenship and social justice in classrooms, is often missing from the curricula (Checkley, 2006; Dillon, 2006; Whelan, 2006). While the nature of social studies - many facts, dense vocabulary, abstract historical concepts, and the multitude of characters found in expository texts, often makes access to history content difficult for elementary school student and especially for ELLs, whose home cultures and experiences differ from the dominant middle-class population, engaging literature about relevant content told through the perspectives of children makes social studies come alive (Colombo Sc Fontaine, 2009).

In this paper we discuss the Historical Tutoring program, the purpose of which is to ensure that ELLs (and other students) receive language-rich and engaging social studies instruction that helps prepare them for citizenship and social responsibility and at the same time builds academic literacy and comprehension strategies. We examine the academic conversations about complex social studies content that take place between tutors and fourth grade ELLs, and the influence these conversations have on the development of academic literacy and comprehension.

The pilot program we describe was conducted during the fall 2008 semester. Seven pre-service teachers and 14 fourth grade ELLs (all with at least intermediate English language proficiency as determined by scores on state measures) met for eight one-hour sessions across the semester to read, discuss, and write about the experiences of children during the U.S. struggle for school integration. Through readings and discussions, ELLs developed an understanding of history as it relates to social responsibility and citizenship, made personal connections to history, developed vocabulary and strategies for reading comprehension, and expressed their understanding of complex topics in ways that were personally meaningful to them.

Study framework

Nearly 30 percent of English-speaking students in U.S. classrooms may be completing reading assignments without understanding what they have read, and the percentage of ELLs who fail to understand what they have read is much higher (Biancarosa Sc Snow, 2006). …

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