English Learners and Reading Comprehension: Text Organization in History

By Goldsmith, Phyllis; Tran, Tuyen | Social Studies Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

English Learners and Reading Comprehension: Text Organization in History


Goldsmith, Phyllis, Tran, Tuyen, Social Studies Review


Introduction

History is primarily a text-based discipline. To comprehend history texts and access content, English learners (ELs) and low-literacy students need English language support. History textual sources, both primary and secondary, are often dense, have multiple forms of text organization, and use complex noun phrases (or nominalizations). They are often challenging for all students to comprehend but especially for English learners. This, however, should not deter teachers from incorporating history texts as part of instruction. Teachers can increase students' reading comprehension and content knowledge by equipping themselves with a variety of reading strategies and analysis tools that support language development. Teacher modeling, guided practice of literacy strategies, pre-reading, annotations, asking questions of texts, explicit and in-context vocabulary activities, and carefully structured sentence and paragraph writing scaffolds are some examples of effective practices.

The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) has developed a number of reading strategies that help students examine history texts closely. In this article, we demonstrate one such reading comprehension strategy for text organization, or the structure of texts. In history, types of text organization include cause and effect, chronology (series of events), compare and contrast, and argument/thesis. Descriptions and definitions can also be found embedded in history texts. Text organization reading strategies also illustrate the distinct ways in which verbs, conjunctions, adjectives, and adverbs are employed in history texts, which help students learn the functions of language to construct meaning (Schleppegrell, 2004). This disciplinary skill is important to learning both history and the English language.

The Importance of Content Literacy

Providing English learners the means to learn history content with English language development strategies is supported by current research. There is a growing consensus among policymakers and education specialists that content literacy is critical to English language development (Saunders & Goldenberg, 2010; August & Shanahan eds., 2006; Heller & Greenleaf , 2007; Shanahan et al., 2008). Rather than segregating English learners for specialized training in English language proficiency that is divorced from the content areas, education researchers encourage teachers to modify classroom instruction to meet the needs of all learners (Goldenberg, 2008). To succeed academically, English learners must have access to mainstream instruction that integrates "language as a vehicle for learning academic content and learning about the world" (Olsen, 2010, p.19). The U.S . Department of Education's 2010 ESEA reauthorization proposal urged states to revise their English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards to align them with their content standards, thus ensuring "that the standards address the English skills students need to learn academic content" (U.S. Department of Education, 2010, p. 3). Moreover, the new Common Core State Standards (http://corestandards.org/) prioritizes an increased concentration on academic literacy in all the content areas.

Text Organization Instruction

Students trained in understanding how texts are organized have deeper reading comprehension. When students learn patterns of text organization, they learn language structures to analyze and connect information and a discipline's methodology for constructing arguments. As a result, students become better readers of history texts . They will be efficient and effective in identifying the main constructs of history texts - thesis, supporting evidence, and conclusions.

Students can be taught how to recognize organizational patterns by identifying the signal words that connect and build relationships between ideas and evidence. Low-literacy students and English learners will particularly benefit from recognizing how facts and evidence in historical narratives are organized. …

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