Successful Strategies for Teaching Reading to Middle Grades English Language Learners

By Bolos, Nicole | Middle School Journal, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Successful Strategies for Teaching Reading to Middle Grades English Language Learners


Bolos, Nicole, Middle School Journal


Teachers can employ a variety of classroom-tested strategies to teach reading to English language learners.

Carlos (a pseudonym) moved from Guatemala to the United States when he was in sixth grade. When Carlos started school, his teachers expected him to speak only in English and practice English in his Spanish-speaking household. Carlos's state test scores showed that, at the end of sixth grade, he was significantly below his grade level peers in reading. Sadly, Carlos began to state that he hated school and wanted to move back to Guatemala. That summer, Carlos moved again. At his new middle school in Illinois, Carlos's teacher allowed him to write in Spanish while learning English content at grade level and to read bilingual books (English and Spanish). He also received daily small-group reading instruction that focused on vocabulary in context and comprehension. That year on his reading tests, Carlos's scores grew significantly from the year before, and his motivation to learn became evident by the smile on his face and his desire to excel at each task his teacher assigned.

Carlos's story is not unique; similar educational experiences happen to English language learners, or ELLs, every year in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (2010), in 2008 there were approximately 10.9 million children in the United States who did not speak English in their homes. Unfortunately, today too many of the 10.9 million ELLs still receive instruction similar to Carlos's sixth grade instruction. ELLs face many challenges as they attempt to learn English and form their linguistic identities; the more languages students know, the more complex their linguistic identities are. Simply treating ELLs just like everyone else will not close the achievement gap between these students and their grade level peers. In an age of differentiated instruction, middle level educators need to be cognizant of specific reading strategies that will allow their ELLs to achieve their true potential.

The benefits and challenges of biliteracy

ELLs have a variety of unique characteristics that teachers should consider when determining appropriate instruction. Because students come to schools with varying levels of first language proficiencies, the amount of language instruction required varies from one student to the next. Before instruction begins, it is essential for teachers to gauge each student's language proficiency level to guide future instruction. However, when teachers assess a student's language proficiency, it is important for them to keep in mind that a student may sound fluent in English when, in fact, he or she is not. According to Cummins (1981), students have two levels of language proficiency: "basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)" and "cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)" (p. 16). Generally, students who sound fluent have strong social language skills (BICS) because these skills typically develop in the first three years of learning a new language (Watkins & Lindahl, 2010). In social situations, such as lunch time in the cafeteria, ELLs might have lengthy conversations in English about the past weekend. It is important that listeners do not equate these conversational skills in English as a gauge of students' academic proficiency level in English. ELLs often struggle with academic vocabulary (CALP) because it is a skill that takes a minimum of five to ten years to develop in a new language (Collier & Thomas, 1989). Content-specific vocabulary and specialized vocabulary for discourse have a greater linguistic complexity and require more complicated language structures. Thus, it takes students significantly more time to learn the new vocabulary, to talk about the vocabulary, to practice it, and to make it part of their knowledge base.

However, middle grades educators should not distress. When students have knowledge of reading in their native languages, that knowledge can facilitate the acquisition of English by giving students a knowledge and skill base from which they can build new English skills. …

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