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6 ways to help ELLs improve reading, writing skills

Natasha Chenowith
August 3, 2020

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issuessaffecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

In today's column, Natasha Chenowith, professional development manager for Learning A-Z, offers ideas for supporting English language learners.

Are English language learners acquiring the skills necessary to become literate in the English language by the end of high school? National achievement data indicate that the answer is no. As a result, students who are ELLs will struggle to leverage reading and writing as threshold skills for college, career, and everyday life.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 5 million students -- or about 10% of the total student population -- are English language learners. Having difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language not only affects their ability to learn successfully in classrooms, but also to participate fully in society.

Research shows that participation in language support programs can improve students’ English language proficiency, which in turn has been associated with improved educational outcomes. Yet, there is still a shocking achievement gap between ELLs and their peers who are native English-speakers.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that ELLs consistently score below the proficient level across subject areas. In 2019, only 10% of ELLs in grade four and four percent of ELLs in grade eight scored at or above NAEP Proficient in reading. In math, 16% of ELLs in grade four and five percent in grade eight scored at or above NAEP Proficient. In the 2011 writing assessment, one percent of ELLs in grade eight and grade 12 scored at or above the Proficient level.

The preparation of teachers for meeting the needs of ELLs varies greatly from state to state. A national survey of colleges revealed that less than one-sixth of teacher education programs in the United States require any coursework for learning to teach ELLs. These figures illustrate that teaching strategies lag far behind the need. 

Challenges on the Journey to Reading and Writing

Learning to read and write are among the most important and difficult tasks that students -- both native English speakers and ELLs -- confront in school. On this journey, they can experience tremendous highs and lows, which can impact their motivation to become capable readers and writers.

One challenge that ELLs face involves learning content and language at the same time, which presents an enormous cognitive challenge. Acquiring content knowledge requires essential background knowledge and vocabulary. As opposed to fluent readers and writers, who can seamlessly process content from working memory into long-term memory, these tasks are much more difficult for those learning a new language.

A variety of other factors can impact the journey to reading and writing as well. These may include prior schooling experiences (or lack thereof), cultural and social differences, and the similarity or dissimilarity of previously learned languages.

Often, one of the greatest obstacles to learning a new language is fear. Students fear being misunderstood, making a grammatical error, sounding different than native speakers, and being judged. A student once told me: “The hardest part of learning English is in my heart. When I can’t express myself, it is very frustrating, because I feel I can’t be myself.” That was the first time I realized how intensely personal these feelings are for students who struggle to read and write. For students who are learning a new language, the emotional aspect of learning often gets overlooked.

What can educators do to bridge these language and achievement gaps? Here are a few tips to help ELLs develop the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills they need to be successful inside and outside of the classroom.

  • Take a differentiated and balanced approach to second language literacy instruction. It is important to recognize that ELLs are not a homogenous group of struggling readers and writers. Their linguistic, cultural, social, and personal needs are as varied and distinct as the students themselves. A differentiated, balanced approach to literacy instruction should incorporate modeled, shared, and independent practice in the four domains of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Explicit instruction in social and academic vocabulary is crucial. Word study and grammar are essential, too, because they provide the foundation on which ELLs will build other linguistic skills and content area knowledge. 
  • Create a safe environment for learning. Linguistic and sociocultural factors compound the struggle to read and write. However, in my experience as a teacher and as a language learner myself, I have found that fear is usually the greatest obstacle. Creating a safe, supportive, communicative environment for learning is essential for ELLs -- and for all learners. 
  • Encourage participation and collaboration. Fostering opportunities for interaction with peers through partnerships and cooperative learning teams can reduce anxiety and help ELLs realize that their participation is valued as members of the classroom community. These may include practices such as peer tutoring, cross-age reading, speaking partners, or book club discussion groups. Such interactions encourage the learning of social and academic language, and help build a community in which all participants learn from one another.
  • Encourage reading in high-interest topics with extensive visual support. Language learning develops more quickly and easily when ELLs find books they love to read. For example, comic books, humor books, and graphic novels can excite and motivate even reluctant readers, and colorful illustrations and characters keep them engaged. Using texts with many illustrations and graphics supports vocabulary acquisition and building background knowledge. Fiction series books can provide familiar characters and predictable formats as well as character arcs and plot twists that keep students coming back for more. In addition, nonfiction series built around engaging central themes can simultaneously provide focused content area and literacy instruction.
  • Provide resources for balanced and blended learning instruction. Blended learning combines face-to-face instruction with technology, allowing for effective differentiation. Blended learning resources specifically designed for ELLs can help build key social and academic vocabulary, and provide scaffolded opportunities to practice literacy skills. Further, resources that are differentiated by language proficiency levels can make it easier for teachers to meet students where they are and guide them in practicing key speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills.
  • Appeal to a variety of learning styles. All students have different learning styles, so lessons for ELLs should include tasks for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. For example, visual learners may embrace content area instruction with activities that include categorized visuals and photos to help them develop their vocabulary skills. Auditory learners can benefit from listening to recorded leveled books that feature English pronunciations. Kinesthetic learners may prefer performing, so theater scripts can provide them with practice in oral reading fluency and public speaking as well as opportunities for peer interaction and cooperation. 

As teachers, our goals include guiding students along the journey toward literacy, regardless of the subject we teach. Active participation and engagement help ELLs retain the knowledge and skills they are acquiring. It helps them gain confidence in their academic achievements. It helps them find their voice in the classroom -- and these are voices we can all learn from.

As a former French and English as a Second Language teacher, Natasha Chenowith is passionate about literacy and dedicated to providing professional learning that supports culturally and linguistically responsive instruction. With a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, she specializes in teaching English as a Second Language. She is now a professional development manager for Learning A-Z.

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