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4 ways to teach reading comprehension to emergent bilingual students

Maya Goodall
September 16, 2021

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Learners who don’t speak fluent English may be able to decode words in English if they understand the alphabetic principle, phonemic awareness, and phonics. But just sounding words out is not enough for true reading comprehension. The goal should be an asset-minded orientation, meaning honoring the learners and what they know by valuing their prior knowledge and their lived experiences.

Consider this: In the past, we’ve used the label “English Learner,” which is a deficit point of view because it focuses on what the learners need to do and what they don’t know. On the other hand, the term “Emergent Bilingual” identifies who the learners are and who they are becoming. By learning English, the student is becoming bilingual (and in some cases, multilingual). This paradigm shift is the first move toward creating an asset-minded orientation.

Teaching Emergent Bilingual students how to speak and comprehend oral English is a critical component of learning how to read and comprehend written English. In today’s diverse society, it’s more important than ever to use our students’ assets to help them become bilingual. Here are four excellent starting points.

Embrace their first language

There was a time when students were forced to work from a “clean slate” when learning English, but instructors at that point may not have realized the value that a student’s first language presented. For example, it provides background knowledge that can be used to leverage learning the new language. It helps teachers take advantage of what the student already knows (i.e., grammar, language function); embrace his or her heritage language; and position learning English as an opportunity for growth and for becoming bilingual.

Adjust instruction to meet their needs

The interaction hypothesis suggests that to learn a language, you must speak the language. Oftentimes, when I say that to people, they respond, “Yes, that makes sense.” However, that isn’t always reflected in our classroom practice because teachers tend to do most of the talking. Yet to really speak the language, you must have a lot of opportunities for speaking practice. Using a scaffolded approach, teachers can ensure that students have opportunities to practice using the language in meaningful ways. When you incorporate scaffolding techniques into speaking practice, students can practice and think through how to say something. This builds comprehension of the new language and gives students the opportunity to express themselves in the foreign language.

Give them opportunities for speaking practice

Teach students how to have an academic conversation among themselves by scaffolding how to ask and answer questions. You could have one learner directly ask a question to their peer, for example, “What do you know about blue whales?” Then the learner who responds gets the opportunity to think about his or her response.

There could be scaffolding from the teacher as to how to respond (i.e., you could start with a sentence starter, which would be “I know,” and then leave the rest of the sentence blank). Use sentence starters for students who have the highest knowledge of English. For those who require more scaffolding, consider using a sentence frame or a language frame. A language frame provides all the grammar necessary to construct a meaningful sentence while leaving the vocabulary open so the learner can practice creating a complete sentence with some autonomy. For example, to answer the question above, you could use the following frame: I know ____ (blue whales) have ____ (fins).

Create opportunities for listening comprehension practice

The goal of literacy and reading the text is comprehension; learners must understand what they’re reading. They also must be able to understand the language nuances, draw conclusions about what they’ve read, and make inferences using their past experiences and what they’ve learned. This is true for both monolinguals and Emergent Bilinguals, both of whom need time to practice the language and practice listening comprehension.

Provide opportunities to attune to language and practice comprehension strategies and skills via oral language. We know students can understand a higher level of language than they can speak, so take the opportunity to provide input that is at their listening level and practice oral comprehension as a means to scaffold reading comprehension. By practicing oral comprehension and holding meaningful conversations, you can provide learners with an understanding of what they are about to read and knowledge on how to construct sentences to share their thoughts. 

These four strategies apply to content teachers and literacy teachers alike. The goal should be to value what the learners know and what they have learned at home. However, it doesn't mean that the classroom teacher must know the heritage language. They do have to understand how language works in general and that anything that students know in their first language will help them learn the second language.

Maya Goodall M.Ed., M.A. is senior director of emergent bilingual curriculum at Lexia Learning.

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