Over the past several months we have spent time thinking and teaching with a group of educators whose students are predominantly English language learners (ELLs). During our visits to their classrooms, we see teachers working diligently to use the texts in their district-mandated curriculum to teach whole-class and small-group lessons. Many of the passages, however, are difficult for English language learners to understand even when the teachers spend significant amounts of time building background knowledge and reading the texts aloud.
Challenges arise in each of the following areas:
- The settings of many passages are unfamiliar to the students (an orange grove or a snowy mountaintop).
- The language structures of some texts are difficult for the students to understand. Texts for small group lessons are phonetic-based decodable readers with controlled vocabulary.
- Although the texts are connected through a “unit theme,” the topic of each passage changes within the theme. When students comprehend the first selection in the theme they cannot use their background knowledge from reading this passage to understand the next selection in the anthology.
- The amount of time the teachers need to spend building background is reducing the amount of time students have to read the text.
These teachers’ concerns and observations have pushed us to think further about what factors to consider when selecting texts for teaching during reading workshop.
Selecting Texts Around One Topic
When we select texts for our English language learners, we think a great deal about the students and the topic. First we ask:
- What topics are the students interested in learning?
- What topics in the curriculum are accessible to our students?
- What do they already know a lot about?
- What settings and ideas are most familiar to them?
We think carefully about our topic choices as we want to choose a familiar topic or a subject that reflects the children’s interests.
Once we have a topic, we collect texts from a variety of genres around this specific topic. Then we put the books in an order that makes sense for supporting the children as they learn about the topic. Instead of reading one book about animals that live in a particular habitat, we read many. We think about the order in which we will read these texts aloud so that the children can use their schema from previous books to understand a new text. This means that teachers with a scripted anthology must add several books to each unit of study, so that children can build their schema.
As children listen to or read several texts about one specific topic, they build their English vocabulary while also expanding their background knowledge for this topic. Once the children have become familiar with these selections, the teacher can use these texts to model important reading strategies. Since the students now have schema for these stories, the teacher spends less teaching time building background knowledge. The children will then have more time for reading.
Reading several books around one topic, and selecting familiar topics for classroom studies has not only helped these students to learn reading strategies, but more importantly, emphasized that the true work of a reader is to think deeply, construct meaning, and enjoy the story.
Looking at the Language Structure of the Texts
Thinking about the language structure of a text is always important when selecting books for reading instruction, but becomes essential when teaching reading strategies to English language learners. When students cannot understand the text they are unable to learn reading strategies, no matter how well the teacher models the strategy. The texts we select should not only be about a familiar topic, but should reflect a natural language pattern. Decodable books and the controlled vocabulary of many leveled texts may be at the child’s “instructional reading level,” but if the child cannot understand the story, then the text is not “just right.”
Too many of our English language learners are reading texts that they cannot understand, and therefore, are learning that their job as a reader is simply to decode the words on the page. As we select texts for instruction, we look closely at the way the words are written. The texts we show children should be authentic and mimic the way we speak. When texts use stilted language so that a particular phonetic concept appears frequently in the text, the text does not make sense and our learners cannot make meaning.
During a small-group lesson, we watched a group of Kindergartners read a story that said, “I am dog, I am cat . . .” Although these children could “read” the words, “I am”, this simplified text did not help these young learners to understand the meaning of the words “I am”. (We have to admit that even we were confused about what the phrase “I am dog” actually meant!) More importantly, texts with contrived language confuse these learners about the true job of a reader.
Readers don’t just say words on the page, they construct meaning when reading. When a teacher teaches reading strategies with a text that does not make sense, these readers become more confused about what they are learning. When children don’t understand what is read, they certainly do not learn and apply a new reading strategy. English language learners need teachers to use authentic text when teaching reading strategies so that they learn how to think about the meaning of the story at all times.
Creating Texts for Teaching Reading Strategies – Shared Reading and Writing
In Writing Essentials: Raising Expectations and Results While Simplifying Teaching, Regie Routman writes about the importance of shared reading and writing experiences for students. She states, “For all learners, but especially for our English language learners, challenged learners and economically underprivileged students, shared writing helps provide the rich oral language modeling that stimulates literacy.” When students collaborate to write about what they have learned with a teacher, the reading and writing processes come alive for them.
Once children help construct a text, the text becomes a “just right” text for teaching. It can be used during whole and small group instruction for modeling reading strategies. It can be read and reread by students during independent reading. Since the students wrote the text and read it as a class, the text level and language structure are no longer problems. They now have a text that they can read with understanding that is relevant and meaningful to them.
Using a Familiar Text When Teaching Reading Strategies
Rereading can be used in a variety of ways to teach strategies. For English language learners, the more rereading the better. We are observing teachers reading the same book aloud again and again, each time encouraging and modeling a higher level of thinking skills. Students can then also reread these same texts during reader’s workshop with a partner or independently. When these students hear a text for the 3rd and 4th time they can use what they learned during prior readings to construct a deeper understanding of the text. Now searching for a “just-right level text” is no longer an issue, and this text is a perfect match for many children in the class because the text is so familiar. Students are now better able to share their thinking with their peers and build their knowledge of English.
These teachers and their English language learners have helped us to expand our knowledge of picking “just-right books” for the reading workshop. When we pay particular attention to the language structures in the text, select books around one topic, and think carefully about the student’s background knowledge, we find that many English language learners are successful in learning to read. This process has not only helped the students acquire new knowledge and brought excitement back into the curriculum, but it has also reduced the amount of teaching time being devoted to building background knowledge. Ultimately, reading is about constructing meaning. If we remember to analyze and select texts through this lens – for our English language learners in particular as well as the others in our classrooms – then we can support all our students in learning that the true work of a reader is to make sense of texts.