8 Ways to Foster Reading Growth in Multilingual Learners

Multicultural Group of Students in the classroomIn these diverse times, it is very likely that teachers will encounter limited English proficiency (LEP) learners in their classrooms or other learning settings. Students learning English, or English Language Learners (ELL), are no longer a minority segment of the school population. ELLs are among the nation’s fastest-growing group of students and are set to become a majority in schools. As of 2006, ELLs represented approximately ten percent of the United States public school population. Kurt Landgraf, president of Education Testing Service (ETS) has predicted that by the year 2025, one in four students will come to school needing to learn English.

There are a number of approaches to teaching ELL and LEP students that schools employ. Whether your school is using the native language approach, the sheltered English approach, English as a second language (ESL), bilingual education, dual language, or immersion, there are a number of things that you can do to engage multilingual or bilingual learners in reading. The authors of Reading Problems: Assessment and Teaching Strategies recommend the following strategies for teaching reading to LEP or ELL students while supporting language acquisition:

1. Use English Books. When ELLs are given an abundance of high-interest English storybooks, their progress in reading and listening comprehension increases at almost twice the usual rate. Choose books that have repetitive, predictable language structures, that invite talk, and that are attractively illustrated. Well-known folk tale and fairy tales with familiar plots are useful. For more advanced ELLs, books focusing on language skills are useful, for e.g., the Many Luscious Lollipops books, which focus on parts of speech.

2. Use Bilingual Books. Develop units for reading and language arts that use literature from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds to reflect the diversity in U.S. society. Increasing the number of books written in two languages allows students to match their native language patterns with corresponding English ones. Students of all backgrounds enjoy reading bilingual books but, of course, they are especially important for the self-esteem of students in the groups they feature. There are a number of helpful Internet sources on the Web to help you track down age-appropriate bilingual books, such as Bilingual Books for Kids, Inc. and Language Lizard.

3. Provide Many Opportunities to Use English. Minority language students must be given many opportunities to move from learning and producing limited word translations and fragmented concepts to using longer sentences and expressing more complex ideas and feelings. Opportunities to use more complex English vary according to the level of students. In kindergarten, a game of “Simon Says,” complete with gestures can provide an active response to English. With older students, do lots of fun, bilingual activities. Websites like ESL KidStuff suggest lots of fun activities to help ELLs practice using English.

4. Use Conversation about Books to Foster Natural Language Use. Conversation about personal reactions to stories is excellent for giving meaningful practice in using English. Encourage ELL students by giving them more time to respond to such questions as the following: “What do you think this story will be about?” “What do you think will happen next?” “Why do you think that?” “Tell me more about…” “What do you mean by…?” Students enjoy discussing their favorite characters and the best parts of the story. To aid them, list helpful English words on the board.

5. Use Language-Based Approaches. Whole language methods, which foster a natural use of all language systems (reading, writing and speaking) together, are excellent for developing English. Make reading activities consistent with a whole language approach. Students may, for example, learn to read print in their environment by using TV guides and advertisements as reading material. Role-playing, poetry and drama are excellent for fostering natural language use. Also, authentic children’s books are highly preferable to the tightly controlled, artificial language often found in textbooks.

6. Use Cooperative Learning. Small cooperative reading groups allow students to interact with peers during Reader’s Workshop. Cooperative learning creates opportunities to use language in meaningful and nonthreatening ways. It draws on primary language skills while developing English language skills, promotes higher-order cognitive skills and linguistic discourse, and fosters peer modeling and peer feedback.

7. Foster Home-School Collaboration. Establishing communication with parents and other family members such as siblings is important. More can be accomplished when the school and home work together. Parents should be contacted frequently to communicate students’ successes as well as the problems their children encounter. Remember that parents often have valuable information and insight that can be useful in the teaching process. For example, parents are the key source of information about students’ at-home reading activities and progress.

8. Collaboration in the School. Fostering the reading growth of linguistically diverse students requires collaboration among school personnel. Classroom teachers, special education teachers, reading specialists, instructional support staff, and administrators should work together to meet the needs of children. School staff, as well as students, should share their knowledge of other languages and cultures. This sharing is the first step in fostering the understanding that adds richness to reading instruction.

About the Author

Summer Edward is a Ginkgo Prize-longlisted author and has written several books for young readers, amongst them The Wonder of the World Leaf, Renaissance Man: Geoffrey Holder’s Life in the Arts, and First Class: How Elizabeth Lange Built a School. Summer earned a Master of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Learn more at summeredward.com