As we all know, reading comprehension is essential in today’s world. It is necessary for mastering subjects in school, working at jobs, and deciphering written communications. Without it, we might be able to pronounce words on the page but would not be able to make sense of what the words mean when put together.
Reading comprehension demands that we create images and connections in our head based on the combination of words that we are reading. The more familiar we are with the words on the page and how they apply to what we have already learned or experienced in our lives, the better will be our comprehension.
For English Language Learners (ELLs), this is especially challenging. Most ELLs do not have a strong English vocabulary from which to pull, so it is important that they are presented with text that includes a lot of context. Pictures, short sentences, words that are repeated again and again can be especially helpful. If recognizing individual words is difficult, it will interfere with a student’s overall ability to comprehend what is being read.
One way to help ELLs build their reading comprehension is to give them opportunities for contextual development in their home language, which can then be applied to English. Once an overall understanding of the text is in place from having read it in the home language, the vocabulary and contextual inferences in English can be more easily and readily absorbed. The key is not to translate from one language to another or to mix the languages together. It is about providing the text as a whole in each language – as a kind of bridge to slowly build comprehension in the weaker language.
Below are some tips on how to help ELLs use bilingual books to increase reading comprehension:
- One step at a time: Although the school system is eager to see success with ELLs as quickly as possible, it is important that students have the chance to get familiar with text in general. Start simple by reading out loud to students every day, even if they are able to read by themselves. When an adult reads a book out loud, students pick up on a number of essential elements: intonation, rhythm, pronunciation and more. It is important that ELLs come to enjoy reading, not to feel pressured by it.
- A picture is worth a thousand words: To help ELL students with their comprehension, choose books that contain a lot of quality pictures. Make sure that the pictures apply directly to the story. While the story is being read out loud, children will be looking at every detail in the picture, putting together the meaning of the words with the visual representation. As children get older, they will paint their own pictures in their mind while reading. For younger learners, however, pictures on the page help start the process of making mental creations and connections.
- Increasing complexity: It is important to build upon what has already been learned, but not too quickly. As children mature in their reading comprehension, slowly increase the complexity and difficulty of the text. Bit by bit the stories will have less pictures, the vocabulary will become richer, and the sentence structure more complex. This will help children master reading comprehension in an organic and natural way.
- Get parents involved: Encourage parents to read out loud to their children as often as possible. One suggestion is to send home bilingual books with students, asking that the parents read the books out loud to their children in their home language over a period of time. You can then read the same book to your class but in English during the same period of time. Make sure that parents know that with each reading students are gaining a greater comprehension of vocabulary, sentence structure and overall meaning in both languages. The benefit of reading comprehension is that it takes place across languages!
- To each his own: Not everyone is interested in the same stories. Some students are interested in mysteries, others adventures. Some like fiction, others real life. Because each of your students has a different taste in books, make sure that you have a lot of different kinds of bilingual books on hand. You will want to be able to send home a variety of bilingual books with your ELL students for parents to read with them. Even books that are not specifically for course work can help boost reading comprehension.
- Comprehension is complex: Remember that just because an ELL student can read words out loud does not mean that he or she has strong reading comprehension skills. Some students will be able to memorize the words on the page or recount a story’s sequence of events without really having understood the meaning. Reading comprehension can best be assessed through discussion. Ask questions that encourage children to talk about how the story made them feel. Discuss the motivations of the characters. Talk about how the story would be different if certain elements were changed. Encourage parents to ask similar questions after reading bilingual books at home in the home language.
Reading comprehension takes time. Rushing this process is often futile and could possibly result in disastrous consequences. Cooperation and communication between teacher, student and parents is essential. If possible, parents should be provided a variety of bilingual resources so that they can help their children build reading comprehension at home. The more children can apply meaning to what they are reading in a home language, the more they can apply it to their English language learning and reading comprehension.
Photo credit: Mike Babcock
Have you ever sent home bilingual books with your ELL students for parents to read out loud? What other tips do you have for helping ELLs build their reading comprehension?