Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Using reading to drive language acquisition for ELLs

            Experts agree reading is one of the most important ways for both native language speakers and ELLs to acquire language and content. When students are exposed to a variety of different texts, they are more likely to find something that interests them. Both fiction and non-fiction texts can be effectively used to build vocabulary, sentence structure, and grammatical awareness, as well as pique interest. Additionally, writing is a natural extension and use of the skills acquired while reading, and should be paired with reading activities (Kern, Andre, Schilke, Barton & McGuire 2003). The debate begins when people start discussing the best way to teach reading. Whether or not a best way exists, there are many methods that can be effective for both native language students and ELLs.
However, it seems that teaching reading isn't so much teaching as “guiding”.  Suits (2003) discusses her experiences in integrating ELLs into guided reading groups with native speakers. She came to the conclusion that guided reading groups give the children an opportunity to work at their level in a comfortable environment where they can share and clarify ideas- using English to learn from one another.

The guided reading groups designed and implemented by Sink (2003) employ several principles that O'Malley and Pierce (1996) find essential to the instruction of reading. First, students should be provided with extensive in-class reading opportunities. If you want them to have time to read- give them time. Additionally, direct strategy instruction is suggested by O'Malley and Pierce (1996, p. 95) and reinforced by Sink's (2003) experiences at the American School in Holland. This means explicitly teaching students the strategies that we expect them to use to become active readers and increase their understanding, and then giving them opportunities to use those strategies both with guidance and independently.
Additionally, as ESL professionals, we must not forget the necessary amount of scaffolding that our students need. They do not have the same educational, cultural, and often socio-economic background that native students do. It is our job to provide it for them through explanation, modeling, and providing samples of what is expected (Sink, 2003, p.4). We can do this through activating and building their background knowledge through appropriate activities. Writing, as a natural extension of the reading process, can be integrated through summarization and literature response logs (O'Malley and Pierce, 1996), and gives students a chance to personalize what they've read.
If we can forget about which method is best to teach reading, and focus on which methods are effective, then I believe that we can come up with an effective curriculum that provides students of all proficiencies with the tools that they need to be successful readers. It just times time, thought, and a little elbow grease.

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