A lot of controversy surrounds second-language reading instruction

Kimberly Lenters, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, encourages educators to keep the following principles in mind until more definitive long-term research results are available. The age and previous literacy experience are important in understanding the needs of the bilingual child.

The principle of developing proficiency in both languages at primary school should underlie all approaches. Lenters believes that in an ideal world, children would receive instruction in their first language until they were proficient in all aspects of it, and only then would second-language learning begin.

However, with cutbacks in bilingual programs and the growing diversity of languages in the public schools, it is impossible to provide this kind of instruction for all bilingual children in North American public schools.

Support first-language instruction

Therefore, Lenters urges educators to support first-language reading instruction by encouraging parents to read to their children in their first language, and supporting teachers who allow bilingual children to demonstrate their first-language skills in class. She recommends purchasing first-language books to match second-language texts when possible, or finding a bilingual volunteer to translate the text and make first-language audio tapes.

Educators should help families find first-language resources in the community and also advocate for after-hours provision of school space for first-language instruction. Lenters also reminds educators that a child must know 90 to 95 percent of the vocabulary in a text before that text is used for reading instruction.

The development of oral vocabulary must be intensive and should go well beyond the point of basic communication. The use of graded readers enables teachers to ensure that text difficulty keeps pace with vocabulary development. Reading aloud and shared reading can support developing reading skills. A “language experience” approach to reading comprehension provides meaningful materials the child is able to read. Lenters recommends using translations alongside English texts when possible, to enhance comprehension and support first-language skills. All supportive instruction requires valuing the child’s first language and home culture.

“No Half Measures: Reading Instruction for Young Second-Language Learners,” The Reading Teacher, Volume 58, Number 4, January 2005, pp. 328-336.

Published in ERN February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2

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