Promising reading instruction for English-language learners

Teacher Helping Boy With SchoolworkSecond-grade English-language learners at risk for reading problems were given intensive, individualized instruction in reading skills in a recent study. University of Texas/Austin researchers Sylvia Linan-Thompson, Sharon Vaughn, Peggy Hickman-Davis and Kamiar Kouzekanani designed a program that involved both English-as-a-second-language (ESL) strategies and intensive reading instruction practices that are effective with native English speakers.

These researchers point out that Hispanic students, on average, are four years behind their peers in reading by the time they reach high school. At a time when states are using high-stakes benchmark testing and when the number of students from linguistically diverse backgrounds is increasing in U.S. schools, these researchers are looking for ways to increase the reading skills of non-native speakers.

Currently, there is little research on effective reading interventions for English-language learners who struggle with reading. Research does show, however, that English-speaking students who struggle with reading benefit from supplemental, intensive reading instruction that includes phonological awareness activities, fluent reading practice with varied texts, and instruction in comprehension strategies, word structures and patterns . Little is known about the effects of such intensive instruction for English-language learners.

Twenty-six second-grade students from seven Title 1 elementary schools in the Southwest participated in this study. Five of the schools offered early-transition bilingual programs and two schools offered ESL programs. All students in the study received intensive re a ding instruction five days a week for 13 weeks in addition to the reading program in their classrooms. Students were seen individually or in a groups of two or three for 30 minutes each day from January through April. Students’ reading skills were tested before and immediately after the study and also on two later occasions.

The goal was to determine the effect of intensive supplemental reading help for English-language learners and to find out the extent to which elements effective with native English speakers generalize to English-language learners. Follow-up testing four weeks after training and again at the beginning of the next school year measured the long-term effects of the training.

Daily Lessons

Each half-hour session consisted of fluent reading practice, phonological awareness, instructional-level reading, word study and writing. Fluent reading practice included paired reading, tape-assisted reading, and echo reading at the child’s independent-reading level. A wide range of material was used, including the I Can Read book series, Bank Street Ready-to-Read and chapter books such as the Henry and Mudge series. Students’ progress was assessed weekly.

When a student accurately read 50 words per minute on her level for three consecutive weeks, she advanced to the next level. Phonological awareness activities included rhyming, blending and segmenting phonemes and syllables. Activities from Ladders to Literacy and Phonemic Awareness in Young Children: A Classroom Curriculum were used. Instructional-level reading was defined as no more than 10 errors per 100 words. Connected text was used for practicing decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.

Before reading, teachers defined key words and concepts, activated students’ background knowledge, reviewed less phonetically regular words and reviewed decoding and word recognition strategies.Teachers also provided explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle and word analysis strategies. Students kept word banks and read from them each day. A one-minute timed word-writing activity completed each lesson. Students were instructed to write as many words as they could in one minute. Students then read each word to the teacher. Spelling approximations were accepted if the child could read them, but spelling was corrected with the teacher’s help.

Modifications for English-language learners

Modifications for these English-language learners included the use of picture cards to learn new vocabulary. If a student possessed phonemic skills in Spanish, the lesson focused on using these skills to teach English phonology, beginning with sounds that were similar in both languages. Redundancy was built into the lessons and students talked about what they were learning with both teachers and other students. 

Teachers taught new skills explicitly, providing corrective feedback to ensure understanding and the ability to complete tasks correctly. Phonetically regular word patterns and comparisons of similarities and differences of new sounds between Spanish and English were studied.

Significant gains on reading tests

Eighty-eight percent of the English-language learners in this study made statistically significant gains on reading tests following the interventions. Statistically significant improvements were seen in word attack skills, passage comprehension and reading fluency. Increases generally continued at a slower pace once the intensive tutoring was discontinued.For the most part, students maintained the skills they acquired into the next year. This is important because many students from low-income backgrounds lose ground academically over the summer.

The gains in reading fluency are particularly important because fluency is a good indicator of overall reading success. One of the major goals of this intensive help for at-risk readers is to accelerate instruction to compensate for lost time. Over the three months of the study, all but three students (12 percent) made at least six months’ gain in word attack and reading comprehension. The three students who made only minimal progress varied from one another in language proficiency in English and Spanish. Teachers reported, however, that while most students learned the lesson routine quickly and rapidly progressed through skills practice, these three students performed more like reading – disabled students.

These researchers caution that although most of these students made twice the normal progress, their overall reading rate was still considerably below average. Most students’ scores still fell below the 25th percentile compared to native English speakers. These findings lend support, however, to the practice of giving English-language learners intensive, individualized supplemental reading instruction in the early grades.

This broad approach was based on studies of intensive remedial reading programs with native speakers and incorporated instructional practices from ESL programs. It appears to give English-language learners a boost in reading skills, but these students will need even more help if they are to achieve at grade level. These researchers recommend replicating this study and including a comparison group.

In addition, further research is needed to determine which elements of the program are most effective in improving students’ reading skills. Because these students were not brought to grade level in 13 weeks, research on more long-term intervention is recommended. The program was relatively easy and cost-efficient to implement with teachers who had some ESL experience.

“Effectiveness of Supplemental Reading Instruction for Second-Grade English Language Learners with Reading Difficulties”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 103, Number 3, January 2003, pp. 221-238.

Published in ERN March 2003 Volume 16 Number 3

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