ELLs’ rate of learning of sight words depends on oral proficiency

Magnifying glass over the stack of booksAcquiring sight words is an important part of becoming a good reader. Teachers should be aware that the ability of English Language Learners’ (ELLs) to acquire sight words for reading depends on their oral language proficiency, says The Reading Teacher. This suggests that teachers should work on both language development and skills instruction for students with the least proficiency in English, the researchers say.

“If students do not have a word in their oral vocabulary, it takes away an anchor for their word-reading development,” researchers say.

The implications of the study are that teachers should:

  • differentiate their instructional activities in reading to support the language levels of their students
  • embed language development within skill instruction
  • and provide students with multiple opportunities in their school day to read high-frequency words in connected text.

“Integral to all of these suggestions is the guiding principle that language development is crucial to proficient reading: effective teachers of reading with ELLs scaffod both oral language and literacy skills,” the authors write.

In this study of 43 Hmong speakers in 3 elementary schools, the researchers found that students’ acquisition rates for sight words varied by their levels of oral language proficiency in English. Students with the lowest oral proficiency had a mean acquisition rate of 3.24 words, those with limited oral English proficiency had a mean acquisition rate of 5.50 words and the group of students with the highest oral proficiency had a mean acquisition rate of 7 words.

Rates were measured by teaching each student a series of unknown high-frequency words at a ratio of one unknown word to 8 known words. When a child made 3 errors while practicing a new word, the lesson was discontinued and the acquisition rate calculated.

For students who are just beginning to learn English, reading lessons that are shorter and more frequent may prove most effective, the researchers say. Teachers should also connect oral and written forms of new reading words and not assume that basic words that are critical to the content are already part of a student’s vocabulary.

“We do not know if it is language proficiency that supports a higher acquisition rate, a higher acquisition rate that supports language development, or a third factor influences these two abilities,” the researchers write.  “For practical purposes, educators hoping to encourage sight word development with ELLs should not overlook the important connection we observed between students’ language proficiency and the number of words they learned in a single sitting.”

Below are specific recommendations for working on both literacy and language development.

1) Differentiate instructional activities based on language proficiency:

  • Connect the oral and written forms of new reading words
  • Have students use new words in their own sentences
  • Give students opportunities to hear new words in context and ask questions about what they mean
  • Have students dictate the words they know, which are likely the most essential words in their lives.

2) Incorporate language development within skills instruction:

  • Create individual picture dictionaries using high-frequency words to support both vocabulary and letter-sound knowledge.
  • Create small cards with words that students can read. Students can sort the cards based on patterns of sounds or on meaning (e.g. whether it’s something you can buy in a store or whether it is a long a sound)
  • Take the time to talk with students about word meanings while conducting phonics or other skills lessons.

3) Provide multiple opportunities for students to read high-utility words

  • Develop personal collections of short memorized texts, poems or dictated stories and put them in folders for students to read and reread so students will learn to match oral language to print.
  • Choose text that contain features to scaffold ELLs’ reading success such as phonetically regular and high-frequency words, words of high interest to students’ personal lives and words that represent familar concepts and images.

“What Does Oral Language Have to Do With It? Helping Young English-Language Learners Acquire a Sight Word Vocabulary” by Lori Helman and Matthew Burns. The Reading Teacher, Volume 62, Number 1, pp. 14-19.

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