From Shared Reading to Inclusive Classrooms: A Roundup of Innovative Strategies for English Learners
Students who require English language support in school are on the rise in the United States. These students—known as English learners, or ELs—now make up around 10% of the school-age population, which adds up to nearly 5 million children overall. A larger concentration of EL students reside in some states, such as California and Texas, and the majority are native Spanish speakers; that said, many other first languages—including Vietnamese, Arabic and Somali—are prevalent in various parts of the country.
EL students are certainly a diverse group, yet they often share one noteworthy trait in the classroom: They tend to be “over-represented among students who read at below-basic levels in U.S. schools,” according to a 2018 article from Education Week, and the most recent reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reflect this over-representation. The test is given to random samples of students in grades four, eight, and 12 across the United States, and results are disaggregated according to factors such as race, income, and EL status. Among fourth-graders in 2017, EL students’ average reading score was “37 points lower than the average score for their non-EL peers,” as documented by NAEP.
Needless to say, this is worrisome, as there is nearly universal agreement that strong literacy skills provide the necessary foundation for academic success. Indeed, sources such as the nonprofit Urban Child Institute have argued that “Children with poor reading skills are more likely to repeat a grade, which too often sets the stage for a pattern of failure in school.” Not only that, but children who do not read well by grade three are “four times more likely to drop out of high school,” according to a post on the nonprofit's website. Moreover, when students move on to higher grades, those without strong literacy skills face new challenges as classes typically begin to focus on content rather than on emerging reading and writing strategies, which could impact their ability to learn in social studies, science, and other content areas.
Timely and effective intervention
There is compelling evidence that supports the need for timely and effective literacy interventions for EL students who struggle to meet grade level literacy benchmarks; in a 2009 article in Educational Leadership, a publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum (ASCD), Tracy Huebner zeroed in on a research-based strategy involving the use of “daily, small-group instruction” for such students. Citing various academic studies, Huebner posited that “this intervention can produce sustained improvement in student achievement—especially if the groups focus on explicit, interactive instruction in the core areas of literacy.” While the article was written a decade ago, its main point remains relevant for today’s classrooms: EL students need innovative, research-driven supports and intervention to gain the kind of literacy skills they need for current and future success.
A more recent look at noteworthy EL strategies comes in the form of a 2018 post on the Education Week website in which education reporter Corey Mitchell emphasized the value of shared reading, which involves engaging students in discussion during reading and modeling the skills proficient readers use. Mitchell went on to provide an overview of a meta-analysis conducted by Florida State University in which researchers examined the relationship between shared book reading and growth in language and literacy skills among young children learning English as a second language. The results of the meta-analysis, which encompassed “54 studies that included nearly 4,000 students,” showed that shared reading significantly contributed to positive learning outcomes for EL students. As Mitchell noted, “shared book reading allows adults to model the skills of a proficient reader, focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension,” and the researchers behind the study concluded that shared reading is a beneficial educational activity for supporting EL students' literacy growth.
Researchers went on to note that the results of the shared reading study were most applicable to native Spanish speakers, since an overwhelming majority of the participants fell into that category. Moreover, as Mitchell reported, some of the studies analyzed “did not indicate whether texts in English or the children's' native language were used during shared reading,” which can be considered a study limitation. That said, this is unlikely to deter anyone from reading closely with children to not only improve their reading skills but nurture a love of language and stories in the process.
Helping EL students reach their full potential
Students new to the United States and new to formal education are an important subset of the EL population to consider. In a recent write-up for the online education resource site Edutopia, EL teacher Carly Berwick described the challenge of working with such students, noting that “teaching English as a second language to students with varying levels of preparedness is a complex, and often stressful, endeavor. Good intentions aren’t enough.” To that end, Berwick provided an overview of what teachers can do to help EL students reach their full potential at school. Here is a quick look at two of those strategies:
Embed literacy and language instruction in every classroom. Citing a real-world example of this strategy, Berwick recounted her visit to San Francisco International High School, where every student is a non-native English speaker and every teacher is a “teacher of language” in addition to delivering content-based subject matter. The school's goal is to give “students the support they need to build confidence as they continue to learn both English and academic content.”
Prioritize inclusion. At Marble Hill High School in New Jersey, the majority of students come from low-income families, half of students qualify for EL support, and all teachers receive training on how to work with EL students. As a result, EL students have access to Advanced Placement science and history courses, as well as other challenging classes. During a visit to the school, Berwick was told by students that teachers were there to provide support as much as possible.
Berwick ended her Edutopia piece on a positive note by describing the joy she feels when watching students learn to express their hopes and dreams in English—as well as reach their academic potential. Presenting a specific experience she had while helping students develop sample conversation cards to improve their skills, she recalled paying close attention to one boy in the class who was searching for the right words to describe the harrowing circumstances with which he had dealt as a refugee. Despite this adversity, Berwick saw a bright future for him, realizing that “one day, this student could become a politician, a lawyer, or anything he wants—once he learns his new language, he’ll have the words to describe his own history, and a better chance to plot the course of his own future.”
As the number of EL students continues to rise across the nation, more teachers will surely be interested in adopting a proactive and positive approach to helping these students gain access to enriching, engaging classroom work in English and, as Berwick put it, “plot the course” of their futures.
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