Monday, March 31, 2008

What Makes a Good Reader?- Strategies for ESL Students

How would you answer the question, "What makes a good reader?"
Neil Anderson (2005) of Brigham Young University defines language learning strategies as "the conscious actions that learners take to improve their language learning" (p. 757). Good language learners use a variety of strategies frequently and appropriately in their language learning. It is critical to teach strategies to ESL students to help them develop the skills necessary to become independent language learners who effectively direct their language learning through planning, monitoring, and evaluating their progress. Strategic language learners are empowered because they are life-long learners; they continue to learn long after they leave the formal classroom. They develop autonomy in such a way that their learning is not dependent on having a teacher in front of them.
Strategy instruction should be explicit for our students so they can learn to develop an awareness of their strategy use. A critical component of strategy instruction is how we introduce the concept of strategy use to our students so that they buy into it. So how do we introduce strategies so that they become "conscious actions" for our students?
Strategies should be introduced early on to the students--even as early as the first day of class. In the ESL reading classes I've taught, I introduce the concept of reading strategies to my students on the first day of class by engaging them in an interactive group-work activity. This is how it works:
First, I pose the question, "What makes a good reader?" After discussing a few ideas as a class, I have the students get into small groups of three or four and list their responses to this question on an overhead transparency. After each group composes their list of what makes a good reader, I put the transparencies up on the overhead projector to review each list as a class. As we begin our discussion of each item, I introduce the concept of "strategies"--things they can do to improve their language learning, specifically to improve their reading. I tell the ESL students that the things they listed are strategies they could use to be good readers. I then have students reflect on what kind of readers they want to be, and I invite them to set some specific goals that they want to accomplish by the end of the semester (long-term goals) and what they need to do to achieve these goals (short-term goals). They write their goals down to serve as a constant reminder of what they want to accomplish, and they begin writing each goal with "I will..." to show commitment. I then collect the goals, make a copy of them for my file so I can follow-up with them throughout the semester, and hand back the original to the student so they can review them often during the semester to remind them of what they committed to do to be a good reader. I also compile the list of reading strategies that the students generated into one list and distribute this list to the students the next day so they can keep the list of strategies as a handy reference as they are striving to be better readers.
I'm continuously impressed with how well the students do at generating lists of strategies. I included a couple examples of lists that my low-intermediate reading students have created collectively as a class:
What Makes a Good Reader?
(Please note: The following lists were generated by students as part of a reading strategy awareness-raising activity. The lists are not based on scientific research.)
A good reader...
  • reads every day.
  • reads in their free time.
  • reads many books, magazines, and newspapers.
  • studies all the time.
  • sets good goals.
  • prepares the reading environment to learn.
  • finds a good place and time to read.
  • writes questions about the text (what, where, when, why).
  • is interested in what they're reading.
  • has a critical sense.
  • looks at pictures and titles before reading.
  • learns about the author.
  • learns about the context.
  • talks about what they read.
  • learns the meaning of new vocabulary.
  • uses a dictionary to learn unknown words.
  • has patience.
  • underlines texts as they read.
  • enjoys reading
  • makes personal conclusions about the book.
  • learns prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.
  • analyzes what they read.
  • feels the author's feelings and writes about them.
A good reader...
  • doesn't use a dictionary. First, they guess the meaning of words from context.
  • finds the main idea.
  • reads everyday.
  • learns new words when reading.
  • reads many kinds of books.
  • reads interesting books.
  • is motivated.
  • practices reading faster.
  • doesn't translate into their native language while reading.
  • likes to read.
Having students generate strategies lists does three things: 1) It provides an engaging way to introduce strategies; 2) It reduces the risk of overwhelming students with a teacher-generated list of example strategies; and 3) It gives students an opportunity to reflect on why they are there, to decide early on what kinds of students they want to be, and gives them an opportunity to determine independently what they are willing to do to accomplish their goals. This provides a customized approach to teaching strategies that leads students on the path to becoming not just good readers, but better readers.
Work Cited:

Anderson, N. J. (2005). L2 strategy research. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language teaching and learning (pp. 757-772). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Friday, March 21, 2008

ESL Literacy - A Tibetan Student's Autobiographical Poem

With the recent unrest in Tibet, my thoughts go back to about a year ago when I was visiting Harvard University's "Bridge to Learning and Literacy" program. While there, I attended a reception where ESL students and their tutors who had participated in the literacy tutoring program the previous year were recognized, and their writing was distributed in published form. One particular student I met who really stood out to me was a student from Tibet. His literacy level was quite low, as expected of a student who comes from a non-literate background, as well as a culture and native language that employs a distinctly different writing system than English. His published writing that he'd worked on all year with his literacy tutor was in the form of an autobiographical poem. He had spent a lot of time and effort to produce this poem (not to mention his tutor), so I'd like to share it:
Funny, hard-working, friendly
Has four brothers
Lover of hockey, running, and action movies
Who feels happy when he thinks of his mom
Who gives happiness to his friends
Who fears war, speaking English, and earthquakes
Who would like to see his mom, Tibet, and India
Who lives in Somerville
I appreciate the teachers and tutors in the world who work with our non-native English speaking students to share their life stories through literacy...or autobiographical poems. These students have seen and continute to see much in life, and their potential to enrich and inspire the lives of others by sharing their life experience through literacy is immense--or at least it is for me.
I wonder what this Tibetan student is thinking and feeling now as he is thousands of miles away from his home land where peace is foreign. I hope he writes another autobiographical poem about it...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Reading Strategies That Keep "Language In The Teaching of Second Language Reading"

Our ESOL students bring much to the table when approaching the task of reading. It is our responsibility as reading teachers, then, to provide explicit instruction in strategies to capitalize on their strengths, thus increasing and maintaining motivation to read and to develop good reading habits and providing a low-stress learning environment. In addition, strategy instruction is critical in assisting our students in their areas of weakness by providing opportunities for improvement to better achieve the goal of reading comprehension. What kinds of reading strategies are needed to assist in this process?

Students need to have access to both top-down and bottom-up strategies. Top-down strategies include such things as using background knowledge, previewing and predicting, guessing the meaning of words from context, and skimming and scanning. Bottom-up strategies include decoding (sounding out words), encoding (spelling), using capitalization to infer proper nouns, recognizing sound and word patterns, etc.

Teachers are generally really effective at teaching top-down strategies, but too often the teaching of bottom-up strategies is neglected. Why is this? Is it because teachers feel inadequate to instruct students in decoding strategies because they either did not learn to read in the same way, or because they are not well-versed in the methodology of how to teach decoding skills? In a sense, when we neglect teaching bottom-up strategies, the language is taken out of the teaching of second language reading.

Of course, bottom-up (or decoding) strategies should not be taught at the expense of teaching top-down strategies. Rather, a balanced approach to integrating both kinds of strategies proves to be the most effective approach.

To illustrate this, let’s apply both top-down and bottom-up reading strategies in reading the following text:

"The kenlig coddlers canly kimpled in the cumpy kegs."

Now answer these six questions:

1. What kind of coddlers where they?
2. What did the coddlers do?
3. How did they do it?
4. Where did they do it?
5. In what kind of kebs did they kimple?
6. What is the subject? What is the verb?

What reading strategies did you use to enable you to answer these questions? Perhaps you utilized your background knowledge of parts of speech. Perhaps you utilized your linguistic knowledge to come to the conclusion that these are nonsense words and that you can still answer these questions without knowing the meaning of these words. Do you comprehend this sentence? You may be able to read the sentence, but that doesn't necessarily mean you comprehend its meaning.

Now, what if these were real words? How would you know how to read or spell them? Now think of what your students experience when they come across unfamiliar words in their reading. Do you have adequate knowledge as their teacher to know how to sufficiently instruct your students in the decoding skills necessary to help them read this sentence accurately? Remember that more accurate reading improves fluency, and increased fluency improves reading comprehension.

How about spelling? Notice the different spellings with c-initial and k-initial words. Do you know the rules for when a word is spelled with C versus a K? Is there a rule to guide the reader? Yes! Some teachers do not feel that English has a systematic approach to reading English because there seem to be too many exceptions to the rule. I’m pleased to tell you that there is some hope, however. There are resources available to instruct students in such things. For example, how do you know when a word will start with a “c” or a “k”? In other words, if you hear the /k/ sound at the beginning of a word, how do you know if it begins with a “c” or a “k”?

This is the rule: Listen for the sound of the vowel that follows. If the sound /k/ is followed by the vowels a, o, or u, it will always be spelled with a “c”. If you hear the vowels i, or e, it will always be spelled with a “k”.

This rule works 100% of the time, with the exception of some names (i.e. Kay, Kate, Katherine), words of foreign origin (i.e. kangaroo, kayak, karate, kung fu, Hong Kong), and other proper nouns, such as restaurant or company names that are trying to be creative in their spelling.

Read the sentence again and notice the spelling of the C and K words. Does this rule fit? Yes, it does. We can explicitly draw our students' attention to these rules in their reading texts to increase their awareness of how to apply such bottom-up strategies autonomously in their effort to read fluently and comprehend text.

In conclusion, I want to re-emphasize the importance of incorporating explicit bottom-up strategy instruction into your reading curriculum. As mentioned previously, of course top-down strategies are likewise important. It is well to consider, however, a balanced approach to teaching reading, where both bottom-up and top-down strategies are explicitly taught according to students' needs.

David Eskey asserts:
“…The lack of attention to decoding problems has, I think, produced a somewhat distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face (95)....

“In practical terms, my concern is thus to keep the language in the teaching of second language reading. That may not sound very controversial, but I think that in promoting higher-level strategies--like predicting from context or the use of schemata and other kinds of background knowledge--some researchers have been sending a message to teachers that the teaching of reading to second language readers is mostly just a matter of providing them with the right background knowledge for any texts they must read, and encouraging them to make full use of that knowledge in decoding those texts.

“Though that is certainly important, it is also, I think, potentially misleading as a total approach…We must not, I believe, lose sight of the fact that language is a major problem in second language reading, and that even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding” (97).

Reference Cited:
Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 93-100). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

23 Teaching Strategies for ESOL Students

Here are twenty-three teaching strategies for ESOL students you may implement in your classroom.
1) Maintain a low affective filter (a low-stress learning environment).
· Students talk (in English) when they’re ready.
· Students are more likely to participate if they feel “safe.” Maintain a “safe” atmosphere through praise, sincere encouragement, developing positive rapport with each student, and providing students with opportunities to succeed.
2) Use praise.
· Validation instills confidence in students so they are more likely to participate in learning activities, interact with the teacher and other students, and become actively involved in the classroom “community,” which promotes verbal interaction.
3) Provide students with opportunities to succeed.
· Find strengths in struggling students and give them a chance to “teach” other students via peer tutoring, presenting, explaining instructions, etc.
4) Provide opportunities for peer tutoring.
· Students who have mastered a skill can help a classmate acquire that skill.
5) Use predictable routines and signals.
· For example, sing songs, recite poems, “The apple is ___________.” “The apple __________.” Routines can reduce students’ anxiety. They can be used to begin class each day and to teach structure or form, such as in a writing lesson.
6) Use Total Physical Response (TPR).
· Students talk when they’re ready. Receptive skills (i.e. listening) are acquired before productive skills (i.e. speaking).
7) Use information gap activities.
· These include activities done with classmates that encourage use of verbal communication in context of a topic taught in a “fun” way, i.e. grammar structure or a theme-based lesson.
8) Activate schemata (background knowledge).
· For example, in reading or writing, talk about something familiar to them; Provide familiar context (i.e. a well-known folk tale or cultural topic) before venturing off into something new students are to read/write about.
9) Provide scaffolding.
· Provide students with the necessary tools (all of the parts) they need to perform the learning task. For example, teach new vocabulary students are expected to need in order to fulfill the learning activity before engaging them in learning task.
· Examples:
i. If you’re having students “brainstorm,” then teach what brainstorming is by providing an example done together as a class.
ii. Before you have students do a writing task, make sure you overtly teach patterns/sentence structure, punctuation, etc.—whatever your focus or objective is—then tell them they’re going to practice this structure in a learning activity.
10) Contextualize language as much as possible.
· Don’t teach in isolation. Make connections to things that students already know and that are familiar to them. When teaching vocabulary for a science lesson, for example, read a story that uses the vocabulary in the text.
11) Provide language support through visual images.
· Identify vocabulary in the lesson to be taught that can be scaffolded with visual images.
· Collect visuals (either finding ready-made visuals or create them), and organize them into a file.
12) Ask questions to assess comprehension.
· Effectively assess students’ understanding by asking yes/no questions (“Do you understand?), then follow-up with open-ended questions (“_______ [Student’s name], will you repeat the instructions/homework assignment/what you are to be doing now?”)
13) Provide comprehensible input.
· Use vocabulary they know.
· Sometimes it may be necessary to use their first language to describe complex ideas or challenging vocabulary as a last resort if students’ lack of understanding impedes their learning.
14) Remember i + 1, but don’t overload. (“Stretch, but don’t overwhelm.”)
· Don’t focus on too many things at once.
15) Use repetition.
· Repeated exposure helps students retain information. Also, repetition emphasizes the importance of information and conveys to student that the information repeated is important to retain.
16) Recycle.
· Students forget information (especially grammar structures) unless it is recycled. Teachers can recycle information differently, employing different methods, learning tasks, and activities. Recycled information doesn’t have to be delivered in exactly the same way it was delivered the first time.
17) Provide opportunities for increased verbal interaction.
· Let students generate language. Avoid too much teacher-talk. Keep it student-centered, not teacher-centered.
18) Provide activities that offer opportunities for active involvement by all students.
· Maintain a student-centered class.
19) Use grouping techniques. (Provide opportunities for group work).
· Students could work individually first, and then in a group to informally assess their progress. Group work also promotes verbal interaction.
20) Provide effective modeling of learning tasks.
· Modeling needs to be relevant to the task(s) students will engage in.
21) Provide clear instructions.
· Overtly tell students the objective of each activity. Tell students what they’ll gain from it.
22) Conduct informal assessments.
· We need to assess students’ success. We need to evaluate if our objectives are being met and if teaching strategies are effective.
· Examples of informal assessments are observations, performance sampling, and anectdotal records (narratives of what is seen and heard by the teacher through observation, such as documenting quotes, descriptions of interactions, demonstration of students’ knowledge, etc., taken at regular intervals).
23) Share ideas with your colleagues.
· We forget that other teachers are sometimes our best resources. Take time to share frustrations, strategies that work, and to compare the needs of students.

NOTE: Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of strategies that can be employed in the classroom. This particular list of strategies was taken from an ESL seminar I prepared and conducted for K-12 teachers in American Samoa on June 9, 2005.