Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.
Basic Reading Skills
You teach a class of beginner ELL students and your goal is to lead the class to success in reading. But you notice that your students are at different levels. For example, you notice that Ana can pronounce many sounds but she lacks a strong vocabulary, while Cecilia cannot pronounce many sounds. This makes you wonder, what are the basic skills needed for ELL students to become strong readers?
Keep in mind that beginner ELL students will be at many levels of reading. For this reason, it is best to stick to the most basic skills because the elementary abilities in reading are the foundation to support more advanced reading levels. The basic reading skills that apply to beginners are: phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, fluency with text, and comprehension. Let's go ahead and explore each of these skills so that you can apply them to your class.
Whether you want your students to read aloud or silently, phonemic awareness is the key to understanding words correctly. Later on, phonemic awareness gets your ELL students spelling and reading correctly. To teach your students how to reproduce sounds correctly, a first good exercise is simply to read aloud a text to then have students read it aloud as well.
Depending on how students do, you can make a list with the words your students are not pronouncing correctly. Then, you can add to the list a couple of words that follow the same phonemic pattern. For example, say your students are reading 'th' like 'd'. The word they read in the text is 'that'. Emphasize the correct sound of 'th' and give other examples of words with this phonemic pattern such as 'thin' or 'this.'
Another good option is to have a list of phonemes you want your ELL students to recognize while reading. For example, say you want them to recognize the phonetic sound 'e' as in 'bed'. Ask your students to find and underline all the words in the text that correspond to this phonetic sound.
A third good option is to read to your students a list of new words they will see in the text. Ask them to find and underline the words you read to make sure they are able to identify them just by listening to them.
Lastly, keep in mind that an accent might not go away regardless of all your efforts. However, an accent is different from phonemic awareness in that an ELL student can keep sounding like a foreigner while s/he is pronouncing correctly, which is what phonemic awareness is about.
The new words your students see in the text can intimidate them. To avoid this, make sure to pre-teach vocabulary by using images that make evident the meaning of new words. Also, you could give your students a definition and put the word in an sentence that is easy to understand. For example, say a word in the text is 'sauce'. A sentence like 'The spaghetti sauce is very tasty' or 'Lisa stained her shirt with tomato sauce' helps students a lot.
Vocabulary development is also possible through teaching your ELL students to guess meaning from context. For example, if a sentence in your text says 'The oak is such a beautiful tree,' your students can certainly guess what 'oak' is.
Finally, to keep vocabulary alive and to help your students remember it, you could have a list of new words posted in the class. A list for each new reading is a great idea because students would keep looking at the words every day as they attend class. Also, your students can create a diary with a list of new words they learned on a given date.
All these vocabulary development activities have the purpose to have your ELL students mastering new words every time they read something new.
Fluency with Text
Reading aloud is one of the best ways to develop fluency with text. So that your ELL students are not intimidated by reading aloud in front of you or their peers, you can practice modeling. Modeling is about reading aloud to your students by emphasizing the pace, the intonation where necessary, and the correct mood if applicable. The key to success is to read short paragraphs at the time or short chunks, which is no more than two or three sentences. After, your students can read again and you should encourage them to imitate your reading.
Remember that a lot of the fluency our ELL students acquire has to do with 'copying' how we, teachers, read to them. Just keep in mind that the more practice the better your students get at fluency with text.
Our ELL students need to understand not only vocabulary but the whole text we give them. To check for comprehension at the beginner level, there is nothing like talking about the text. You can ask your students questions to see if they understand the text or not. Depending on what language skill you prefer, instead of talking about the text you can also give your students a list of questions to answer in writing.
Both ways to check for comprehension are great. Alternatively, you can give your students a false/true set of questions to make sure they understand a given text. In this case, ask your students why the answer is true or false to double check for comprehension. Finally, writing summaries or giving opinions on a text are also great ways to check for comprehension.
The basic reading skills that apply to beginners are:
- phonemic awareness: you can practice pronunciation with your students as well as phonetic pattern recognition.
- vocabulary development: you can pre-teach vocabulary and have new words always present for students to remember.
- fluency with text: you should model reading for your students and encourage them to imitate you.
- text comprehension: your students can answer questions, summarize, or give opinions.
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