Lost in Comprehension: Addressing English Language Learners' Reading Needs in the Elementary Classroom

Lost in Comprehension: Addressing English Language Learners' Reading Needs in the Elementary Classroom

Casey Medlock Paul (North Carolina State University, USA) and Nermin Vehabovic (North Carolina State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-3123-4.ch015
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The reading education of English language learners (ELLs) has been established as a critical issue in education policy and practice. Due to rapid growth of immigration to the United States, significantly increasing numbers of students in U.S. schools come from homes in which English is not the primary language. These students often face challenges in learning to read in school, and data has shown a significant achievement gap between ELLs and non-ELLs. This chapter discusses these difficulties, along with specific research-based strategies that mainstream teachers can utilize to assist ELLs in learning to read. Lastly, the authors explore multimodal learning as a potential support for ELLs learning in the classroom.
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As a highly ethnically and racially diverse student population, English language learners in the United States are typically positioned as low school achievers, due to their lack of English knowledge. In contrast to Caucasian students, as well as non-hispanic minority students, lower school achievement is particularly prevalent among ELLs who speak Spanish as their first language (e.g., August & Hakuta, 1997; McCardle, Keller-Allen, & Shuy, 2008). Nevertheless, as will discuss in the next sections, we feel this is due to misunderstanding the challenges ELLs face in the classroom as well as the many assets they bring with them.

Additionally, according to national reports, ELLs disproportionately experience reading difficulties across various age levels (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2015), in contrast to mainstream students. Although the bias of standardized tests, which privilege native English speakers of a middle-class background, may be at least partly to blame, this is not our argument here, as we seek to prepare teachers to optimize elementary education for ELLs in the current high-stakes standardized assessment environment.

ELLs typically do not learn to speak English until they arrive at school; at this time, mainstream students have been speaking English for approximately 5 years and are beginning to learn to read. Although ELLs’ reading abilities typically improves as their spoken English develops, many are often left behind their mainstream classmates (Cheung & Slavin, 2012). The 2015 Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Education Progress, 2015) reported that the average reading score for fourth-grade ELLs was 189, whereas the average score for fourth-grade non-ELLs was 226. This 37-point gap only grows as students progress through school; the average score for eighth-grade ELLs was 223 while the average score for non-ELLs was 268, creating a 45-point gap.

As is evident, elementary reading teachers face an incredible challenge to teach ELLs to read, write, and speak English. There are ongoing debates on the best approaches, including arguments that center on the language of instruction. Although there are no easy answers to the question of how to best teach ELLs to read, there has been much research exploring varying ways teachers can help these students achieve early literacy. Given the current and continuing increase of students who are ELLs, educators in the United States must begin to acknowledge, assist, and educate these students in order to close the reading achievement gap.

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