Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension: 10 tips to help EAL learners

By Natilly Macartney

13 Oct 2022

Students raising their hands in a classroom

English as an Additional Language (EAL) in the UK

In schools across the UK, the number of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) is rising. Statistics released by the Department of Education earlier this year show that approximately 21% of pupils in state-funded primary schools in England are recorded as having a first language known or believed to be other than English. Since 2012, there has been a 3.5% rise in the number of EAL pupils in primary schools across England. This increase accounts for one of the most significant changes to England’s primary school population over the past ten years.

Who are EAL students?

The languages and cultural backgrounds of EAL learners, as well as their needs in the classroom, are diverse. Some EAL pupils may have been born in the UK and raised in homes where one or more other languages are spoken, others may have spent some of their childhood abroad. Learners often enter school at different key stages, meaning that their previous experiences with education may vary. Some EAL learners start school literate in their first language and, depending on this language, may already be familiar with the Latin alphabet. Others are not literate in other languages, and for these learners, the act of reading may be a new concept.

The achievement gap

A published report on the achievement gap in core subjects between students with English as a first language and students with EAL shows that the difference between these two groups is largest for reading (Strand et al, 2015). This finding is supported by other studies which have found that EAL pupils achieve lower comprehension scores in comparison to their monolingual peers (Burgoyne et al, 2009; Hutchinson et al, 2003).

Interestingly, these same studies have shown that despite lower levels of comprehension, EAL children typically score higher on measures of word reading accuracy. This suggests that difficulties with comprehension have the biggest impact on EAL learners’ reading development. Let’s take a look at some of the key reasons why an EAL learner might struggle with reading comprehension.

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Four factors that can impact EAL learners' reading

1. Limited vocabulary range

In order to comprehend a text without the aid of a dictionary or other resources, it has been suggested that only 1 in 50 words should be unfamiliar to a reader; this equates to a 98% text coverage (Hu and Nation, 2000). As EAL learners have typically had limited exposure to English outside of the classroom, they may not have developed a wide enough vocabulary to understand a text without support.

2. Lack of background knowledge

Making meaning from text involves “connecting pieces of the story” (Martinez et al, 2003, p.223). In order to do this effectively, a reader does not only draw on their linguistic abilities but also their personal experiences and knowledge of the world. EAL learners, particularly newcomers to the UK, have had different lived experiences, and they may not always have access to the background knowledge needed to interpret a text.

3. Difficulties with retention and visualisation

Although EAL learners may have strong decoding skills, it’s important not to assume that because they can read the words on a page, they understand them all and can follow a story. It’s important to listen for cues whilst they are reading, such as pauses, that may suggest they have not comprehended part of a text.

4. Surface fluency may disguise comprehension problems

EAL learners develop ‘surface fluency’ quickly - in other words, conversational English. They form friendships with their peers and quickly learn social expressions. However, many researchers, such as Cummins (1984), state that it takes longer to acquire formal academic English than it does to acquire conversational English. Therefore, this apparent fluency often masks problems with reading comprehension.

With these four issues in mind, let’s explore ten practical ways we can support EAL learners of all ages and levels with reading comprehension.

10 tips to help EAL students with reading

1. Support vocabulary development

In addition to providing activities that help pupils widen their vocabulary range and ensuring they are familiar with frequent items, it is also important to provide learners with tools that help them discover the meaning of new words. Showing learners how to use a dictionary and allowing them to translate individual words is useful, but more crucial is to train learners to use strategies that have minimal impact on their flow of reading.

For example, one technique is to teach learners how to infer the meaning of an unknown word by looking for clues in the surrounding co-text (Nuttall 2005). This may involve encouraging a learner to reread part of a text or read ahead past the unknown item. This will also encourage learners to map new words directly to their concepts rather than translations.

2. Check background knowledge

Before reading, check that the learner has the necessary background knowledge needed to access the text. This can be done through a quick discussion about the book title and the cover and asking questions, such as, “What do you think this book is about?”’ Or pointing and asking, “What does this word mean?”

For concepts that a learner doesn’t know, you can look at photos together and write the word on the board so that the learner can be prompted to it when reading. In some cases, if you find that there are too many concepts unfamiliar to the learner, you may decide to choose an alternative book.

3. Use visual information

Sometimes learners become so focused on decoding accurately that they do not notice pictures. Ensure you are always pausing on each page to give a learner time to look at visuals and ask quick questions, such as “Who do you think this is?” Or “Can you point to the … on the page?” Visuals are also a useful aid when explaining unknown vocabulary items.

4. Choose interesting and authentic materials

Ensure that the books you read with EAL students are texts that will engage them. Think about what you know about the learner, are there certain topics that would interest them, such as sports or animals? Do you think they would prefer to read fiction or nonfiction? Also, be sensitive to whether a text is culturally appropriate and whether there are characters or themes that the learner will be able to relate to.

Before reading a text, it is important to drum up interest. Ask questions, for example, “Why did you choose this book?” “Have you seen this animal before?” “What sound do you think this animal makes?” If they do not know, it can be a good motivator to tell learners that they can listen to the sound the animal makes after they have finished reading.

5. Check understanding

When reading, it is necessary to pause regularly and check comprehension. This can be done by asking questions and also giving the learner an opportunity to ask questions. It is important to avoid questions that will elicit a simple yes/no answer, such as ‘do you understand everything?’ Instead, ask questions that encourage elaboration.

Furthermore, ensure when you are talking to a learner about a text that you focus on the main idea rather than details as this may distract them. With that said, it can be useful to quickly check whether a reader is visualising a story by asking “What time of day do you think it is?” Or “What colour hair do you imagine this character has?”

Even when a learner says that they have understood everything, still ask them questions and spot-check the meaning of vocabulary items. Talking about the meanings of words can also provide an opportunity to exploit a learner’s first language. For example, you could ask “What would this word be in your language?” Experts have long stressed the importance of language learning being additive in nature and encouraging learners to be proud of their linguistic abilities, so here’s a chance to do that.

6. Set achievable reading goals

Motivation plays a vital role in language learning. An excellent way to motivate a learner who is struggling with reading is to provide them with some clear and achievable goals. Work with them to set the goals and regularly show the learner that they are getting closer to reaching them. This can be done by finishing a certain number of texts within a set time frame or revisiting a previously read text to build confidence.

7. Set a time limit

In an exam situation, it’s important that an EAL learner can not only read effectively but also efficiently. A useful way to speed up reading is to set time limits. This can help a reader who frequently turns to a dictionary to begin using surrounding co-text instead, or a reader who is determined to understand every single word realise that this is not always necessary. In fact, Williams (1984, p.3) argues that good readers are aware that not every word is necessary for global understanding.

8. Organise reading buddies

A large number of studies exploring collaborative reading show that large reading gains can be made by reading together. Typically, these studies have focussed on children and adults reading together; however, pairing children with one another in the classroom can be just as effective, if not more. Collaborative reading is a fun and interactive classroom activity that offers learners the chance to scaffold one another’s reading.

When pairing students up as language buddies, think about your aims. These will help you decide whether to pair stronger students with weaker students or, if possible, two students who have the same first language. In this case, the learners can explore English and their first language together through translation and discussion.

9. Follow-up reading with a writing activity

Reflection is a necessary part of the learning process, and it is vital that after reading learners take time to go over what they have read and do something practical with it. Useful activities for checking comprehension include asking learners to retell a story in their own words or to provide a summary in a set number of words.

You might also plan an activity in which learners create their own piece of fiction and encourage them to imitate a particular style or include certain vocabulary items in it. Learners can then share their texts with one another to make the activity meaningful.

10. Use interactive materials

Last but not least, make learning fun and interactive by using a variety of mediums to present text to learners. Reading can easily be made a less daunting task when it is presented in an exciting and visual format.

Let’s explore how Bedrock Learning can help you put these top ten tips into action!

How Bedrock helps EAL students improve reading comprehension

The programmes offered by Bedrock Learning are designed for learners of all ages and levels and specifically target reading comprehension as well as vocabulary development. Within Bedrock’s vocabulary curriculum, learners study tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. This means that they cover the academic and subject-specific vocabulary they will need in order to access subjects across the school curriculum, including Maths, Science, and Geography.

The curriculum not only provides learners with definitions and images of target vocabulary, but it also ensures that pupils develop a deep understanding of each word and its multiple uses. As Bedrock’s programmes are data-driven, each learner will work on vocabulary tailored to their individual needs. These words will be repeated throughout the course of the programme so that learners will retain the items long-term.

Bedrock’s resources expose learners to a wide variety of original fiction and non-fiction texts and provide opportunities to follow up reading with fun and interactive activities, such as videos and scaffolded writing tasks. The opportunity for teachers to track each learner’s progress provides them with the insight needed to best support their learners’ continuing language development.

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