What is the “best” way to teach reading to children who are learning English.

Welcome to my next blog about reading with children who are learning English.

Recently I have been involved in some professional learning about reading and what impacts on it. As part of the professional learning, I read a Chapter¬†titled “Building Bridges to text” in a book called¬†“English Learners, Academic literacy and thinking” by Pauline Gibbons. Below is my summary of this text and my own opinion on how to ensure that children who are learning English are able to comprehend the texts that they are reading.

In multicultural nations, like Australia, many children begin school with a very limited understanding about English. These children usually speak another language at home or have been looked after by their grandparents (who do not speak English fluently) while their parents work. These children have not been exposed to the correct structure of spoken English and therefore need a lot of assistance when learning to read English texts.

Not only do they find the concepts about print (how a text works eg front cover, left to right, read left page first) difficult to understand, but their field knowledge is very limited as well. Field knowledge is the understanding about our world and making connections through experience. This is an area that many children struggle with, not just children who have English as a second or even third language. The texts that beginning readers are given cover a variety of topics. The text could be about a circus, playground, airport, another culture, swimming lessons, farm, making bread etc. If children are not familiar with these topics, they will need a lot of assistance to build their field knowledge to enable them to comprehend the text.

Remember the most important goal of learning to read is for a child to understand what they are reading. Reading fluently is important and does relate to comprehension but most of the time parents focus on this at the cost of a child not understanding the text.

Approaches to teaching reading for children learning English

1. Traditional or phonics based approach

This approach focuses on the child learning all their sounds to be able to work out written symbols. An educator would start with individual letters, then simple sight words, then the sounds that are made with two or more letters. After they have gained confidence with this, they would move onto simple sentences that focus on repetition. All early reader texts rely on repetition.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the child is able to make few links to what they already know from their own language. Reading can become a very abstract process for these children as the sounds do not match their first language.

2. Whole language approach

imgres-1This approach focuses on the child learning about the whole text by recognising what type of text it is, predicting what the text is about and using their own knowledge about the subject to bring meaning to the text. Good readers draw on three types of knowledge when reading a text; semanic knowledge (knowledge about the world), Syntactic knowledge (knowledge about the structure of the language) and graphophonic knowledge (letter-sound realtionships). This approach aims to combine all these types of knowledge when trying to read a text.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the child may not be familiar with the texts subject or familiar with the structure of the language that will help them predict what the sentences will be about.

3. Interactive approach

imagesThis approach is the combination of the traditional and the whole language approaches. A child learns about predictive and decoding (working out) skills depending on the type of text being read. What an educator does before reading a text with a child is very important to how successfully a child will be able to read it.

4. Critical approach

researchingThis approach focuses on a child being able to question and analyse a text in which they have been exposed to. They learn that no text is “neutral” as an author always has a particular context and the reader also has their own context. This means that we all see things differently depending on who we are. Words such as discovery, invasion and colonisation all have a particular context that refers to one event.

5. Social and cultural approach

reading 1This approach focuses on the understanding that reading is a cultural and social practice. Each society places a different value on it. Some children come from cultures that value oral story telling whereas some value  picture books or factual texts or religious texts such as the bible. This approach guides the educator in selecting particular texts for a child and the nature of the classroom discussion around reading.

Not one approach has all the answers. As educators and parents we need to use all of these approaches at different times depending on the needs of the child. I hope this has given you insight into the many factors that influence the skill of learning to read, especially for a child who is learning English.

Please share this article with all your staff and parents to ensure we all have access to information that will help our children reach their potential.

Until next time …

Kelly Pisani

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