Reading. It is a simple task for those of us who are natural readers. When I am asked how I learned to read, I have a difficult time answering because I am not sure. I just read. As an educator, I can attribute this to the many books that were available to me in my home, the language-rich environment that I experienced as a child, the frequent trips to the library on Saturday mornings, and the adult model that I observed, as reading was part of our evening ritual. In my house, everyone read, every day, and we talked about what we read. This was simply how my family functioned. But for many students, this is not the case.
In my work as a professional learning consultant, I often hear stories about students that struggle with reading. Sometimes these stories begin with descriptions such as: “Many of the students in my class are second language learners,” or “Many of the students in my class are learning disabled in reading.” What always follows is a plea for help and support for teaching students that find reading difficult. As a passionate language and reading educator, I always welcome these conversations.
If we think about reading as an extension of oral language, it is easy to see why language learners might struggle. It is also easy to see that the job of learning to read for these students will require more than an understanding of phonics and fluency. Being able to connect letter sounds to their symbols is an important component of reading, but it is generally not the challenge that these students face. Most times, these students are struggling with reading comprehension. They struggle because they have limited vocabulary knowledge, limited or confused knowledge of sentence structure, and limited experience with abstract language, such as metaphors, idioms, or multiple-meaning words – or simply limited life experiences, which is also known as background knowledge. We sometimes forget that students with different cultural experiences have a different “scaffold” upon which they build new learning. These same circumstances are often true for students with learning disabilities and many other children.
So, how might a teacher know which of these comprehension-based skills to address? This question is easy: they know because they use assessment tools that provide them with this information. Assessments for these students must go beyond fluency scores to provide insight into comprehension skills. Once the areas of concern are identified, teachers can create an action plan for their students. These plans are developed with a cycle of assessment, practice, and re-teach if needed, followed by assessment. The idea that instruction occurs, and then practice, is not foreign to teachers, parents, or students. Homework assignments and seat work have been long-held traditions in education, but in this cycle, it is important for all stakeholders to understand that students who struggle will need to practice more often and in varied ways, in order to master the skills they are missing. These students may also need explicit instruction, where most students “pick-up” on the implied elements that are necessary for skill acquisition.
If we return to our original thought process of looking at reading as an extension of oral language development, it is easy to recognize this. Think about sentence structure. Most students do not require explicit instruction on where to put words of negation (no, not, etc.) in a sentence. They learn this simply by listening to others. For dual language learners, especially those whose native language has a significantly different structure than English, explicit instruction may be necessary for them to understand. The same holds true for teaching figurative language and multiple meaning words. Context clues may not be explicit enough for solid acquisition of these skills. Having solid assessment data and a familiarity with differences in various languages, both oral and print, can support teachers in their development of interventions for their students.