How well do your students read?
Do they use good pronunciation and read with fluency? Are they quick to go through the words on the page and finish long before the other members of the class? Not every student has those skills, but some will. But don’t be fooled. Just because some students are reading quickly and fluently, it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand what they read. Looking at letters on a page and pronouncing them correctly doesn’t always equate to comprehension. That’s why it’s important that we, as ESL teachers, make sure students can not only read but can also understand the text in front of them. How do we do that? By teaching them specific comprehension strategies, and checking to make sure they got the information and not just the words after they read. Here are some comprehension strategies you can use with your ESL students to make sure they are really getting what is written on the page.
Turn Your Students into Efficient Readers
Making predictions both before reading and while reading is a good way to get students thinking about what they are seeing on the page. When students make predictions, they come to the text with a certain expectation. Sometimes that expectation is met by the author, and sometimes it is not. But by having those predictions in place, students can evaluate what they are reading as they read it against measures they themselves have designed.
To use this strategy, have students look at the piece of writing they will read. If they are reading a nonfiction article, have them read the heading and the subheadings in the article. Students should use these as clues to determine what the text will be about. If you are reading a fictional piece with your students, have your class look at the cover and make guesses at what the story will be about. Have them read the title of the book and any chapter titles (if you are reading a longer piece of literature). Have students look at pictures throughout the story and get in their mind what may be happening in the story. And if your piece is on the longer side, stop students in the middle of reading and ask them to predict what will happen in the next section of the story. If you hesitate because you don’t want to throw out any spoilers, keep this in mind. Reading in a foreign language isn’t like reading in a native language (at least at the beginning and intermediate levels, and sometimes at the advanced as well). Knowing what will happen later in a piece of literature actually helps ESL students understand as they read.
Asking questions is like gold when it comes to assuring reading comprehension. Whether it is before you read, while you are reading, or after you read, getting down to who, what, where, when, why, and how is one of the best ways to help your students understand what they read. Yes/no questions have some value, but they do not require as much thinking or retention from your ESL students. The best questions for this comprehension strategy start with information words (listed above) and require your students to dig deeper than a yes or no answer.
To use questions to help your students understand what they are reading, teach them how to ask themselves informational questions before, while, and after they read. Show students how to take each of the question words and use it to start one or more question about the text: Who is the main character? Who else will be in the book? Who is the narrator of the book? Where does the book take place? Where is the main character going? What is happening in this chapter? In the picture? On the cover? What is the person doing? What does the character want? Etc. If you teach your students to formulate these questions as they read, on their own, it will become a natural part of how they approach a text. Once it becomes a habit, students will use this strategy without even realizing they are doing so, and all you have to do is model that thought process for them.
Marking the Text
Do you have students who write in their books even when you don’t want them to? Don’t stop them! These students are naturally using another great reading comprehension strategy – marking the page. I’m not advocating destroying school property, but simply making a photocopy and letting your students make marks as they read can make a huge difference in how much they understand. One way to mark the text is to note unfamiliar vocabulary words, but don’t let your students write a translation over every word they don’t know. Writing a definition in English is best, and writing it in the margin is essential. That way, as students read a second and third time, they remember, or try to remember, the definition they wrote rather than reading the translation above the word.
Another method of marking the text is to highlight the main ideas. If you are reading an information article, have your students highlight the main idea of each section or each paragraph. Not only will that help them grasp the most important information in the article, it will also help them use that same pattern as they write. As your students see how other writers keep their main ideas upfront and clear, they will mimic that style in their own writing. Plus they will retain the most important pieces of information they read even if they don’t recall all the details.
Margins are great for more than just resting your eyes. They are the perfect place for ESL students to make notes as they read. The best notes will be personal thoughts and questions that come to mind as your students read. If a student remembers an experience he has had that relates to what he is reading, have him jot down a word or two in the margin to help jog his memory later. If he agrees or disagrees with what he is reading, have him note that in the margins, too. Other valuable notations include any questions or confusion he has while reading, any other examples the students thinks of to support the writer’s arguments, and notes about other texts that either support or contradict what your student is reading. These notes help students make connections to what they are reading, and personal connections increase comprehension and retention in readers.
Retelling the Information
How many summaries have you written after reading a book or article? Do your students do the same? When students have to retell the information that they have read, it solidifies in their minds the main points the author presented in the text, so use this strategy to help your ESL students remember what they have read. When you do, point out to your students that summaries are shorter than the original and only include the most important ideas and leave out the details.
Summarizing isn’t the only way to retell information. Paraphrasing is very valuable for ESL students as well. A paraphrase is the same length as the original but uses the reader’s words rather than the writer’s words. This strategy is especially useful for ESL students who may struggle with complex or unfamiliar vocabulary. If they can write the information they read in their own words, they are more likely to remember what they have read. Your ESL students don’t need to paraphrase an entire reading selection – that’s just tedious. But if they have already identified the main points in the article by underlining or highlighting them in the text, paraphrasing those sentences will be of great value to your students.
Other ways to summarize what you have read don’t have to be in writing. Have students retell the story to a partner, pointing out the major plot points or pieces of information. You can have students act out what they have read in a skit or a performance. Students can present the same information in a creative way, such as a brochure, poster, or diorama. All of these methods will help your students not only understand what they have read but remember it as well.
Don’t let pronunciation and fluency in out loud reading be the only measure you have for your students’ comprehension. Make sure they really get what they are reading, and give them the tools they need to understand what they will read in the future. Encourage your students to make predictions, ask questions, mark their text, and retell the information they have learned. If they can make these comprehension strategies a natural part of how they read, they will find that reading, and remembering, becomes easier and easier.
Do you teach specific reading comprehension strategies to your students?
What are they?