In order to successfully complete any college-level courses, English Language Learner (ELL) students must be able to read and comprehend a large volume of academic information. However, many instructors are completely overwhelmed in teaching their respective subject areas and are academically unprepared to teach ELL students appropriate reading skills. Many instructors automatically assume that ELL students have developed proper reading skills from previous academic years. This article provides instructors a brief overview of various activities that can improve vocabulary and reading skills of ELL students. These activities may include developing positive reading attitudes, increasing vocabulary, using dictionaries, vocabulary notebooks, and signal devices, as well as reading repeatedly, frequently, and extensively.
In recent years, there has been an increased focus on reading instruction in higher education. In an effort to improve the quality of instruction, much research has been conducted to break down and understand the complex process of reading (Denton et al., 2003). English Language Learner (ELL) college students may face numerous challenges in reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college level. Although some students possess a fluent oral vocabulary, many ELL students struggle with achieving the reading level necessary to function at the appropriate grade level (Wallace, 2007). As a result, this dilemma leaves both college instructors and students strive for a level of achievement that may not be quickly or easily attained (Wallace, 2007).
Vocabulary is the first and foremost important step in language acquisition. In a college classroom where students are not finding themselves comfortable with auditory type of learning, language learning can be made interactive and interesting with the introduction of appropriate vocabulary exercises and related reading activities (Metha, 2009). In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that quality of instruction is at least as important as language of instruction in the ultimate success of ELLs (Cheug and Slavin, 2005). Efficient language instructors can use selected vocabulary and reading activities to improve reading skills of ELLs, depending on the ability and level of understanding and interest of these learners. There is no sure-fire remedy or strategy to greatly improve vocabulary and reading skills in a day or two. Students' vocabulary bank and reading skills can be enriched on a gradual basis; they should always show keen interest and enthusiasm in finding, learning, and understanding new words (Mentha, 2009).
This article briefly reviews major reading skills that work well with many ELL college students. College instructors can help students with improving their reading skills by developing positive attitudes toward reading, increasing vocabulary, using dictionaries, vocabulary notebooks, and signal devices, as well as reading repeatedly, frequently, and extensively (Table 1).
Strategies for Improving Reading Skills
Develop Positive Attitudes Toward Reading
Reading attitude is an integral part of the development and use of lifelong reading skills (Roberts and Wilson, 2006). Having positive attitudes toward learning is one of the most important psychological concepts in education. A positive attitude determines the success of any instruction (Richek et al., 1983), so it is crucial for instructors to engage, maintain, and rekindle ELL students' positive attitude. Positive reading attitudes affect the students' ultimate academic success by increasing the amount of time that is spent on reading (Richek et al., 1983). Whether ELL students read or not is largely determined by their attitudes toward reading (Roberts and Wilson, 2006). If ELL students do not like to read or think reading is boring, negative attitudes are likely to hold back their reading improvement. Poor readers generally have more negative attitudes than good readers (Parker and Paradis, 1986).
Motivation is a major key element in gaining positive attitude toward reading because motivated and interested students tend to value reading activities (Wigfield and Guthrie, 1997). Motivation is the psychological feature, which arouses students to take action toward an achievement goal. When discussing motivation and education, it is students' desire to participate in the learning process. There are two major types of motivations; one is extrinsic motivation, when the environment stimulates the person, by rewards (Ormrod, 2008). Intrinsic motivation is an inner drive that comes from personal interest. For ELL college students, reading can be an enjoyable activity if they truly enjoy the academic subject matter they are reading and studying.
If ELL students want to participate actively in the class, they are likely to perform extra work on their own in order to improve their reading skills (Schneider and Crombie, 2003). When students are intrinsically motivated, they are undertaking an activity for its own sake, for the enjoyment it provides, or the feeling of accomplishment it evokes (Lepper, 1988). Intrinsic motivation has more potential benefits than extrinsic motivation (Ormrod, 2008). Students with intrinsic motivation use more logical information gathering and decision-making strategies than students with extrinsic motivation (Condry and Chambers, 1978). According to Lepper (1988), when intrinsically motivated, students tend to employ strategies that demand more time and effort, and that enable them to process information more deeply. Students with an intrinsic orientation also tend to prefer academic tasks that are moderately challenging, whereas extrinsically orientated students gravitate toward tasks that are low in degree of difficulty (Ormrod, 2008). Extrinsically oriented ELL students are inclined to put forth the minimal amount of time, energy, and effort necessary in order to receive the maximal reward (Lepper, 1988).
ELL students who have different learning backgrounds often lack the understanding even of the basic skills that ensure academic success. They frequently face many academic challenges and failures, which would have important implications for their attitude toward learning. ELL students may lose motivation because of frustrations, so it is essential for college instructors to stimulate these unmotivated students.
If the classroom is perceived as a positive and supportive environment, where there is a feeling of belonging, where every student is respected and valued, ELL students tend to participate more actively in the process of learning (Lepper, 1988). Various task dimensions can also foster motivation to learn. Ideally, tasks should be challenging but achievable (Lepper, 1988). Relevance also promotes motivation, as does contextualizing learning, thus helping students to realize how skills can be applied to realistic situations. Academic tasks that involve a moderate amount of discrepancy or incongruity are beneficial because they may stimulate students' curiosity and intrinsic motivator (Lepper, 1988).
Personal interest and background knowledge are two major motivational factors that enable students to read beyond what is considered their normal reading level (Sweet, 1997). Research studies have shown that readers, who are familiar with the topic of a text, will understand it, and remember its information easier than those who do not (Rumelhart, 1980). The more relevant background knowledge that readers can relate to a reading assignment, the more prepared they will be for reading. Instructors can help students prepare for reading assignments by setting up reading and studying goals, through worksheets and study questions (Shih, 1992). Related readings will also help students gain background knowledge about selected academic topics. Abundant exposure of the same topics will also help students to learn new vocabulary and to integrate new words into their existing knowledge (Nagy, 1988).
In reality, ELL college students need sufficient vocabulary in order to read efficiently, while at the same time, extensive reading is a necessary component for acquiring a sufficient vocabulary (Wallace, 2007). The minimum number of words needed for extensive reading to occur ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 words (Wallace, 2007). There is a definite need for continued attention toward vocabulary development. Without the necessary vocabulary knowledge, college instructors should not plan authentic text reading (Tran, 2006). Improved vocabulary and word analysis skills are strongly associated with improved reading comprehension outcomes (Wallace, 2007).
Vocabulary knowledge has been identified as the most important indicator of oral language proficiency, which is particularly important for comprehension of both spoken and written language (Stahl and Fairbanks, 1986; Wallace, 2007). Increasing ELL students' vocabulary is probably the most important task in improving their reading skills. The failure to recognize even 2% of the words in a specific text will limit comprehension (Proctor et al., 2005; Wallace, 2007), making general vocabulary knowledge the single best predictor of reading comprehension (Proctor et al., 2005; Wallace, 2007). The best way to develop a basic vocabulary is to learn and practice the most frequent words until they become instant/sight words. According to Fry (1993), the first 25 instant words alone give one third of words used in writings. The first 100 of them make up about half of all works written, and the first 300 make up about 65% of all written material in English. The General Service List of English Words (GSL) contains approximately 2,000 high-frequency words and covers 87% of a general text (Schmitt, 2000). Being able to recognize these words instantly can greatly improve the ELL students' reading.
ELL students are also facing difficulties in both the number of words known (breadth) and the meaning of words (depth) of critical vocabulary knowledge. While breadth refers to the amount of words known, depth of word knowledge includes all word characteristics such as phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, collocational and phraseological properties (Quian, 2002). Perhaps of greatest significance, the dimension of vocabulary depth has been shown to be as important as vocabulary breadth in predicting the performance of ELLs on academic reading (Quian, 2002).
Both vocabulary and comprehension involve the meaning of the text, albeit at different levels. Vocabulary is generally tied closely to individual words, while comprehension is more often thought of in much larger units. To get to the comprehension of larger units requires the requisite processing of words; precisely separate the two processes are extremely difficult, if not impossible (National Reading Panel, 2000). Vocabulary deficiency in ELL students also decreases their reading fluency, as they will frequently stumble over unfamiliar words (Denton et al., 2003). Repeated practice reading connected to text increases ELL student's sight word vocabulary (Kuhn and Stahl, 2004). Ironically, students who need to increase their vocabulary are also the ones who are least likely to engage in independent reading (Spear-Swerling, 2004).
There is a significant positive relationship among vocabulary knowledge, listen comprehension, and reading comprehension (Wallace, 2007). The depth of vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary breath is positively associated with the preference on reading academic tasks for basic comprehension. Thus, vocabulary breath and depth are powerful, reliable predictors of basic reading comprehension, making vocabulary an important factor in reading assessment and performance (Wallace, 2007).
Use Dictionaries and Vocabulary Notebooks
Related to building vocabulary is the use of general and academic specialty dictionaries, which are the best resources to understand the meaning of a new word. Good bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, with or without pictures, can give college students many words with grammatical information about them including spelling, pronunciation, word formation, metaphorical, and idiomatic whole profile of a particular word with examples in sentences and phrases (Harmer, 1991). Students must be trained how to use dictionaries properly in order to achieve three goals: to remove fear of the mass information of dictionaries, to understand the information, to make sure that dictionaries are a normal and comfortable part of college education (Harmer, 1991).
According to Schmitt (2000), vocabulary-learning strategies can be divided into two groups: one group for consolidating a word after it has been introduced, and the other one for discovering the meaning of new words. One strategy for the first group is to retain a vocabulary notebook, a similar strategy that Nation (2005) suggested is using word cards. Using a vocabulary notebook, according to Blachowics and Fisher (2000), is one of the ways for ELL students to personalize their word learning, and notebooks become personalized dictionaries (Tran, 2006). A common strategy for the second group is using a bilingual dictionary, which includes a translation, definition, and a sentence example. Bilingual dictionaries, with or without pictures, can help ELL students remember English vocabulary better than monolingual dictionaries (Tran, 2006).
While ELL college students are strongly encouraged to use various types of dictionaries, it is essential that they learn not to depend too much on these dictionaries. Because looking up new words are so time-consuming, students must have a sense of priority in deciding which words are key words and need to be looked up, and which word could be temporarily ignored in order to proceed with extensive reading (Schmitt, 2000).
Use Signal Devices
It is widely assumed that recall of text involves a top-down search of a hierarchical text representation (Meyer, 1975; Kintsch and van Dijk, 1978; Lorch and Lorch, 1985; Lorch et al., 1993). Authors of texts often utilize signaling devices to highlight topics of a text and their organization (Lorch et al., 2001). Signals are writing devices designed to emphasize aspects of a text's structure or content without altering the information in the text (Meyer, 1975; Lorch, 1989). They include headings, subheadings, overviews, summaries, redundancies, along with a variety of typographical cues (Brown et al., 1986; Lorch et al., 1993). Signal devices should help ELL college students to construct a good representation of a text's topic structure. Thus, if these students use the proper structure strategy, signal devices should influence text recall (Lorch et al., 1993).
The motivation of textbook and scholarly book authors for using organizational signals is presumably to aid readers' processing of the topic structure of the text, and thus to facilitate and maximize text comprehension (Lorch et al., 2001). Authors often flag important statements by such signal devices as headings, subheadings, overviews, and summaries. During reading, good readers identify text topics and their interrelations; at recall, the topic structure representation is retrieved and used as a retrieval plan (Lorch et al., 1993).
ELL college students who are familiar with text structure can see relationships among ideas and concepts. Expert learners know about these signal devices, using them as clues to help them organize and concentrate on essential information (Brown et al., 1986). In general, using signal devices are likely to help ELL students retain and comprehend text information better than not using such signal devices (Brown et al., 1986).
In addition, a list of different types of signals that can also be used to identify important ideas and their relations: 1) graphical: type size, italics, boldface, underlining; 2) syntactical: word order, topicalization; 3) lexical: words like important, relevant, the subject is, the conclusion is; 4) semantic: thematic words and sentences, summarizing or introductory sentences, repetition; and 5) schematic/super structural: story grammars, narrative schema, expository text structures (Brown et al., 1986). Academic readings provide repeated exposure to the common organizational pattern students must recognize. However, these students need proper guidance from instructors in order to build a formal schema and strategies, which can help comprehension and remembering course information (Brown et al., 1986).
The purpose of repeated reading and guided repeated oral reading is to help ELL college students through oral reading practice and guidance to develop fluent reading habits that would allow them to read text more quickly, accurately, and with appropriate expression and understanding (National Reading Panel, 2000). Reading fluency is increased as a result of repeated reading of texts, particularly when students are guided by a more fluent study partner in meaningful texts (Rasinski, 2000). The criterion for reading mastery varies depending upon the implementation of ELL instructors. For instance, some college instructors require that the text be read a specific number of times, while others require students to continue reading and reading the passage until a specific level of accuracy is achieved (National Research Panel, 2000).
The theory of automatic processing purports that the effectiveness of repeated readings is based on improved word recognition skills (Rashotte and Torgensen, 1985). Repeated reading improves ELL students' reading fluency (Therrien and Kubina, 2007). LaBerge and Samuels (1974) propose that fluency problems stem from readers' poor decoding skills. When decoding is too slow, a bottleneck is created in short-term memory that impedes the flow of thought and hampers comprehension (LaBerge and Samules, 1974; Adams, 2000). Repeated reading improves word recognition and decoding skills by providing students with numerous exposures to the same words (Therrien and Kubina, 2007). As ELL students become proficient reading the words, their fluency develops, which improves their understanding of text (Theirren and Kabuina, 2007).
As students read, they are required to simultaneously identify words on a page and determine meaning of the passage. Decoding is the ability to convert letters into sounds and blend them to form recognizable words (National Reading Panel, 2000). It is suggested that the more effort required identifying words on the page, the less cognitive energy the individual has available for determining meaning of the text. Following this logic, the method for remediation is to increase students' ability to decode the text until words are identified immediately, in order to free-up cognitive energy for comprehension (LaBerge and Samuels, 1974; Kuhn and Stahl, 2004). Although students' inability or inefficiency in decoding text is not the sole culprit for poor comprehension, decoding is an essential skill for comprehension, and improving the speed and accuracy of students' decoding is positively correlated with increases in comprehension (Torgensen, 1986; National Reading Panel, 2000).
Each time ELL students re-read a passage, the following occurs: students gain fluency with word recognition, they become more familiar with specific word combinations in the passage, they increase their background knowledge, and they build a more complete understanding of the passage as a whole (Therrien and Kubina, 2007). When students re-read words in context, they read them faster and make fewer errors. Students' reading speed increases and number of word errors decreases as they re-read the connected text passage (Therrien and Kubina, 2007). The power of repeated reading is not only exposing students to words they do not know, but is also providing this exposure within connected text passages (Therrien and Kubina, 2007).
It is essential that students work with text at their independent reading level, as improving fluency is not possible if students cannot accurately read the text, and that the selection of texts available includes a range of topics (Spear-Swerling, 2004). Although this instructional approach requires one-on-one instruction, it allows for various methods of implementation from individual instructor-student teaching, tutoring, peer guidance, computer programming, and practice with texts on audios and/or videos (National Reading Panel, 2000). Rayner and Pollatsek (1989) caution that efforts to increase rate of reading will not definitively resulting improvements in comprehension, but that reading and re-reading the text serve the dual purpose of increasing fluency, as well as increasing the comprehension of the text.
Read Frequently and Extensively
Not reading often enough to build speed is a major problem with many ELL college students. In order to build students' speed and work on their concentration, they must read as much and often as possible (Sherfield et. al., 2005). To increase ELL students' frequency for active reading, they should consider the following items: 1) read every chance they get; 2) read a variety of materials including textbooks, scholarly books, research journal articles, newspapers, and magazines; and 3) do not read simply for learning, read for pleasure as well (Sherfield et al., 2005).
The positive role of extensive reading in development of vocabulary and language skills has been evidenced by numerous research findings (Renandya and Jacobs, 2001). According to Carrell and Carson (1997), extensive reading has two characteristics: reading a large number of reading materials and focusing on the meaning rather on the language. Extensive reading helps develop sight vocabulary, general vocabulary, and the knowledge of the target language (Renandya and Jacobs, 2001). Free voluntary reading has supported not only vocabulary development, but also spelling, grammar, and writing development (Tran, 2006).
In general, an extensive reading is the single most effective way of improving both vocabulary and reading skills (Nuttall, 1982). The goal of the extensive reading is for ELL students to select their reading according to their linguistic abilities from a number of reading materials within their English language capabilities (Nation, 2005). During extensive reading, ELL students should be interested in what they are reading with their attention on the meaning of the text, rather than on learning the language features of the text.
Extensive reading is intended to develop good reading habits, to build up knowledge of vocabulary and structure, and to develop a sense of enjoyment toward reading (Richards and Schmidt, 2000). The purpose for the extensive reading is for students to select and perform sustained silent reading during most of the English and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and to be motivated to read effectively.
Extensive reading can only occur where there are 95% to 98% of the runnings words in the text are already familiar to ELL students (Hu and Nation, 2000). Students must concentrate on the meaning of the text, and the extensive reading must give students numerous opportunities at their appropriate reading and comprehension levels (Hu and Nation, 2000). The central focus should be the students' experience of reading the text. Instructors should be modeling and allowing students the class time to discuss, ask questions about their reading experience, their academic progress, and how they can come within reach of solutions (Hu and Nation, 2000).
The benefits resulting from sustained silent reading are many, including student autonomy, improved identification and interpretation skills, vocabulary gain (Day et a1.1991; Krashen, 1993), as well as improved spelling and a sense of enjoyment toward reading (Krashen, 1982). Re-telling the stories allow ELL students an opportunity to share their stories with their fellow classmates, and to practice their oral English (Meng, 2009). Students are also encouraged to share their stories visually or in a diagram, which is a form of transferring knowledge or information to instructors and classmates. Students are also engaged in out-of-the class reading at least three to four hours a week. The out-of-class pleasure reading has the effect of improving students' reading skills, their self-confidence, and self-identification as readers (Kitao, et al., 1990).
Implications for Practice
There is no single best strategy for improving reading skills for ELL college students. No one approach is distinctly better in all situations than others that it should be considered the single best strategy, and the one to be used exclusively for reading improvement (Roberts and Wilson, 2006).
In reality, every college instructor is a reading instructor. No reading takes place without content, and the content that instructors must use is their own subject matter (White, 2004). Instructors know the concepts and specialized vocabulary to be mastered, the materials and activities to be used, the sequence of growth and maturity, as well as the types of learning to be measured and evaluated in certain academic disciplines (White, 2004). The teaching faculty in collaboration with the reading specialists and college/university staff members who are responsible for providing resources for students with special needs can help students with reading issues in order to masters the content of specific academic disciplines (White, 2004).
In order to show excellence in comprehending academic subject matter, ELL college students need assistance to develop background information pertaining to what will be read, thus connecting what is known with what will be read (Ediger, 2009). It is also good to have students relating the course content to their own personal lives. Vocabulary development is an inherent part of becoming good readers in any academic subject areas. College instructors need to be aware of campus and local public library books, which are available in teaching subject area, which might interest and challenge the curiosities of ELL students (Ediger, 2009).
Furthermore, in understanding the effective strategies that ELL college students need to become successful readers, instructors are able to implement appropriate instructional strategies to greatly enhance vocabulary and reading skills. These strategies proven to be effective include having positive attitudes toward reading, increasing vocabulary, using dictionaries, vocabulary notebooks, and signal devices, as well as repeated, frequent, and extensive reading (Table 1). Research studies continually show that each strategy must be equally mastered for ELL students in order to become successful readers. To achieve this massive goal, specific instruction guidelines and appropriate assignments and exercises have been recommended in order to improve vocabulary and reading skills among ELL college students.
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SIMON A. LEI
ADAM M. BERGER
BRIGITA M. ALLEN
CHAD V. PLUMMER
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Table 1. An overview of major strategies for improving reading
skills among ELL college students.
Having positive attitudes toward reading
Using dictionaries and vocabulary notebooks
Academic specialty dictionaries
Using signal devices
Word recognition skill
Reading frequently and extensively
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