Teaching Strategies & Tips

Teaching Reading Comprehension: Strategies & Tips From Real Teachers

10 minutes

4 ReadTheory users share their personal stories, along with real-life tips on how to efficiently teach reading comprehension. They share strategies and address first-year teachers with additional special tips just for them.

Each of the authors is talking about their own experience teaching different kinds of students – elementary students, high-school students, ESL students, and SPED students. As you probably expect, some strategies and experiences are quite different when teaching different types of students. Choose the article that is relevant to you by clicking the button next to the relevant author.

Teaching Reading Comprehension In Elementary

Written by Dean Deaver, elementary school ELA teacher

Teaching Reading Comprehension in High School

Written by Amber Meares, high-school English teacher

Teaching Reading Comprehension for ESL

Written by Mandy Wade, high-school ESL teacher

Teaching Reading Comprehension In Elementary

What Are The Key Strategies to Good Teaching?

Early in my teaching career, I remember asking a quality veteran teacher, “What are the key strategies to good teaching?” This was from a culmination of multiple conversations and staff meetings with our principal that led us to believe that we were not meeting the needs and goals for our scholars and school. As a newcomer to the team and career, I was truly interested in learning my craft and seeking success for my scholars and for the school. Her response, “I don’t know.” (Insert a deep sigh from me after her statement.) 

Fast forward more than two decades and I still find myself asking the same question, especially when it comes to teaching reading comprehension. This topic is massive in content, opinions, and methodologies. Although it is impossible to summarize it all in one article, there are many key elements that are consistently successful for teaching reading comprehension.

 

Effective Reading Comprehension Strategies

The irony of my colleague’s statement is that she did know what strategies were effective. Each year her students were very prepared for the next year and excelled. My daughter was one of those fortunate students who not only gained important tools for academic success but also built her confidence. This teacher was unable to provide an answer to me on the spot, but she clearly had effective strategies that proved successful year after year. 

There are a myriad of research articles that explore effective reading comprehension strategies. A school could have competent programs or curriculum, but larger and measurable success is directly connected to teachers who effectively use reading strategies that are known to work. According to one article, “Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension,” (Duke and Pearson, 2011), students made “adequate progress in reading comprehension if they had strong teachers of reading comprehension for two consecutive years.” 

According to this same article, there are 10 essential elements of effective reading comprehension instruction:

  1. Build disciplinary and world knowledge.
  2. Provide exposure to a volume and range of texts.
  3. Provide motivating texts and contexts for reading.
  4. Teach strategies for comprehending.
  5. Teach text structures.
  6. Engage students in discussion.
  7. Build vocabulary and language knowledge.
  8. Integrate reading and writing.
  9. Observe and assess.
  10. Differentiate instruction.

 

Each of these should be discussed and explored beyond the scope of this article. However, one glaring omission is that it does not include that every student must be reading and doing the same thing at the same time. Every student is at a different place in their reading comprehension journey and we as educators must intentionally plan and provide the educational needs for each child.

 

ReadTheory and Other Online Resources

One of the most invigorating aspects of being an educator today is the use of meaningful online resources that provide key data and resources for teachers, parents, and students. The world of online programs is plentiful with premium and freemium plans and filled with quality and lackluster results. As an educator, on any level, it is paramount to find the ones that are easy to use, provide relevant data, and promote learning at the pace of the individual student.

ReadTheory can check off all of those boxes. It also connects with the 10 essential elements for teaching reading comprehension in the aforementioned article. Nothing can substitute a quality teacher, but ReadTheory does provide the support a teacher and student need to teach and reinforce reading comprehension skills and track real-time growth.

A student with ReadTheory

A student with ReadTheory

A teacher has many options in implementing ReadTheory. One easy way is to make it a homework activity. Most households have a device and access to the internet and this could be an easy homework assignment. Depending on the number of devices, it could easily be an in-class assignment as well. If your classroom is 1:1 devices, then it could be something that a student could complete almost at any time during the day or week. If there are limited devices, ReadTheory could be the assignment that the students complete at a center or in one of their rotations.

For the past five years, I have incorporated ReadTheory in my classroom. For a few years, I had the luxury of being a 1:1 classroom. In recent years, I have a few devices in the classroom at all times and then get a classroom set of devices in a portable computer cart three times a week. ReadTheory recommends 25 minutes three times a week which is about 6 quizzes. Many of my students are able to complete this.

Working in groups/rotations

Over the years, through research and collaboration with other educators, I found an effective way to teach reading is through rotations. My rotation groups are homogeneous to help keep track of the reading levels of my students. They are not locked into these groups because they can be moved to other groups based on their progress. 

Currently, I have five groups. The activities can be changed, but in general, one group meets with me, two groups are working from an active playlist of activities that can be accomplished individually or through collaboration, a fourth group typically reads through their reading selection, and the final group is doing select programs, such as ReadTheory, on the classroom laptops.

  Since my Language Arts time is done in rotations, the students have ample time to accomplish the recommended six ReadTheory quizzes a week. They have the time during the rotations, the other times when there is a class set, and they also have the option of completing them at home. The data from ReadTheory is then used to drive instruction and provide information for parent conferences, IEPs or any other intervention meetings. 

Other online resources that help build reading comprehension are available and more are being developed. A few of the others that have merit are Newsela, Epic Books, and Vooks. Each of these provide other options for supporting your reading comprehension instruction, building student interest in reading, and honing their comprehension skills.

 

First-Year Teacher ELA Tips

First-year teachers are a huge energy boost to the education system. Since elementary teachers are the ones that start the teaching students to read, it is crucial that first-year teachers are supported. Recently I asked several teachers, “What are some tips you would give to first-year ELA teachers?” One teacher was a veteran teacher and former assistant principal. Another has been a teacher for five years and as it so happened, the third teacher is in her second year of teaching. 

 

Use engaging activities

The one tip that they all mentioned and agreed to is having engaging reading comprehension activities. A list of examples are provided further in this article, but in general, if the students are enjoying the activity, then engagement and learning is high. A variety of engaging activities or strategies helps alleviate the common “look” and statement of “I’m bored” by the students. Whether it is a collaborative assignment or high-interest topic, using multiple strategies will lessen unmotivated or uninterested students. 

For example, one of the ones listed later is Literature Circles 2.0. This activity involves every student with a specific job. It holds them accountable for their task and then they report back to the group. Every “job” is a unique approach to reading comprehension and is very engaging.

 

Build a rapport

A second tip is to build a strong rapport and confidence with your students. Getting to know, really know, your students is not in any standard but should be the foundation for every educator. This should begin on the first day of school and, truly, every day of school. Once the student feels like you know them and want them to succeed, they put in more effort. Their confidence level is increased and so are their skills in all academic areas, but especially in reading.

 

Collaborate

A third tip is to collaborate with your team or another teacher. Often teaching feels like a lonely profession when we are in the classroom with 20 – 30 students and on our own. It does not need to be that way if you can find at least one other person that you can bounce ideas off of and glean ideas from. 

This tip seems obvious and can be easily overlooked, but it is a strong factor for teacher retention. Even if the collaborating teacher is at another school site, it is a great way to find strategies to teach reading that will improve your own students’ skills. It is a positive method of finding out “what works” and “what doesn’t work” with the support of other educators.

 

Use ReadTheory effectively

There are two ReadTheory tips for first year ELA teachers and anyone who starts using ReadTheory. First, remind your students that it does not benefit them to hurry through the quizzes just to get them done. This was a mistake I first made and I had students do 20 quizzes in two days (not exaggerating) but they did not show growth. Once I explained to my class that ReadTheory was to help them improve their reading ability and that showing growth was more important than doing an abundance of quizzes, then the students slowed down and improvement began. 

The second tip is using the Writing function. If the students are doing up to six quizzes a week and there are 20 -30 students in your class, that could be over a hundred writing responses to score! The ReadTheory system scores the quizzes, but the teacher scores the writing. It is recommended to turn the writing function off after the fourth quiz.

Finally, realize that you teach children, not curriculum. It isn’t about the program, books, or technology, but about the kids. Just the kids.

 

Teaching Reading Through Scholar Feedback

One of the best ways to teach reading is through scholar feedback. Scholar feedback is two way. It should be a conversation, not a soliloquy. Traditionally the teacher gets the assignments or assessments from the student and then lets them know what they did well and what needs improvement. When this happens, it needs to be meaningful, specific, and timely. This is where support programs such as ReadTheory can provide instant student feedback. A student needs this valuable feedback for reading comprehension to improve. However, when the student is involved with the feedback process, then the results are academic magic.

A student-led conference

A student-led conference

One example is conducting student mini-conferences. These are dynamic meetings that should not take more than a few minutes each, but can be powerful in making connections for and with the student. For instance, I have used these mini-conferences to review their progress on ReadTheory. ReadTheory provides key data about the student’s reading comprehension levels. It shows Lexile and reading grade levels along with how the student is doing with specific Common Core question types. The discussion with the student about this data and giving them the opportunity to share their strengths and challenges is when the student takes more ownership of their learning.

An additional practice for positive and meaningful student feedback is with Student-Led Parent conferences. The student prepares a presentation ahead of time with data that provides evidence of their strengths and challenges for that term. On the day of the conference, they lead the discussion with the parent(s) and the teacher. Then the teacher and parents can provide immediate feedback to the student about their progress and goals. This is when more support and guidance can be given to the student about their reading or any academic area.  It is another way to have a discussion about their learning with the student even though they are leading it. Watch a Student-Led Conference Video.

Lesson Planning – Current and Next Year

Teaching reading is truly an art form that takes time to learn. It starts with good lesson planning. Lesson planning is one of the most challenging and time-consuming parts of teaching. As the saying goes, work smarter and not harder. Here are some suggestions:

  • Collaborate with Team or Buddy Teacher (On or off site)
  • Backwards Scheduling With District/State Assessments
  • Take Notes and Create a File System For Next Year
  • Do Not Need to Reinvent The Wheel

One of the many lessons I have learned from my reading lesson plans is that they don’t always go according to my plan. That is where the above suggestions improve your current and future reading lessons. If a lesson does not work as you had hoped, discuss it with your team or buddy teacher to see what they suggest. Keeping notes either in the Teacher Edition books or in a separate filing system is beneficial for future lessons and will help either avoid the same mistakes or help you remember what did work. Teaching reading is challenging for most educators, which is why writing flexible plans that can stay focused on the objective but fluid enough to adjust to the needs of your students is key. 

 

Engaging Reading Comprehension Activities

All of this leads back to the central question, “What are effective strategies or activities to teach reading comprehension?” Being able to understand the meaning behind the text helps children develop socially and intellectually in all academic areas. Therefore, teaching reading comprehension is foundational for every student to be successful and choosing engaging and rigorous activities is indispensable. There is no one complete set or list of activities, but here are some suggestions:

  • Anticipation Guide – This is a reading comprehension strategy used before the students start to read the selection. Its function is to find out prior knowledge of the material and build interest in the new topic. It can be done with individual students, small groups or whole class. It is useful in setting a purpose for reading.
  • Exit Slips/Tickets – Use this activity after the lesson to use as a formal or informal way to measure understanding of the topic or material.
  • Listen-Read-Discuss – This strategy starts with the students listening to a lesson or presentation from the teacher and then reading a text about the same topic. After reading the selection, the class has a discussion about the presentation and text. It can be a whole class or small group discussions and usually compare and contrast the information from the lesson and reading.
  • Story Maps – A graphic organizer is used to help identify the elements of a narrative. (Characters, Setting, Plot, Problem, Solution) Depending on the grade level, it can be a simple map or advanced that includes plot and character traits. 
  • Literacy Circles 2.0 – A new model of the traditional Literature Circles with students taking on various roles (Discussion Director, Literary Luminary, Connector, etc.) to discuss and understand a topic or specific reading selections, but this one is all digital. The reading material is typically online and all the responses from each student is done in a digital format. (Google Doc, Google Classroom, BookSnaps, Flipgrid and others)
  • Game of Quotes – A fun game done after Silent Reading where the students choose their own book to read. When the Silent Reading time is over, the teacher displays a prompt. The students must find a quote from their own book that they think best applies to that prompt. Each round the class decides who has the best response. This encourages students to read carefully and often sparks interest in that book for other students to read it. 
  • Sketch and Tell – A paper or digital activity that gives the students time to read the selection, draw a quick sketch about it, and then write a short description to tell what the sketch or selection is about. Often this is combined with the students sharing it with others in their group or a whole class. 
  • Picture Walks – Before the students read the selection, they examine the pictures and make some predictions and conclusions about the text. Typically this is a primary grade activity but can easily be done with upper-grade students as well. 

These are just a few ideas to try but all have proven effective and successful by educators. The uniqueness of teaching is that there are these and many other engaging reading comprehension activities. However,  it is less about the specific activity and more about finding a way to connect students with the text. What reading comprehension activity do you use and why is it effective? Let us know!

 

I Know Some

Reading comprehension is vital to all academic areas. Without it, students struggle and fall behind. That is why it is imperative to use effective strategies to teach reading that provide your students with a strategy and feedback that guides their progress and, ultimately, their success. Each of these topics could be individually explored and discussed at greater length. The objective of this article it to provide an overview of this topic and maybe spark some ways to improve your reading instruction. 

 

Now, if anyone asks you what are effective strategies for teaching reading, you can confidently say, “I know some!”

Dean Deaver, elementary school ELA teacher

Teaching Reading Comprehension in High School

In the high school classroom specifically, reading comprehension is often demonstrated by providing the student with a text to read before asking them to recall the passage. Not much different than you would see in an elementary school. The difficulty of the words may change but the concept does not. That is why a lot of the methods used in lower grades work just as well if not better in middle and high schools. 

Read to them

Several colleagues of mine have placed rocking chairs in their classrooms in recent years. And this is not just because they’re cozy. When you put a rocking chair in front of a group of kids and sit down with a book in hand (even if it doesn’t have pictures) something happens. They are reminded of storytime, that magical block of a school day where they would gather on the ABC carpet and listen to the teacher read to them. I’ll admit I’m not a rocking chair teacher; I have a stool. But I do read to my kids and I do it often. It reduces the pressure on the kids to pronounce words like when they take turns reading aloud. It also provides you with the opportunity to ask questions while they are already focused on the text. Just remember to stop and question often as to not lose anyone’s attention. Remember that your students’ attention span in minutes is roughly the same at their age, so a kindergartener would be able to focus for around five minutes. Also, consider students who have diagnoses such as ADHD and ADD, their attention span is going to be even shorter. I always pre-read the text and determine when I’m going to stop and discuss; I annotate my text with questions so I don’t forget. It would also be helpful if you’re reading with an audio file that you make a note of the timestamps when you want to stop. 

 

Or use a recording

Another way to accomplish this is by using pre-recorded materials. Either teacher made, from a textbook publication, or even an online resource such as youtube and audible. In order for this to be effective, you will need to ensure that you have kiddos who are active listeners. 

Practice skills such as note-taking. This can be especially difficult for some students, you might get a lot of push back because it’s “so much writing;” but encourage your students to keep it up and they will succeed. 

Students listening to a recording of The Great Gatsby

Students listening to a recording of The Great Gatsby

I often will start out giving students a guided notes sheet that helps scaffold the correct thinking. Depending on the level of your class you could use a graphic organizer, Cornell notes, or a fill-in-the-blank template (helpful with your EC kids because they are easier to follow). Whichever method you employ, you have to model it for the students. It’s best to assume that your kids have never taken notes before and teach from the beginning so there are no learning gaps. It may take a week or two but then you can let them complete notes alone as you read. 

 Also, remember to pause often and ask leading questions so that students are actively interacting with the text rather than sitting ideally and daydreaming. Those students who are not able to focus may benefit from a student helper, one of the high flyers in your classroom that could handle pointing out specifics you are discussing during the text. 

Another way would be to have the questions printed with page numbers and/or timestamps for those who struggle with active listening. They would be able to pick up easily when you ask certain questions. Also, as you’re monitoring students be sure to check in on those struggling more often. 

 

First Year Blues – Tips For Any First-Year Teacher

If you’re a first-year teacher, I know how you feel. Six years ago I was feeling the same way you are now. I graduated on December 13, 2014, with a degree in secondary English. The day before I was set to walk, I received a call that I had been approved for a middle school ELA position. On January 6th, I walked into a classroom of 29 seventh graders and spent six months of my teaching career barely keeping my head above water.

Teaching is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you feel like you’re struggling, I promise you that every other person in your shoes is feeling the same way. Let me give you a few pieces of advice. 

 

 

  1. Fake it until you make it — I can’t tell you how many times I have had to pretend I wasn’t about to break down in front of students. Sometimes kids are naive enough to believe that your allergies are going crazy when you’re really just crying. There will be days where you hate your job. Just don’t let your kiddos know, treat every day like it’s your best day.
  2. Know your kids — Develop a rapport with your kids. Get to know them, their likes and dislikes, their extracurricular activities, their home life. It can open your eyes. Talk to your kids about things that aren’t content-related. Those conversations are what help to develop relationships. In the words of Rita Pierson, “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” (see Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk here)
  3. Get off your high horse — You won’t know everything. Yes, you have that very fancy, and probably very expensive, diploma in your hand, but you do not know it all. Ask for help, the teacher across the hall and Google are your best friends. This goes for pedagogy as well as the content. It is not a sin to use Teachers Pay Teachers or other resources found online.
  4. Teach what you know — If you have the choice, read texts you like and enjoy. The passion and enthusiasm you have are bound to transfer to your students, at least a little.
  5. Don’t forget your life outside of teaching — Teaching is not your life. I don’t care that your bumper sticker says so. Your family and friends are more important. Work hard, but don’t stay every night until 6 or 7 because you will get burnt out. Don’t take work home unless it’s a necessity, I promise, it will be there tomorrow.

For ELA Eyes Only – Tips For Any First-Year Teacher

Don’t be afraid to redo a lesson or reread a text 

Your students may not get it the first time. Take a note from the math teachers here; if the kids don’t get a problem they solve the equation again. You can do the same. Scrap a text if you and the students aren’t feeling it. It will save you a lot of headache in the end. Accidently taught the wrong thing, be honest. And then reteach it correctly the next day. Practice makes perfect and a few weeks in someone else’s classroom student teaching is nothing compared to having your own classroom. 

Read it first! 

I cannot stress this enough. As a first-year teacher I was reading the novel Crow by Barabara Wright. It takes place in antebellum North Carolina and deals with racial tension (the book had been approved by my mentor through the administration). I didn’t read the novel before I read it with my kids each day. I was reading it aloud one day, as the vice-principal was observing me, and a racially insensitive word came up and I froze. I couldn’t say this word, even in the context of the novel. There was a brief moment when I didn’t know what to do. Then the vice principal spoke up and explained the meaning of the word, and why it was negative and should not be said in everyday conversation. This gave me a chance to catch myself and I continued the explanation on how that word was supposed to make you feel like Moses (the main character) did and it was a good example of connotation.

Encourages thoughtful conversation

Set up your classroom in a way that encourages thoughtful conversation. Personally, I never have my kids in straight lines and rows. It’s not conducive to learning ELA. Kids need to be able to talk to one another and see each other while doing so. We are not just teaching kids how to read and write; we are also teaching them effective verbal communication skills. I like to have a “U” shape so kids can see everyone and I can stand in the middle and encourage discussion. Do what feels comfortable to you but keep in mind your end goal, to produce effective communicators. 

Be quiet! 

Not the kids, you. Sometimes the best conversations happen when you take a step back and let the kids go. They start bouncing ideas off one another. And it is an incredible thing to watch and one of the signs you’re doing the right things. 

Take notes and plan ahead

Take notes on your lesson plans and save them for next time. Note what worked and what didn’t. This is so you can recycle what gave results and toss what didn’t. It’s a lot easier to do when you have a guide in front of you. 

Another note on lesson planning, plan well ahead of time. My first year I thankfully didn’t have to worry too much about lesson plans. My mentor and I submitted one-grade level plan since she had been teaching at the school for a few years prior, she already had most lessons planned. 

Now, since I am the only English teacher at my school, I don’t have the opportunity to plan with others. But I can still gather ideas from colleagues at other schools and from the internet. I begin every semester by making a rough outline of texts then match them with the appropriate skill set. From there I focus on breaking down how much time is needed for each text. I tend to base my pacing on the previous semester. 

As far as weekly plans go, I work backwards. I figure out what I want my students to know at the end of the week by developing learning targets (“I can…” statements). Then I determine the best method of getting them to mastery of that goal. I also have a set place I usually want to be by the end of the week. We push to get through it but we don’t always make it. And that’s okay. 

The Alternative Life

I have the unique opportunity to teach in an alternative setting. No, that does not mean I teach all the “bad” kids. I teach kids who need a little extra help to succeed. Very few of my students are with me because of behavior related issues. The majority are credit recovery or attendance issues. None of them are “bad.”

Students playing Gimkit

Students playing Gimkit

The main advantage of the alternative setting is smaller class sizes. I typically have less than ten students in a period. That is also one of my main disadvantages as well. It’s great to plan socratic seminars with the hope of enlightening discussions but it’s nearly impossible for it to happen when out of your ten kids only two are there that day. However, this is a great time to work one on one with kids and have conversations about their overall performance in class. I don’t really plan for paideias anymore. That’s not to say we don’t have great discussions, they just happen more organically.

 

Working with multiple grade levels and abilities

Another challenge I find myself facing is that within one class period I may have multiple grade levels and abilities. Right now my second period consists of English 1, English 2 Credit Recovery, English 3, and English 4. It presents an uncommon challenge of how to give instruction to all of these students without losing my mind in the process. 

My main solution is to give the same lesson on a particular skill, look at your goal summaries and decide which are the most needed skills. Typically these will be theme, central idea, and rhetoric. These three skills tie into other smaller topics so you are still touching on them as well, your focus will just be on these major topics. The definition of these skills never changes, it’s just the depth of understanding that needs to go deeper. 

After I do a short lecture on the topic of the day topic (i.e. symbolism), I assign each grade a specific text depending on the district curriculum. I will try to match texts with specific skills and then create questions pertaining to that skill. 

From there I work with each grade in a small group setting to ensure they are adequately grasping the concept. I use their skill level to determine how long I spend in each group. A lot of it also depends on the complexity of the text. Is one group going to need more explanation than the others? I never really allocate specific amounts of time for each group, it just doesn’t work for me. When I think the students have an adequate grasp, I move on. A lot of the times I still revisit that group though. What I don’t finish one day, I just roll it into the next day’s lesson. That’s why it’s important to be flexible.

 It’s not easy to transition from one group to the next. I get tripped up at times trying to remember which text goes with which group.

Last semester I had a class of three English 2 students, two English 1, and one English 3. Since English 2 is an EOC in my state I tend to focus more on this group which happened to also be my lowest performing group on previous assessments. I made sure to read along with these students every time we read a text, even if it was short when as I let the other two groups read shorter texts alone. Another issue is trying to remember what we’ve previously discussed. I remedy this by taking detailed notes in my teacher planner where I have a section to write about each class. Even with the lower-level group, I will start by asking those high order thinking skills, then I can break it down if I need to, but they often surprise me and don’t need too much explanation.

Though I separate groups out of necessity, this process can easily be used in a regular setting where you group kids by ability level and give them appropriate texts. Sometimes using printed materials aids students because they can physically manipulate and work through the text.

Using ReadTheory

Another major challenge I have is my students range in reading levels and abilities from first grade to 12th grade and beyond. This is where ReadTheory comes in to save the day and one of the reasons I love the program. I don’t have to worry about differentiating the texts because it is already done for me. The algorithms used by the program accurately give my kiddos an appropriate leveled text and quiz just for them. It gives my students a chance to learn and advance on their own time as it automatically adapts to their growth or regressions.

My ReadTheory wall that shows students’ current scores

My ReadTheory wall that shows students’ current scores

As an alternative school, we focus on growth over proficiency. Over the past few years, ReadTheory has become one of the primary resources our school uses to track students because it gives Lexile and grade-level data as well as completed graphs and charts. It is simple yet effective.

Amber Meares, high-school English teacher

Teaching Reading Comprehension for ESL

Teaching Reading Comprehension for ESL – What is in Your Toolbox?

By: Mandy Wade, M.S. Ed

When most teachers think of teaching literacy, giant picture books and circle time springs to mind. Reading at the elementary level is challenging its own right, but it is a far more common challenge. Later in a student’s academic career, however, making gains in reading comprehension becomes more of a race against time. Students must not just learn to read, they must now read to learn.

There are several groups who find themselves tasked with improving reading comprehension at the secondary, and even post-secondary, level. Those who are learning English as a second or additional language find themselves facing the challenge of not only mastering another language, but learning it well enough to facilitate academic success. How do we as teachers give these students a toolbox to tackle something so overwhelming?

Preparation

After over 20 years of teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, I state with certainty that no two groups are ever alike. Knowing a bit about what is coming will give the class a fighting chance to find academic proficiency. If you know what questions to ask. 

What will the delivery model be for the class? 

Popular delivery models for ESL:

  1. Push In — English Learners are “pushed in” to a regular classroom, where most students are English-speakers. Students are supported in the classroom by an additional teacher that is certified to help English Learners. 
  2. Pull Out / Scheduled Class — Students are scheduled in a class with other English Learners. The goal of the class is to improve English proficiency. The class may contain students of just one level (newcomers, advanced learners, etc.) or be multi-level. 
  3. Sheltered Content — These classes ideally target students who are ready to tackle a content area course, but with delivery techniques that target the needs of English Learners. 

If the class is grouped by proficiency it will be much easier to target the students’ needs and to build on what they know. Multilevel classes can be overwhelming for all but the most organized teachers. It is generally more efficient to group students by proficiency level, even if it means shuttling newcomers to a “cluster center” to work for part of the day.

New ESL Teacher Tip — Grouping is essential for multilevel classes (or larger classes). Divide the class into smaller groups of students with similar levels or needs. Create a rotation schedule that gives each group a specialized assignment in different areas. Split time between computer assisted learning,  group projects and direct teacher facilitated instruction. This is a great time to use programs like ReadTheory to provide individualized reading practice based on the student’s level. Students are assigned a grade level / lexile level based on a pretest. Students then work with passages that increase in difficulty as a student becomes more proficient. The level also adjusts to a lower lexile if a student struggles with a passage.
Realistically, groups should be no larger than five or six, but they do not have to be equal in size. To split time efficiently, set a timer to hold the groups accountable. Changing groups at 15-20 minute intervals provides a good pace to keep students engaged. If there are not enough computers available, students can work together in pairs or use their own technology (smartphones, iPads, etc.) to facilitate online learning. 

Will the class be English learners only, or will native speakers be included in the class?

Best practice strategies for English Learners, such as including visual aids and modeling reading comprehension techniques, are useful for all learners. They can be incorporated with a bit of planning in either setting. Some schools use ESL certified/endorsed content area teachers to provide some support to the English Learner. Again, the teacher is tasked with differentiating instruction to meet the needs of both groups of students.

New ESL Teacher Tip — Just because a student is learning English does not mean that he/she is not able to show their intelligence in the classroom. Give students the opportunity to show what they know through drawings, non-verbal examples or using their first language.
For example, if a class were studying plant and animal cells, they may be asked to identify the parts of a cell. Along with identifying organelles, the student may need to show the difference between plant and animal cells. While some students can be assessed using written questions, it may be easier for an English Learner to use a hands-on model to show mastery.

English learners benefit from pairing content vocabulary with hands-on models. This student has modeled a plant cell with candy.

English learners benefit from pairing content vocabulary with hands-on models. This student has modeled a plant cell with candy.

What kind of curriculum will be used? 

The common misconception is that just by teaching roughly categorized English vocabulary words that students will learn English. Just as many students struggle with foreign language classes that follow this strategy, the majority of English learners do not efficiently gain academic language in this manner. 

Again, teaching literacy skills in isolation is not always the most efficient use of an older student’s time. They simply cannot wait to be proficient to start learning core content material. (DelliCarpini) Using academic material as learning content can be a powerful vehicle for students to achieve CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). (J. Cummins)

Where do we start? 

Teachers should set specific measurable learning targets for students before the term begins. After the goals are set, assessments can be chosen or created to measure the success or academic gains of the students. By working backward from the desired end product, strategies and materials can be put in place that guide the class toward the learning target. 

Some possible targets to consider are:

  1. Simple gains in literacy Renaissance Learning offers the standardized STAR test to track reading proficiency. This test is for any student and does not differentiate for English Learners, although it does provide lexile levels and grade equivalent scores. 
    ReadTheory’s Student Management component allows teachers to measure and track gains in reading grade equivalency and lexile level. Data compilation is ongoing, and growth is marked as a student works in the program. Writing gains can also be measured through the teacher-scored writing component.
  2. Gains in content vocabulary — Pre/Post benchmarks in the content areas can provide data for measuring content-related CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).
  3. Standards mastery for a specific standardized test (TOEFL, ACCESS, SAT, etc.) — Many states use annual proficiency testing to mark progress. Thirty five states belong to the WIDA Consortium and use  WIDA’s ACCESS test that measures reading, listening, writing and speaking proficiency. 

New ESL Teacher Tip — Students can also have input into creating the learning targets. This helps them feel more invested and in control of their own learning.  The student should know how he/she will be assessed, and then the student can help set goals in order to be prepared for those assessments. Students that do not meet goals should be referred for additional interventions such as tutoring, remediation, or additional classroom instructional modifications. 

Building Your Teacher Toolbox

Appropriate reading materials can be difficult to choose for older readers. Many of the level-appropriate books and websites are much too juvenile for high schoolers. Finding a good set of Hi/Lo reading materials (High interest / Low level) is imperative. 

A teacher friend recommended ReadTheory to me for my English Learners two years ago. I was instantly impressed with how easy it was to set up and use. Each student has his/her own account, and is assigned a reading level based on a quick but thorough pre-test. 

Students practice reading passages that are chosen for their level, and are challenged with comprehension questions that are similar to those found on many standardized tests. After the completion of each passage, the student moves up or down reading levels as needed. 

Tracking a student’s progress on ReadTheory is much easier than similar programs—not to mention that the students can use these tools without having to subscribe or pay a fee. I can also use the data provided for progress monitoring documentation. 

Most publishing companies offer some choices for Hi/Lo readers and leveled novel sets. These can be good options, but they often can be cost-prohibitive for full class sets at multiple levels. 

Scholastic Magazines like ACTION are also a viable resource. These content guided magazines with age-appropriate fiction and non-fiction offer leveled versions of the same news stories. Teachers can assign these differentiated materials at the appropriate lexile level for the student, providing both extension or remediation based on what the student needs. 

New ESL Teacher Tip — Look into book sharing with teachers from other schools in the same district. Sometimes used books or e-books can be bought or rented for a discount.

Practicing Reading Comprehension with ReadTheory

Practicing Reading Comprehension with ReadTheory

What if students still struggle? 

In order to continue to develop a student’s reading comprehension skills, it is important to consider Stephen Krashen’s i+1. Teachers should present material one step above a student’s current level (Comprehensible Input). If the material is too hard, it may be out of the student’s reach. If it is too easy, then there is no progress to be made.

Use what a student already knows as a springboard for learning. Tapping into prior knowledge can help students grasp concepts faster. Providing pictures, videos, or first language support can provide a foundation for Comprehensible Input, and lead to reading comprehension gains. Pre-teaching key vocabulary and introducing a topic rather than cold-reading can help students be prepared to understand what they will be reading. 

It is important to note that many English Learners at the secondary school level already have an important tool in their toolbox: literacy in the first language. If a student has been fortunate enough to have CALP in the first language, then the student will have a much easier time learning English. Literacy skills transfer between languages. Never discourage reading, writing or study in the first language. It can only help make learning to read and write easier in the end. (Center for Applied Linguistics) 

Other reading strategies: 

Read-alouds allow the teacher to model good reading techniques for struggling readers. If a student can read along silently as material is being read aloud, then the student has the benefit of two kinds of input. 

Student choral readings on shorter passages can allow shy readers to practice reading out loud in a less intimidating situation. Practicing pausing at commas and stopping to breathe at periods can help students understand when a thought begins and ends. 

Reading buddies are an additional means to make reading less threatening. Students can take turns reading sentences from passages, like those on ReadTheory. By breaking up the workload, students have less to read individually, but also have another student to help maintain the level of focus on the passage. 

There is no magic wand to make reading instruction fool-proof. And no solution is suitable for every student. The key is to find out what works and use it and to take what does not, and fix it to meet your needs. Never be afraid to start over, or to try a new tool to help you meet your students’ reading comprehension goals.

Mandy Wade, high-school ESL teacher

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