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Understanding the Comprehension Gap for English Learners

readingtolearnforels_mg5d6599Gaining knowledge from informational texts is an essential academic skill. Yet for too many English Learners, this skill is not developed sufficiently and as they move from elementary into middle school, the reading gap becomes a knowledge gap. This doesn’t have to happen, researcher Ana Taboada Barber explains, if we support EL’s reading of informational texts by pairing motivation practices with explicit reading comprehension instruction. In this post, adapted from the introduction of Reading to Learn for ELs, author Ana Taboada Barber writes how learning English, for her, was about broadening her horizons.

Understanding the Comprehension Gap for English Learners

Written by Ana Taboada Barber

It is true that English is a second language for me and that I experience less certainty communicating in English than I do in my native language, Spanish. However, the label of an English Learner (EL) would not be entirely accurate. I didn’t begin learning English because I was an immigrant in an English-speaking country. Learning English was the result of my parents’ choice. My mother spoke English fluently and believed in its value as a lingua franca—a bridge language, a language spoken worldwide that makes communication possible among people who do not share their first language. For me, learning English was an enrichment activity, a way to broaden my horizons.

Although I still continue to develop my English-speaking skills, I also do so with my Spanish. I am bilingual. I speak, read, think, write, and even dream in two languages. Experience in two languages and cultures has given me a much wider range of possibilities and understandings. But for many students the benefits of bilingualism and biculturalism are invisible in schools, and they are instead uncomfortably aware of the large gap between their comprehension and that of their English-speaking peers. Because reading is at the basis of most learning, the inability to read and comprehend well affects our ability to learn new content, speak the “language of school,” access certain jobs, communicate efficiently in the workplace, and, ultimately, compete in modern society. ELs’ struggles with reading permeate all of their school lives. Without adequate explicit instruction and support from teachers, the distance between English Learner and bilingual/bicultural can feel like an impossible chasm to cross.

Labels can promote the lie of tidy understandings, especially when used to describe people. We’re all so much more than what can be captured by one word or phrase. In education, diagnostic labels hold the danger of becoming fixed and limiting—struggling reader, English Learner, and so forth. A child is more than a struggling reader or an English Learner, and if we as educators do our jobs well, the label is time sensitive—true for only a brief period of time, as we support children in outgrowing the usefulness of that descriptor.

These labels are useful, of course, in identifying the support students require of us. Learning is an act with emotional and cognitive components. Learning a new language involves excitement for many, but also disorientation, struggle, and a lack of certainty: Did I communicate what I intended? Did I accurately understand what was communicated? What important information did I miss? When every school experience is marked by this uncertainty, not by success, ELs quickly become disengaged and their label dominates their potential for learning. What are ways to turn this around? How can we, as teachers, create classroom contexts that are guided by opportunities to read avidly and lead ELs to gain knowledge from text in engaging ways that lead to further learning? I wrote this book to help teachers find answers to these questions. I chose to specifically focus on the use of informational texts in ways that engage ELs because this work is essential in helping them succeed.

In this video, Ana talks about Marcos, a student who struggled with comprehension, and the strategies he needed. 


Reading to Learn for ELs: Motivation Practices and Comprehension Strategies for Informational Texts by Ana Taboada Barber is out now.

Learn more here. 


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Ana Taboada Barber is Associate Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on the psychology of literacy from a cognitive and motivational perspective. She explores classroom contexts and student processes that affect reading engagement and motivation to read, both, in native English speakers and in English Learners. She also taught in Grades 1-8 in bilingual schools in Buenos Aires, before coming to the United States as a Fulbright scholar.


Topics: Video, EL, ELL, ESL, Reading, Reading to Learn for ELs, Administration, Ana Taboada Barber, Reading Strategies

Date Published: 10/05/16

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