Good readers are always asking themselves questions before reading, during reading and after reading. In this blog, I will discuss how to help English language learners learn to use this strategy. It's difficult for ELLs to ask questions about a topic for which they have no background knowledge.
Let's peek in Mrs. Mahoney's 6th grade social studies class and observe as she discusses the title of a nonfiction book about the Underground Railroad. Mrs. Mahoney modeled “I wonder” questions for the students. Maria, an English language learner in the class, wondered how a railroad could really be underground. It was apparent that she knew the meaning of the words “underground” and “railroad” but had a lot of difficulty with the concept. Through picture books and reading material on her reading level, Maria was able to participate in this discussion.
Hyung Jae, another ELL in Mrs. Mahoney’s class, read an entire book at home about the American Civil War in Korean. This background information gave him a springboard for asking questions. Although his language was still quite limited,he developed the schema that he needed to participate in the social studies lesson. The important point is that the ELLs in Mrs. Mahoney’s class were able to read about the topic on their own level or in their own language and ask questions that were on their English language levels. They were able to follow much of the class discussion and pose simple “I wonder” questions such as “Why is this family running away?” “Were the people afraid?” Also, they were able to participate because their teacher had made a point to teach her students about the ways to respond to “I wonder” statements. The teacher modeled these questioning strategies and Maria and Hyung-Jae were able to draw from her examples.
English language learners may not be able to ask questions about the author’s language or vocabulary in the same the way that proficient English native speakers do. However, they can begin to make a habit of questioning and this habit will improve their capacity for understanding and thus support their becoming more proficient readers of English text. It is important to emphasis with ELLs that they need to voice what they don’t understand and use reading strategies to figure out answers.
Here are some questions to help your ELLs get started.
• Ask students to predict what the story will be about based on the title and/or a picture on the cover. This is a strategy that can be used at all grade levels.
• Explain that a prediction is a guess. It doesn’t have to be correct. It just needs to make sense. Help students to become aware that their predictions might change as they read.
• Help ELLs identify “stopping places” in the text where they may have questions or should make predictions. Ask them to mark these places with sticky notes or write about them in their reading notebook. This will help ELLs to become better readers and supports their reading comprehension.