Academic Exchange Quarterly    Summer   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 9, Issue 2

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Helping Linguistic Minorities Read Independently



Mayra C. Daniel, Northern Illinois University


Mayra C. Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Literacy at Northern Illinois University



This article first discusses the challenges that linguistic minority populations face as they strive to learn English and become competent second language readers.  Secondly, teachers are offered suggestions of ways they can investigate learners’ backgrounds to improve school libraries.  Finally, reasons are given as to why free voluntary reading is an effective method to help English language learners acquire critical biliteracy.    



In a fifth grade classroom, in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen, on the south side of Chicago, Ms Ani and Carlos, a first generation American student, talk for a moment.  During the school year, the teacher has worked to increase her students’ metacognitive abilities and to encourage her students to read for pleasure. 

Maestra” says Carlos. “Can I check out another book?”

“Isn’t this the third book you’ve checked out this week? “ (Ms. Ani)

“Yeah, I no like it. It’s boring.”


Challenge of Bilingual Literacy

Teachers in America are striving to promote independent reading to the linguistically diverse populations of students in this country’s classrooms.  Many students resemble Carlos.  It is not always easy for these students to find books that are at a level that allows them to read without assistance.  Although some of these students have literacy in their L1, others undertake the task of acquiring literacy in English without a sound foundation. 


For the student who lacks first language (L1) literacy, the challenge of learning to read and write in the second language (L2) is great.  The problem in the schoolhouse is further complicated because (1) English language learners (ELLs) do not all come from the same language background, (2) all languages are not based on the English alphabet, (3) the monolingual educator can only communicate with these diverse populations of learners in English and, (4) mainstream teachers leave the university unprepared to teach using non-language dependent ESL methodologies.  


Issues and Problems

No educator is familiar with the cultural backgrounds of all students.  Although research has proven that the learner with a solid educational base in the L1, both in academic and social language, is able to acquire the L2 faster (Cummins, 1988), most ELLs are not enrolled in dual language programs.  Many dual language programs offer instruction in Spanish and English because it is easier to find individuals prepared to teach who are fluent in both Spanish and English.  Books are not readily available in the first language spoken by all the students in the American school system.  Neither are there enough trained bilingual teachers to interact with the increasing numbers of speakers of uncommon languages who attend America’s schools.


ELLs make up 9.96 percent of the total student population or more than 4.5 million students at levels k-12 in the American school system (NCES, 2002).  These numbers are projected to increase as more than one million people immigrate to the United States each year (Martin & Midgely, 1999).  It is for this reason that the International Reading Association recommends teachers commit to professional development in L2 literacy as well as become knowledgeable of “…the range of political, social, cultural, and economic issues” that affect L2 learners (IRA, 2003, Position Statement).


Unfortunately, culture bias exists even in the classrooms of well-meaning teachers. Every teacher cannot know the home language or the cultural nuances that shape the knowledge base and reading backgrounds of the students in his/her classroom.  Even individuals who espouse a cultural perspective that is pluralistic have not all had the experience of attending school in a different country. Therefore, teachers of ELLs need more than good intentions as they strive to choose appropriate materials for their classroom’s library collection.


Parents can be a good source of information for the monolingual teachers who want to revolutionize the classroom but are uncertain how to do so.  A home survey or visit, and/or an interview with a child’s parents can reveal the literacy practices and knowledge base of the family (Moll  & Gonzalez, 1994; Moll, Vélez-Ibañez, & Greenberg, 1988).  Teachers can use this information to plan how to stock the classroom’s bookshelves with books that will interest ELLs of all backgrounds.  If the books available to children make sense to them, they are more likely to read.  If school libraries have books written in simplified English and cover topics that engage ELLs, then these students will be able to read in the L2 without experiencing frustration.


Benefits of Reading for L2 Acquisition

Readers read for either aesthetic or efferent purposes. A child who confronts reading for efferent purposes reads because it is an assignment.  This is the learner who may grow to despise reading.  On the other hand, children who choose to read for aesthetic purposes do so because they want to.  For these learners there is pleasure in reading (Krashen, 2004). To engage the ELL reader, text must acknowledge and validate children’s realities.  A text makes sense to a reader when the topic of the book captures the reader’s attention and is comprehensible (Krashen, 1993).


Teachers can engage the bilingual reader in activities such as sustained silent reading (SSR) or drop everything and read (DEAR).  These are ideal for ELLs (Krashen, 2004) because they provide an informal setting for readers to read materials that they deem interesting. One caveat to both SSR and DEAR is that classroom shelves must offer sufficient choices for the learner.  In classrooms with ELLs, the choices must be greater because texts must accommodate not only varying levels of literacy, but also differing stages of L2 proficiency.  Free voluntary reading happens only when books appeal to the reader.  When presented with many books to choose from, ELLs can find material that fits their world and makes sense to them (Krashen, 2003). 


Research indicates that enrollment in the reading process is beneficial for ELLs because it helps the learner to acquire the second language (Krashen, 2004).  Through reading students learn vocabulary, acquire syntactical knowledge, build on background knowledge and learn new concepts.  Through reading books at the appropriate level students develop the ability to scaffold their learning. Reading begets more reading as it helps the learner work through context, negotiate meaning, and build higher levels of understanding (Krashen, 1993). Texts that engage an ELL offer a solid base for L2 acquisition to the learner who is striving to acquire bilingual literacy.



An ELL who cannot understand a text is reading material that is too hard.  Readers expand their linguistic knowledge base in unconscious ways by reading text that is comprehensible.  In independent aesthetic reading learning occurs both consciously and unconsciously.  In their zest for comprehension, readers create meaning unconsciously if what they are reading is not too far beyond their level of L2 proficiency (Krashen, 1993), and zone of proximal development (Vygotszy, 1987).  Readers then may progress from one level of language acquisition to another through the knowledge derived from interacting with a text.  In this manner a text serves as a social bridge, as the personification of the human being who authored the text.  The reading process helps the ELL to climb to higher levels of acquisition of the target language as the reader interacts, converses, and collaborates with the author of a text. 


Readers acquire the target language consciously and unconsciously through the reading process. Readers are not always aware of the relationship that they establish with an author as they come to understand the written word.  Reading promotes expansion of vocabulary knowledge, development of writing skills, and offers the ELL the opportunity to learn about the culture of the author.  This occurs through a reader’s involvement in the events that unfold in a text and the examination of the characters’ actions. Readers speak to themselves and to the characters in books as they comprehend, evaluate, and interpret the words of the author. 


According to Vygotsky’s theory, incomprehensible text is text that is too many zones above the child’s level regardless of the metacognitive abilities owned by the learner.  Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development coincides with Krashen’s (1993) input + 1 hypothesis (1993).  Krashen’s hypothesis suggests all learning must be scaffolded or it becomes incomprehensible to the learner.  Using the analogy of a stepladder, it becomes clear that a reader climbs the ladder of comprehension in both languages by reading books that slowly increase in difficulty.  In the process of L2 acquisition, ELLs construct interim interlanguage systems of knowledge and lexicons.  If one examined any one learner’s reading ability, it would be possible to observe the first and the second language competing and yet collaborating to bring about comprehension. 


An ELL may read books in English that are at a lower level than what he/she would read in the native language.  A student may read a book that is easy one day, and the next day or the following week choose to read a more challenging text. The L2 learner juggles language and literacy because he/she inhabits two zones of proximal development.  These zones are delineated by the mixed language dominance of the learner.  The ELL may not be aware of what he/she can and cannot do linguistically in the first and second language.  The challenge for the teacher of ELLs is to figure out how to show the learners ways to evaluate if a book is at the appropriate interlanguage scaffold in the zone of proximal development.  Students and educators must collaborate to facilitate strategic book choices for free voluntary reading.  This helps the ELL to be in control of the learning and to reach higher levels of text comprehension. 


Strategy Instruction and Strategic Book Choice

Pre-reading strategy instruction such as K-W-L (Lenski & Ehlers-Zavala, 2004) helps bilingual readers to choose texts for independent reading and prepares them to read efficiently.  Application of metacognitive, cognitive, and socio-affective strategies helps students direct the learning (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).  Use of such strategies can increase the students’ ability to judge the suitability of books.  A focus on pre-reading strategies provides students with the tools to figure out if a book is at the right zone of proximal development for their linguistic and cognitive knowledge base.  Students can predict the topic of a book and judge if a book is comprehensible by skimming through the book, reading its cover, and chapter titles. 


ELLs’ challenges when predicting if a book will be comprehensible relate to issues of the alphabet, vocabulary, sentence word order, grammar, familiarity with genres, individual reading habits, L1 literacy and home culture.  As these factors delimit comprehension for the learner, they complicate the L2 reading process.  Strategy instruction before and during reading can assist the L2 learner to identify and work to surpass the aforementioned challenges.  Ownership of the independent reading process fosters self-regulation (Krashen, 1993;1994) and gives students the power to think critically.  With teacher guidance, free voluntary reading (Krashen, 1994; Chamot, Barhnardt, El-Dinary, & Robbins, 1999) becomes a stepping stone that scaffolds L2 acquisition (Krashen, 1994).


Readers should be encouraged to identify and monitor their existing strategy repertoire as well as develop new strategies.  Readers should also be taught strategies to use during and after the reading process.  Good readers tend to monitor comprehension while reading (Paris & Jacobs, 1984; Pressley, 1995) and make connections to other books and experiences (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994).  One example of this is Connections Charts (Johns & Lenski, 2001) that students can use during reading to relate books to their world.  Students ask themselves questions that increase their level of metacognitive awareness, foster self-regulation, and result in better book analyses.


Post-reading activities that help the ELL with English are those that are only language dependent to the degree that the student can handle comfortably.  Participation in tasks that are not language dependent offers ELLs the opportunity to share reading comprehension when the student is at a higher level of receptive than productive L2.  Students can draw, develop diagrams, pantomime, or do whatever makes it possible for them to show comprehension.  This strengthens student self-confidence because the ELL is able to interact with classmates to retell a story but is not penalized for not having mastered English.  When students have these opportunities, they begin to develop into critical consumers of information.


Critical Literacy

Fehring and Green (2001) discuss critical literacy as an approach to literacy that challenges students to consider how texts are constructed and the reasons an author’s words may position a reader a certain way.  A reader who is armed with strategies that promote and facilitate the reading process acquires critical literacy.  ELLs who become critical readers question the truth within texts, get to know the ways of American society, and challenge the status quo.  They come to realize that the vocabulary, the characters, the setting, the presentation of the author’s perspective, etc, give power to select populations.  Critical readers see that the words used by an author reflect a point of view, and/or a desire to create an emotion.   The interaction of characters in a book shows who can influence decisions and how conflicts are solved in mainstream culture.


Critical readers are individuals who promote social justice regardless of their linguistic background (Freire, 1985).  The premises of critical literacy encourage the student to develop leadership skills.  Such readers begin by engagement in a “…demanding set of mental processes, such as determining the author’s credibility and perspectives, making intertextual links, considering alternative views, evaluating arguments, and forming judgments.” (Lenski, Wham, & Johns, 2003). 


It is important that all ELLs who reside in the United States become good critical readers.   The ability to read is a prerequisite for finishing high school.  The literature indicates free voluntary reading and strategy instruction are effective methods for helping ELLs become competent independent critical readers (Krashen, 2004; Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Pressley, 1995; Paris & Jacobs, 1984).   These approaches should be an integral part of the reading curriculum in America’s schools if the mandate No Child Left Behind is to be met. Because research suggests reading ability to be a stable and enduring second language modality (Bernhardt, 1991), helping linguistic minority populations achieve literacy must be the top priority of our nation’s schools. 



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