Reading a new language you are learning can be challenging, particularly for multilingual language learners (MLLs) – who are expected to read English texts in every area of the curriculum. Novels, textbooks and other curriculum resources are laden with academic language: verb tenses, words, and phrases that are rarely used in everyday conversations. Those in the early phases of English acquisition may spend a lot of time decoding, in addition to comprehending the overall meaning of the texts they are reading.

Intermediate English language learners are a unique group. As older elementary students, they may have already spent years developing literacy in another language. While their level of English language proficiency suggests that they need books with a level of text complexity different from their peers, it is unlikely that they will want to read picture books used by younger children.

Helping intermediate grade MLLs to gain confidence as readers does not require any sophisticated tools or reading kits. There are lots of strategies educators can use to support multilingual learners to become more confident readers of English. Of course, if you do observe a learner who continually experiences difficulty in reading with appropriate program adaptations in place, it is important to discuss their learning with the family and educator team to determine if further interventions are needed.

Here are some tips to help MLLs become more confident readers.

Help the MLLs you Teach Select the Right Books

When starting in a new classroom, newcomer MLL students may be eager to engage in the same texts as their peers, even if the text complexity is beyond of their zone of proximal development. How do you encourage students to choose other books without discouraging their enthusiasm?

To help newcomer students find books that are both challenging and accessible, provide opportunities for them to browse and explore several books at different levels. Hi-lo readers, non-fiction magazines, and graphic novels are great options for older elementary students. Your school librarian, MLL or ELL teacher, or Special Education team may have suggestions or books on hand to share. Always aim to share texts that are culturally responsive to the student and reflect their interests – if the text is not engaging, it will be much more difficult to read!

Encourage Students to Use a Digital Translator

Digital translators such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, and Say Hi are great tools intermediate students can use to get through a challenging sentence or paragraph. They are free, can be added easily to any mobile device, and are a convenient way to clarify meaning and build vocabulary. To get the best translation, encourage students to translate a sentence at a time. Consider that digital translators may not give an exact translation, or even capture the full meaning that the author may want the reader to understand.

As an educator, you may be wondering if reading with the help of a translation app problematizes the assessment and evaluation of reading. Can you assess or evaluate a student on their reading comprehension if they are relying on a translator? Keep the intention or the purpose of the reading in mind: is it to learn content or concepts? If so, then the use of a translator is an effective accommodation. Are you assessing their English comprehension skills? You will want to focus on helping the student to select texts that are within their zone of proximal development that they can read to build proficiency in reading in English independently.

Show MLLs How to Use Context

When students run into an unfamiliar word and do not have a dictionary or translator close by, they can try reading ‘around’ the word to see if they can figure out the definition. Model the process of using context to determine the meaning of words – this a great skill for all learners to practice!

When modeling the use of context, ask students to consider the sentence or sentences around the unfamiliar word. If the student is reading a graphic novel or a text with images, encourage them to use the graphic context to determine the overall meaning of the sentence or paragraph.

It may also be useful to ask students if they recognize part of the word. Identifying the root of a word can be revelatory. For example, the word origin sounds a lot like original or originate – which may be a clue that the author is writing about the start or beginning of something.

Encourage Students to Read Summaries

The internet is filled with book summaries, and MLLs may find that these summaries are easier to understand than the text itself. Book summaries share a short or brief explanation of what happened in the book, and can be found on sites like Good Reads, book blogger, and bookseller websites such as Amazon or Indigo. Students can also be encouraged to read summaries to check their understanding of a story.

Make Rereading a Regular Literacy Activity

Rereading a text is one of the best ways to support your comprehension of a book. Reading a chapter or even an entire book again will also help students to develop confidence in the language they are learning, as reading something a second time will often be easier than the first time. They may notice things they did not before, such as details about a character or an event in the story.

It’s OK if Students Don’t Understand Everything

When students are reading a challenging text in a language they are learning, it is important to accept that they may not understand everything fully. This is completely normal! It is more important to get the general idea of a text or the main events of a story. Encourage students to mark the areas you want to return to with a sticky note – they may even find the challenging parts easier to understand once you have explored the rest of the text. In other words, just keep reading.


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