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Comprehension: Helping English Language Learners Grasp the Full Picture

ELL experts Cynthia Lundgren and Kristina Robertson discussing effective reading comprehension strategies for teaching English language learner students.

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Program description

This 45-minute webcast offers practical information on how to teach English language learners effective comprehension skills.

This webcast is made possible by AFT Teachers, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a Colorín Colorado partnership between AFT and Reading Rockets.


Dr. Cynthia Lundgren is an assistant professor at The Center for Second Language Teaching and Learning at Hamline University’s Graduate School of Education in St. Paul, MN. In this interview, Dr. Lundgren offers a blueprint for administrators who are serving a new or changing population of ELLs. Topics covered include creating a welcoming culture, assessment, language instruction, staffing, and professional development. 

Kristina Robertson is an ELL specialist with extensive experience as a classroom teacher and professional development leader. Kristina is the current Titles Coordinator for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District in Minnesota. 


Delia Pompa is the Vice President of the Center for Community Educational Excellence, at the National Council of La Raza.

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Discussion questions

  1. How is vocabulary related to comprehension?
  2. Describe some activities you’ve used with ELL students to tap into their prior knowledge of a topic.
  3. Compare and contrast the teaching of comprehension strategies to ELL students and students for whom English is their first language.
  4. Consider a classroom reading book you recently used. What vocabulary or concepts were presented in the book that could cause confusion for ELL learners? What could you do to scaffold the read aloud experience that would benefit ELL learners?
  5. Create a semantic map that could be used in your class. How could you use this map to plan further learning experiences?



Delia Pompa: Hello, I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to our Colorín Colorado Webcast. Today, we’ll be talking about comprehension. What can educators do to help English language learners to grasp the full meaning of what they read? To help us get a grasp on this issue, we’re pleased to have with us Cynthia Lundgren, a professor in second–language teaching and learning at Hamlin University. She works extensively with K–12 teachers on strategies they can use to make content more accessible to English language learners, or ELLs. Kristina Robertson is an ELL program specialist for Minneapolis public schools and a licensed K–12 ESL teacher who advises teachers and administrators on best practices. Thanks for joining us.

Cynthia Lundgren and Kristina Robertson: Thank you.

Delia: Cynthia, let’s start with most basic question, what is reading comprehension, and why is it important?

Cynthia Lundgren: Reading comprehension is the ability to make meaning out of text. And it’s the whole reason why we read. But it’s important for kids, in order to do that successfully, they need to be able to make personal connections with the text. They need to understand a little bit about text structure. And they need to be able to understand why they’re reading, the purpose for reading.

Delia: What are the skills that provide the foundation for reading comprehension?

Ms. Lundgren: The basic emergent literacy skills like decoding and fluency, vocabulary, things like that. But beyond that, it really gets back to what kind of strategies do they have to make personal connections? Because they don’t have background on everything that we read. What strategies do they have to figure out new words? How do they make those personal connections? All those kinds of things.

Delia: All those things are important. Kristina, when it comes to English language learners, are some of these skills more important than others?

Kristina Robertson: I can’t stress vocabulary enough. They may have the ability to read a piece, but if they don’t understand the vocabulary, they’re not going to comprehend the piece. So it’s very important that teachers are very intentional in teaching vocabulary. And also to understand that students have background knowledge that is an asset that can be used. For example, if a teacher is talking about Civil War, maybe those students experienced something similar in their country and they might be able to understand those concepts better if they understand how it connects to the English text.

Delia: So what would you say is a particular consequence when teaching reading to ELLs?

Ms. Robertson: Again, I think that being intentional on the vocabulary instruction and comprehension strategies. A lot of what we do as good readers isn’t really apparent to students, especially ELL students. They’re so focused on getting the language and vocabulary. So if we can model for them what it looks like for good readers — good readers reread. If they didn’t understand something, “Oh, that didn’t make sense, I’m going back.” Students who are struggling to read don’t understand that. They think, “I have to read this whole thing, and I need to understand it.” Or, “I didn’t.” So if teachers can model that and do a reading out loud and say, “This part here didn’t make sense. I think I’ll reread to see if I get it the second time.” And showing students what we do, it helps them to be able to do it themselves.

Delia: An important point both of you made is about vocabulary teaching and the intentionality of it. Cynthia, could you talk a little bit more about that? How exactly would you do that? What should the teacher be preparing for in teaching vocabulary, specifically?

Ms. Lundgren: I think the first piece is to be very intentional about which vocabulary you want students to produce, either through writing or through being able to talk about the story. So the very first step is the teacher needs to go through and make some decisions about what are the most important words? Then, you go through a process of providing very explicit definitions for those kids. And I think we need to tell kids what words mean. If they’ve got first language and it’s easy to transfer from one language to another, because the meaning is the same, use L–1. But stay away from the dictionary pieces. Multiple meaning words in English are very confusing, and we want kids to develop the understanding of the context in which that word appears. So being very explicit, talking to kids about what the word means. Getting them to interact with those words. And the environment in which it takes place.

Delia: Kristina, what are some strategies that you’ve used to teach vocabulary?

Ms. Robertson: I like to use index cards quite a bit. I like to let students interact with vocabulary in as many variety of ways as possible. So rather than having the vocabulary list, or even just on the board, I have students make index cards. And they do index cards that are meaningful to them. So we might say, “What is a word that’s similar in your language?” Or, “What is something that is totally different? What is a picture of it?” Whatever they need to do to make sense. Those index cards become theirs. And then we play Go Fish. We do lots of different activities with the index cards. But they really have a sense of ownership of it, and making sense of it in their own way.

Delia: Let me ask you both, when English language learners are learning to read in English, do you find that being explicit with them about building the vocabulary helps them understand what they’re doing? Or do you do this on the sly as a teacher?

Ms. Lundgren: I think it’s probably where I spend most of my time is preparing kids for reading. And part of that is vocabulary and part of it is making connections to what the text will be about. But, yeah, we spend a great deal of time interacting with vocabulary concepts long before we get to the book. So we’re manipulating some of those key words. We’re making predictions or sentences, gist statements, they’re kind of called, about what the story might be about based on this vocabulary that we’re focusing on. So it’s a way of integrating all kinds of comprehension skills, but again, focusing on vocabulary.

Delia: So you dig deeper into vocabulary?

Ms. Lundgren: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely!

Delia: Before continuing our discussion, we’re going to look at an example of how one teacher is ensuring that her English language learners understand what they’re reading. Let’s visit Webster Elementary School.


Narrator: Here, in Long Beach, California, Gonsalves teaches second grade.

Ms. Gonsalves: That’s a great sentence.

Narrator: Like most teachers at Webster Elementary, she has a mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. But what’s different about Ms. Gonsalves’s classroom is this, in here the two languages get equal time. Not every school can pull this off. But research shows it’s one of the most effective ways to teach English language learners to read in English. Ms. Gonsalves’s goal is for all of her students to become fluent in both languages. Right now, during their English time, they’re working on one of the most critical elements of learning a new language…vocabulary.

Ms. Gonsalves: Where do we find the glossary? Is that something that we find at the beginning of the book, the middle of the book, or at the end?

Student: At the end.

Ms. Gonsalves: At the end, very good.

Dr. Margarita Calderon: Unless students know from 90 to 95 percent of the words that they read, we cannot ensure that there’s going to be comprehension.

Narrator: Of course, reading itself can help build vocabulary, because seeing words in print helps children become familiar with their meaning, spelling, and sound. When she’s teaching a new word, Ms. Gonsalves uses every trick she can find to help explain its meaning to the kids.

Ms. Gonsalves: When I want to teach them vertical, I use what many of their homes have, which are vertical blinds. And I said, “Vertical, that was up and down.” The blinds that they had, and if they still don’t get it, I would jump to something else that is in that same position. The flagpole and which direction does the flagpole go? From bottom to top, and that’s vertical.

Narrator: Some of the students are recent immigrants, like Cynthia. She’s now discovering the concept of cognates. Cognates are words that are similar in English and Spanish like museum and museo.

Ms. Gonsalves: Oh, you don’t know the word dinosaur. Let’s go ahead and think, dinosaur. Is there a word, maybe, like a cognate or a cognato that would sound like dinosaur?

Student: Dinosario?

Narrator: If kids speak a romance language like Spanish, cognates can be a big help.

Dr. Claude Goldenberg: English and Spanish have about 10,000 to 15,000 cognates. So if the average vocabulary is, say, 30,000 to 40,000, 45,000…roughly a third of our vocabularies are actually Spanish cognates. Now, when you think of it, I mean, that’s quite a number. And one of the issues for teachers is to cash in on it, because the use of cognates is not automatic.

Narrator: Cynthia and two other new arrivals, Pedro and Jonathan, get extra help from Ms. Gonsalves during small group time. Since Jonathan already speaks and reads Spanish well, it’s easier for him to learn English.

Dr. Calderon: When the child already knows how to read in Spanish, they don’t have to start from the beginning. They don’t have to do phonemic awareness from the beginning. What also transfers are a lot of the comprehension skills. If students know what is cause and effect in Spanish, they will know how to find cause and effect in English.

Narrator: Thanks to these shared skills, Ms. Gonsalves can spend most of her time teaching the differences between the two languages.

Dr. Calderon: The grammar will be different. The way questions are structured. The noun/adjective combinations in different positions. Those will be different.

Narrator: It sounds like it might be confusing to study two languages at the same time. But for young children, it’s usually not. If they have a good teacher, like Ms. Gonsalves, most kids can comfortably become bilingual.

Student: People hurry along. Buses, cabs, cars, and wild animals.


Delia: Cynthia, these children are learning to read in two languages. What role does their native language play in comprehension with their second language?

Ms. Lundgren: We have significant research that talks about the importance of a strong first language literacy background. And how that transfers to second language reading, writing, and academic skills. So the stronger the students are in their first language, both reading and writing, the better they’re going to be in English.

Delia: Kristina, what kind of skills transfer from the first language to the second language? Do they?

Ms. Robertson: They definitely do. It’s said that you only need to learn to read once. And that’s because the process of decoding and making sense of symbols is easier in your first language, for example, once you have that, and you go into English, you know what you need to do and where you’re trying to go with it. So you definitely benefit from having a strong background in your first language.

Delia: It would be wonderful if you could give our viewers some examples of what the skills are that transfer between languages. Cynthia, as a professor, I’m going to call on you first.

Ms. Lundgren: As Kristina said, that whole conceptual piece of making meaning from print. When you think about that, if you’ve never read before, and you’re going to suddenly make all these incredible stories come alive through squiggly lines. I mean, what an amazing thing. But that is a conceptual knowledge base. And once you figure that out, it’s very easy to transfer that into a second language to a third language, it doesn’t matter. Even if they’re using different alphabets, it’s just a matter of understanding different symbolic relationships.

Delia: So that alone is something you start with?

Ms. Lundgren: Absolutely!

Delia: And once you start the reading process, what are the specific skills teachers should know are going to transfer?

Ms. Lundgren: Well I think in the video, she mentioned cause and effect. The purposes for reading are not culturally specific. So we’re reading for pleasure. We’re reading for finding specific kinds of information. We’re reading to retell something. All of those conceptual pieces transfer from one language to another as well.

Delia: Is it the case that some of the actual processes of reading, Kristina, transfer?

Ms. Robertson: Definitely. And like Cindy said the whole thing about knowing what you’re reading for is very different to read a folk tale than it is to read a science textbook. And if students have comprehension strategies before in their first language when they read, they’ll say, “Oh, I know when I read this, I’m going to look for the bolded words, that’s important.” Or, if I’m reading a newspaper, five Ws, that’s always a big thing, what are the five Ws? And then they understand what they’re actually reading and what they should get out of it? So some of those comprehension strategies predicting, that’s already there. And they’re able to be more successful in English.

Delia: I see. The video clip we just watched talks about the wealth of cognates between English and Spanish. Can you elaborate on their importance in the whole reading process?

Ms. Robertson: For Spanish speakers, obviously, they’re very important. They can draw on something easily that they already know. One of the difficulties with decoding in English is you can decode a whole word and not know what it means. So if teachers can relate the word, like I think they used dinosario. They use the word that’s very similar. And having students start to think about that. When students are reading and they come to a word they don’t know, they may use that strategy and say, “Is there a word in Spanish that’s similar to this?” So teachers can use a lot of things — word walls, put the words on the wall so that the students are identifying them. And I think just being very intentional in how they highlight that to students. “Look what we did. We said, this is very similar to Spanish, so let’s use that. And you can use it yourself when I’m not here.”

Delia: Would you, Cynthia, actually give children a list of cognates for them to sort of review?

Ms. Lundgren: Sure.

Delia: Is that a strategy that would work for them?

Ms. Lundgren: Sure.

Delia: Or that’s not too directive?

Ms. Lundgren: I think the more explicit that we are with kids, the more tools we give them to be successful readers. This is not about having them struggle through and figure this out for themselves. We want them to be successful. So let’s give them a hammer and lots of different kinds of screwdrivers, you know? And not just one thing.

Delia: I should mention to our viewers that you can download a list of common English/Spanish cognates on the main page for this webcast. That would be useful. Well, what about comprehension strategies? Do those transfer beyond the reading skills, the process? What about the comprehension strategies?

Ms. Lundgren: Oh, yeah. Because, again, it’s that purpose. So if we’re looking at making predictions, making predictions based on pictures that we have in the story for younger children. For older children, it might be predictions based on graphs, other kinds of visual information, figures, pieces of art that are put into textbooks. That process is the same. How do you go about analyzing what you read? That process is the same. I think what is important for teachers is to look at how language is being used in the textbook, what the purpose of reading is, and then teach to some of those specific language functions. So again, if you’re reading narrative text, then you want students to be able to describe things. Then teach the language that helps them talk about characters using adjectives, using comparative language. If the purpose is to retell in order and sequencing, then give students the language that allows them to retell in order, to retell with first, with next, with finally, afterwards. Those are the strategies that will transfer, that type of –

Delia: It sounds like intentionality is a key strategy in general for teachers of second language learners.

Ms. Lundgren: I think it’s a key strategy for everybody.

Ms. Robertson: Right, right! Makes sense.

Delia: Well, we know there’s a difference between an English language learner achieving social proficiency in English and achieving academic proficiency. How does this come into play in reading comprehension?

Ms. Robertson: Well, I just say one of my experiences teaching high school students in biology, they came to me — I’m an ESL teacher, so they asked for help. And they came to me with their biology textbook, and they didn’t know what to focus on. It all looked important. There were pictures everywhere, everything seemed to — it was overwhelming, right? So what I helped them do is understand the process of finding what is important. And then labeling things. And working with information in different ways. So they had to learn about a cell. So I brought in play dough. And they worked together to make the cell. And use the academic vocabulary while they were doing it. So it wasn’t just an abstract thing in a book where they didn’t know where to start. They knew what to focus on. And they knew what those words were going with. They really became more proficient in it.

Delia: Maybe we should back up a little bit. What is the difference between social proficiency and academic proficiency?

Ms. Robertson: Social proficiency is what a lot of people see right off the bat, probably within a year or two, definitely of students coming [here]. And it can be very misleading, because teachers will say, “He understands. He’s following everything just fine in class.” My experience is a lot of ELL students are very good at finding answers. They know the tricks to get the literal answer out of whatever you’re asking them to do. But when it comes to linking it to their own personal experience, or analyzing it, or working more with it deeply, they don’t have that, because they haven’t learned strategies to get there. So when you talk about academic language, that’s what the teacher is really being intentional about. It’s vocabulary, yes. But it’s also about what is analyze? What do we mean when we say, “Analyze?” And how do you do that? Let’s model it, let’s work with it. So they start to develop proficiency in those behaviors, and can use academic language more proficiently.

Delia: So it’s really more the higher order skills.

Ms. Robertson: Yes, definitely.

Ms. Lundgren: In social language, there are so many other cues to help provide meaning for students. There’s the environment, there’s facial expressions, there’s gestures, and all those good things. But all of those cues come from text for academic language. And unless you know what to look for, it’s very hard to find the cues that will help you make meaning. So that’s another big difference between social and academic language.

Delia: So it sounds like you really have to be a good reader in order to get to the academic proficiency all around.

Ms. Lundgren: Or you have to have a full tool kit. You have to know that it’s okay to read something again if it didn’t make sense the first time. Or to read it out loud, that’s maybe number two. See if something triggers in the sound. Or if that doesn’t work, is there a cognate that you can use? Or if that doesn’t work, are there some cues from the pictures that are on the page? We want students to have a repertoire. If something’s not working, let’s try something else. I think struggling readers have an idea that good reading means you do it once and if you weren’t successful, then there’s something wrong with you. We need to help kids understand that good readers employ all of these strategies. And rereading, checking…going from one tool to another to another to another is what we do as good readers.

Delia: Cynthia, following up on that, what are some of the words or phrases that are especially helpful for ELLs in order to master academic English?

Ms. Lundgren: Oh, words or phrases? I think that comes back to purpose for reading and what are the language functions that are being used in the text? What the teacher wants students to do with the text. And so again, if it’s description, then the language would be around describing. And what are we describing? Are we describing characteristics? And how do we talk about characteristics? Are they different with people or with animals? Are we describing locations? Are we describing forms in science? And you might be describing dimensions? So what are all the language pieces that go with describing those types of things? Asking and answering questions, so with general information and descriptions, we might be using those Wh–questions. But if we’re asking kids to compare things, we’re asking them to look for different kinds of information. And again, recognizing those words that signal comparisons, compare and contrast. On one hand, on the other hand, this group, but not the other, however, although… I mean, there are many lists of those signal words that —

Delia: Became cues for the kids.

Ms. Lundgren: Absolutely!

Delia: So when you were teaching high school students, Kristina, how did you find, you as a teacher, could facilitate them using those particular cues?

Ms. Robertson: One thing was previewing the text myself. Not just for the vocabulary words highlighted in the book, because those are for grade level kids who are learning those, too. But what other words, because a lot of times, especially in science, they’ll give a definition in the commas right after it. But the students don’t understand the words in the commas. So what I did a lot with them is identify words, and then also have them use it. Because I found that teachers often took students’ silence as understanding, and that isn’t understanding. They may not know how to ask. I said to my students, “When you don’t understand, this is what you say.” And then we said it together. “I’m sorry, this doesn’t make sense, can you explain it another way?”

Delia: You actually taught them that?

Ms. Robertson: Taught them how to say that, because they say, “They never asked.” Well, maybe they don’t really understand how to ask in a polite way, or without looking stupid. So actually showing them that strategy of how to get help when you need it really seemed to help them. And really just using the words, because they hear them a lot. They read them. They might work with them on a test. But they’re not using them themselves. So really to be proficient, you would have to be comfortable having a discussion using those words.

Delia: So it becomes a very step–by–step process?

Ms. Robertson: Yeah.

Delia: For more meaningful English terminology, please refer to the list provided in the resources for this webcast. Now, let’s look at a group of English language learners who are beginning to learn comprehension strategies that will help with their academic English.


Narrator: To reach Heritage Elementary School, you have to travel 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon, past hazelnut orchards, and Russian Orthodox churches.

Kathy Larson: We have children who are ethnic Russians from Russia, from Argentina, Latvia, East Tajikistan, Brazil, Turkey, China.

Narrator: These kids can speak some English, but that’s hardly enough to get by in school.

Dr. Violand–Sanchez: One misconception is that people feel that once a child starts speaking English, and communicating with basic oral communication in the playground or at school, that child is able to succeed academically.

Narrator: It’s just not the case, because what some call survival English is a long way from mastering even the third grade academic curriculum. For Lilia Zaltzman, part of the job is teaching the kids one word at a time. First in their native Russian, and then in English.

Student: (Russian word) in English means tribe.

Narrator: It’s critical to be this explicit, because Russian is so different from English. And the school is relentless in making sure their students understand what they read.

Larry Conely: No, I’m not going to show you every picture in the book. I’ve chosen a few that I thought would really help us to explore this idea of fire.

Narrator: In Larry Conely’s class, the kids are doing what’s called a picture walk. They use the pictures and draw on their background knowledge to predict what the story will be about.

Mr. Conely: Well, I’ve got a big question for you guys. What do you think this is a story about?

Student: Don’t use matches and lighters or else you’re going to get burned.

Narrator: The work may seem painstaking, but Heritage is committed to creating readers who will have a deep understanding of what they read.

Mr. Conely: So often, the kids move through the text so quickly that they’re not understanding much. So we’re using those cognitive strategies as a way of slowing them down and getting them kind of invested in the text.


Delia: Cynthia, we saw the teacher asking the children to predict what the story would be about. Why is this an important strategy to use with ELLs?

Ms. Lundgren: Everything that we do to make students anticipate what text will be about is going to help them make stronger connections between their own personal experiences, things they’ve read before, things they’ve heard before, and that helps them make meaning out of text. So frontloading, spending more time before they actually engage with the text is a very, very important strategy for teachers to use. And there are many different things that teachers can do to frontload. They can do the picture prediction. They can provide, I think I mentioned this before, vocabulary for kids to interact with and create gist statements. And then you compare those as you start to read the text. How do my predictions compare to what I’m actually seeing and reading? That’s kind of fun to do. Getting kids to talk about their guesses based on pictures. There’s a wonderful strategy called Boston Tea Party, or maybe it was just called Tea Party, and I added the Boston, because we’re from the East Coast. But you take phrases or sentences out of the story that have multiple ways of interpretation. And you have kids walk around and read each other’s cards and talk to each other. And, “What does your card say?” And, “What does my card say?” And then they talk about predictions. “What’s going to happen next based on this little bit of information we have about the story?” And it’s another fun way to get kids to engage in that whole anticipating what might happen in the story.

Delia: What aids are available to teachers to help them teach comprehension to English language learners? Go ahead, both of you. It sounds like you have lots to tell us.

Ms. Robertson: We’re going to thumb wrestle for this one.

Delia: Kristina?

Ms. Robertson: Okay, I’ll start. I can’t stress enough how important graphic organizers are. We use them at all grade levels. And it provides a visual for the kinds of abstract thinking that they’re doing when they’re organizing text in order to understand it. So anything…there’s many, many out there, websites and things, but thinking maps we use a lot, where they show cause and effect. Students fill in information and they are actually seeing how it relates to each other. Sequencing information, categorizing information, what belongs together? All those ways they work with the vocabulary enhances the meaning for them when they’re actually reading.

Delia: Cynthia, you wanted to add something.

Ms. Lundgren: Sure, there’s always something to add. Having kids use sentence starters or…sometimes our lower proficiency kids are a little more reticent to participate. And if you give them the language that allows them to start, then it’s easier to continue. So if your focus, your purpose for reading is on…well, maybe persuasion. And you give them sentence starters like, “I believe…” Or if you’re justifying, “According to…” And you give them parts of a sentence, they can generally fill it in with something that they think or feel.

Delia: So they’ve got a boost there to begin with.

Ms. Lundgren: Absolutely!

Delia: What are some other strategies that you used in your classroom for this?

Robertson: Okay. Well I like to scaffold information. Now scaffold is the kind of thing you use to paint a house or whatever as you’re building. That’s what our students need. They need to start with something very basic, and then they start doing it more on their own until finally they are able to do it on their own. So the example I gave about the high school students using the Play–Doh, I started by reading aloud to them, and using it to make the cell. And then I went to them telling each other how to make it. Until finally, they were able to do it on their own and write a little piece using the academic vocabulary and describing the cell. So I knew that they understood it. I built it step by step until they could really do it on their own.

Delia: Now Cynthia, you’re a professor. As you look at, you’re teaching teachers, how do you get these strategies in front of them? How do you get them to understand how specific they have to be in teaching reading?

Ms. Lundgren: Well it is a process. And I have found that in my attempts to get teachers to look at their instruction more explicitly, I have become more explicit in my own teaching of them. So when…kind of your example of scaffolding, I do the same thing even for preparing teachers. I spend more time explaining exactly why something is important. I spend more time modeling it. I set up activities that allow them to practice in kind of a safe way, or with other people. Because that’s another important thing for ESL students, not to have everything be individualized. Work in small groups. They can interact. They can practice using the language. Two heads are better than one. And then we move, finally, to independent practice. So it’s really changed my own teaching.

Delia: Your own comprehension for teaching. How would you monitor comprehension in an English language learner as he or she reads?

Ms. Robertson: I think there’s a variety of ways to do it. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But I like to break things down into manageable pieces, so that you’re stopping. You don’t read the whole story and get to the end and say, “Now what did you think?” You have to stop along the way and do comprehension checks. One strategy I really, really love and I wish all teachers would use sometimes is called a Think Pair Share. So a lot of times, ELL students are processing language as well as the concepts. So it’s a lot going on there. So in a Think Pair Share, the teacher asks the question, “Why do you think Joe went to the store?” The students get a moment to think on their own. Everybody’s quiet. Then, they work in pairs. Now tell your partner why you think. So you have a different idea than me, I don’t know if we’re right, but we at least talked about it. And now when the teacher asks the whole group to share, I feel a little more confident, because I ran it by you. You didn’t think I was crazy and I seemed to say it okay. Now, I feel comfortable sharing it with the whole class. And so teachers are able to get more input from, especially quiet students who aren’t that comfortable in front of the whole class. They’re able to see more what they are understanding.

Delia: And do you do this in the middle of the reading process? Or do you wait until the end to do it?

Ms. Robertson: I do it all the time. And there’s just a lot of different ways to do comprehension checks. And it’s all about the questioning partly. You don’t want to ask questions that are yes or no, because they’ll say, “Yes,” and “No.” You have to put it in a way that they’re going to need to elaborate on it. And I do cross checking. So if you tell me one thing, I might turn to Cynthia and say, “Do you agree with her?” So every student knows that sometime they’re going to be accountable for sharing about the meaning. And if they didn’t get it, you’ll know.

Delia: Lots of setting of expectations, it sounds like.

Ms. Robertson: Yes.

Delia: Let’s visit one more classroom. This time in Bothwell, Washington.


Shera Lubliner: Okay, could I have group one please come up to the table?

Narrator: At Frank Love Elementary School, reading expert Shera Lubliner shows off a technique called Reciprocal Teaching that’s designed to improve reading comprehension.

Ms. Lubliner: Tap–tap, tap–tap…a sea otter lies on her back in the water.

Narrator: The goal of Reciprocal Teaching is to prepare students to run their own discussion, taking turns as leaders. But first, Ms. Lubliner shows them how to guide a conversation about a book.

Ms. Lubliner: My first job is to ask a question. And I’m going to try and ask an important, main idea question that starts with a question word. Let’s see. What does the sea otter do to prepare lunch?

Dr. Louisa Moats: There is no replacement for a teacher who can generate a good discussion. And get kids to really ponder what they’ve read, and the whys and wherefores, and connect those meanings to their own lives.

Ms. Lubliner: I’m going to predict that we’re going to learn some more about what sea otters eat.

Narrator: Now, it’s time for the kids to lead their own discussion, with a little help from Ms. Lubliner. The kids begin with the first of four clear steps: Asking a question.

Student: What do sea otters have to be careful of?

Narrator: The next step is clarifying the meaning of unfamiliar words.

Student: It means like somebody likes something better than they like something else.

Student: Afloat…Jessie.

Jessie: Afloat means a little bit above the water. And they’re floating on the water, not just under it or over it.

Narrator: The next phase of Reciprocal Teaching is summarizing, finding the main idea.

Student: Sea otters have a lot of enemies, so they have to be careful of eagles, white — I mean sharks, and fishermen.

Narrator: The final step is prediction.

Student: I predict that we’re going to learn more about otters in this story.

Narrator: Reciprocal Teaching promotes a give–and–take between teachers and students that achieves the ultimate purpose of reading, finding the meaning.


Delia: In this particular clip, we saw a teacher engaging the students throughout the reading process. Can you point out what the teacher was doing to help students engage in the text?

Ms. Lundgren: She was having them ask questions, she was asking them questions, and she was having them ask questions of each other. And that’s a great way to monitor comprehension. It’s a great way to keep kids engaged and involved. And it also sets up that precedent for, we read for information. So if we ask questions, then while we’re reading, we can find those answers instead of just answering questions after the fact. So it’s a great way to keep kids engaged. It also supports that idea that while we’re reading, we’re constantly making new predictions. And that’s another thing that she has the students doing in this clip. We’ve read a little bit. We’re clarifying what we read. We’re asking questions. And we’re making new predictions, so that in a few more pages, we’ll be able to check in and see if we were right or not.

Delia: Kristina, what are some additional strategies?

Ms. Robertson: I think that helping students interact with the text, constantly, helps their comprehension. And when I work with high school students, unfortunately, they can’t write in the books, because the books belong to the school. But they needed a way to keep track of their thoughts. So I had them take small strips of paper, put it on the inside of the book. And I told them to react to paragraphs. So if you think the author is stupid, then you write, “They’re stupid; I don’t agree.” So they’re actually taking some ownership of that. So encouraging them to do it on their own. You can analyze words. Word families, they talk about. So here’s the word interest. What does interesting mean? What does interested mean? It helps them see that they can get more than one word out of one word. They see how they can expand that knowledge. So there’s just a lot of variety of ways you can show them.

Ms. Lundgren: There’s a great little technique or activity called SWBS, Somebody Wants But So. Something you can do while you’re reading. So if you think about those categories, Somebody: so some kind of character in the story. It doesn’t have to be just narrative text. Wants: what’s the issue here? What are they after? What’s the problem? And what’s the resolution?

Delia: So But is: what is the problem and So is the resolution.

Ms. Lundgren: Yeah, the solution. And it’s a great way for checking on comprehension.

Delia: I’m going to talk about a term that’s fairly new to me, and might be to our viewers. And that’s story grammar. Let’s think about…or tell us what it is, Cynthia, actually. And how does it affect comprehension?

Ms. Lundgren: My understanding is it’s the structure of a text. So if you think about a narrative text, which is most of our children’s literature. There is a story structure to that. And it’s the same for all stories. There are characters. There are settings. There’s a problem. And there’s a solution, or an outcome. And kids need to understand that basic structure, because it helps them create meaning out of the entirety. And they can link characters with problems. They can link other characters with solutions. And the setting generally has an impact on what’s happening in the story. So it all aides in comprehension. In expository text, in non–fiction, there are different types of structures. And those are very, very important for helping students understand. And again, it gets back to some of the academic language functions. Is there cause and effect? Is it process?

Delia: Let me ask something here. Is story grammar the same across cultures?

Ms. Lundgren: No, writing is very culturally specific. It’s a reflection of how we think. And in U.S. culture, we tend to be very linear, very cause and effect. And if you think about the typical five paragraph essay, we start with the topic sentence, main idea and supporting details. So when we want kids to read things like that, we’re trying to teach them how to find that main idea and those three supporting details. It’s often three. I don’t know what the magic number is for that. No, that changes across cultures.

Delia: What are some other cultural differences that affect comprehension?

Ms. Lundgren: There are so many things. I think the hardest thing for us to realize is that we are socialized to believe certain ways, and we are socialized to interpret events and even words in a certain way. I was looking at a sample state test for third graders. And the story took place…it’s a family reunion down by the river. And most kids can relate to some kind of event where there are lots of relatives. But the questions weren’t asking about that. The questions were asking about feelings, one of the children in the story, based on the big kid/little kid scenario. And those of us that have grown up in this culture, if you’re a big kid, you don’t play with the little kids. And if you have to watch the little kids, it’s a punishment. And so it’s that background knowledge, it was that cultural reference that the test makers assumed kids had. You had to have that specific knowledge in order to answer the inferential questions. But if you come from a culture where mixed grades are very common, mixed ages, you’d miss that.

Delia: And they would miss those answers.

Ms. Lundgren: Absolutely.

Delia: Kristina, teachers of English language learners have an awful lot to focus on. What advice would you have for them?

Ms. Robertson: Well, I guess, do the Think, Pair, Share. And try to get your students using the language that you’re working with. Do the comprehension checks. Don’t wait until the end to figure out what they know. And try to work with linking the information to their personal lives. If you’re talking about U.S. Civil War, which could be totally foreign to a lot of students, especially ELLs, maybe some of your students live in countries where there was civil war. They might have some historical information from their own country that can start to make sense of what’s going on here. And if you can instill the joy of reading in any student, that’s a success, because if they love it, they’ll do it again and again and again until they are very good at it. And libraries have a lot of resources for students in first language or readability levels and things like that. And if teachers can help them link up with those resources, the students will have a good start.

Delia: The joy of reading.

Ms. Robertson: Yeah!

Delia: What are some quick, final thoughts that you would have after talking about comprehension today?

Ms. Lundgren: Prepare. Think about what the purpose is that students are reading. Tell them that. Teach them the strategies, the tools in the tool kit. And then practice them.

Delia: Briefly, Kristina.

Ms. Robertson: Oh, I thought of something else. Do we have more time? About comprehension in all content areas. Elementary, you often have a reading block. And so that’s when we did reading, we learned about comprehension. Now, we’re doing social studies and science, and there’s nothing about comprehension. It’s learning that content. So if teachers can integrate comprehension strategies within all contents, all day, that’s six hours of reading instruction versus the 60 minutes or 90 minutes that students get during one time. Or high school, there’s some remedial instruction. Students will go for a special class. But if all the content — teachers have explored how to teach comprehension for their content area, they will be able to assist the students in developing. The students have to make 15 months of progress for every nine months of their peers. And so they need that extra time in every class, and they’ll do better in the class.

Delia: So some very good advice from two longtime teachers. Thank you so much, Kristina Robertson and Cynthia Lundgren. And thank you for watching. Don’t forget to browse the recommended readings for this topic. And let us know what you thought about this program by taking our survey, which you can find on the main page for this webcast. For more information about teaching English language learners to read, and about how to reach out to their families, please visit our website,

Narrator: The Reading Rockets Professional Development Webcast Series is a production of WETA. Funding for this Colorín Colorado Webcast is provided by The American Federation of Teachers. The Reading Rockets Project if funded by The United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.