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ELLs in Grades 4-6: Reading to Learn

Many students encounter difficulty as they transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in fourth grade, and this difficulty can be even more pronounced for English language learners. Featuring Nonie Lesaux, this webcast explores effective strategies for instruction and assessment that can help teachers support their ELL students.

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Program description

Many students encounter difficulty as they transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in fourth grade, and this difficulty can be even more pronounced for English language learners. Why do so many students experience what is often referred to as the “fourth grade slump”? What can teachers do to make the transition into the upper elementary grades less difficult, especially for their ELLs? This webcast explores effective strategies for instruction and assessment that can help teachers address these important questions.

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.


Nonie K. Lesaux is Assistant Professor, Human Development and Psychology, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses primarily on the reading development and difficulties of children from language minority backgrounds. Lesaux is currently Principal Investigator (NICHD funded) of a study that focuses on the development of reading comprehension skills for Spanish-speakers developing literacy skills in English. Lesaux was Senior Research Associate for the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Youth, a panel that conducted a comprehensive, evidence-based review of the research on the development of literacy among language minority learners, and is a contributing author to three chapters in that report.


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. What do we mean when we say that good comprehension instruction takes place before, during, and after reading?
  2. What are some examples of the academic language that students need to know in your subject area/grade level?
  3. Describe some effective strategies that you have used to help your ELL students learn vocabulary.
  4. Create a graphic organizer that could be used in your class, and explain why it would be effective with ELL students.
  5. As you begin a new lesson or unit in your class, what method(s) might you use to preview difficult vocabulary or concepts with your ELLs?



Announcer: Funding for this webcast is provided by the American Federation of Teachers. Additional support comes from the National Council of La Raza and from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Delia Pompa: Hello, I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to the Colorín Colorado and Reading Rockets webcast series. English language learners or ELLs are a growing population in classrooms throughout the country. Teachers are often unsure about the best ways to help these children become good readers. Today we’re going to explore the challenges facing English language learners and their teachers in grades four and six. Joining us is a Harvard researcher, Dr. Nonie Lesaux. Nonie, we know many students face what we call the fourth grade slump, where kids are sort of past learning to read and are now reading to learn. Is there such a thing as the fourth grade slump and can you tell us a little bit about it?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Sure, thanks. There probably is a fourth grade slump, but the question is whether we’re just picking something up in fourth grade that’s already been there for a lot of years for a number of kids, and/or whether, in fact, there are differences in the comprehension demands of the curriculum, and certainly that’s a question. Mostly the way we want to think about the slump is that we have K to three reading instruction and assessment set up that really focuses much more on word reading than it does on comprehension, and even speed of word reading. And so by fourth grade what we have are assessments of reading that are mostly comprehension based, and so we start to pick up kids — many more kids with low comprehension who may have had low comprehension for years before. The other piece that we have by the fourth grade that may contribute to what we call the this slump is that we have instruction — we have reading that cuts across a number of areas of instruction, so reading is not just relegated to reading instruction but rather we need to have good reading comprehension skills for math, for science, for other areas of the curriculum.

Delia Pompa: Well how does this transition — this fourth grade transition affect ELL learners or ELL students differently than native language speakers?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: It’s probably not a whole lot different, but it’s probably exacerbated, which is that if they have — kids with lower vocabularies, more limited proficiency with the language have more difficulty with comprehension, so we think of our ELLs when we think about the increasing demands, comprehension demands of the fourth to sixth grade classrooms in curricula. So it’s probably just exacerbated for them, and now that we start to assess it around fourth grade, we certainly see that it’s problematic.

Delia Pompa: Well, we have a lot of newcomers in that age group. How does this whole transition affect them?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think newcomers pose a special challenge in that they need both basic skills in English, conversational skills in English, as well as the academic language of the curriculum and print. So it’s probably that we have more demands for language and good comprehension on them than other ELLs.

Delia Pompa: You know we hear the term “academic language” a lot these days. What’s the difference between academic language and social language or conversational?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right; yeah, it’s an important distinction. And I think there are many ways to think about it. But probably the most straightforward ways to think about it are really this notion of the language of print, the language of text, and in that sense, we’re talking about more complex sentence structures than we’d use on a regular basis in daily conversation — words that come up in the text that aren’t necessarily used in daily conversation, so we think about words like analyze, frequent, abstract, observe, the kinds of words we don’t see as much — we don’t hear as much in day-to-day conversation. We also think about the multiple meanings of many words. That’s part of academic language. Do I know that there are many meanings for different kinds of words? The word “made,” for instance, has a number of meanings. So, and we also think about function words in print that don’t necessarily come up in social or conversational English, functions words like “therefore,” or “else,” “however” — the real language of print.

Delia Pompa: Well you talked a lot about vocabulary. Are there other specific examples of academic language being different?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think you could think about the sentence structures, so those are more complex, the way text is written, the fact that with text what we also need is an understanding of the reader and the author’s intent. So to be a good comprehender we need to understand the purpose and what it is that we’re doing and all of that really contributes to academic language.

Delia Pompa: Well, how does this academic language proficiency affect reading comprehension?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, what we have is academic language as a very strong predictor of one’s reading comprehension so that, in fact, good comprehenders tend to have very good academic language. They tend to have a good grasp of the language. They tend to understand nuance sentence structures, syntax that’s more difficult than that which they hear in everyday conversation. And what we get is in fact often what’s assessed when we’re looking at assessments of comprehension but also of content area.

Delia Pompa: Well, you said good comprehenders are good academic language users. Does it work the other way, too?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: It may or may not, depending on the demands of the comprehension task.

Delia Pompa: This is a question I know lots of teachers want to know. And how long does it take to develop academic language proficiency fully?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: You know, that’s a really — it’s a common question. It’s also a really difficult one to answer. And it depends what we see as full academic language development, but it also depends on instruction, so that we could accelerate academic language for a lot of kids, depending on how much instruction they’re getting. I know lots of people sort of throw around the notion of three to seven years to develop full academic language proficiency. We have a lot of kids who never become fully proficient with the academic language, native speakers and English language learners, it’s difficult. But it really depends on instruction, how much opportunity to learn it they have had.

Delia Pompa: Well, if it depends on instruction, what are some effective ways to help students develop academic language, especially for newcomers?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right. I think, you know, the critical thing to remember is that some of the best work on academic language is actually anchored in print, so whether it’s with writing or with reading, and it’s a lot of discussion about the text, about the language of the text, about one’s ideas, connecting sentences, this kind of thing. So I think part of the — part of the — one of the critical pieces is to think about it anchored in written activities and lots of chances for discussion and for feedback, revising, rereading, summarizing, this kind of thing.

Delia Pompa: Thanks, Nonie. If you’d like to download a list of useful academic words, please visit Now we’re going to hear a student’s perspective on learning English as a second language. Meet fifth grader, Maricely.


Narrator: Maricely lives in Hartford, Connecticut, but was born in Puerto Rico. See the flag?

Narrator: This girl loves the spotlight, but that has not always been the case.

Maricely: I was reading and then I came across a word I didn’t know. And when I started saying it, everybody starred laughing.

Narrator: Maricely, she had trouble learning to read. She was learning in a second language. Could you imagine learning to read Chinese or Greek? She moved from Puerto Rico when she was just two. Her family speaks a little English, but everyone in the neighborhood and at home generally speaks Spanish, and it’s hard to practice her English.

Maricely: It’s hard to learn English, especially when your family speaks Spanish only. I didn’t know how to read or write English, and most of my friends would pass me a note and write it in English. So when I went to read it, I didn’t know.

Narrator: One thing that confused Maricely was the same sounds being spelled in different ways. What’ that all about?

Maricely: Christopher, it sounds like “f-e-r,” but it’s “p-h-e-r.” And I would be like, it’s too hard.

Narrator: Things got so tough for Maricely, they decided she needed to repeat the fifth grade.

Maricely: I was mad, and it was hard for me. I wanted to quit, but then I decided not to.

Narrator: You go, Maricely! A lot of kids would give up, but not Maricely. She buckled down and worked extra hard with her teachers.

Maricely: The teachers always gave me a book, and I started reading that one. When I finished it, I read it again. Then they give me one book harder and one harder, and they will make me understand the English more.

Narrator: Maricely also worked at home with her big sister Bette Marie.

Bette Marie: It’s hard, and at some points in time you feel like giving up, because maybe you think it’s not worth it. But it’s worth everything. All the struggles and everything – it’s going to be worth it.

Narrator: Maricely thinks so, too.

Maricely: I want to show them as I learn a second language. And here I am, talking in English, and so can you.

Narrator: And guess what? Next year, she will be heading to sixth grade, speaking and reading both English and Spanish.


Delia Pompa: We can see Maricely is on the road to reading. But this isn’t the case with all her peers. Some are way behind and others are far ahead. A single classroom may have ELLs with many different levels of English language proficiency and literacy development. Where does a teacher begin in trying to address all these diversities, Nonie?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think the teacher begins first with; we want to really value an understanding of that diversity even within this population. There are incredible differences. And so I think the first step is to really value grasping just how different these kids are, not just in language and in reading, but in their own experiences and reasons why they came to the country, and then relating that to the goals for instruction. How do these certain profiles relate to the goals that I have for my instruction? What kinds of modifications are at my disposal? What kinds of things do I want to accomplish that I think will be problematic for some kids over others? So it’s mostly at the planning stage that we want to think a lot about the diversity within those kids. I think the other piece to think carefully about are the number of native speakers in the classroom as well or kids who have fully developed their English proficiency, because we know that peers as models is one of the best ways to learn language, so that the more we can think about our groupings around language ability to promote and scaffold language development of certain kids is a really important piece as well.

Delia Pompa: Well, how does the teacher draw on the student’s own first language and literacy skills?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think that really depends entirely on just how well-developed those language and literacy skills are for certain kids. There are situations in which one’s first language can be just a very strong asset, particularly one’s literacy skills in their first language. There’s a lot about reading that is not language specific. Do I understand why I’m reading this? Do I think about the author’s intent? Do I know what information I want to get from this? These are all kinds of questions and strategies that cut across languages. So to the extent that teachers have a sense that kids have well-developed literacy skills in their first language, that can certainly be an asset for instruction and a way to leverage instruction.

Delia Pompa: Does prior schooling have a big impact?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Huge — prior schooling is probably the number one factor to be considering when we’re thinking about drawing on one’s first language. First language may be well-developed conversationally, but not academically. First language — oral language skills may be there, but not literacy skills. All of these kinds of things need to be on the table when we’re planning instruction.

Delia Pompa: If a child comes to you with a lot of prior knowledge or his own prior knowledge, how does that compensate for a lack of English vocabulary or does it?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, it’s a real asset in learning that second language. So if we any about vocabulary words, not just as labels, but as concepts, so if I understand not just that the word — that there is a word, dog, but that I understand that dog is an animal, that there are similar animals, I’m starting to grasp a certain concept. Children with well-developed literacy skills in vocabulary in their first language need new labels, but they don’t necessarily need new concepts a lot of the time. They may need new concepts as they move through the grades, but upon arrival, there may be lots of concepts that they have and they just need new labels in English.

Delia Pompa: Are there unique or specific ways teachers can activate that prior knowledge?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: There are certain ways — part of it is that there’s always this certain barrier with even just proficiency in English. But certainly there are a number of ways to activate that graphically, represented with graphics, there are — we can represent that in casual conversation. We can have students do some work in their native language with native language support materials with the idea that they can understand that we’re going to then try to learn that material in English, et cetera.

Delia Pompa: The role of oral proficiency is a role we’ve sort of gone back and forth about as educators. I know a lot of teaches have this question. Is it necessary to wait for a child to have a high level of oral proficiency in English or oral fluency in English, before you begin reading instruction in English, or reading instruction?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, if this is an English only instructional environment, then I don’t think we want to be waiting at all for kids. That, in fact, we can’t possibly teach kids the thousands of words — the thousands of vocabulary words and the nuances of the language strictly by oral conversation and academic discussion. So we know that particularly for native speakers, reading is a very powerful tool to develop vocabulary, to give kids experience with language and the structures of language and the syntax, and the same holds for English language learners. So we wouldn’t want to wait for any reading and writing instruction. It’s probably going to be a powerful way to continue to boost vocabulary and oral proficiency.

Delia Pompa: Now you mentioned if the instruction is in English only. Are you qualifying that? Is it different if there’s some native language instruction?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well it depends on the design — if the design of the instructional program is one whereby literacy is a goal, then we may start strictly in the first language and transition to the second. That’s certainly been a common model.

Delia Pompa: Does that whole approach apply also to writing?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Absolutely. And, in fact, writing is a really excellent way both to gauge literacy skills, to gauge proficiency with the language, to give kids the chance to produce language in a way that’s not oral, to try out some words, that kind of thing.

Delia Pompa: You know, Maricely, in the clip, talked about the trouble with PH. Are there ways that we can teach ELL students various spelling patterns that might be useful in their development of literacy?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right. That’s true — I think English is particularly punishing in that sense. It’s far from Spanish where we have a one-to-one correspondence between sound and letters. I think the real thing to think about with kids like Maricely is the benefits of learning words and their spelling and the typical — the typical kinds of patterns or the graphic patterns is to do that in context, so that it’s always got some meaning to it. One of the things that we’re learning in research with ELLs is that very traditional, explicit, sort of rote methods of grammar and spelling haven’t been so successful because it’s in isolation, and these kids aren’t getting the meaning of these words at the same time. So one of the best ways to learn to spell a word like Christopher would be work with Christopher as a character in a particular story or something like that. That will also give a chance for the teacher to assess spelling in that sense. So while we’ve typically done a lot of spelling work, with you know — can we spell the word, can we use it in a sentence, can we spell it again, and we feel like that’s certainly — they certainly may have the spelling, what they may not have is the meaning, and that’s where we want to think about spelling instruction as an opportunity for language development as well.

Delia Pompa: Can you say a little bit more about the strategies you’d use for teaching that in context? I mean, you mentioned Christopher and the story, but are there other ways to do that you’ve seen that work.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think some of the — there are a number of different ways, and it’s going to depend on the age level and the goals of the class, the content material of the class. But there are certainly — there are certainly the free right as one possible way. There are also activities that can be structured alongside text, alongside a particular chapter in a content area class, science, mathematics, where one might do some word work after that, use the word in a particular sentence, try it out, use it again, and with a different kind of meaning, that kind of thing. But typically connected to text and connected to writing to improve spelling and vocabulary.

Delia Pompa: You know, Nonie, we know vocabulary development is a very important piece of literacy instruction, and your work reflects that. You’ve written a lot about that. How do children develop vocabulary in their native language?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: One of the — probably the biggest — the sort of single most important finding that we have in the field that we can certainly credit to a number of very important researchers over time is that kids really learn vocabulary by being exposed to words, by being exposed to high-quality language, by having language in their environment that’s linked to particular objects, to particular feelings of different people, this kind of thing, so we think a lot about models. And when we think about models — language models for English language learners and for native speakers alike, we think of adults, but we also think of slightly older peers as a great way to learn language. And certainly that’s one of the ways that we see vocabulary develop, particularly in the early stages is there’s lots of interaction and talk with individuals. But we also know that that’s sort of the necessary but not sufficient. Kids can’t learn enough vocabulary to support their academic success and to support school achievement over time simply by being in discussion with other peers and adults. Kids need to be able to learn to read text for meaning and to have word-learning strategies to learn words while they’re reading, and particularly in light of this conversation we had about academic language where we have a lot of words that are part of text that aren’t part of our day-to-day conversation. So when we think about vocabulary learning, we really do really think about interaction with people, and exposure to words in conversation and in oral discussion, but we also think about kids becoming good readers in order to acquire vocabulary at a very rapid rate in a short time. I think, you know, kids need to leave high school with a working understanding of about 50,000 words.

Delia Pompa: Wow, that’s a lot.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yeah, lots of words.

Delia Pompa: Does vocabulary acquisition work the same in second language learning?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: From what we can tell, it does seem to operate in a very similar way, which is that we know that English language learners need a lot of very good structured opportunities to produce language, to hear language, and in this context of fourth to sixth -graders to really promote their academic language, we think a lot about structured opportunity, both with language and print and then also with their own writing and their own discussions. So, from what we can tell, it develops in a very similar kind of a way, but it’s very dependent on instruction.

Delia Pompa: Well, you talk about, and you’ve written about, and we hear about explicit instruction in vocabulary.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: That’s what you were talking about. Are there some specific — well, can you give us some example of strategies for these fourth to sixth grade children?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yeah. I think we want to think about vocabulary. When we plan instruction for English language learners, we want to think about in a couple of different ways. We’re going for lots of breadth, which is a big vocabulary. We’ve often thought act giving kids — making sure kids have a large vocabulary, and that’s what we think of when we think of breadth. But we also know that lots of kids, particularly English language learners, might be able to recognize a word and even use it, but not have any deep understanding of the word.

Delia Pompa: Meaning?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: So we don’t — we don’t necessarily — so meaning — I might be able to use — recognize the word “interrupt” as something that happens in a conversation, and I might be able to use it in conversation but not necessarily use it in my academic writing or in a free write or some kind of narrative afterwards. We get lots of English language learners with some sort of shallow understanding of words and not a lot of depth. So when we plan for vocabulary instruction, we plan for some direct and explicit instruction, which might look like a particular work sheet that’s centered around a newspaper article where now we pull out some particular words that might be difficult. Kids might use the dictionaries to go and find meanings for those words and then use those words in a sentence. That might be some kind of instruction — some kind of direct instruction. On the flip side, we also think about giving kids strategies for word learning so that when they’re reading independently and when they’re working independently, they’re thinking about recognizing words that they don’t know and problem solving around their meaning. And by that we’re really talking about giving kids strategies to analyze often the roots of words. Do I know the root of this word? Might I be able to pull apart the root of this word and think about what that means? If I see if the word vision, might I think of television, might I think of television? Might I think of other words that are related and start to gain the meaning of that word?

Delia Pompa: Well, you know, 50,000 words by the time you graduate from high school is a lot of words. Are there guidelines for choosing which words teachers should teach and which ones they should focus on?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: There are — and it sort of goes back to this idea of promoting breadth, size, and depth. And really what — probably the topic that’s most discussed these days amongst teachers and researchers is that what we’re really going for when we go for — in planning vocabulary instruction are very high utility academic words, so not necessarily words that relate to the specific text all of the time. So I might not pull out — so I might be planning for a read aloud and I might not pull out the word “dandelion” or “burrowed,” which are rare and interesting. But I might go after some of the more high-utility, more frequently used academic words. I might think about the word “analyze.” I might think about “frequent.” I might think about “compare.” These kinds of words that cut across — that cut across the curriculum have really been the focus of a lot of work on vocabulary, particularly for fourth to sixth -graders.

Delia Pompa: I know cognates and the understanding a second language through use of your own knowledge of vocabulary.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right.

Delia Pompa: And your language —

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right.

Delia Pompa: — and the cognates — was — has always been a piece of second language instruction. Is explicit teaching of cognates something that is necessary, or do kids pick this up on their own?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Unfortunately kids don’t seem to be — we have lots of Spanish speakers who have well-developed language and literacy skills in Spanish who, when they go to read English and come across a word that might be considered a cognate, so similar looking and with the same meaning, they don’t necessarily use that as a strategy to problem solve the meaning of the word. What we’re finding is that kids like any tool to promote their vocabulary and their comprehension. Kids need to be taught to be looking for cognates.

Delia Pompa: Now we should probably warn our viewers about false cognates. Nonie, can you explain all that?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yeah, well, it’s certainly a hot topic these days. But what we have is both the desire to use their first language as an asset and to have them looking for cognates, but what kids also need to understand is that a large number of cognates are actually false cognates, and by false cognates what we really mean is words that actually carry different meanings in the two languages. So it sounds like it’s something like 30 percent of words that are cognates that have a shared look and meaning, but that, in fact, there’s also a large proportion that are false in that sense.

Delia Pompa: This is putting you on the spot, but can you give us an example of one?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I do, I do. You’ll have to mind my Spanish, but “embarazada” is a word in Spanish that in English they mean very different things so that we have meaning of embarrassed in English and one, I think, that’s to be pregnant in Spanish is a good example where there’s this — there’s a lot of similarity but no semantic.

Delia Pompa: It’s a pretty dramatic example.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yes.

Delia Pompa: Yeah, it is, thank you. A list of common English/Spanish cognates is available for you to download at Nonie, let’s talk about the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension. Is comprehension instruction the same for ELLs as for native language speakers?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think the principles are very much the same, which is that we really want kids to have structured time and strategies to comprehend text effectively. I think for ELLs we just want to be clear that a lot of — often the language demands of the text exceed their proficiency in a way that they may not for native English speakers, so a little more attention to the oral side of comprehension is probably what we’d recommend. But the principles are really much the same, the structured opportunity for engagement with text, but also discussion around text, becoming an active reader while reading. Am I noticing when I’m not understanding? Am I asking questions of my peers or my teacher, et cetera? Those are the same kinds of principles.

Delia Pompa: Again, I think what teachers will want to know is how you do it in the classroom. So are there some specific strategies that you would use with these kids in the fourth to sixth grade, especially if you’re preparing them for middle and high school?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think some of the very specific strategies are actually one of them with English language learners that’s been very successful in some fourth and fifth grade classrooms that I’ve been working on, is actually the kind of small group oral reading that we used to see a long time ago as part of general reading instruction, a chance to read out loud, to slow down, to listen to myself read, to stumble on words, get some corrective feedback and keep going, and then have some discussion around comprehension. That’s certainly a strategy that’s gone by the wayside by and large in reading instruction except for kids who are struggling, but is one that would be very beneficial for more ELLs well into the upper elementary years, rather than just in the primary grades. Other aspects of comprehension instruction really focus on small-group discussion, small-group work, planning and previewing the materials so previewing, reading — previewing before a reading activity certainly gives — can serve many different functions. It might just generate more interest and motivation in the topic, but for ELLs it often gives them some really much needed background information if we have a discussion first. I would, as a teacher, be able to pick out a couple of words that may be difficult for that student and pre-teach those and work with them, stop while they’re reading to find those words, et cetera. But also some of the tried and true work on prediction is a chance both to talk about and gauge one’s comprehension and have the teacher get an informal assessment of comprehension, prediction, clarifying while reading, stopping and summarizing, those kinds of things. The other piece about comprehension instruction that I want to mention is, we have lots of classrooms across the country doing lots of independent reading, so independent reading is a strategy to improve comprehension, excellent of course, more exposure to text, more exposure to language. For English language learners we want to be really clear that it’s completely dependent upon a good reader text match — that if the book has too many unfamiliar words for them particularly in the fourth to sixth grade, it’s not a useful way to build vocabulary, because I don’t know enough words around that unfamiliar word to gain more comprehension, so what we really go for is, you know, 90 to 95 percent accuracy with the idea they might get some of those five percent of words that are unknown. So that’s a typical strategy that needs some real modification for English language learners.

Delia Pompa: Can we rely on the transfer of comprehension skills from the native language to the second language, or do teachers have to facilitate it, and how do they do that?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, we might be able to rely on some transfer. I think the best-case scenario where we see a lot of transfer are newcomers with a lot of formal schooling in their first language. That’s mostly where we tend to see this notion of quote unquote transfer. For kids who have had bilingual instruction, they need some — they still need some explicit prompting like our newcomers about the ways in which this reading — this act of reading and making meaning from the text is similar, but certainly they can draw on those skills. There are many things about reading comprehension that are entirely the same across languages. Do I know why I’m reading this? Do I know what information I’m looking for? Am I supposed to be summarizing main idea? Am I thinking about what I’m learning as I’m reading? Am I stopping, this kind of thing. Can’t necessarily do it without some explicit instruction to think about those similarities.

Delia Pompa: You know, on other webcasts we’ve talked about content teachers and them teaching literacy. Why is this so important?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right, well, what we’re finding is that, of course, because reading permeates the curriculum, because we’re using reading as a mechanism by which to deliver a lot of the curricula and especially do assessment, we’re finding that it’s not enough, it can’t just fall into the hands of the English language arts teachers to promote reading. What we have are linguistic language — certain registers that are specific to certain subjects, so what we get with mathematics, for instance, is some estimate — some estimate —

Delia Pompa: Fractions.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Fractions, right. Proportion. We also get what we get in mathematics are word problems whereby it’s very language-heavy. I first even need to understand the question. I may have the mathematical skills, but I may not be able to wade through that reading problem with some background knowledge. Maybe it’s about a sport or a game of golf and they’re carrying scores. I’ve certainly seen that one recently on a state standards-based test. So what we’re getting is language and reading brushing up, right up against content area in material. We’re also getting lots of vocabulary that’s specific to content area classrooms that’s not necessarily specific to the understanding ultimately that we want them to gain. But we’re always mediating the curriculum with language. We’re all always delivering the curriculum in a way that draws on language and reading skills.

Delia Pompa: Mediating, that’s an interesting way to put it, mediating curriculum.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yeah, language is always getting in the way.

Delia Pompa: That’s one way to look at it. Now we’d like to take you to Frank Love elementary school in Bothell, Washington, where reading expect Shira Lubliner will model a technique called reciprocal teaching for us.


Shira 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.

Shira 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.

Shira 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 Pompa: Nonie, how would a teacher with varying levels of proficiency in his or her class — and we know that’s most teachers — use a technique like reciprocal teaching?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think in many ways reciprocal teaching is a great fit for that classroom, because the goal is really to capitalize on the diversity in terms of language and reading ability that we’re really thinking about peers and teachers as models, as supports for building comprehension skills, as a chance for some structured discussion. So, in fact, heterogeneous groupings in groups with differing abilities in reciprocal teaching is certainly part of the goal. So it’s a very a scaffolded approach. What we really want is for kids to really get modeling — to be exposed to modeling of these different strategies, the questioning, the clarifying, the predicting, the summarizing, and so it’s this idea that in a structured setting we might have differing levels. You might ask more sophisticated questions than I would, but I would probably learn some language from that discussion, at least be exposed to some new words or some new ideas, and then it’s also a chance for the teacher to do some informal assessment. So ultimately the model is a good one for classrooms with varying abilities, particularly English language learners and some native speakers. And the idea behind it is this gradual release of responsibility, so as we have highly scaffolded discussions at the outset we would hopefully over time have English language learners leading those discussions.

Delia Pompa: We’re going to go back to content area teaching for a while, because there’s a big question out there that’s always out there, and that’s, how does the content teacher fit reading instruction into her schedule when she has so much content to cover?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right, she’s really — she’s really feeling saddled with a lot of content. I think the point that I really want to make is that the key is really to think of it as part of that content area instruction, that it’s really almost impossible to separate the content area from the language and reading demands that go along with it in order to learn that material, in order to be assessed in a valid sort of way with that material. So the key is often, I think, really in the planning stages to think about it as part of the content area delivery. Incidentally, I will mention at this stage that will are a lot of native English speakers who grapple with these same kinds of issues, the same kind of language that’s difficult for ELLs. So most of the current work is really to have that become part of the planning process rather than to see them as two separate realms of instruction.

Delia Pompa: We, a lot of times, fall back on the same techniques. I know when we think of content teachers teaching comprehension we think about graphic organizers. Are there other techniques that content teachers might use that you could talk about?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Yeah, and I think in that sense, I would go back to this notion of thinking about it at the planning stages up front. And I’ll really, I think — I will feature the Sheltered Instructional Observation Protocol, sometimes called the SIOP model as one really powerful tool, because what it is is a tool to help teachers in their planning to identify both the content area goals, the goals for instruction at the level of the content, but also to identify the reading demands and the language demands and those words and structures at the level of the text that may be difficult for their students. The model was originally developed for newcomer students at the adolescent — in the adolescent newcomers. It could certainly be adapted and used earlier on fourth to sixth grade in those upper elementary years where we really need to think about what are the content demands of this lesson and what are the language and reading demands?

Delia Pompa: You know you bring up a good point. And for our viewers out there, I would like to refer you to our webcast on middle and high school students where we talked about the SIOP model, and when I say, “We talked about it,” it was Dr. Deborah Short, and you can find that information on our website. Let’s go back and keep talking about content teaching because it is so important to us. You talked about one resource which is SIOP, and lots of teachers know about that. Are there other resources content teachers could use?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: One other resource that I have in mind and have been working with a number of schools on the West Coast, mostly English language arts teachers, is the vocabulary improvement program published by Brooks, developed by Maria Carlo, Catherine Snow, Diane August, and colleagues, and it’s a vocabulary program that is specially-designed for the upper elementary years to give kids really deep understanding of some of these high-utility academic words, to start to drill down on their understanding of words families, relationships among words, use of words in oral language but also in print et cetera. That’s probably the other resource that I think of.

Delia Pompa: That’s helpful. Let’s take a right turn here and talk about assessment, which is on everybody’s mind these days.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Right.

Delia Pompa: What should an ideal literacy assessment look like for ELLs in fourth through sixth grade?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think the ideal assessment, which at some level, runs counter to the way we sort of have been thinking about assessment lately, which is, you know, the very broad-based achievement tests, the state standards-base tests, which certainly give us some kind of dipstick understanding where certain benchmarks, who fits where. What those assessments don’t do and what the ideal assessment for English language learners would do is really tease apart some elements of oral language and of reading. So in the realm of reading, I would not just want to know that these kids are accurate and fluent word readers, but I’d also want to know about their comprehension, and by comprehension, I might want to know how are they with literal questions and how are they with questions that require some inferencing ability at the level of oral language and aspects of vocabulary. I’d want to know their basic proficiencies in the language. That’s critical information. It’s information we often get about English language learners. I’d also want to know something about their academic language and their use of — their understanding of the syntax of the language. So in our own work, we work with teachers to assess kids’ morphological awareness, do I know how to transform a word? Do I know how a word might change to match up with the sentence in order for it to be meaningful but also syntactically correct, this kind of thing? So I really think much more about kind of formative informal assessments to really get at aspects of comprehension, aspects of oral language. In another situation, we do some work around, do kids understand cohesion workers; that is, those function words? Lots of kids have good vocabulary words but then lack — vocabularies, excuse me, but then lack a really sophisticated understanding of how sentences or clauses may be joined by a really critical function word. So I would just want to know more about the ways in which oral language may be both well developed and breaking down, and the same with comprehension.

Delia Pompa: I assume you were talking about assessment at the classroom level. Is this something we can also do at the district and school level?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think at the district and school level, we typically have some achievement measures or state standards-based assessments, so lots of the schools I work in, for instance, use the SAT-10. I think what I would think about doing at the school and the district level would be to take those kids for whom that assessment, raise the red flag, and do some more in-depth assessment. The risk that we run when we use large-scale assessments and even broad-based standardized achievement tests to guide our instruction is that we don’t really know what aspect of that skill was breaking down. What was it about that comprehension test that was most problematic for these kids? And for English language learners who really vary in there — even within one child, who really vary in terms of their skill levels, it wasn’t everything that was problematic. There were some pieces that were more problematic for others, and we don’t always have that information.

Delia Pompa: So many districts today are attempting to assess children in both their native language and English. How important is that?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: You know, I think not unlike this question of transfer where we say, well, it’s going to depend on instruction, it’s going to depend on what might goals for instruction are. I think in many ways, I feel the same way about native language assessment. There are few things to keep on the table. The first is, of course, whether we can do that in a way that’s sound. So do we have the tools and the instruments to do that? So if a district has 50 languages, you know, how many of those language groups can we assess in the native language? If we can assess in the native language, it can be very useful information, but not information that we should be using in any way that would classify — that would be used to classify children or to suggest particular outcomes, because we don’t always know what we can expect on those assessments. Often assessments of native language have been developed and normed with monolingual students. So for instance when we use the Woodcock Johnson measures of Spanish reading and oral language, we’re comparing the scoring to a monolingual group in Puerto Rico who — for whom the test was developed or with whom the developed.

Delia Pompa: And monolingual in Spanish, you’re saying.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Exactly, monolingual in Spanish. So what becomes difficult is it can be really useful information to get a sense of native language, to get a sense of whether we see the same kinds of difficulties in one language versus the other.

Delia Pompa: All assessment is used for instruction. How do teachers do that? How do they take what they learn from these assessments for good instruction?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: Well, I think it really goes back to that principle, which is good instruction starts with very good assessment. And in the case of English language learners I think the big things — the real critical piece to think about is that these kids are growing and developing and often at rapid rates, at uneven rates. You have a lot of diversity in your classroom. So the critical piece is to be doing that kind of assessment to monitor progress, to then think about where modifications come in, et cetera.

Delia Pompa: Well, you’ve told us an awful lot today. Do you have any fine thoughts?

Dr. Nonie Lesaux: I think my final thought would be really that a lot of what we’ve talked about today, particularly in the fourth to sixth grade realm, it’s probably worth mentioning that given the demographics of this population, the expected increase in this population over the next couple of decades, we want to think a lot about the fact probably that what we’re really getting at is better academic language instruction in regular classrooms, and thinking less about this group as an identified subgroup and more about language diversity in our K-12 classrooms and what that means. And really, it parallels the way we’re thinking about middle school literacy reform, which is we’re thinking much more about content-base literacy, writer’s workshop, these kinds of reforms to really increase academic language of all kids. It also parallels where the field of special education is moving, towards a model of universal design so that we really try to prevent difficulties. Think about increasing opportunities to learn before we are labeling kids with a disability, and similarly, I think this is a group where — who hopefully in that sense will take — we will take a different approach with them, rather than identifying them necessarily as a subgroup and more think about curricular adjustments to promote their success, whether they’re designated ELL or not.

Delia Pompa: Nonie, thank you so much for sharing all this information for us, and for telling us how education is evolving and we need to stay ahead of the game. And thank you for watching. For more information about teaching English language learners to read, and how to reach out to their families, please visit our website, On the main page for this webcast you’ll find recommended readings, discussions, questions, and more. You can also tell us about what you think about this program by taking our survey.

Announcer Funding for this webcast is provided by the American Federation of Teachers. Additional support comes from the National Council of La Raza, and from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.