Addressing the Wide Reading Needs of English Language Learners

Addressing the Wide Reading Needs of English Language Learners

by Dr. William Kerns

The promotion of wide reading at the K-12 levels of education is imperative. In this blog post, I focus on reasons why wide reading opportunities are too often denied to English Language Learners (ELLs). The Response to Intervention (RTI) model often is touted as a way to address the needs of English Language Learners, but I’m concerned that too many students are denied wide reading opportunities in their first and second language, only to instead spend hours in pull-out intervention sessions.

I was a high school English and Reading teacher in Central Florida prior to entering higher education. Many of my students were English Language Learners, with Spanish tending to be their primary language. My students didn’t want rote, boring instruction. They wanted to be engaged in learning as a social process through curriculum that is driven by inquiry and investigation into topics of high interest (Moses, Busetti-Frevert, & Pritchard, 2015). They wanted dialogue. Digital storytelling. Writing workshops, reading workshops, and learning workshops geared toward guidance through increasingly challenging activities (Larson, 2014). Bring in art, music, drama, and the students are increasingly engaged. Bring in opportunities for playfulness and creativity. They also wanted opportunities for wide reading of material that is meaningful to them.  My former students provided inspiration for me as I wrote this post.

The topics discussed in this post became increasingly poignant to me after my marriage in February 2017. My wife, “Deanna” Deng Pan, was born and raised in China. To be more specific, she lived in Szengzhou, capital of Henan Province in North-Central China, until attending college in Beijing. Although my wife studied English in China, she felt ill-prepared to speak English fluently when she moved to the United States for graduate study. We frequently talk of her difficulties living in the United States related being an English Language Learner. The sense of social isolation. The way that quietness caused by uncertainty in what to say or how to say it can contribute to many Americans mistaking Chinese women for demure and shy, when in reality the Chinese women may, like my wife, actually be lively and potentially outspoken. But there can be differences in observable personality traits when speaking English compared with speaking Mandarin.

Little fears creep in on a daily basis, such as whether a misspoken word to a clerk might result in a condescending look or remark from the clerk. She is presently an advanced Ph.D. student at University of Missouri-St. Louis in Supply Chain Management and Analytics, so she speaks English fluently enough to get by as a professional. Yet, on nearly a daily basis I am reminded of important lessons related to instruction for English Language Learners from my wife. When my wife uses Internet search engine tools for assistance in understanding a word or a phrase in English, it’s a reminder to me that students need access to a variety of tools for their own assistance in the classroom. She values seeing the word in English and Mandarin, along with frequently a visual image and a vocal recording to help her learn the pronunciation. She might even use her hands to make a gesture that helps her understand a concept. So, I think of the importance of learning in various modes (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, aural, verbal). If she watches a movie such at Batman: The Dark Night she also likes to investigate cultural, social, and linguistic connections before, during and after the movie. In other words, she is building her schema in order to help her to understand themes in the movie. She’s also engaged in wide reading that is personally and socially meaningful to her.


The Battle Over Wide Reading

The ability to provide students with opportunities for wide reading in school is under attack. Given pressures of high stakes tests, schools commonly reduce wide reading opportunities while narrowing the curriculum and focusing on test taking skills (Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). This contributes to lack of opportunities for students to engage in reading for pleasure and simple enjoyment within classrooms (Lareau, 2003).

Fluency, involving an ability to read with accuracy and expressiveness with little effort (Kuhn & Stahl, 2003), is a strong predictor of comprehension skill. There appears to be a strong relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension according to numerous studies with children from the primary grades through middle school (Hosp & Fuchs, 2005).  Children trained in the acquisition of reading fluency also demonstrate growth in comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2009). Students with reading disabilities often lack fluency as readers (Torgesen et al., 2001). Wide and repeated readings improve both fluency and comprehension skills among students with reading disabilities (Allington & Gabriel, 2012; Chard, Vaughn, & Tyler, 2002; Therrien, 2004; Vaughn et al., 2006).

Vocabulary knowledge also is significantly linked to comprehension skills (Baumann, Kame ’ enui, & Ash, 2003). Reading an hour per day greatly increases vocabulary (Mason, Stahl, Au, and Herman, 2003).   Progress in vocabulary and reading comprehension skills and achievement is strongly related to increased time spent reading (Taylor et al., 2000; Krashen, 2004; Wasik & Iannone-Campbell, 2012).

I don’t just argue for wide reading but also deep reading. Giving students a say in what they read promotes motivation to read (Cambourne 1995, 2000). This can be a challenge on a tight budget. When I taught high school English I would sometimes have 40 or more students in a class. So, I recommend reaching out for partnerships with organizations such as the local affiliate of the International Literacy Association for help in building up a classroom library without breaking the bank account. Choice isn’t enough, motivation to read is also fostered when the books are of personal and cultural relevance to students (Gambrell, 2011; Pintrich & Schunk, 2002) and with sustained engagement in the texts (Guthrie & Wigfield, 2000).

The Denial of Wide Reading Opportunities to English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) too often lack opportunities to engage in wide reading in school due to a failure to accurately distinguish between language differences and disabilities. When an inaccurate diagnosis is made, the child can find himself or herself spending perhaps hours in pull-out intervention rather than engaging in wide reading. Disproportionate numbers of ELLs placed in special education may not have actually been learning disabled. Instead, these students may be struggling readers in English because of limited English proficiency or because of a lack of reading instruction in English as their second language (August & Shanahan, 2006; National Research Council, 2002).


Abedi (2009) identified focal characteristics of ELLs that pose problems in relation to identifying and educating ELLs with learning disabilities. The first challenge posed is the racial and ethnic diversity of the ELL population. Second, ELLs vary greatly in their exposure to academic learning. Finally, as a result of these first two factors, ELLs demonstrate widely varying rates of individual progress in learning English. Abedi contends that results on reading proficiency assessments and on high stakes academic assessments are significantly influenced by English proficiency levels.


Test bias is an important concern in assessments for second language learners. Test bias relates to assessment results that are not equally accurate in measuring ability or predictive in identifying learning difficulties. According to Snow and Van Hemel (2009), potential sources of bias for minority students include: (a) test content  that may measure different constructs depending on a student’s culture;  (b) minorities tend to be underrepresented in standardization and norm-setting norm-reference assessments; (c) test performance can be influenced by familiarity with testing situations; (d) differential representation of minorities; and (e) errors in predicting future performance of minority students. Williams and colleagues (2007) found that success in improving the academic achievement of ELLs is more likely when schools consistently use reliable and valid assessment data to improve instruction.


Response to Intervention (RTI) is often promoted as a solution to this problem. In an RTI approach, interventions of increasing intensity are implemented and evaluated a student until an effective intervention is identified. RTI is a multi-tiered approach that provides high quality instruction and intervention matched to student needs and uses data on students’ performance over time to inform instructional decisions. Progress monitoring through research-based and validated assessment allows for early identification of students who are struggling. Most models of RTI have three tiers, with each tier representing an increasingly intense level of intervention, although there can be any number of tiers in an RTI framework (Klingner et al., 2007). Primary instruction, typically tier 1, is the core curriculum involving universally applied research-based classroom interventions that are provided by general classroom teachers. Students who are identified through assessment as in need of supplementary intervention then move to the second level of intervention, typically known as tier 2. Students receive targeted interventions that are provided in small groups. Finally, individualized tier 3 intervention is provided to students who are not adequately responding to tier 2 intervention and is still more intensive.


Through universal screening teachers assess students on measures that are valid indicators of important outcomes (Ikeda, Neessen, & Witt, 2008). Universal screening measures are quick to administer and to score while providing data that leads to valid inferences about those outcomes (Hosp & Ardoin, 2008). A key part of universal screening and the overall tiered RTI model is the use of general outcomes measures (GOMs), known in the literature as curriculum-based measurements (CBMs), designed to provide information on the effectiveness of instruction.


Deno (2003) describes a GOM as a standardized method of assessment that determines progress through the use of repeated measurement of what a student has learned, or should have learned, within a particular skill domain, including of importance to this paper, basic reading skills. GOMs provide evidence for adequate or inadequate reading skills. However, there is debate over appropriate assessments for evaluating how well ELLs are responding to reading instruction.


Barrera and Liu (2010) challenge the ways in which GOMS are typically used within RTI models to address the needs of ELLs. The researchers point out that for a short reading passage, it is not possible to determine whether scores may be affected by reading and content experience, language, or by a possible disability. According to Barrera and Liu, factors such as experience with reading, experience with contexts presented in a text, and language differences may be de-emphasized because the use of GOMs as part of the RTI process places an emphasis on validation with standardized assessments such as state assessment scores. Barrera and Lui reviewed 22 studies on the use of GOMs with ELLs that were published since the mid-1990s in order to investigate how the characteristics of ELLs with learning disabilities are included in these studies. Only four of the 22 studies provided disaggregated data on ELL populations by language or ethnicity. Their literature review demonstrated the following common features of research on the use of GOMs related to ELLs: (a) the research literature is growing, but at this point, ELLs with disabilities tend to be absent in most of the studies; (b) there is a limited research base related to accounting for differences in students’ academic language proficiency; (c) research studies tend to focus on the degree of technical adequacy in the predictive features of GOMs in comparison to other assessments; (d) the majority of studies focus on reading for students at the primary grade levels; (e) studies tend to compare language proficiency of ELLs with native English speakers.


The Mode of Instruction for English Language Learners

I advocate the use of a student’s primary language as part of wide reading and dialogue in order to scaffold the learning of a second language. Dual language education is a type of bilingual education in which both native English speakers and English Language Learners are taught together and both languages are used for classroom instruction.  One goal of the dual language program is to teach students to read, write, and speak both languages while they acquire the same math, science, social studies, and language arts skills that other students their age are learning.  Commonly in dual language programs, one language such as Spanish or Chinese is used as the language of the classroom for a large part of the school day.


Support for dual language education draws on findings that strong literacy development in one’s native language facilitates academic achievement and proficiency in the second language and that academic and linguistic skills developed in the first language transfer to the second language (Cummins, 1979). In addition, students involved in dual language education learn the second language better than they would in a regular foreign language class (August & Hakuta, 1997). Rolstad, Mahoney, and Glass (2005) found a positive relationship between bilingual education programs and reading gains among second language learners compared to instruction in English only.


Admittedly, research related to dual language instruction as the primary medium of instruction is both limited and mixed. The Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006) did not discuss ways that bilingualism or biliteracy may help or hinder the development of literacy in English as a second language. Instead, the use of a student’s first language in literacy instruction is discussed as optional within the report.  These findings agreed that when instructional programs include time and resources for developing literacy in the first language there are greater literacy gains in English as a second language in comparison to programs that are English only programs or programs that use English as the primary medium of instruction (Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Slavin & Cheung, 2005).  Further, according to the report, although word level skills such as decoding of language-minority students are more likely to be at equal levels to monolingual English speakers than text level skills including reading comprehension (August & Shanahan, 2006).


Escamilla (2009) takes issue with the influential Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (August & Shanahan, 2006), arguing that learning to read in one’s native language in a manner that privileges bilingualism provides cognitive and linguistic advantages that promotes increased academic achievement in English as a second language (Carlo et. al., 2004; Genesee, Lindholm-Leary, Saunders, & Christian, 2006; Rolstad et al., 2005; Slavin et al., 2010). The sociocultural context of literacy development is one key point of contention that Escamilla raises regarding the findings within the Report of the National Literacy Panel. Authors of the report stated that they found little evidence of sociocultural interventions that were related to literacy development (August & Shanahan 2006). However, Escamilla points to findings that link student achievement to sociocultual factors (Ogbu, 1992) and links that have been found between education achievement in second generation immigrant students to the maintenance of their native languages and cultures (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001). Escamilla further contends that the Report of the National Literacy Panel should have considered the influence of policies that privilege English-only instruction, while August and Shanahan (2010) counter that it was beyond the charge of the panel to become involved in debates over federal and state policies.




The complexity and urgency of meeting the needs of ELLs demands attention.  A discussion of the concept of instruction for English Language Learners provides an example of how the examination of the need for teachers to explore their underlying beliefs that shape their educational practices.  This is why I chose to describe my relationship with my wife within the introduction to this blog. I wanted the reader to be able to picture her as a real person rather than simply picturing an abstract “English Language Learner” within this blog. The discourses about students who are English Language Learners provide a framework for further communication about aspects of the reality of lives, and the reality of teaching, assessment, and intervention services that we provide.  It is beyond the scope of one single blog to solve problems raised for discussion. That’s the hard part. But to address a problem first we need to name the problem.





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