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Encouraging reading comprehension in learners of English as an additional language

Written by: Kulwinder Maude
9 min read

All teachers need to develop children’s knowledge of academic literacy in different curriculum areas so that they can interpret written text. Academic literacy can be defined as children’s ability to understand higher order ‘textual’ language in order to access the curriculum and the learning that accompanies it. Using my experience of working with EAL (English as an additional language) children, I argue that emergent bilinguals can achieve a deeper understanding of the texts through negotiation with each other and sharing personal experiences. Using three case studies of Year 2 EAL students in an English primary school, I analyse and describe the children’s interactions with books. The students skilfully bring their ‘outside the classroom knowledge and experiences’ into their conversations about books and the characters in them. This is defined by Rosenblatt (2005) as the ‘transactional approach’. Starting with vocabulary, ‘shared talk’ acts as a means to generate meaning from a text, taking into account the readers’ cultural backgrounds. Gregory (2008) describes this as the ‘Inside-Out’ approach.

Starting with the word

A beginner reader draws on his/her past experience of life and language to elicit meaning from printed words in order to gain new understandings. Rosenblatt (2005) opines that we make sense of a new text by reorganising, restructuring and applying our prior knowledge of the world. The same text will therefore have different meaning and value to us at different times or under different circumstances, as meaning largely depends on the experiences that the reader brings to the text.

According to the transactional approach, readers transact with the text in either an ‘efferent’ or an ‘aesthetic’ way. The difference lies in the ‘selective attention’ that the reader gives to his/her own vocabulary repertoire when approaching the text. When the attention is focused on finding information, it is efferent reading – for example, reading a newspaper, a textbook or a legal brief. In contrast, aesthetic readers adopt an attitude of readiness to focus attention on the lived experience when reading a book; this can also be defined as reading for pleasure.

As we learn to read, it becomes easier to predict words and language structures linked with our life experiences. Of course, knowledge of phonics helps in initial decoding, but it is the meaning that is of paramount importance. Gregory’s (2008) ‘Inside-Out’ approach builds upon the children’s existing knowledge and experiences while focusing on the new language and culture that they are about to encounter through literacy. Building on individual personal experiences, teachers explicitly guide and support students as they experiment with new vocabulary and structures in the target language.


The aim of the project was to explore the development of reading comprehension in second-language learners. It involved a five-form-entry primary school serving a multicultural community. Choosing a small-scale, ethnographic approach, data was gathered from a range of sources, including observations, interviews and video recordings of ‘shared talk’ reading sessions over a six-month period. Pupil voices are a vital component of the data.

Participant profiles

Student 1 started school in Reception with no English, so he found the school days very long and burdensome. Student 2 is an only child, born in England, and both parents come from a rural part of North India. Student 3 was born in England to Pakistani parents. His mother is from a rural area in Pakistan and his father is a second-generation British Pakistani.

All three students were supported at home by their mothers, who had limited English themselves, and they spoke their home language to their parents. Most teachers are likely to identify with the above profiles of EAL children within their own classrooms.


Inside-Out approach in action

Books capturing the interests of the boys (adventures and journeys from the Storyworlds series) were chosen to make the sessions enjoyable, thought-provoking and stimulating. For the purpose of this article, interactions with two texts will be shared.

Transcript 1 is titled "Mr Marvel and the car" and shows a chart with eight lines and two columns. Column one lists the speaker and column two the transcript text. Line 1: " "Teacher. Why does Mr Marvel like the big car? /". Line 2: "Student 1. It's an amazing Hot Wheels car / it's a wicked car, Miss, because / it's got blazing fire on its wings / and it / drives really fast / it can fly high in the clouds at the same time / (makes flying gestures with his arms)". Line 3: "Teacher (to all). Tell me more about the car. Give me some adjectives, colour, size and shape...". Line 4: "Student 2. Red". Line 5: "Student 3. Ginormous". Line 6: "Student 2. Quick". Line 7: "Teacher. Let's put them all together". Line 8: "All. A red, ginormous, quick and wicked car (final version)".

The ‘shared talk’ presented in Transcript 1 is selected from a much longer conversation before, during and after reading the book. Gregory (2008) posits that the most important lexical clue for students as they read in a new language is the extent to which the words carry deep personal meaning. Only then can readers draw upon their own experiences, as we see in Student 1’s interactions when describing ‘Hot wheels’ cars. It surely called up an experience or schema (abstract knowledge structure), triggering a whole set of new words and explanations. Wallace (1988) argues that there is considerable evidence to suggest that while overall language development supports reading, so too does reading support language development (use of adjectives and expanded noun phrases).  Further, Student 1 seems to behave as an ‘aesthetic reader’ (Rosenblatt, 1970), who experiences and savours scenes and calls forth particular emotions when the world of cars is brought to life.

Transcript 2 is titled "The bear and the honey" and shows a chart with thirteen lines and two columns. Column one lists the speaker and column two the transcript text. Line 1: "Student 3. I know what you call honey bees in Punjabi /". Line 2: "Teacher. Do you?". Line 3: "Student 3. 'Makhi' (smiles)". Line 4: "Teacher. How is honey collected from the hive?". Line 5: "All. Tree, Miss". Line 6: "Student 1. In the tree wall / there is lots of honey / a long stick / you smoke it / put the honey in the bucket / all bees run away / (smiles)". Line 7: "Teacher. Is this how honey is collected? /". Line 8: "Teacher. What do you know? (Student 3)". Line 9: "Student 3. I know about the...". Line 10: "Teacher. The book?". Line 11: "Student 3. No / ... the 'makhi'". Line 12: "Teacher. Oh, makhi (smiles)", Line 13: "Student 3. Bumble bee / (5) my mum says that / Miss".

In Transcript 2, the boys adopt an aesthetic stance to explore their evoked responses, in order to make sense of the text. The boys relate the story to their personal experiences even before attempting to read. These personal anecdotes become a major part of their learning, making the reading experience their own.

Gibbons (1991) is of the view that being able to draw on the meaning-making system implies having the world knowledge (extracting honey from a beehive) and the cultural knowledge (the meaning of ‘makhi’ in English) that is relevant to a particular text. She believes that much of what needs to be understood to make sense of the text is not in the text itself: the reader’s existing knowledge framework or ‘schema’ helps to reconstruct meaning from the text.


Making sense of reading

Academic reading poses significant issues for EAL students as they contend with the possible unfamiliarity of the context, with spoken English or with the written text itself. This difficulty often results in teachers offering a simplified version instead. While this may be a useful strategy, this simplified version of the English language often results in underexposure to the very registers of English language that EAL students need to develop for learning across the curriculum.

Gibbons (2009) argues that often, reading schemes used worldwide assume familiarity with the spoken form of language. Since these three students were labelled as ‘underachieving’, they were exposed to simplified versions of reading books, often referred to as basal readers: repetition of a particular sound and a number of sight words. The ‘shared talk’ sessions formed a link to the ‘invisible world of their own culture’ that these emergent bilinguals brought to school. These sessions also highlighted the importance of the stimuli that a child experiences before the time he or she enters school and begins to read formally, and how these stimuli could be considerably different or completely absent if the child does not belong to the dominant culture of the school.

Reading feeds children’s imaginations and opens up a world of wonder and joy for curious young minds. But a major disadvantage of phonics-driven reading schemes (used for emergent bilingual readers) is that the language modelled in the books is far from the ‘everyday’ spoken language that the students are familiar with. Consequently, Gibbons (2009) argues that students are exposed to an abstract reading process where unfamiliar knowledge (sounds of English) is used to teach an unfamiliar skill (reading in English). Hence, it may be useful for teachers to learn about the reading practices, experiences and expectations of bilingual learners.

Cultural and social belonging

It is important that students feel a sense of ownership for learning that takes place in the classroom. EAL students can negotiate meaning of lexical words in English by making reference to their first language. Haastrup (1991) proposes that this world knowledge, ‘in the form of conceptual knowledge’, serves as a bridge to the target language. EAL students need to know how words relate to knowledge about their world and to negotiate new meanings by comparing with their stored world knowledge – some of which might come from cultures that teachers do not share. Therefore, creating shared talk opportunities around texts may help teachers to know more about their students and further develop a reading community of practice.

Implications for class teachers

Gibbons (2009, 2018) proposes ‘before, during and after reading’ activities becoming a part of the reading process. ‘Before reading’ strategies, such as predicting from visuals and key words, evoking personal narratives or creating semantic webs and reader questions, help the students not only to activate prior knowledge but also to prepare for potential linguistic, cultural or conceptual difficulties. For example, beginning with looking at the key vocabulary (on cards) that the children were likely to come across in the book, we discussed the cover of the book. I read the first page or two to help them tune into the text. Thereafter, the children read round the group aloud, until we were well into the story.

‘During reading’ activities model the implicit reading practices of fluent readers. So strategies such as scanning the text, pausing and predicting at certain points in the text, reading critically, unpicking paragraphs and questioning the text help the reader to understand that reading is about making meaning. For instance, seeing myself as a fellow reader, I participated in the session but not as a teacher. We read together as a group, responding and sharing meaning-making with each other. Sharing perceptions and asking real questions, we realised that the right answers were not necessarily knowable.

‘After reading’ activities build on the ‘now familiar’ text in order to further language development, such as answering true/false statements or creating graphic visualisations of the text – timelines, compare-and-contrast flow charts, etc. Summarising the text and innovating the text are some strategies to focus the children’s attention more deeply on the information in the text. This allows the students to prepare a critical response to the text, just as fluent readers do.


Wallace (1988) reminds us that, simply because reading is so much a part of adult life in literate societies, the issue of learning to read generates great anxiety. A step in the right direction would be to recognise the wealth of knowledge and reading practices that bilingual students bring from home into school and to simultaneously introduce them explicitly to the reading culture of the school. This will ensure that they are able to ‘situate’ themselves in the social context of reading in the classroom.


Gibbons P (1991) Learning to Learn in a Second Language. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.

Gibbons P (2009) English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Heinemann.

Gibbons P (2018) What is academic literacy and who should teach it? EAL Journal 6: 46–48.

Gregory E (2008) Learning to Read in a New Language: Making Sense of a New World. London: Paul Chapman.

Haastrup K (1991) Lexical Inferencing Procedures or Talking About Words. Tübingen: G. Narr.

Rosenblatt LM (1970) Literature as Exploration. London: Heinemann.

Rosenblatt LM (2005) Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA: Heinemann.

Wallace C (1988) Learning to Read in a Multicultural Society: The Social Context of Second Language Literacy. Great Britain: Pergamon Press.

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