Optimizing Reading Comprehension for MLLS: 6 Strategies

When my school first adopted the Reading Workshop, a teaching method in which the goal is to teach students strategies for reading and comprehension, I became a proponent of this approach and worked to find ways to adapt it to the needs of multilingual learners (MLLs). I found that the Reading Workshop method allows teachers to differentiate and meet the needs of all their students.

In 2014, when I first started to write blogs for TESOL, I developed a six-blog series of articles on the Reading Workshop strategies to teach reading comprehension to MLLs. In this post, I will list the strategies and provide a link to the original blog. Even if your school uses a different type of reading program, you can incorporate these six strategies to support all the students in your class to better comprehend what they are reading. I found them to be profoundly successful when used with elementary-age MLLs.

For MLLs to acquire the strategies that good readers use when reading, they should learn how to do the following:

1. Visualize What Is Happening in a Story

One of the first reading comprehension strategies that you should teach is visualization. Visualizing helps students learn the link between the words on a page and the pictures in their head. According to Harvey and Goudvis in Strategies That Work,  students who visualize as they read have a richer reading experience and can better remember what they have read for longer periods of time. When reading a book to students, ask them to close their eyes and imagine what is happening. Young MLLs can draw pictures of what they imagine, and older students can write what they visualize.

2. Make Connections With Text

Good readers make connections to their background knowledge. It’s important to understand that MLLs may bring background experiences to reading comprehension that are different from their peers.  The goal is to help our MLLs understand the following types connections: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Making real connections to text helps MLLs better understand the content.

  • Text-to-self connections are associations that readers make between the text they are reading and something that happened in their own lives. MLLs should learn phrases such as, “This reminds me of when I…”
  • Text-to-text connections are links that students make between the text that they are currently reading and texts that they have previously read. It is important to teach students the language of text-to-text connections. You can prompt text-to-text connections by asking, “Does anyone remember another book where…..?”
  • Text-to-world connections are those links students make between the text and something that has happened in the world. For example, my students made connections to their lives in Korea, Japan, China, India, and South America. When a hurricane hit the Northeast shores of the United States, my MLLs made the connection between the text that we were reading about the hurricane and extreme weather events that had occurred in their own countries. I taught them to use sentences such as these:
    • This makes me think about…
    • I remember when…
    • This is what happened in my country
    • My grandma told me that…

3. Ask Questions When They Read

MLLs may not be able to ask questions about the author’s language or purpose in the same the way that proficient or native English speakers do. However, they can begin to make a habit of questioning, and this habit will improve their capacity for understanding and thus support their becoming more proficient readers of English text. It is important to emphasize with MLLs that they need to voice what they don’t understand and use reading strategies to figure out answers.

Here are the kinds of questions my students learned to ask while looking at the cover of a book and reading the text:

  • What will this book be about?
  • What does this sentence mean?
  • Is this important?
  • Do I need to read this again?

Here are some strategies MLLs can use to get started:

  • Predict what the story will be about based on the title and/or a picture on the cover.
  • Ask themselves questions to predict the ending.
  • Identify “stopping places” in the text where they may have questions or should make predictions.

4. Decide What Information Is Relevant in a Nonfiction Text

Making distinctions between relevant and irrelevant information in nonfiction texts is key for MLLs to understand content-area information that they read. Teach MLLs to scan a text before reading and acquire knowledge through reading chapter titles, headings, subheadings, picture captions, maps, glossaries, and indexes. Help them to understand that reading is not necessarily a front-of-the-book to back-of-the-book task; all details in a nonfiction text do not have the same level of  importance.

5. Highlight Important Information to Summarize a Text

Good readers need to learn to summarize text to highlight the important information. They also need to learn how to pick out what is important in a text when summarizing. Many times, students will want to recall  small, unimportant details. Here are some suggestions for teaching MLLs how to summarize a story:

  • After MLLs read a text, have them work in pairs to address this question: “Who” did “what” in the story? Pair MLLs with proficient English speakers to discuss.
  • Preteach words to help MLLs sequence events in a story, such as first, next, and then, and last. MLLs can draw pictures of the events, brainstorm the order of events orally, put teacher-made sentence strips in order, or write simple sentences using sentence frames.

6. Learn How to Synthesize Information

Synthesizing information is the most advanced of the reading comprehension skills to master. It cannot occur if MLLs don’t master the key vocabulary, learn to visualize what’s happening, and ask questions while reading a text. They also need to be able to make connections from the text to other parts of their lives so that they find deeper meaning in a text. MLLs should also be able decide what information is relevant and what is not. Synthesizing information in a text is more than just retelling the events. MLLs need to learn how to add their own thoughts, experiences, opinions, interpretations, and connections and to go beyond the text.


Have you used Reading Workshop successfully in your classroom? What other reading comprehension approaches have worked for you? Please share in the comments, below!

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to
Optimizing Reading Comprehension for MLLS: 6 Strategies

  1. Ssemakula Magdalene says:

    I tell my leaders to assume the writer were present or around physically.Then they would walk together hand in hand. I make them develop a psychological tour with the writer. I tell them to follow him wherever they go, taking particular interest on the sports where he takes short pauses ( comas) and where he takes long pauses ( Full stops)I tell them to LISTEN attentively to the message the writer communicates. Sometimes the writer might use None- verbal cues to deliver his message,so they should be very smart to capture all that.
    I tell the that along your psychology journey, you are bound to meet people who could be writer’s friends, acquaintances , enemies or just strangers ( Characters). I tell them to take kin interest on who each person is and what roles each plays( Characterization)
    I tell them to take kin interest on the quality of the speaking voice- TONE- and the attitude of the writer as he narrate his story. In the same vein should the tone and attitude of the characters be noted.
    Lastly I tell them to give the lessons learned from the writer’s story as they relate them to their day to day lives.

  2. Jayne Collette says:

    “Reading Workshop “Unlikely to Lead to Literacy Success,’ Researchers Say”

    https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/reading-workshop-unlikely-to-lead-to-literacy-success-researchers-say/2020/01

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