Learning to read in English presents many challenges for English learners (ELs) in the K–12 classroom, especially true in this age of high stakes standardized testing based on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). ELs face many obstacles when reading in English. Most literature taught in K–12 is culture bound. Teachers expect all students to have prior knowledge of literary genres such as fairy tales, myths, legends, and tall tales. If the teacher has not built background information, ELs who have learned phonics may be able to read the words, but that doesn’t mean they will understand the text.
Challenges for ELs When Learning to Read in English
Here are some of the challenges for ELs that teachers have mentioned in professional development training. ELs have difficulty with
- an abundance of idioms and figurative language in English texts
- density of unfamiliar vocabulary
- use of homonyms and synonyms
- grammar usage especially the “exceptions to the rules”
- word order, sentence structure, and syntax
- difficult text structure with a topic sentence, supporting details, and conclusion
- unfamiliarity with the connotative and denotative meanings of words
- use of regional U.S. dialects
- fear of participation and interaction with mainstream students
- story themes and endings are inexplicable
- literary terms for story development are not understood
- unfamiliarity with drawing conclusions, analyzing characters, and predicting outcomes
- imagery and symbolism in text are difficult
- lack of understanding of what the author has left unsaid; the information that “everyone knows”
Reading instruction for ELs and the Common Core
The Common Core was written without by the input of educators, and the standards do not mention ELs. The Stanford Understanding Language website is designed to meet the need of advanced ELs. Many school administrators who don’t understand second language acquisition are requiring ELs to perform on grade level without consideration of their English language development level. They are expected to perform at the same level as their English-speaking peers.
Close Reading and ELs
The Common Core Standards are having a huge impact on the way reading is taught in the elementary school classroom. Close reading is emphasized. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) has developed one of the standardized tests used for students in grades 3–8 and 11. Here is a quote from their model content frameworks.
The Common Core State Standards call for students in grade 3 to proficiently read grade appropriate complex literature and informational text(RL/RI.3.10) such that they can ask and answer questions by referring explicitly to a text (RL/RI.3.1). Students delve deeply into texts to uncover both the central message and supporting details, identifying the logical connections between sentences and paragraphs in a text. They can compare and contrast two or more works with the same topic, author or character, describing the traits, motivations, an feelings of characters or how ideas relate to one another. (p. 14)
This is close reading for third grade students. Teachers are told to have students retrieve information directly from a grade-level text that has been presented without placing it in context and without preteaching vocabulary or key concepts. This practice is diametrically opposed to what ESL teachers had considered best practice before the Common Core: They chose texts for ELs based on their English language development level, rather than their grade level, and they presented text in context and pretaught the key concepts and vocabulary.
In my opinion, the Common Core Standards and the subsequent standardized testing is not fair to ELs. NJTESOL/NJBE has recently issued a Position Statement on Protecting the Rights of English Language Learners. NJTESOL/NJBE contend that requiring ELs to use only grade-level texts repudiates the conclusion of the Lau v. Nichols decision: “for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education.” In addition, this practice contradicts the research on effective strategies for teaching ELs.