A Framework for Teaching Complex Texts to EAL Learners

Putting all the parts of a text together!

Whilst reading Chapter 8 titled ‘Supporting ELs’ Reading for Multiple Purposes’ in Unlocking English Learners Potential I came across a framework for teaching complex texts to EAL learners that I thought I should try.

I tried it on my Y10 class who were reading a GCSE English language text. Texts that you find in GCSE English language and literature exams can be quite difficult for some learners to understand, especially EAL learners that are DfE Code A & B (New to English & Early Acquisition). To support them in understanding such texts requires a great deal of planning and awareness of how to support EAL learners in reading complex texts. A set of the recommendations from Staehr Fenner and Snyder (2014) helped me to plan carefully for the reading of the complex text we were going to investigate.

  1. Before reading the text we need to support our EAL learners in building their background knowledge of the text. Building background and making explicit links to prior learning are an essential part of EAL teaching and should always be included before reading a text. The image below shows one of the strategies I used to build background and check prior knowledge. Some questions (sentence frames were written on the board next to this) were given to pairs to discuss before whole class feedback. As the text was about a boy who had had a nightmare and was woken by bad weather, I thought the questions might help learners to make links.

2. Next, I read the text aloud once, this was to model fluent reading. My learners had to follow along. Whilst reading I helped them understand the text by defining any difficult words. This was interesting to do because Staehr Fenner and Snyder (2014) say that definitions should be given in context and defining them whilst reading did help to give the words more context. This is opposed to an activity such as defining key words before reading which could be said to be out of context. As you can see from the image below I also provided visuals for some of the words I had identified as being problematic for my learners. Defining in context was really beneficial and is something I am going to do a lot more in my own practice.

Visual Images for some Vocabulary

3. My learners then had to read the text in pairs and answer some questions that I asked them to answers. The questions I set were ‘Text Dependant Questions’ or questions that could only be answered by reading the text. To scaffold this reading learners worked in pairs: same language, less proficient with more proficient, and I placed margin questions around the text. I really find margin questions can be helpful to our learners because they point to where answers can be found in a text. This means that our EAL learners can do more detailed closer readings around where they know they will find an answer. When learners had finished this activity we went through the questions as a whole class.

4. Next, learners read the text again but this time looking at any words or sections of the text that they don’t understand. This could be done individually or in pairs, I did it in pairs! We decided on a couple of sections of the text that were difficult to understand and I projected the section of the text on the screen for closer reading together. After reading again, we worked together to work out what this part of the text was about. This included teacher directed questions and pair and group discussion. This part of the framework was quite tricky because as a teacher you are unprepared for which section will be chosen. Therefore, you can’t really produce any resources or strategies specifically aimed at a particular focus. However, it proved an invaluable exercise to do with my learners as they learnt a great deal from what took place. As a teacher I was able to use strategies such as think alouds to model effective reading skills and build on learner responses to help them to shape meaning.

5. Learners read the text two more times to answer questions that specifically come from the GCSE papers. These questions are aimed at learners showing their understanding of author perspective, structure and an analysis of language Through reading the text a number of times this part was certainly easier than when my learners have answered the questions after just one reading (it happens a lot in a mainstream classroom!).

This framework was done over two lessons (60 minutes) and would not fit into 1 60 minute lesson. I do think it has great value for our EAL Learners especially those here in the UK that are faced with reading such complex texts. The frame offers models of how to read effectively, gives new vocabulary in context, and builds towards answering the questions found in exams.

Unlocking English Learners Potential is jam packed full of great ideas and I highly recommend you buying it to support EAL learners in your classrooms.

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