Friday, January 1, 2016

ELLs and fluency

Last year I did extensive research on reading fluency. This year with my ELL who has an IEP reading goal related to fluency, I have been trying to implement some of those strategies. Kristin Lems, Leah D. Miller and Tenena M. Sora's book, Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Insights from Linguistics contains a chapter on fluency. I was eager to hear what the authors had to say.

The first thing they discuss is the challenge of two words with two separate meanings. In ELL terms, fluency refers to oral language. It is unrelated to reading. For reading theorists, however, fluency is the ability to read a passage quickly, with accuracy, prosody and comprehension. There does exist a reciprocal relationship between and fluency- increasing skill in one is dependent upon and builds upon the other. The authors provide a brief overview of the reading research related to fluency and improved comprehension and using oral reading fluency to determine reading level. What they note on a number of occasions is that fluency for ELLs is likely to be markedly below what the target is for the individual's age/grade or reading level. Consequently they caution against using fluency to measure reading skill with this population. This does not mean fluency instruction should not occur. Instruction does improve skill, but measuring against standard benchmarks leads to depressed scores.

The authors do go into the reasons why fluency measures do not measure ELLs reading comprehension accurately.
  • First they sight issues related to foreign accent. Students mispronounce words they know because of letter/sound differences between their first language (L1) and English (L2). If L1 does not have a letter or sound, the pronunciation in English may be mistaken and thus recorded as an error. When I was in Denmark where they do not have both a /v/ and a /w/ sound, we took a tour of a /wiking/ museum. We all knew what was meant, but according to running reading record rules it would be a mistake.
  • Students often struggle to correctly read unfamiliar words. This is true for native speakers also, but ELLs have significantly smaller vocabularies so their rate of unfamiliar words is higher. This is especially true of proper nouns.  Further, ELL students are more likely to spend excessive time trying to figure out unfamiliar words leading to slower reading rates.
  • Native speakers without language disabilities also have a larger automatic language vocabulary. ELLs who need to process back and forth between L1 and L2 or have to put in extended mental searches for words and their pronunciations in English will have slower reading rates.
  • Conversely, some ELLs are excellent word callers. They learn the phonetic code of English well and read quickly but without comprehension. Yes, I have run into this with Native speakers as well. Students are focusing on pronouncing the text, not understanding it.
  • For students whose L1 language is orthographically closer to English, for example, Spanish or Polish, it is easier to grasp the phonetic code than for students whose L1 is farther away from English, for example, Ukrainian or Chinese.   In the early stages of language development, the closer the written languages are the quicker the students are to English, the easier it is to orally read the material.
  • ELLs may never develop the prosody of native English speakers. Basing reading success on this aspect may deprive ELLs of advancing in reading. Further, we know that is difficult for native speakers to demonstrate prosody in reading before they have established an end of first grade reading level which involves mastery of phonics. Students still learning at this level should not be expected to demonstrate prosody regardless of their native language.
  • Lastly is the impact of cognitive load. I hinted at this earlier. The more a student needs to process the L2 text, the slower he will read and the more fatigued he will be during the task.
These challenges mean that our benchmarks for measuring fluency performance are inaccurate for ELLs, but measuring progress against the individual himself and graphing success, will work. Further, such self-monitoring is a strategy for improving fluency across the board regardless of reading level or native language.

If there are this many reasons not to benchmark and advance based on fluency for ELLs, why should we bother instructing it? The authors answer this question as well.
  • Fluency practice such as listening passage preview and rereading provide opportunities to see and hear how our language is chunked. Students learn to "read" punctuation and natural phrases. They become increasingly familiar with the speech patterns of English. This increases comprehension and works to help regulate cognitive load.
  • Fluency practice that includes expressive/prosodic examples assists with comprehension. We can hear "anxious" voices and begin to develop a schema for what anxious means in English. We can hear "hesitantly" and many other things. Excellent reading reinforces comprehension and helps with understand ambiguous words. If students hear and practice language read well, they will comprehend better.
  • Fluency practice allows emphasis on phonological decoding. Examples of the sound to symbol relationship are built which help to develop sight word and language recognition. It also helps ELLs develop a sense of the sound of English. It helps establish the cognitive pathways of understanding. The idea that the neurons that fire together are wired together explains how this repetition is essential to language and reading development.
  • Fluency builds stamina. Connected text rather than isolated words helps ELLs learn language, even if they are in the silent period of language acquisition. Merely focusing at the word level will slow language acquisition.
  • Fluency practice builds confidence and motivation. Demonstrating success builds success. The mentality of,  "If I can do this, I am more willing to try that harder step," is reinforced with fluency instruction.
  • Repeated reading builds reading rate. I have frequently commented that one major reason to focus on fluency and reading rate is that slow readers are less likely to read as much as average or fast readers. Students who need to spend twice as much time reading a passage for a class are more likely to read only parts of it or skip it all together. We need students to increase their reading rate and this takes practice. Repeated reading has plenty of evidence to support its use to develop fluency and comprehension.
Intensive reading fluency instruction has demonstrated impressive gains in reading for ELLs. Some studies used an hour a day. The challenge is that this is not realistic for most programs. The school day is not long enough. Summer programs might be called to play an important role in ELL development of reading and language because there we can devote significant instructional time to fluency and language development. Unfortunately, most school districts do not consider ELLs a priority for summer services. Students, especially ELLs with disabilities, need targeted and intense intervention to improve skills. It is time we think about how to provide this service to these needy students.

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