Readability, Text Leveling, and English Language Learners (Part II)


Last week we took a look at what the “90% rule” means for text selection, especially for English language learners. Don’t “protect” students, we suggested, from the challenge of the academic vocabulary they need to learn and the academic texts they need to learn it from. But do support them.

First of all, students need support to see themselves as “code breakers” wading into conceptual territory and vocabulary and sentences that they find challenging. Like the immigrant women reading The Babysitter’s Club books, “code breakers” expect to be challenged and can find it satisfying and enjoyable (see Part I).

by Jana Bouc

Support also includes chunking texts for repeated readings, so that students have multiple passes through manageable sections of text. Teacher modeling of the problem solving involved in making meaning of text is a necessary support. And so is the ongoing social collaboration of partners and small groups who can help each other problem solve text challenges. Word-learning strategies are an important subset of the kind of problem solving English learners need support to master: How does context help? How do word parts work?

Learning how to break down text through deliberate problem solving helps students become more independent readers of the challenging and complex texts they will meet in their academic careers. They learn when to rely on their stamina and problem-solving abilities and when to seek help from others. Of course it is still important for the teacher to choose texts that won’t be so difficult that, even with instructional support, students will only be frustrated instead of successful.

The use of “vertical text sets” is one way to keep reading challenge steady and appropriate. For a given unit of study, students encounter easier texts early on to introduce topics and build vocabulary and background knowledge. Increasingly difficult texts follow, introducing and reintroducing concepts and additional vocabulary, like stepping up a ladder. (You can see why ancillary texts, as well as visual texts, are so important in Reading Apprenticeship.)

Equally important is investing students with knowledge about how to make personal choices of books and texts. For recreational reading and when students can choose from a set of texts, students learn things like the Goldilocks rule and the Ten Page Chance to help them decide on books to read. When their interest and motivation to read a book is high, they will be able to tolerate more struggle with unfamiliar vocabulary.

Small chunks, repeated readings, tapping into students’ stores of knowledge and experience, intentional focus on learning words from context and with word-analysis strategies, building up from easier to more challenging texts, and empowering students to select books that are meaningful to them — these will all build students’ reading independence, comprehension, and academic language. It’s hard to put a percentage on that!

Cynthia Greenleaf

Cynthia Greenleaf

Blog Contributor, Cynthia Greenleaf

For over two decades, Cynthia Greenleaf has helped students become more successful readers and writers as Co-Director of WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI). She also directs SLI’s research program and has contributed to several books on literacy and education, including Education Policy and Practice: Bridging the Divide, The Handbook of Adolescent Literacy Research, Best Practices in Adolescent Literacy Instruction, Improving Reading Achievement through Professional Development, and Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap Grades 4 – 12, and has co-authored numerous articles appearing in such publications as the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Harvard Educational Review and Phi Delta Kappan. She received a PhD and MA in language and literacy education from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, where she graduated magna cum laude.

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