Nonnative speakers of English who are in the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom face struggles with reading in English even if they are already strong readers in their native language. The natural tendency is for the reader to translate the words into the native language in his head as he reads. This practice slows the reader down and keeps the focus on individual words as opposed to overall meaning of the text. The reader becomes preoccupied with decoding and translation, losing all but the most rudimentary reading comprehension, requiring re-reading and slowing the whole process down considerably.
The Importance of Vocabulary for Improving Reading Fluency
The teacher of ESL readers needs to help her readers develop fluency, which is the ability to read swiftly with minimal decoding needed and to absorb meaning as one scans the text the first time. Without a strong English vocabulary from which to draw, the ESL reader is limited considerably in his ability to scan a text without extensive decoding. Therefore, it makes sense for the ESL teacher to use every tool in her knapsack to help her students increase their vocabularies.
Strategies for Teaching Sight Words
For beginning ESL readers—not just those who are young in age, but also those who are young in the use of English—sight words must be developed in a similar fashion to how they are developed in young native speakers of English.
Flash cards, with pictures of objects, are very helpful in developing basic vocabulary.
Provide Visual Cues
The ESL classroom should be decorated with colorful sticky notes identifying every item in the room—the desk, the chalkboard or whiteboard, the windows, the door, the trash can, etc. Visual cues identifying the objects in the classroom are powerful aids to the student in remembering not only the name of the items, but how they are correctly spelled.
When using simple texts for beginning ESL readers, encourage the reader to use a highlighter to mark familiar words in one color, unfamiliar words in another color. This is an interaction with the text that gives the reader a sense of control (even though much of the text may be unfamiliar) and activates prior knowledge. Color is a powerful cue for visual learners. Once the student has identified the unfamiliar words, then he can develop a short glossary and use his dictionary (or the teacher, if the student is very young) to jot short definitions of the unfamiliar words. The student should be permitted to write the definitions into the text so that the definitions are easily accessible and don’t require constantly putting down the text to look up the words. This is a technique called annotation and is another interaction with text that helps build comprehension.
To ensure deep absorption of the new vocabulary words, the teacher should ask the student to highlight or underline those words whenever he uses them in writing assignments. Correct use of a highlighted glossary word should be rewarded with extra points. This practice will move the student beyond simple awareness of a new word into active use of the word in context and increase the probability that the student will memorize the word and no longer need to check the glossary or the word wall when he encounters it in future reading.
The teacher might feel that it is repetitious for the student to list the words, develop the glossary, and then transfer the definitions by annotating the text. However, repetition can be a strong aid in helping the student to absorb meaning. Another related strategy is to have the student also transfer the words to a word wall in the classroom, where they become easily accessible for future reading without requiring the student to look up the definition in the glossary.
As the student builds his own English glossary, the teacher should also assign activities that require the student to use the words in the glossary to create activities that would be suitable for other students, such as crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blank sentences, along with answer keys. Having the student “teach” other students, using his own self-developed glossary as the word bank, is a strong reinforcer of vocabulary. It also changes the way the student views the glossary; it becomes text that he has created, for him to use to help others learn, rather than a simple list of definitions to submit to the teacher for a check-off or a homework grade.
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Building a strong vocabulary takes time and effort. Nonetheless, it is an essential part of learning to read, whether one is reading in one’s native language or in a second language. The effective teacher uses strategies that are designed for deep implementation of vocabulary into her students’ consciousness.