Reading Performance Gap Reduction Among ELL

Subject: Education
Pages: 8
Words: 2266
Reading time:
10 min
Study level: PhD

Research Topic

Reading comprehension is one of the key skills that students need to hone for academic accomplishment. Reading is an interdisciplinary faculty that permeates school and academia: there is not a single subject that would not require students to study written materials. Refining this skill grants a student learning autonomy and independence that will aid him or her greatly on their path toward scholarly goals. However, not every student is capable of keeping up with school reading standards, which when unaddressed, may create reading performance gap. According to new statistics, as many as 60% of US fourth graders lag behind their grade level (August, McCardle, & Shanahan, 2014).

The results are even worse for high-poverty schools where up to 80% of students lack proficiency (August, McCardle, & Shanahan, 2014). These facts are alarming, especially given that, poor reading proficiency has been found to be one of the predictors of high school dropout. Among the demographics that are most affected by this phenomenon are second language learners. It is abundantly easy to imagine how a person for whom English is not the first language would face even more obstacles on the way to reading proficiency.

If untackled, the issue is likely to aggravate due to the ongoing demographic trends. Currently, there are almost 5 million ELLs studying in the USA, constituting for more than 9.5% of all students in the country (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). The number of ELLs has increased significantly within the past decades, as in 2000, less than 4 million such students were registered. In addition, more than nine states report that the percentage of ELLs in public schools is 10% or higher (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).

It is expected that with the number of immigrants on the rise, schools will struggle to teach second-language learners reading without creating a gap between them and native speakers. All facts taken into consideration, it becomes clear that reading performance gap in second-language learners is a threat to academic achievement. The question arises as to how to reduce the gap and what strategies could be the most efficient and employable by a large number of schools.


Assessing reading performance in students and addressing performance gaps is important for several reasons. Understanding the issue and its background takes an insight into the many roles that reading plays in students’ lives. As Owusu-Acheaw and Larson (2014) state in their research, reading is not merely an activity – it is rather a disciplinary habit. By learning how to read efficiently and in relation to a particular academic goal, a student transforms their entire studying process for the better.

Owusu-Acheaw and Larson draw (2014) a close relationship between the quality of reading habits and academic achievement. The latter is operationalized as the amount of knowledge an individual acquires from the school. The researchers theorize that reading builds up necessary organizational habits that drive the learning process in the right direction.

Second, reading is an indispensable part of developing autonomy as a learner. Wigfield, Gladstone, and Turci (2016) are unanimous about the relationship between reading and learning independence. Owusu-Acheaw and Larson (2014) concur: they describe the process of learning as consisting of acts of personal inquiry and investigation. They require looking for additional materials and deliberately widening one’s scope of knowledge.

This is especially relevant in the context of modern education, or as Mota and Scott (2014) put it, education for innovation. Mota and Scott (2014) emphasize the value of inquisitiveness in students that can be achieved by and through reading. Besides, when it comes to second language learners, reading comprehension grants them independence in terms of decreased reliance on language facilitators (Wigfield, Gladstone, & Turci, 2016). No longer do they need to ask for help to understand a text, which undoubtedly, facilitates the process.

The ability to comprehend written materials also improves and protects students’ mental well-being. For instance, as McGeown et al. (2015) state in their research, reading skills are tied to learners’ self-confidence. A student that can read well navigates and governs the learning process better than the one that struggles to hone this skill (McGeown et al., 2015). Moreover, the reading faculty prevents a student from feeling inadequate as compared to their peers.

This is especially relevant for second language learners. According to Akanwa (2015), foreign students understandably face many adaptation-related challenges. Belongingness in the classroom context might be something that would aid them in getting attuned to their new environment (Lillyman & Bennett, 2014). Becoming part of the group is possible through demonstrating language proficiency of which reading comprehension is part.

Lastly, reading may be help second-language learners develop important interpersonal skills. In their research, Stansfield and Bunce (2014) came to a rather compelling conclusion regarding the association between reading and empathy. The researchers discovered that exposure to fiction was associated with cognitive and affective empathy as well as helping behavior. Reading for extended periods of time helped learners develop cognitive empathy, i.e. a rational understanding of how to behave toward people in emotionally charged situations. Having just read a piece of fiction, however, instigates affective empathy in a student and compels him or her to help others.

A stable reading habit, as revealed by Stansfiled and Bunce (2014), drove students to understand the minds of those encountered in real life and motivated them to help those in distress. It seems that in the light of these findings, it would not be an overstatement to say that second-language learners would benefit from the described skills as they adapt to the new environment. Empathy and helpfulness are probably some of the most important elements of improving group cohesion.

Theoretical Framework

Now that it became clear that reading is vital to taking control of the learning process, the question arises as to how to teach this skill to ESL students. First, it is important to understand the particularities of second language acquisition and reading comprehension. In his book, Dörnyei (2014) debunks a number of myths regarding harnessing a second language and provides actual scientific findings. For instance, the researchers argues that younger children do not necessarily learn a new language faster than older children. This fact implies that with younger students, teachers should not solely rely on their natural ability to grasp a new language (August, & Shanahan, 2017).

Further, learning isolated lists of words is a far from perfect learning strategy. It does not aid reading comprehension as students cannot recognize the same words they learned in a new context where their meaning might be more nuanced. Dörnyei (2014) also argues that language acquisition happens in spurs: the development of any skill is not linear and should not be expected to be such. Therefore, experiencing setbacks when learning to read in a second language is more normal than not. Lastly, the researchers states that not a single language acquisition strategy will fit all students, and that is a limitation to be considered for the future of teaching reading.

One of the reasons why reading comprehension might be so challenging for both native speakers and second language learners is the complexity of the process. AlKialbi (2015) describes reading as a vigorous activity during which a student constructs meaning from a piece of text and understands it effusively and comprehensively. AlKialbi (2015) provides a taxonomy of reading comprehension that encompasses five skill categories:

  1. literal – understanding the meaning of a written piece on the surface level;
  2. reorganization – the ability to break a text down into parts and highlighting those that carry the key ideas vital to overall comprehension;
  3. inferential – drawing conclusions from a text based on the information that is not explicitly given;
  4. evaluation – providing critical appraisal of a written material, outlining its strengths and weaknesses;
  5. appreciation – taking pleasure in reading, perceiving a written material from an aesthetic standpoint.

According to AlKialbi (2015), the most relevant skills for teaching reading to second-language learners are literal, reorganization, and inferential. It is safe to assume that the described skills match the three levels of a text comprehension. At first, a student needs to understand the literal meaning of a text, for which he or she needs to possess an appropriately broad and rich vocabulary. Reorganization of a written material helps a student to follow the narration without paying excessive attention to unnecessary details (Javed, Eng, & Mohamed, 2015). Lastly, perceiving the text inferentially drives the mental process of text decoding, in which a student might discover new meanings.

While all these assumptions make sense for both native and non-native speakers, the question arises as to how the skills outlined as crucial by AlKialbi (2015) could be improved in ESL students in particular. It appears that the process of filling in the reading performance gap should start with eliminating the barriers to reading proficiency (Spencer & Wagner, 2017). Typically, language acquisition encompasses a set of skills that are not limited to reading. In actuality, as Pey, Min, and Wah (2014) state, reading skills are closely related to oral skills. They build their research on the automaticity theory that describes the phenomenon of reading fluency that relies on accuracy, prosody, and pronunciation. Alongside Pey et al. (2014), Khor, Low, and Lee (2014) also emphasize an association between oral and reading fluency.

Simply put, if a student cannot overcome the barrier of not knowing how to read a word and if he or she stumbles a lot in the process, one should not expect them to comprehend the text. Thus, it is crucial to introduce strategies that would improve reading fluency. They need to also entail reorganization and inferential strategies and acknowledge the complexity of the reading faculty (Paige, Rasinski, Magpuri-Lavell, & Smith, 2014). The teaching process might be individualized to fit Dörnyei’s (2014) assumption about students’ individuality and unique responses.

Problem Statement and Purpose

Research has shown that reading is a complex cognitive faculty that encompasses multiple subprocesses. While modern science seems to have come close to the psychological and physiological nature of language acquisition, education has yet to catch up. Studies on teaching reading strategies are scarce, and many of them lack a practical, experimental component. It remains unclear as to what strategies are most effective when it comes to teaching reading to ESL students (Pappamihiel & Lynn, 2016). It is clear that they must differ from those employed for teaching native speakers. Thus, the purpose of this study is to study the effectiveness of teaching reading fluency to improve reading proficiency.

Research Questions

The central question for this study is the following: Will introducing a teaching model based on improving reading fluency help to improve reading comprehension in primary school ESL students?

The central phenomenon for this study is automaticity of reading acquiring which was found to be beneficial for those who wish to enhance their reading skills. The accompanying theoretical framework was put forward by Logan, LaBerge, and Samuels that studied the mental energy distribution in readers.

Sub-Question #1: What strategies for improving reading fluency should be employed?

This question seeks to address the fuzzy definition of reading fluency. It is true that it relies on three main concepts described earlier in this paper. Yet, the question remains as to what concrete strategies match each of them and how applicable they are in the classroom.

Sub-Question #2: How reading proficiency can be defined?

Reading is a complex process that entails many skills and subprocesses. The question arises as to how reading proficiency could be measured with a decent degree of objectivity. Based on the theoretical framework of this paper, measurements should concern literal, reorganization, and inferential skills. It should also be clarified what the best method of data collection would be – teacher’s feedback or students’ reports. Apart from that, it may make sense to let students evaluate their progress on their own in terms of satisfaction with their own skills.

Sub-Question #3: Will strategies vary for speakers of different languages?

Since a significant part of the proposed strategy is based on eliminating barriers to prosody and pronunciation, the question arises as to whether it would fit all learners. For speakers of particular languages, English may turn out to be easier to learn than for others. For instance, if some of the sounds in language 1 overlap with those in language 2, the process of harnessing pronunciation may be accelerated. The same goes for shared vocabulary – those learners who speak languages close to English may have an advantage over the rest of the class.

Research Methodology

The present study will employ quantitative control trial design. Within the sample, researchers will organize two groups – control and intervention with the latter bing exposed to the new teaching model. Those in the control group will follow the regular curriculum without any changes. Participants will be recruited from local schools that will be contacted through email and over the phone. At this point, the very least that the researchers seek to accomplish is to gain consent of at least two teachers who would like to participate in the study with their respective primary English classes.

Given the design of the study, randomization may be difficult to ensure as classes are typically assigned to certain teachers, and students cannot be that easily transferred from one class to another. However, for the sake of fairness and objectivity, two classes, i.e. control and intervention group, should be comparable in terms of the level of English (Creswell & Creswell, 2017). The end goal of this study is to determine whether the introduction of the new model of teaching reading has improved reading proficiency in the intervention group.


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