The Internet TESL Journal

Re-envisioning Reading Comprehension for English Language Learners

Yuko Iwai
iwai.yuko <at>
University of Wisconsin (La Crosse, WI, USA)
Foreign language learners have different processes in learning English than monolingual students because the former group interacts with more than one language.  This article focuses on second language reading for English language learners.  It presents the following challenges English language learners face in developing their English reading comprehension skills: culturally different schemata, insufficient vocabulary knowledge, and use of the first language.  After these issues are discussed, this article offers recommendations for teachers of English language learners for better instruction.  Developing cultural sensitivity, encouraging bi-literacy, and using explicit instruction in authentic contexts are key elements to enhancing English language learners’ reading comprehension.


Reading is a complex activity.  The goal of reading is “to construct text meaning based on visually encoded information” (Koda, 2007, p.1).  In first language (L1) reading, readers use only one language, whereas in second language (L2) reading, learners have at least two languages to deal with.  According to Carrell and Grabe (2002), L2 readers use different reading processes than L1 readers for the following reasons:
Due to these differences between L1 and L2, the L2 readers experience more challenges than the L1 readers (Koda, 2007). 

This study focuses on second language reading for English language learners. It aims to present the challenging issues English language learners face in developing their English reading comprehension skills and to suggest recommendations for teachers of English language learners for better instruction.

Defining Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension refers to constructing the meaning of the oral or written messages.  Readers make up for their insufficient understanding of the messages by using “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches (Stanovich, 1980).  Bottom-up approaches are processes where readers focus on letters, sounds, syllables, words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.  The process of constructing the meaning begins with the written words.  In other words, readers with this approach begin by focusing on smaller parts of the texts.  Often, they do not get the whole meaning of the text.

On the other hand, top-down approaches are the opposite of bottom-up approaches.  Rather than focusing on individual words or analyzing how each word is structured, readers emphasize the whole text passage and look for key information by activating prior knowledge and compensating for meanings of unknown vocabulary.  Comprehension involves the ability of understanding the intended messages of a text.  Reading comprehension is based on using the appropriate meaning-making processes from the printed messages.  Reading comprehension involves the passage, the reader, and the context.  Readers construct meanings with various approaches, such as using background knowledge, analyzing words, inferring the text, and identifying key vocabulary or information.

Challenging Issues English Language Learners Experience

Culturally Different Schemata

Schemata, background knowledge, consist of “generalized information abstracted from a variety of instances” and show “the relationships among their component elements” (Koda, 2007, p. 1).  Previous research shows that having rich schemata on a subject matter is related to better reading comprehension (Hudson, 2007).  For example, if readers see a title of a text, such as “Halloween,” and if they already know what “Halloween” is, it is easier for them to expect what the text is about and to integrate their prior knowledge with the passage on “Halloween.”  Rich schemata, therefore, can help students understand the reading material better than students without background information on the topic.

One of the characteristics of English language learners is that they are not likely to have the same schemata that English-speaking students possess (Jiménez, García, & Pearson, 1996).  Due to cultural differences, English language learners may have a hard time in understanding the content of a message that is not culturally familiar to them.  Singhal (1998) summarized several studies on L1 and L2 reading in terms of cultural differences.  She specifically looked at the following variables:
Singhal (1998) points out that L2 readers, who do not possess cultural background knowledge on an English text, are limited in comprehending the text message.  Text structures also differ from language to language. Familiarity of the structure of the English language in the way it expresses “cause and effect,” “question and answer,” and “compare and contrast,” also facilitates L2 readers in understanding English passages.  In the area of linguistic/language schema, Singhal (1998) states that L1 linguistic characteristics may influence L2 readers’ interpretation on the English texts.  According to her, Finnish texts rarely indicate text structures, while English texts have specific indicators of when a new section begins or what to expect in the following sentence or section.  French texts tend to have more theoretical and abstract components than the English.

Limited Vocabulary Knowledge

Another challenging issue English language learners are struggling with is their insufficient English vocabulary knowledge (García, 2003).  Having rich vocabulary knowledge is another key element to better reading comprehension (Hudson, 2007).  L2 readers need to develop their English vocabulary capacity in depth and width.  Certain words in the English language can have more than one meaning and confuse English-language learners because they do not consider the meaning of the word in the contexts.  One example is the word of “table.”  “Table” in the following sentence, “We sit around the breakfast table,” means “a piece of furniture.”  The same word in another sentence, “I kept the whole table entertained with my jokes,” indicates the people who are sitting at a table.  In the sentence, “Look at the table of contents,” “table” means a list of information in a book.  Table can also refer to a tablet or plateau.  Used as a verb, the sentence, “They tabled a question in Parliament,” means to set aside a question for later discussion.  Used as an idiom, “The proposal is on the table,” “table” means submitted for consideration.

Moreover, many English words were derived from other languages, such as Greek and Latin.  English language learners often struggle when analyzing prefixes and suffixes.  English words have irregular rules in affixes.  Affixes include prefixes (e.g., anti-, di-, or ultra-) and suffixes (e.g., -able, -ism, or -ness).  Some English-language learners study affixes so that they can analyze unknown words and infer their meanings on their own.  For example, “in- (or il-, im-, or ir-)” refers to “not” or “the opposite of something.”  “Infinite” is the opposite of finite.  “Inability” is not being able to do something.  However, the word “indifferent” does not fit the rule of this particular prefix.  English language learners, therefore, need to understand each meaning of the word case by case.

Use of the First Language

Carrell and Grabe (2002) argue that L2 reading does not require the same process as L1 reading.  L2 readers, especially those who are not advanced, translate English into their first language.  For example, Upton (1997) studied two groups of adult Japanese students enrolled in an American University.  One group of six less advanced and another group of five advanced learners (ages 20 to 36 years old) participated in the study.  They thought-aloud while reading an English expository text.  They thought-aloud in English if they were processing in English.  They thought-aloud in Japanese when they were processing in Japanese.  After the think-aloud activity, the subjects listened to their tape recorded protocols and were interviewed to explain how they were thinking and reading the text.  Interviews were conducted in Japanese to clearly identify the participants’ intentions.

The results show that less advanced students used more Japanese language to think-aloud than the advanced students.  In other words, the former group translated the English passage into Japanese to confirm the meaning of the passage and to understand the meaning of the unknown vocabulary and re-stated English sentences in Japanese.  In comparison, most of the proficient students did not translate the meaning of the unknown words but used the content of the passage to find out the meaning.  In addition, less advanced learners tended to use the bottom-up approaches, including focusing on lexical resources and grammatical structure.  However, the advanced learners focused on the top-down approaches, such as capturing the whole picture of the text passage and making inferences from prior knowledge.  Upton’s study supports the findings of the studies conducted by Anderson (1991) and Carrell (1989).

In general, L2 readers, especially in their introductory stage, are likely to translate words from English into their first language.  They feel that they are unable to understand what a text is about without understanding the meaning of each word.  They stop at a point when they encounter unknown vocabulary and look up a word in the dictionary to confirm its meaning.  There is danger that, by the time they translate all unfamiliar words into their first language, they may not retain information from the text.  Overusing the bottom-up approach may cause this disadvantage.

Suggestions for Teachers of English Language Learners

English language learners experience a lot of difficulties in the development of English reading skills. Culturally different schemata, limitation of vocabulary knowledge, and use of first language are some examples of their challenges.  The following four recommendations are offered for the improvement and facilitation of L2 students’ English reading comprehension:

Developing Cultural Sensitivity

One of the most important and fundamental aspects of teaching L2 students is having cultural sensitivity towards students’ cultural background.  Cultural sensitivity is to know and understand students’ cultural differences as well as to respect individuals.  Nieto (2000) explains that English language learners should not be labeled based on socio-economic status, cultural backgrounds, or inadequate English proficiency levels.  Teachers have to understand and respect the students’ differences (Ovando, 2005).  Providing students with a safe learning environment is one of the basic components of students’ academic learning improvement.

It is suggested that teachers carefully consider why English language learners are experiencing difficulties in learning English.  These students have different constructive processes from their first language learning experiences.  It is also recommended for teachers to accommodate teaching instruction effectively for English language learners and to interact with their colleagues for enhancing their cultural sensitivity (Nieto, 2000).   

Encouraging Bi-literacy

Upton’s study in the previous section demonstrates that English language learners, especially low performing students, are more likely to use their first language to confirm the meanings of words in a textbook.  Using L1 is not necessarily a negative factor for improving reading comprehension.  In fact, using both languages is recommended in the process of learning English.  Therefore, being bi-literate, being able to read and write in two languages, facilitates English language learners’ reading comprehension.

For example, Jiménez, García, and Pearson (1996) examined the impact of bilingualism and bi-literacy on reading strategies among the sixth or seventh grades of three groups of high-performing bilingual Spanish and English students, of successful monolingual English students, and of low-performing bilingual Spanish and English students in the ESL setting. The researchers used an analysis of four tools:
The results showed that successful bilingual learners used more top-down approaches than did the other groups.  Proficient bilingual students also utilized both first and second languages to compensate for a lack of understanding of reading materials.  Other effective reading strategies found among the better bilingual participants were monitoring comprehension, using background knowledge, asking questions, using contexts, inferring from contexts to understand the messages of a reading passage, and translating reading strategies across Spanish and English.  García (2003) and Ovando (2005) also recommend teachers to make use of both first and second languages for better reading comprehension.

Using Explicit Instruction in Authentic Contexts

Another suggestion for teachers of English language learners is to explain reading strategies clearly in meaningful contexts.  Rote learning or memorization may not lead students to retain word meaning or grammar for a long period.  If English language learners study vocabulary in the context where the word is most likely to be used, and if they can connect that scenario to their real life experience, authentic learning occurs.  This style of instruction enhances students’ reading abilities.  Using research-based reading strategies clearly is also important.  García (2003) presents different studies on how teaching specific reading strategies, such as self-questioning and making inferences, positively influence English language learners’ reading outcomes.


English language learners, who use at least two languages for processing, struggle with developing English reading comprehension skills.  They have culturally different schemata and limited English vocabulary knowledge.  Relying on only the first language and using the bottom-up approach exclusively prevent them from improving in reading.  It is important for their teachers to understand them from the cultural, linguistic, and social perspectives and to respect their individual differences.  Advocating bi-literacy and using explicit instruction in meaningful contexts are also recommended.  These suggestions aid reading comprehension of second language learners not only in reading classes, but also across the content areas where reading is the fundamental tool for understanding the subject matter.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 4, April 2010