The Development of Young Learners’ Reading Skills

Following her recent research project, Natilly McCartney shares interesting insights into the reading strategies young EAL students are likely to adopt, and her findings into the different scaffolding abilities they make use of with their monolingual peers.

EAL, EFL and reading
Last year, for my Masters in Education at the University of Cambridge, I carried out a research project exploring the reading strategies that children with English as an Additional Language (EAL), and monolingual children with English as a first language, use in a paired reading task. Motivating my research was a recent report I read, which shows that the achievement gap in core subjects between pupils with English as a first language, and pupils with EAL, is largest for reading.

You are probably familiar with the term EFL, so how is EAL different? The biggest difference between EAL and EFL is setting. EFL involves learners who learn English whilst living in their home country, whilst EAL involves learners who learn English in the UK, typically in school. Despite my research focusing on EAL, I believe my findings are useful to those working with young learners in either context.

Study background
Previous reading achievement studies have found that EAL pupils score higher on measures of word reading accuracy than monolingual children, but achieve lower on measures of vocabulary and comprehension. This means that typically EAL pupils’ decoding is good, and they can read fluently, but on closer analysis, their comprehension is weak. Maybe you have made a similar observation with your young learners?

With the above in mind, I wondered whether an EAL pupil paired with an older child who is able to scaffold learning, would not only help both students achieve a better understanding of a text, but also provide an opportunity for both pupils to engage in talk about a text and illustrate their knowledge of language.

The study
I conducted a multiple case study in a primary school where around one in ten children has EAL. My sample included nine children aged between six and ten-years old. The six EAL children in my sample spoke a range of first languages including Spanish and Polish, and had varying levels of English. All the children completed three tasks which were audio-recorded and transcribed. For the first task, a younger child with EAL read a passage just above their current reading level to an older partner who was either a pupil with EAL, or a monolingual pupil. Following this, both children answered questions about the text they had read and the skills they use for reading.

Key findings
So what were my key findings? I discovered 12 different strategies that the children use to scaffold their partners’ reading. The most frequent strategies that all the children used were giving a target word and offering praise for correctly read words. A significant finding was a strategy which only two of the three older EAL pupils used. This strategy involved identifying a misread phoneme in a word and correcting this by either emphasising the phoneme in the word, or saying the phoneme in isolation. For example, a younger EAL pupil working with another EAL pupil misread the word ‘jay’ as ‘lay’. Instead of repeating the whole word, his older partner identified the error and corrected it by saying /j/, following this the child reading went back and corrected his error.

This example shows that the EAL children supporting reading in my study display a heightened attention to the form of language, and have strong decoding skills. However, similar to previous reading studies, I also found that the same children struggled with comprehension in comparison to their monolingual peers. In one case, an older pupil with EAL was unable to support his younger partner with a story retelling, despite the text being far below his current reading level.

Whether in an EAL or EFL context, these findings emphasise the importance of following up learners’ reading with questions that check understanding, because accurate decoding does not necessarily mean that a child has comprehended a text. In my next article, I will share more of my findings with you, and suggest different reading activities that you could try in your classroom.

This post was originally published on Cambridge University Press’ ‘Cambridge English’ blog. Visit their site to read part two of this series.