By MARYANN HASSO
—Low reading-engagement skills of English language learner (ELL) students are a barrier to academic and vocational progress. Improving reading engagement in an academic setting can improve reading skills. This summary consolidates perceptions of ELLs regarding reading instructional strategies and support to determine what practices may encourage increased engagement. The approach was a qualitative design. Data were collected from a purposive sample of 10 Hispanic ELL students in an urban southern California high school.
“Improving Reading Engagement Through the Use of English Language Learner Perceptions Toward Instructional Strategies” is a research project from the heart of an English teacher working to help her English language learner (ELL) students in urban Southern California. The researcher used a small sample of students from her own school to represent the strengths and weaknesses in the ELL learning community as a whole. Furthermore, the researcher identified key areas where teachers need further professional development.
Research has shown that there are more ELLs in public schools today—especially in the Western states—than in previous years. The National Center for Education Statistics (2014) has shown that in California schools alone, ELL students constitute 23.2% of the enrollment. Martinez (2011) stated that although many of these students have reading and writing skills in their native language, they cannot transfer what they know into English. Reading is the foundation of nearly every other academic subject, and students who struggle in reading will struggle in many other academic and social areas of their lives. Lack of skill in English, however, does not indicate cognitive impairment. On the contrary, ELL students such as Latinos possess sophisticated literacy practices that should be acknowledged by teachers.
Born (1970) showed that ELL students are often derailed in their academic efforts by external barriers such as cultural differences. Derderian-Aghajanian and Cong (2012) and Cummins (2007) showed that community factors, such as parental education level, and teacher instructional capabilities also derailed ELL students in their academic efforts.
Learning Theory Framework and Instructional Needs
Egan (1988) guided this researcher by the imaginative education theory that he developed. The theory focuses on changing educators’ understanding of learning and provides suggestions for classroom practice. Imaginative education theory conceptualizes understanding as somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic. The theory hypothesizes that students move from somatic to ironic understanding in their sociocultural environments. These tools are entrenched in the students’ minds and are developed or acquired from the students’ cultural environment through education. Broom (2011) showed that the tools used to aid students in language acquisition, for instance, encompass the students and also assist them in developing different kinds of understanding.
Teachers are encouraged to use culturally responsive instruction to engage and support ELL students, but they need to increase their knowledge about language. Bunch (2013) indicated that teachers must consider the importance of formal knowledge or knowledge of linguistics and the language acquisition process, which serve as foundational knowledge for effectively teaching English. Furthermore, Bunch stated that approximately 43% of all general education teachers, up to 1.2 million teachers in grades K-12, have taught ELLs with minimal training.
Chung (2012) indicated that the lack of teacher preparation is hindering the improvement of academic performance among ELLs. Teachers need to be able to address a diverse level of skills even when ELLs are lumped together in one group, as is typical. Cellante and Donne (2013) stressed that although teachers report feelings of being inadequately prepared to work with ELLs, nevertheless, they must teach them and maintain high standards for ELL students. The government has increased pressure on education institutions and educators to ensure they address the academic needs of ELL students. However, as Calderón, Slavin, and Sanchez (2011) stated, it does not provide policies for recognizing, evaluating, and placing them. Samson and Collins (2012) stated that instructing meant that schools are required to meet federal and state demands for enhancing academic performance despite limited funding and insufficiently trained personnel.
This researcher adopted a generic qualitative research approach to explore student perceptions on academic strategies for improving reading engagement. A purposive sample of 10 students was then selected from the Hispanic ELL student population at Calivalley High School (pseudonym). All students who participated during these interviews have failed to pass the California English Language Development Tests. A researcher-developed interview protocol was used for data-collection purposes. The interview protocol contained interview questions revolving around how ELL students experience reading activities despite language and cultural barriers. Participants identified their family’s country of origin, the language spoken in the home, and their time spent in the US. To ensure relevance and enhance this study’s internal validity, the interview scripts were reviewed by this researcher’s school principal to ensure consistency with the research purpose, and a journal was maintained during data collection. Participants were provided with a summary of their transcribed interviews to cross-check it for accuracy. This researcher’s supervisors independently assessed the themes and investigated the rigor and trustworthiness of them. Bracketing was used to limit personal bias regarding the research process, especially because the researcher is a teacher at Calivalley High School. In the analysis phase, this researcher interpreted the findings verbatim rather than paraphrasing or describing the themes.
Results and Data Analysis
This study investigated the perceptions of ELL students regarding successful strategies and barriers to their engagement in English learning. A generic qualitative research design was adopted. A purposive sample of 10 ELL students drawn from the Hispanic student population of Calivalley High School in Southern California was used in this study. Recording of interviews was the method of data collection, while different measures were adopted to ensure credibility and validity of the collected information. Permission to interview students was obtained from the IRB and informed consent from the school, parents, and participants was obtained.
There are limitations to the results of this study. First, because students were self-reporting within a school setting, they may have tried to provide responses that were in line with their expectations of what the researcher was seeking, instead of being truthful. Second, because this researcher conducted interview sessions with an open format, there may have been inconsistencies in the style of interviewing and in providing feedback to the interviewees that affected the data.
By asking students about their perceptions of different learning strategies, this researcher sought to discover ELL students’ perceptions about those that involve their engagement with English reading. Evaluation of the responses was made through the lens of Egan’s (1988) imaginative education theory. Broom (2011) indicated that the imaginative education theory relates learning to a sociocultural environment. According to this theory, teachers can use different strategies to improve students’ understanding from one level to the next.
Six themes described the ELL students’ perceptions about strategies that can help support their engagement with English reading. These themes were bilingual instruction, quality of reading lessons, culturally responsive instruction, the use of an active learning instructional model, language instruction, and instructional time for choosing literature. Even though these strategies were discussed by the ELL students, not all students agreed that the strategies were being used to the fullest extent possible by their teachers.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Budi (2012) showed that ELL students require English skills for enhancing their reading engagement. Budi’s findings support research that reading skills are especially important in promoting ELL reading engagement because they facilitate effective decoding and deriving meaning out of written text. A lack of expansive knowledge of the vocabulary used in the English language hampers the ELL student’s capabilities in reading and self-expression. ELL students experience different challenges that must be overcome to improve learning engagement.
Raising ELL learning curves in the face of demographics and creating more flexible student-centered education models require innovative solutions to education needs. The findings in this study should inform both planning on the district level as well as classroom planning for instruction. A predominant theme of this research was the value of tutorial intervention. Structured after-school programs or ELL supplementary instruction through study halls is another topic for future research.
The results of this study cannot be generalized to a larger population because it involved only 10 participants; however, future research and related measures should be taken to ensure that all ELL student needs are met. Research should be conducted into student-oriented models of teaching, with particular attention to the differences in student cultures depending on their country of origin. Educators and school programs should begin to adopt strategies that will not only capture the attention of ELL students, but also enhance their learning, making learning easier to acquire and more enjoyable.
Dr. Maryann Hasso teaches English at Adelanto High School and practices reflective coaching at the Center for Teacher Innovation.
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