Janzen’s research study (2007) is based on the assumption that language is a complex process, which enables people to communicate with each other. The article is motivated by what Janzen perceives as a glaring gap that exists in the professional experience of teacher educators. Students’ success in state schools is closely tied to their ability to read effectively.
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This article tries to answer questions that relate to issues that practising teachers deem very important in teaching ELLs (English language learners) and how these issues compare with the previously identified topics in the research literature and methods books.
The article also tries to answer questions relating to the approaches to reading instructions that teachers use in their classroom settings. Finally, the article seeks to answer questions that border on how the answers to the above-mentioned questions can be integrated into a methods course for teachers of ELLs.
The paper was chosen because it addresses important issues facing reading for English learners. What is interesting in the paper is how the author brings out the difficulties experienced by English readers because I thought reading in English was simple.
I chose to critique this article because I, as a second language learner and as someone who has taught many second language learners, believe that this group of learners usually relies on reading and reading materials to learn, rather than gaining input from other skills such as listening or speaking.
Reading provides learners with information, which they can use at their convenience, and they can look at the text and look for vocabulary, which will help them to understand the subject, whereas this is not possible when listening to a lecture or in conversation.
This has made Janzen’s research, which is about preparing English teachers in the area of teaching reading skills to non-native English speakers, very interesting for me and was the reason that I decided to evaluate and analyse it.
Summary of the article
Teacher educators encounter numerous problems related to reading when it comes to preparing teachers of English language learners (ELLs) (Janzen, 2007 and Day and Bamford, 1998). Academic performance and the success of ELLs hinges on their reading skills. Therefore, reading skills and reading instructions should be given high priority in methods courses by teacher educators (Cummins 2000).
This article captures topics, which teacher educators can include in methods courses to address the reading and reading instruction problems. Interviews were conducted in various schools about reading and observations done in the classroom situation within a span of two years. Six critical issues were identified that were very important to teachers of English language learners (Janzen 2007).
These were: integrating learner proficiencies; making use of materials; making use of instructional practices in the field of decoding, writing, and thematic teaching; making students to develop a love of reading; satisfying demands of both teachers and the school; and working with students whose proficiency in English is limited or those who were instructed in their first language in their formative years in school.
Issues raised by the practising teachers interviewed were compared with observations from the research literature. Comparisons are also made with methods textbooks (Day and Bamford 1998).
The study took place in an urban school in the Midwestern United States. The study was conducted within a timeframe of two years. Of the 5000 students who attended the school, 360 were identified as ELLs, 13 of whom spoke different L1s. Spanish language dominated the count, followed by Kurdish. Of the 7 teachers who worked with ELLs in the district, six were interviewed and observed in their classroom.
The interview questions were designed to investigate the background of the teachers, the student backgrounds, the teacher practices and their beliefs pertaining to reading instructions for ELLs. After taping the interviews, they were transcribed. An interview lasted for an average of one hour. Classroom situations for the six teachers were also observed and for purposes of the research, 36 visits were made.
Other visits were made for the purpose of observing student teachers. Observations lasted for between 45 minutes to one hour. The author’s research interests include ELLs in mainstream education. Teachers who took part in this study were licensed ELL teachers with ESL certificates from their respective states. Each teacher was responsible for more than 50 students.
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An analysis of interview transcripts comments were put in general topic areas such as school administration and material use. When a comment addressed more than one topic, it was put in both areas. In choosing categories, topics that teachers did not explicitly describe as important, as well as those that were not explicitly described as vital but all mentioned, were selected.
After going through the transcripts, initial drafts of the article were cross checked with the data to ascertain if teacher concerns were accurately represented. Six categories that featured prominently from the analysis were addressed by the teachers.
The categories included use of materials, how learner proficiency in classroom situation can be handled, instructional practices, developing a love of reading among students, how ELLs can cooperate with mainstream teachers and cope with school demands, and working with students who received instructions in their formative stages in school in languages other than English.
Information related to each topic was corroborated by research and pedagogical literature. In analyzing the classroom situation, approaches, techniques, and situations common to the six classrooms were identified. Correspondences and disjunctions on the three pieces of data were looked at. Interview transcripts, reviews of published material and the field notes obtained from observations were also used.
The study noted, in relation to working with students with different proficiency levels, that all teachers who took part in this study had learners with varying proficiency levels. Some spoke English for the first time in school, others had mixed proficiency levels, whereas others had limited command of English. The school schedule interfered with the times when students were attending classes.
This made it difficult for teachers of students in junior high to work with their groups. Theirs is very limited literature that touches on working with students with varying proficiency. However, cooperative learning has been fronted as a form of reading instruction for students at different academic levels. Other favourable techniques include literature circles and structured instructions.
Materials for learning were chosen depending on the desire of the teacher. Teachers who took part in the research opted for texts that support students and prepare them for learning in mainstream classes. Materials that focussed on farming or aviation were selected. Texts that connected to particular student backgrounds were also favoured. No single texts were therefore, relied on.
Available literature on materials emphasizes use of culturally relevant texts. It is easier to teach students reading and reading instruction from their cultural perspective than trying to do it in a foreign language. Issue of genre is also gaining currency when it comes to choice of materials as purported by Derewianka, Macken-Horarik, and Reppen.
Four elementary school teachers were unanimous in the need for developing decoding skills, as were middle school teachers. Approaches and time spent on decoding did depend on the past experiences and the individual institution. A middle primary school teacher emphasized the whole-language approach. However, junior school teachers never worked on decoding with their students but encouraged reading aloud on a regular basis.
This was not the best of the things to do, as decoding should be encouraged at formative stages in school. This is when their pronunciation was corrected.
The decoding ability has widely been studied and researchers have concurred on the importance of bottom-up processing skills and skills transfer across languages in L2 reading. There is also sufficient literature on efficacy of phonics instruction for ELLs and how they can be used to help children in knowing how to decode words.
Pertaining to writing skills, the teachers never articulated theories of literacy except for one who expressed her belief on interconnection of reading and writing abilities. To activate prior knowledge before reading, teachers used graphic organizers, story retelling, and reading logs. Available literature gives credence to journals and graphic organizers.
Vocabulary development and overall comprehension were mentioned as goals for reading comprehension as they contributed to the students’ general academic success.
In vocabulary classes, instruction was done using stories. Credence has been given to importance of vocabulary knowledge and utility of vocabulary instruction in L2 reading in many studies that have been conducted especially those addressed to K-12 teachers. Recent studies allude that focussed vocabulary instruction can positively impact vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension.
Despite the fact that the interview questions did not mention thematic teaching, teachers did refer to the topic in response to different questions. Teachers did use thematic units and materials in their classroom set up. They used it because it supported students’ work in mainstream classes.
Pedagogical literature has extensively talked about thematic reading as being most effective in teaching ELLs in public schools because it enhances vocabulary learning and to a greater extent academic success. Teachers used texts that connected with students cultural backgrounds to encourage reading. In terms of cooperation with mainstream teachers, the teachers decried the added responsibilities that they had to shoulder.
Teachers noted that first language knowledge was very critical for a student’s success in mainstream examinations. With regard to observation in ESOL classrooms, the classrooms were generally a positive atmosphere for learning. However, there were some notable cases of indiscipline. Generally, the students were engaged and teachers supportive.
The article demonstrates that L2 reading instruction uses themes while emphasizing vocabulary, writing and decoding. The learners should also enjoy reading their native literature as this enhances their vocabulary learning. Materials used in reading and reading instructions should be flexible depending on the background of a student and their inherent abilities.
The goal of teacher instruction to learners should be to make them succeed in their mainstream classes. Despite the fact that vision of instruction is generally supported by research, concerns about working with learners with varied proficiency levels have not been adequately addressed as are learners with limited L1 knowledge because materials used in reading and reading instructions are inflexible.
Cummins, J. 2000. Language, power, and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Day, R. R., & Bamford, J. 1998. Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Janzen, J. 2007. Preparing Teachers of Second Language Reading.Tesol Quarterly, 41 (4): pp. 707-729.