Great Idea: Reading for Meaning

What is reading for meaning?

Reading involves both decoding and reading for meaning. Many EAL learners are highly literate in one or more languages, but some may not have had the opportunity to learn to read in the language of their home. In some cultures, reading is seen as a specialist skill, not one that every individual can and should acquire. In others it is the skill of decoding that is particularly admired, and understanding what you are reading is seen as less important.

Learners who can read in a language that uses the same alphabet as English will find it easier to learn to decode in English than those who can read another script, but both groups bring with them an understanding that print carries meaning.

Decoding should not be an end in itself, and practising reading ‘nonsense words’ such as vap or ulf is unhelpful because EAL learners cannot be expected to know whether or not these words have meaning in English. So a focus on reading for meaning is crucial and should be supported by visuals (pictures, diagrams, mime etc.) as much as possible.

Examples of activities

Reading for meaning is important at all levels of English language proficiency from New to English to Fluent. It is critical in all areas of the curriculum. Here are some examples of activities that promote reading for meaning at word, phrase or sentence and text level:

1. Word level:

Flashcards and word mats are great for reading at word or short phrase level. Many of the resources on this website contain these, together with suggestions as to how to use them.

2. Sentence level:

To encourage reading for meaning at sentence level a useful strategy is to set sequencing tasks to be done either individually or in a pair or small group. This can be cutting up sentence cards and asking learners to reassemble the sentence, or using sentence flashcards that can be sequenced to form a text.

3. Text level:

To encourage reading for meaning at text level activities done before reading are very helpful. Give learners a clear idea what to expect from the text and give them plenty of time to engage with it. Use any visual clues there are and provide additional visual material if necessary. For books, allow time to look at the cover of a book, identify the author and illustrator, read the blurb and make predictions about the story. The more learners know about the contents of the text the easier they will find it to understand when they read it. EAL learners also need support in reading between the lines: they need to see that text may imply more than it actually says.

4. DARTs:

DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Text) are activities which lead learners to interact with text in ways which enhance understanding. Many of the resources on this website contain DARTs activities, for example Holes by Louis Sachar: DARTs. In this resource there is a true / false activity, a sorting task on past and present events and an activity where learners are asked to match the main characters feelings to events in the story.

5. Group reading:

Reading aloud in pairs or threes works well with fiction, taking it in turns to read a page, paragraph or even a sentence. Modelling of good reading with expression by a teacher or other adult is very important and will encourage learners to do the same. Make available high-quality texts (picture books / short novels / poetry / manga / illustrated non-fiction) that will encourage EAL learners to read for pleasure.

How reading for meaning works

In schools, reading tends to be seen as an individual activity, and the older the learners, the more likely this is to be the case, but there are other possibilities. Reading as a collaborative activity is very beneficial to EAL learners. This can be done in a number of ways:

  • Read aloud to learners
  • Read in pairs in class
  • Paired reading with an older learner

Answering questions, whether orally or in writing, is the traditional way of checking comprehension. However, some learners become skilled in answering the question without fully understanding the text. It is often more effective to ask EAL learners to demonstrate their understanding in other ways, for example:

  • Ask learners to say whether discrete sentences (taken from the text, or paraphrases) are true or false
  • Give learners a number of false sentences, and ask them to reword the sentences to make them true
  • Give learners a copy of the text which has been edited to contain errors. Ask the learners to identify the errors and correct them.

All of the above can be done as collaborative activities, in pairs or groups, as well as by learners working individually.

Top tip: Make available high-quality texts (picture books / short novels / poetry / manga / illustrated non-fiction) that will encourage EAL learners to read for pleasure, and allow them to choose reading material that appeals to them.

Why is reading for meaning a Great Idea for EAL learners?

Research into reading, e.g. Holden 2004, indicates that it provides a gateway into personal, social and economic development. It has been suggested that literacy will become increasingly important as the 21st century progresses (Moore et al 1999). There is also research evidence that competent readers are better at acquiring new vocabulary through their reading, for example Holly and Joseph (2018).

A focus on reading for meaning rather than simply decoding is important for EAL learners. Research suggests that EAL learners tend to have greater phonological awareness than their peers and often demonstrate good decoding skills in English, but score less well in reading comprehension measures (Murphy and Franco 2016). This suggests that attention to phonics should not take place in isolation from activities that promote vocabulary building, meaning-making and comprehension (Edwards 2013). Reading builds on oral language competence and so learning to read requires making links between the language and the writing system (Abbot, 2013). This means that reading and writing tasks should focus on words and phrases that the learner already knows in English.

Reading in groups and pairs is a way of exposing EAL learners to peers who can provide good models of reading with expression, and this can increase enjoyment of reading. Krashen (1993) also found that being given a choice of reading matter increases the motivation of learners and leads to greater language and literacy development.

References

Abbot, M. 2013, What makes reading difficult for EAL students? NALDIC Quarterly Vol. 13 No. 1 pp5-14.

Edwards, V., 2013, The politics of phonics, implications for bilingual learners, NALDIC Quarterly Vol. 13 No. 1 pp15-20.

Holden, J., 2004, Creative Reading. London: Demos.

Joseph, H. and Nation, K., 2018, Examining incidental word learning during reading in children: the role or context. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 166. 190-211.

Krashen, S., 1993, The Power of Reading, Eaglewood, Col.,: Libraries Unlimited Inc.

Moore, D.W., Bean, T.W., Birdyshaw, D. and Rycik, J., 1999, Adolescent Literacy: A position statement, International Reading Association.

Murphy, V. and Franco, D., 2016, Phonics instruction and children with English as an Additional Language, EAL Journal Autumn 2016, 38-42.

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