Part 1 of 3 Part Series – ESL Boy Readers

The boys I work with are English as a Second Language learners (ESL). In most cases, they converse with friends and family in their native language, but can not read or write in it.

ESL students begin learning their second language at varying levels. Some may be literate in their native tongue, some may not. Bilingual students, who learn a second language at an early age, may have an advantage to learning. However, for already reluctant or struggling readers, learning another language can create added confusion on the path to literacy.

Common Challenges

There are several obstacles which most second-language learners typically struggle with. In my experience, the two I find most common are deriving meaning and processing information.

When vocabulary is unfamiliar to a reader, he may not be able to make sense of word meanings, even if he can pronounce the words. The reader may sound out every word, look at them in context and perhaps eventually understand the sentence; piecing together meaning, however, is far from reading comprehension. Most likely the meaning will be lost once he moves onto the next sentence and has to struggle through that process again.

Another common challenge to comprehension for ESL readers is how to process the information as they read the text. This is especially true for readers who are not literate in their first language; they do not have a literacy foundation from which to make sense of the written language and how it works. But processing information can be a stumbling block even for ESL readers who are literate in their first language. They translate the words they read into their native language and then into English. When readers keep language separate like this – hear or read / translate / translate back – meaning is often lost in the final result.

Additional Challenges for Boys

Learning a new language requires practice – talking out loud and listening to the new words. When reading aloud, students have the opportunity to connect the words they hear with the words they see. It also helps them develop better listening and speaking skills. This can be difficult for boys who may not be natural “language” learners and find it difficult to make the visual and oratory connections.

Lack of confidence is also a huge challenge to literacy for language learners. Boys need that confidence to feel in control. And again, without native language literacy they are struggling, not just to learn a new language, but to be literate at all.

I have noticed this with my students when we read aloud; one boy prefers to read to himself and then tell me what he has read. Reading aloud is embarrassing for him – especially when other students are around – since he stumbles over the words and rereads each sentence numerous times until he grasps some meaning from it. Without a foundation in literacy, he lacks confidence in his ability. Both the language and reading are new to him, so he brings no prior knowledge to reading that could help boost his self-esteem.

In the next part of this series we’ll look at how to choose the best books for boys who are ESL readers.

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