In order to build an age-appropriate vocabulary in the English language, ESL students must learn words at a faster rate than normal (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005; Drucker 2003). This results in a widening gap between the reading and comprehension levels of ESL and non-ESL students if the needs of ESL students are not addressed (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005).
Some ESL students come from a native language that poses more difficulties than others. For example, Russian and Arabic have alphabets that look very different from the English alphabet. Children must learn an entirely new coding system in order to proceed (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005). Even when the alphabet is similar, the English language is difficult to learn due to the many inconsistencies in tense and individual word use. Because they may not be conversationally fluent, subtleties of the English language may take some time to master (Palmer, El_Ashry, Leclere, & Chang, 2007). Drucker (2003) cites that students are proficient in "peer-appropriate conversation skills" in about two years after immersion into English, while academic proficiency takes even longer (p.23).
Cultural understanding is another challenge for ESL students. Barriers in culture can negatively impact reading comprehension (Drucker, 2003). Reading samples may be culturally appropriate for American students, but some subject matter does not bridge the cultural gap. In such instances, children can normally answer questions that have answers directly found in the text. However, they often struggle with contextual questions, including why things occurred, or what is likely to happen next. The clues that exist in the text are culturally charged and are only intuitively recognized by children with common experiences (Drucker, 2003).
Language barrier may additionally mask learning disabilities that do exist in ESL students. Teachers may consider struggling ESL readers as unable to grapple with the language barrier when in fact they have developmental dyslexia. Parents may also miss clues to a learning disability since they may also account for their child's struggling as normal learning challenges. Parents and teachers may not adequately address these issues if there is an additional language barrier between parents and teachers (if parents speak limited English themselves) (Drucker, 2003). One clue to look for when considering whether an ESL student has a reading disability is whether they excel in their own language. If children are struggling to learn to read in both English and their native language, despite effort and interest to do so, children may have a disability. However, if children come from a limited reading home or have not spent much effort attempting to master their own language, they may simply be struggling with the normal learning process. Alternately, if they read well in their own language but are struggling to learn English, it is unlikely that they have a reading disability, as they obviously possess the necessary decoding skills to read (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005).
A number of strategies exist for teaching ESL students in the classroom. These same strategies appear to help with ESL students who also have a reading disability, though extra time is normally taken to help those students. Research indicates that phonological processing is the most significant cognitive process necessary for the acquisition of English language reading skills (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005). A strong phonics curriculum is necessary to develop these skills in both ESL and non-ESL readers. However, ESL readers will likely need more time to transition, depending on their native language (Drucker, 2003). Reading aloud to the class (teachers), pairing children in reading groups, or listening to an audio book while children follow along in the text are all methods used to develop phonics and reading comprehension skills. Teachers may also want to ask questions before children read sample passages so that children know what to look for in the text as they read (Drucker, 2003).
Reading passages should be considered carefully in the ESL classroom (Drucker, 2003). Some teachers incorporate narrow reading, the incorporation of many different texts all on the same subject. Narrow reading allows children to gain vocabulary and understand the reading even when the context in one passage is difficult for them to grasp (Drucker, 2003). Teachers should choose reading texts with cultural considerations in mind; students who are learning the language will appreciate and relate with familiar topics, while native English speakers will enjoy the variety of learning about cultural differences. To this end, teachers should make sure that texts are not stereotypical when they choose books that depict other cultures. Such books may make students uncomfortable or the subject of ridicule (Drucker, 2003).
To succeed as English readers, ESL students must spend time fostering reading proficiency in their native language (Drucker, 2003). Children who are accomplished readers in their own language can usually incorporate many of the same learning and reading tools into their new language. Children who are given instruction in their native language at least a few hours a week are able to transfer native language proficiency to English proficiency in many cases. Since public school tutoring is not always available or adequate, parents should also be encouraged to read to children and work with children on reading in their native language. Parents often neglect to do this because they are under the assumption that it will hinder learning in English (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovik, 2005).
Issues specific to Arabic-speaking learners
Arabic-speaking children in English speaking schools encounter problems common to all ESL learners as well as some specific to the Arabic to English transition. Challenges exist where Arabic and English differ, including vowel use and grapheme-phoneme correspondence (Palmer, et al., 2007). Similarities, such as phoneme-grapheme correspondences and expressed verb tense, may help children learn in the new language environment. Culturally, Arab students may face more challenges in understanding examples and reading in the English classroom -- more so than many other language transitions. Some evidence additionally suggests that there is a strong genetic link between some Arab families and developmental dyslexia (Abu-Rabia & Maroun, 2005).
Native Arabic speakers in the English-speaking classroom face a number of challenges common to the ESL student. Firstly, most teachers with knowledge of the ESL classroom have been prepared to deal with native Spanish speakers. As such, their methods may not be appealing or effective for Arabic-speaking children, particularly when efforts were made to make subjects more culturally relevant. Arabic has more predictable patterns of grapheme-phoneme correspondence when compared to English (Lipka, Siegel, and Vukovic, 2005). Like many ESL students, Arabic speakers must adapt to the numerous English rules that apply only in certain circumstances or for individual words. This is a confusing concept, especially when someone does not have internal verbal cues to correct themselves in English (Lipka, Siegel, and Vukovic, 2005).
When help is provided, Arabic students handle the language transition well. Arabic and English phonological processing skills appeared to be closely related when students were encouraged to develop strong language skills in their native Arabic; providing 3 hours a week of instruction in Arabic allowed students to successfully gain reading skills that could transcend the language barrier (Lipka, Siegel, & Vukovic, 2005). Conversely, if children are not encouraged to progress in reading their native language, they may continue to have confusion over the English language. This is due in part to their partial understanding of their own language and is particularly true of Arabic (Palmer et al., 2007).
Arabic speakers must be aware of three forms of the language to become fluent speakers and readers (Palmer et al., 2007). The Arabic that children learn to speak is dissimilar to print Arabic, or Modern Standard Arabic. Additionally, children learn to read using print Arabic that contains vowels. Once children have gained competency in reading, they can read vowel-less Arabic texts. In these "adult" texts, words with different meanings may appear the same without their vowels, and so children must develop the decoding skills adequately in order to read as an adult (Palmer et al., 2007).
Perhaps unexpectedly to those unfamiliar with the language, Arabic has a number of similarities to English (Palmer et al., 2007). Both languages express verb tenses. Also, both English and Arabic have alphabetic organization and are based on phoneme-grapheme correspondences. English correspondences are more complex. Yet, sometimes children can transfer skills across languages when they make a connection based on similarities (Palmer et al., 2007).
There are a number of differences between Arabic and English that make it difficult for Arabic-speakers to transition to the English language (Palmer et al., 2007). Firstly, Arabic text reads from right to left rather than left to right. Young children in particular are confused by this change in direction. Second, all English sentences contain a verb, whereas that is not always the case in Arabic. Individual letters also look very different, with Arabic letter appearing similar while English language letters are quite different from one another. Finally, one of the major hurtles for Arabic-speaking students in the grasping of phonics in the English language is the fact that English phonemes…