English As a Second Language - Background Term Paper

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English as a Second Language - Background Knowledge


Shirley Adams established in her research that "Along with vocabulary, a reader's background knowledge has been shown to be an important component of reading comprehension. The background experiences children bring to a reading selection affect how well they can understand it" (155). Furthermore, Adams points out that vocabulary is a critical factor in language development and subsequent reading comprehension (155). Generally, in learning a second language, "Teachers who create or select reading materials should keep in mind the backgrounds and present knowledge of their students. For example, reading selections for a beginning French class should include topics with which the students are already familiar rather than selections dealing exclusively with the target country or culture. Even though beginning students may not know all of the vocabulary in a reading selection, they are less likely to feel frustrated in their first attempts with a new language if the topic of the reading selection is already familiar to them" (158-159). As a result of this research, teachers providing second language instruction should gain an awareness of the limitations that their students possess and present them with unique opportunities for the acquisition of language skills.

Establishing a comfort zone between an ESL student and the teaching material will create a relaxed atmosphere upon which the teacher and the learner can build a mutually satisfying relationship. This can also be achieved through the identification of familiar or universal texts and topics that are not limited by boundaries. Furthermore, by drawing upon background knowledge (schema), students will be able to predict word meanings and then determine if their predictions are true or false. These experiences will enhance learning and permit students to gain experience in the acquisition of the English language and its various intrinsic meanings (VanDuzer 1).

Reading Instruction and Background Knowledge

Over tbe years, a number of theories have been developed that define the ways that reading instruction should be taught to students of English as a Second Language, and each theory incorporates a number of concepts directly related to a student's existing background knowledge or schema regarding the language. The following theories, defined by Carol VanDuser in ERIC Digests, are the most prevalent (1-4):

Phonics - Readers derive meaning in a linear manner by decoding letters, words, phrases, and sentences in that order to make sense of print. Perhaps the most important concept of this theory is rapid word recognition, of which the learner is not cognizant.

Psycholinguistic - This theory dominated language instruction in the 1960s and 1970s, and is primarily focused on word meaning rather than structure. Learners must extract information from their existing background knowledge to establish their own perception of word meanings and then confirm that meaning with the assistance of the teacher.

Interactive - This theory also utilizes background knowledge as its major premise. The reader and the text interact through the use of background knowledge and text information to understand word meanings.

Most readers aspire to gain fluency and proficiency in the skill. VanDuser has established the following characteristics of fluent readers (2):

Read with a purpose (for pleasure or information) and understand the reasoning behind different texts

Read so as to automatically recognize letters and words in a specific order to make the text as understandable as possible

Use a number of strategies to read in a resourceful manner

Interact with the text by utilizing existing background knowledge and information in conjunction with the written text

Evaluate the text in a critical manner and determine if an agreement exists with what the author is proposing

Understand the text and obtain meaning from the words

Read silently

In addition to the potential established in learning a new language, English as a Second Language instructors must evaluate their students' fluency in their native tongues in order to determine the ease in which they will transition to obtaining new language skills (VanDuzer 2). This practice is largely determined by the student's cultural background, but all English language students will share a similar experience in learning to read in English and will approach the subject differently from how native English speakers confront it (VanDuzer 2). Rueda (15) also confirms this theory in his work that demonstrates that the use of cultural tools in English language instruction will enhance the sociocultural aspects of learning. To acquire reading proficiency in English,
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learners are trained to utilize the following activities in daily practice (VanDuzer 2-3:

English as a Second Language Learners should recognize the importance of reading texts that are interesting and meet their needs. In addition, texts such as newspapers and magazines must be acknowledged and reviewed in order to develop a well-rounded background in reading competency.

For learners who possess proficiency in language that does not utilize a Roman alphabet, methods of letter recognition and sound-symbol development must be established through the utilization of already familiar texts.

Developing strategies that help students understand such parts of text as the main idea and that help to identify specific information and predicting what will happen next within a specific text.

Activities before the actual text is read that provide students with a means to utilize their background knowledge in order to brainstorm ideas about the possible meaning of the text. These activities may emphasize cultural assumptions and differences that may be included in the writing.

Evaluating texts on a value-based scale in order to determine how the writing reflects different values is critical to develop viewpoints that acknowledge values and morals in reading and language.

Selected texts must be based on familiar words and phrases to make readers understand what they are reading, but this is often difficult to accomplish.

It is important for language learners to read texts without interruption for certain periods of time in order to establish proficiency and language acquisition, and such activities as short oral presentations will enhance such skills.

Background knowledge analyses must also consider reading strategies in teaching English as a Second Language to students. Mark A. Clarke demonstrates that it is critical to recognize the importance of reading and its limitations: "Reading is perhaps the most thoroughly studied and least understood process in education today...an awareness of the potential explanations for students' reading problems would certainly increase the teacher's sensitivity and, therefore, increase the chances of helping the students overcome their difficulties" (203). It is critical for teachers to thoroughly examine each student's background knowledge, culture, and fluency in the native language in order to establish effective reading tactics that may be individually modified for each student.

Classroom Strategies for English as a Second Language Students

According to Gisela Ernst and Kerri J. Richard, the following tactics will foster student development in ESL classrooms:

Using a thematic focus - By designing lessons surrounding different themes and backgrounds, students will be exposed to many of their own cultural issues: "They allow teachers to draw on their language minority students' backgrounds, interests, and strengths, since topics and activities can be negotiated...theme-based collaborative projects are excellent ways to motivate students, gain their attention, and involve them in a variety of interactive activities. As a result, students work together on projects that naturally promote the use of both oral and written language to question, discuss, inform, negotiate, and communicate with others. Hence, thematic instruction creates excellent opportunities for students to use and develop their oral language as they read, write, and share insights and ideas."

Constructing and sharing a classroom culture - In relation to the development of reading proficiency, Ernst and Richard state that "Books can do more than provide opportunities to hear and practice the new language. They can give students both a very special kind of shared experience and the basic English words and phrases needed to talk about it. Since children from different countries and cultures might not come to school with a set of joint encounters, reading a story, talking about it, and relating it to personal happenings can help them experience a sense of shared culture" (323).

Reading aloud - According to Ernst and Richard, "Second-language learners can greatly benefit from listening to stories, since they provide large, cohesive, uninterrupted chunks of language...for ESL students, listening to the language as they both follow and talk about the thread of the story is an important way to make connections between oral and written texts, to try out recently acquired vocabulary, and to discover new ways of deploying communicative resources" (324).

Publishing books - Students who are trained to create their own works and will provide benefits beyond general literacy: "Students not only have a chance to practice and improve their writing, but they also have the opportunity to develop meaningful collaboration with peers as they organize, write, revise, edit, and publish their work. In the 'spirit of collaboration' numerous opportunities for using oral language with purpose are generated" (Ernst 325).

These activities promote student collaboration as well as the development of competency in English speaking and reading. The opportunities for such students are limitless…

Sources Used in Documents:


Adams, S. (1982). Scripts and the recognition of unfamiliar vocabulary: enhancing second language reading skills.

Modern Language Journal 66, 155-159.

Clarke, M. (1979). The short circuit hypothesis of ESL reading or when language competence interferes with reading performance. Modern Language Journal, 203-209.

Ernst, G., & Richard, K. (1994-1995). Reading and writing pathways to conversation in the ESL classroom. The Reading

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