Teaching ESL Reading Comprehension: Objectives and Approaches

Every year, millions of high school graduates enroll in colleges (NCES, 2011). Among those new students, many are unprepared to read the challenging textbooks assigned for their various courses (Lei et al, 2010). Unfortunately, many professors and college instructors do not consider supporting the reading development of these challenged students as part of their responsibility or simply lack the expertise to help them understand their course materials (Lei, et al, 2010). Hence, many students end up in remedial courses, that is, non-credit courses meant to help them develop the skills they need to understand their course texts (Lei, et al, 2010 & Nash-Ditzel, 2010).

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) recently adopted by many states aim in part to address this situation by providing uniform curricula across all states. However, the guidelines included in this document do not address English Language Learners (ELL’s). They essentially focus on content rather than methodology (New York State TESOL, 2013). Moreover, the number of ELL’s is rising in many states and has reached 5,208,247 as of 2011 (NCES, 2009-2010). With this increase, the achievement gap is likely to continue widening and deepening if education authorities do not move to address the needs of this increasing portion of the student population. Currently, the achievement gap between English learners and their native English-speaking peers is 36% and 44% respectively for 4th and 8th graders (NCES, 2011). This situation should be a major source of concern for education authorities.

To address this situation, elementary and secondary teachers, along with their college colleagues, ought to be afforded the opportunity to acquire the know-how to support the reading and learning development of their students. In its Position Statement, New York TESOL, a New York state TESOL organization advocates for adequate training for teachers in charge of challenged ELLs (New York State TESOL, 2013).

Among scholars, many (Glasswell and Ford, 2010; Lei, et al, 2010; Jones, 2010; Luke, et al, 2011; Celce-Murcia, 2013; Herrera, 2010) have contributed to the discourse on improving students reading skills. Glasswell and Ford (2010) suggest a “jigsawing” approach in which students with varying reading skills read chunks of the course material that corresponds to their reading ability. The class then regroups and each student or group shares out on part of the reading, thus allowing the class to construct meaning collaboratively. Glasswell and Ford (2010) also suggest the use of more accessible texts to provide the most challenged students with background knowledge before they read about related topics in their challenging textbook.

Morrison and Wlodarsczyk (2009) suggest a method that includes read-alouds, alphaboxes, various connections and discussion as a toolbox to address student deficiencies in reading. However, their study targets a first grade class and some of their strategies may be appropriate for that developmental level only. Hence, the need arises for studies aimed at older high school and college students.

This brief initial review shows a variety of approaches even though they all fall within the definition of the term metacognitive strategies and techniques. Glasswell and Ford (2010), and Morrison and Wlodarsczyk (2009) use different approaches to activate their students’ metacognitive skills in the reading process, and the choice of approach or set of approaches seems to reflect the needs and age of a particular group of students. Despite the necessity of these strategies and techniques, there has not been much research addressing the ELL population, which is on the rise (NCES, 2011). This study aims to address specifically the correlation between the explicit teaching of metacognitive skills and improved reading, as well as analyze various aspects of reading instruction.


A Brief Review of the Literature

Boling and Evans (2008) define “techniques” as specific actions taken by the teacher for adequate instruction. Thus defined, techniques may include the pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading decisions that teachers have to make, as well as the activities in which their students have to engage. “Strategy,” on the other hand, is defined as the use of worksheets and various graphic organizers that facilitate learning (p. 60).

Following this clarification, Boling and Evans (2008) address the need to equip secondary content area teachers with effective reading instruction techniques and strategies intended to help them support their students’ reading comprehension needs. They suggest a wide range of techniques, including text structure, visualization, and various graphic organizers to promote active reading and, ultimately, self-regulation by students. The notion of self-regulating implies that students have developed the ability to apply any of the strategies techniques they have studied to a text without being prompted by their teacher. In sum, the aim is to train students to become independent, effective readers.

Alsamadani (2011) aims to promote active reading through a technique called 3-2-1. 3-2-1 involves cognitive psychology and active reading techniques in which reading is presented as a give and take situation. Students summarize main ideas, share insights on what they found interesting and ask questions about the reading passages. Finally, they discuss their questions and points of interest with their peers. In the study, the participants received training in the strategy for six weeks. At the completion of their training, they retook the pre-training reading test. The results of the study show an improvement in the participants’ reading comprehension. Hence, the researchers recommend the explicit teaching of reading comprehension strategies, especially 3-2-1, to help students improve their reading comprehension. For Alsamadani (2011), pausing to analyze text, as part of the reading process, is important because it has proven effective in improving students’ reading comprehension. Based on the results, the author recommends that teachers use a variety of cognitive approaches to teach reading comprehension.

Like Boling and Evans’ (2008), Alsamadani’s (2011) study is replete with practical approaches to teaching metacognitive skills. However, the latter does not mention or even refer to the notion of self-regulation–the ability for students to decide which technique to use and when. The merit of the study is that it provides practical techniques. Still, unless it goes beyond the mere prescription of techniques, the finding would be tantamount to spoon-feeding, that is, based on prompting students who should be responsible for choosing their own approaches to active reading once their teacher or instructor has taught the necessary skills.

Dymock and Nicholson (2010) suggest explicit teaching of active reading techniques. Teaching, they state, should focus on one strategy at a time and provide frequent reviews aimed to help students self-regulate over time. They suggest the use of High 5, a technique that refers to five reading strategies that they consider most effective. These strategies are activating background knowledge, questioning text, analyzing textual structure, visualizing, and summarizing. The five strategies are presented in detail and an example of their use is given with a class taught by a Mrs. Daly. In her lesson, Mrs. Daly uses the five strategies presented by the authors. With well-crafted questions, she reviews prior knowledge with her students, responds to their questions, leads them in a study of textual structure, uses several graphic organizers and at least a picture to bring the topic to life, and eventually leads students in a recapitulation of the day’s lesson (summary). The researchers conclude by inviting teachers to use the High 5 to help their students make sense of expository texts.

Like Boling and Evans (2008), Dymock and Nicholson’s (2010) ultimate goal is self-regulation by students. They, too, offer a variety of active reading approaches. Like Alsamadani (2011), they suggest summarizing, questioning and discussion, among others, as ways to construct meaning. Though summarizing may be an individual endeavor, it may also happen within a group during the discussion phase of the strategies. Hence, discussion appears to be an effective way to construct meaning for challenged readers. Celce-Murcia et al (2013) and Herrera and Murray (2010) corroborate this approach in their works. Indeed, these scholars provide a wide array of techniques that build not only on the teaching of metacognitive skills, but also on approaches that are culture-sensitive and promote true collaboration among the learners.

Luke, Woods, and Dooley (2011) highlight, yet again, the importance of considering the community, cultural and disciplinary dimensions of comprehension in literacy education for minorities. They redefine comprehension as a three-fold phenomenon: cultural, social and political, and intellectual. They present their so-called “four resources model” as a framework for rethinking focus and balance in curriculum and instruction. It promotes the analysis and use of students’ culture and language context, their developmental stage and their goals to design curriculum and instruction. The study defines comprehension as “a lived and institutionally situated social, cultural, and intellectual practice that is much more than a semantic element of making meaning from a text” (p. 161). Luke, Woods, and Dooley’s (2011) work has begun yielding positive results in a school in an Australian town where they are supporting the staff in implementing their framework. They recommend a reexamination of those schools that have succeeded in providing a more balanced education so that they can serve as models for school reform.

With Luke, Woods and Doodley (2011), constructing meaning stretches beyond the confines of the classroom or school. They take the notion of reading socially (pre-reading and post-reading group discussions) much further. They include in this paradigm a communal dimension. Thus, constructing meaning in a reading class must be cognizant and make use of students’ social background. This notion hearkens to the efforts being made in the United States to include more culture-sensitive approaches and literary works in the curriculum. The study does not just add or rehash the commonly used or taught metacognitive reading skills. Their notion of comprehension has a cultural, social and political, and intellectual dimension. Thus presented, it is an innovative approach to promoting comprehension, a model for proponents of school reformers to consider.

Morrison and Wlodarczyk (2009) describe evidence-based practices that encourage student engagement with reading, revisit reading as transactional process, the benefits of reading aloud to students, the importance of promoting engagement with text, and share three literacy techniques and examples of work contributed by students. Read-alouds are presented as promoting student interest and are recognized as ways to build student understanding, overall literacy and language development. The authors suggest peer collaboration as a predictor of better understanding based on group effort. The use of alphaboxes offers students the opportunity to collaborate before, and after reading. The activity can focus on a variety of tasks: vocabulary building, asking questions and much more. One advantage is that students work as a team and revisit making connections as a path to constructing meaning. Morrison and Wlodarczyk (2009) conclude that the four strategies presented in their study are “powerful techniques to support young students as they begin wading into the reading process” (p. 117).

This study reinforces the need for age-appropriate reading strategies intervention. It supports the works of Boling and Evans (2008) and Luke, Woods and Doodley (2011) discussed above, as well as those of Davis (2011), Lei (2010), and Coiro (2011), discussed below, in their claim that group discussion promotes greater reading comprehension. Clearly, group discussion emerges as an important strategy in constructing meaning. A new consideration with Morrison and Wlodarczyk (2009) is the inclusion of vocabulary as a necessary path to building reading comprehension. Vocabulary is essential and needs explicit teaching as suggested in the study. However, constructing meaning should be holistic and should not rely only on vocabulary, most of which can be understood by using context clues.

Wanzek and Vaughn (2010) undertook a review of the literature on Tier 3 interventions for students with significant reading comprehension challenges. Tier 3 interventions are used for students who exhibit little or no improvement during previous interventions. The review supports the notion that group size during the intervention informs the results. For example, large groups tend to achieve less whereas small-group and one-on-one interventions result in significantly improved results. According to the research reviewed in this study, Tier 3 interventions that incorporate intervention on pre-reading, while-reading and after-reading skills help improve students’ comprehension, especially in small-group or one-on-one situations.

                           The role of strategy training in reading skills development

Based on the literature reviewed above, it is clear that strategy training is essential to building solid reading comprehension skills. Challenged readers need to be exposed to what their more proficient peers do differently to construct meaning. The strategies may vary on the surface, but they are intrinsically the same in that the ultimate aim is to model for learners and help them incorporate these strategies into their reading experience and eventually do so without assistance from a teacher or another adult. In essence, strategy training means providing students with the tools they need to function on their own and take charge of their reading and academic development.

The relationship between word recognition and reading proficiency

On a very basic level, word recognition is essential. No reading can happen until the learner understands that letters are used in various combinations to create words, which in turn represent an abstract concept or a concrete, physical object. On a higher level, especially at the sentence level, it may be difficult for readers to make sense of what they are reading unless they see groups of words as units that convey meaning or hear them spoken out. This is the experience of many English Language learners, especially when they read works of fiction. Morrison and Wlodarczyk (2009) tout read-alouds as a powerful way to promote comprehension. Their work focuses on reading comprehension in pre-K and elementary classrooms. However, teachers of ESL students who practice read-alouds know that even adult students can benefit from reading aloud by a teacher or a peer who can read with expression. It is therefore important to incorporate audio versions of novel or short stories, or even works of nonfiction to help the most challenged students make connections between the written words and the meaning they convey. The comprehension challenge becomes even more acute when the reading is on abstract concepts. Sounding out words and whole sentences, paragraphs, stories and articles can go a long way for children, adolescents and adult second language learners.

The influence of reading speed on reading proficiency

Just as weight training helps an athlete build strong muscles, avid readers develop above average reading speed. Hence, the more a person reads, the faster he or she will end up reading. However, reading fast or slowly depends on the individual and the purpose for reading. A student or scholar involved in research may scan or skim articles to find specific information or to determine which articles or books are appropriate for the work in progress. Once the right article has been determined or the right passage identified, the reader logically re-reads more carefully to understand the author’s ideas in depth. It is also important to make a difference between reading for pleasure and reading for academic purposes or even reading in the context of a timed reading exam. Clearly, the speed at which we choose to read, or are forced to read, depends on the reasons for reading as well as familiarity with the material.

Love (2012,) a psychologist, conducted intensive research on what happens when people read slowly or fast, as well as their reasons for choosing their reading speed. She concludes that people determine their reading speed based on a variety of reasons. Some people may want to savor what they are reading, so they slow down the pace to enjoy their reading to the fullest. Others may want to locate specific information as stated above. In this case, they increase reading speed, which may lead them to just scan or skim the reading. When people read fast, Love explains, they may miss important chunks of the information contained in the reading. Reading “at a trot” as she terms it, has consequences such as the need to skip words, full paragraphs or even pages. What is clear is that reading speed is normally determined by the reason for reading and familiarity or lack thereof with the content. The more a person reads, the faster that person can read. As for the correlation between speed and proficiency, it appears that proficiency precedes speed.

The role of background knowledge in reading

Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Snow (2013) and Herrera and Murray (2010) discuss at great length the importance of background knowledge to reading comprehension. Whether they are discussing sheltered instruction, CALP, SIOP or any content-based approach, they recognize the essential role of students’ background in constructing meaning. Background can be academic or socio-cultural. Where CLD students are concerned, both backgrounds matter the most. These students, the majority of whom already have a solid academic background, only struggle because of their deficiency in language. It is therefore essential to acknowledge and build on that background. Equally important are the learners’ cultural backgrounds. Once teachers acknowledge their students backgrounds and use them as assets, rather than hindrances, to build on, they facilitate meaning construction for their CLD students because students who are already cognizant of the intricate metacognitive processes involved in reading can just transfer them to their new circumstances.

McNeil (2011) studied the impact of background knowledge and explicit reading comprehension strategies on second language learners with the use of regression analysis to assess the impact of the variables, in combination and individually, on reading comprehension. The participants were a group of 20 university-level ESL students in an intermediate ESL class at a US university. The participants were from eight different countries and their ages ranged from 20 to 36 with a median age of 24. All participants were high school graduates in their respective countries. One condition for inclusion in the study was to make sure the students had the same L2 level. Students’ grades from the previous levels in the ESL program were collected and analyzed.

The results of the study show that reading strategies and background knowledge have a positive impact on improved reading comprehension, especially self-questioning. The research aimed to assess the percentage of reading comprehension attributable to background knowledge and reading comprehension strategies combined, and which strategy has the most impact on reading comprehension. The method included the use of a background knowledge questionnaire to verify students’ background. The questions were related to in-class reading and participants were required to answer six questions on each of two texts. The questionnaire was a list of statements based on two texts followed by four choices on their level of familiarity with each statement. Additionally, students received training in self-questioning to ascertain the accuracy of their questions. Finally, students received a worksheet from the training session, as well as cue cards with information on the characteristics of a good self-question. The selections for the study had to meet a number of criteria since the study was to analyze the impact of background knowledge. Hence, the researcher made sure the two texts, the preliminary and the actual test, met the background criterion. The text also had to have a level of difficulty that would challenge the participants because the need for the reading strategies arises when there is a gap in comprehension. Where necessary, the researcher adjusted the text to reflect students’ level and background. To make sure the text had the appropriate difficulty level, the researcher administered a “preliminary text” which confirmed the level of difficulty as attested by 66% of the participants. After the tests, students answered follow-up questions on their feeling about the level of difficulty of the text, how they liked it, how much effort they put into self-questioning and if they had ever used the strategy. The results show that self-questioning has a greater impact on reading comprehension than background knowledge. When these results are broken down, it becomes clear, in answer to the first research question that background knowledge and self-questioning contribute to improved reading comprehension. However, the impact attributable to self-questioning is higher. This finding leads to the conclusion that self-questioning is the single most important factor in making sense of a difficult text.

This study helps bridge the gap in the literature on the influence of background knowledge and self-questioning on improved reading comprehension. Further, it is innovative in that it addresses the two strategies not only in combination but also individually to reach its conclusion. Clearly, this study establishes the correlation between self-questioning and improved reading comprehension in an L2 context. This finding does not mention constructing meaning as a group activity through post-reading discussion. However, it is effective and reliable in its approach. A suggestion may be the teaching and use of self-questioning as an individual reading activity, which can be combined with group discussion to maximize reading comprehension.

Because of the importance of background knowledge, it is appropriate and even recommended, as a strategy, to have students preview material in their first language before it is taught in class in a mainstream context. Previewing the material allows CLDs to build or reactivate the background they need to make meaning. For example, before a chapter on nutrition (science and nutrition class), the teacher may direct students to a website or provide handouts in their L1. The students read the handouts or the article on the website to acquire some broad knowledge about the concept. In class, they may refer back to the article they read as reference if they are challenged. Clearly, teachers can help their students by helping them activate background knowledge. When such background is lacking, it behooves the teacher to make sure that students receive at least initial exposure to it in their native language to facilitate comprehension in their L2.

Extensive reading versus intensive reading

In a language education context, teachers tend to assign extensive reading—short stories, novels—as a curricular requirement or to help their students develop a love of reading and thus build reading fluency and speed. Intensive reading, on the other hand, focuses on shorter selections and traditionally lends itself to more in-depth analyses that may include focus on relevant vocabulary and grammar, as well as other important linguistic aspects. A study conducted with Saudi students (Al-Homoud & Schmidtt, 2009) shows that extensive and intensive reading can potentially produce the same results in terms of gains. In the study, two groups of students attended two courses. In one of them, students read extensively. In the other, the teacher used shorter texts with in-depth study of vocabulary and grammar. At the completion of the experiment, students in the extensive reading group reported overall satisfaction with the course. These students acquired as much as, or more vocabulary than, the students in the intensive course. This study shows that extensive reading might be as beneficial as, or more beneficial than, intensive reading. However, it is important to restate that the reason for reading should guide the type of reading. Shorter texts are indicated for in-depth study, but their use does not necessarily preclude longer texts. Teachers may use excerpts from novels to focus more on aspects of a novel they deem rich in language. Whatever the circumstances, it appears that using both intensive and extensive reading is appropriate as long as the objectives are clear to the teacher and students.

Instructional approaches that lead to improved reading abilities

The best reading instruction approaches are those that make the process explicit to students and use their prior knowledge as a building or starting block. This is overwhelmingly supported by the literature reviewed above. Hence, reading instruction should incorporate modeling of the essential cognitive and metacognitive skills involved in the process. In addition to teaching students the reading process, teachers should make it a habit to incorporate background information where this is lacking by previewing the reading, discussing the theme or themes, similar situations and, whenever this is possible, choosing reading materials that are meaningful to the students. These texts could be culturally relevant, or texts that satisfy the learners’ personal interests.

In sum, based on the literature, a sound approach to teaching reading is one that includes activating students’ prior knowledge (academic or culture-related background), reading actively (asking questions and summarizing essential ideas), following up with discussion questions and reviewing the main points. Pre-teaching essential vocabulary is helpful, but as suggested by Wlodarczyk (2009), vocabulary is better learned in context. Therefore, while it is appropriate to pre-teach what the teacher considers essential vocabulary, it would be more beneficial to students if the teacher taught them how to guess word meaning from the context.

The use of literature in L2 reading classes

Most public schools favor content-based or theme-based approaches. It is no wonder then, that even English Language Learners are required to read novels in their L2. The No Child Left Behind Act states that all children will receive the same quality education as their peers regardless of national origin or home language. All public school students are required to take ELA classes and pass the English Regents as part of high school graduation requirements. This implies reading short stories, novels, and other non-prose literature like poems. The most important consideration here is the teachers’ ability to adapt materials for their students. Teaching L2 with literature fits into the notion of using genuine materials to teach communicative academic and social language as prescribed by most communicative and cognitive approaches. Where materials in the student’s home language is missing or scarce, it is the teacher’s duty to scaffold appropriately with the strategies and techniques presented in the literature. Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Snow (2013) and Herrera and Murray (2010) provide a wide array of materials and approaches meant to help CLDs provided their teachers are ready to commit the time and energy needed to accommodate them. The most important thing is to break the literature down into smaller, more meaningful and manageable chunks for students.

Learning to read versus reading to learn

Reading unlocks the key to learning, and indeed, scholars agree that effective reading is a strong predictor of academic success (Boling & Evans, 2008; Coiro, 2011; Glasswell, 2010 and others). Initially, students read to learn. Texts contain the concepts, life experiences and the sum of knowledge that compel parents to enroll their children in school. However, the more a student learns through reading, the stronger the necessity to write about the knowledge acquired. This approach seems to be the pattern in literature class, where professors or teachers ask their students not only to summarize their reading to demonstrate understanding, but in many cases, to respond to it as a form of introspection that usually involves making various connections. By responding to literature, students unlock knowledge they were unaware of. Hence, writing becomes a channel for learning and self-discovery just as reading may reveal the reader to himself or herself. Simply put, as novice readers, we set out to learn to read because it is important to make sense of the printed words. However, once we have acquired a decent level of proficiency, reading becomes a channel whereby we discover the world and ourselves.


Reading matters; it is the key to academic success. Reading unlocks the door to higher learning, to writing, to vocabulary and much more that contributes to building a well-rounded individual. It is therefore essential that this invaluable skill be made accessible to all students, especially to those for whom English is not the first language. As mandated by the NCLB Act, all school-age children deserve the same quality education regardless of their national origin, family situation or home language. In catering to this ever-growing portion of the student population in today’s public schools, it is paramount that teachers utilize the best approaches, strategies and techniques available in the literature to provide sound and effective reading comprehension instruction that will ensure an even playing field for all children. The field of education is dynamic; it keeps changing and does so at a faster pace than most educators can keep up with. However, with some determination and the success of their students at heart, all teachers can come to the understanding that what matters is their students’ success and that to guarantee it the must keep abreast of the research because reading matters in academia

























Al-Homoud, F., & Schmitt, N. (2009). Extensive reading in a challenging environment: a comparison of extensive and intensive reading approaches in Saudi Arabia. Language Teaching Research, 13(4), 383. doi:10.1177/1362168809341508

Alsamadani, H. (2011). The Effects of the 3-2-1 Reading Strategy on EFL Reading          Comprehension. English Language Teaching, 4(3), 184-191.         doi:10.5539/elt.v4n3p184

Boling, C. J., & Evans, W. H. (2008). Reading success in the secondary classroom.            Preventing School Failure, 52(2). 59-66.

Celce-Murcia, M. (2013). Teaching English as a second or foreign language. Fourth ed. Florence, KY: Thomson Learning. 978-1111351694

Coiro, J. (2011). Talking About Reading as Thinking: Modeling the Hidden Complexities             of Online Reading Comprehension. Theory Into Practice, 50(2), 107-115.       doi:10.1080/00405841.2011.558435.

Davis, D. S. (2011). Internalization and Participation as Metaphors of Strategic Reading   Development. Theory Into Practice, 50(2), 100-106.       doi:10.1080/00405841.2011.558434.

Dymock, S., & Nicholson, T. (2010). “High 5!” Strategies to Enhance Comprehension of   Expository Text. Reading Teacher, 64(3), 166-178. doi:10.1598/RT.64.3.2

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Herrera, S., & Murray, K. (2010). Mastering ESL and bilingual methods: Differentiated    instruction for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students. 2nd ed. Boston,    MA: Allyn & Bacon. 9780137056699

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Lei, S. A., Rhinehart, P. J., Howard, H. A., & Cho, J. K. (2010). Strategies for improving reading comprehension among college students. Reading Improvement, 47(1), 30-42.

Love, J. (2012). Reading Fast and Slow: The speed at which our eyes travel across the printed page has serious (and surprising) implications for the way we make sense of words. American Scholar, 81(2), 64-72.

Luke, A., Woods, A., & Dooley, K. (2011). Comprehension as Social and Intellectual       Practice: Rebuilding Curriculum in Low Socioeconomic and Cultural Minority          Schools. Theory Into Practice, 50(2), 157-164.           doi:10.1080/00405841.2011.558445

McNeil, L. (2011). Investigating the contributions of background knowledge and reading       comprehension strategies to L2 reading comprehension: An exploratory study.       Reading And Writing, 20 (8), 883-902. DOI 10.1007/s11145-010-9230-6

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Wanzek, J., & Vaughn, S. (2010). Tier 3 Interventions for Students With Significant            Reading Problems. Theory Into Practice, 49(4), 305-314.       doi:10.1080/00405841.2010.510759


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