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Reading in a second language: Considering the "simple view of reading" as a foundation to support ESL readers in Lesotho, Southern Africa

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Abstract

Globally, reading proficiency has been a major area of difficulty for English second-language (ESL) learners. This research inter alia utilised a quantitative, quasi-experimental, pre-test/post-test research design to address the paucity of evidence-based second-language reading research internationally, as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in Lesotho in particular; and to determine if second-language learners (L2) in the experimental group can improve their L2 reading abilities after being exposed to reading intervention strategies, based on the “simple view of reading”. Drawing from both psycholinguistic and cognitive linguistic principles, the authors considered this as a working model to develop reading strategies to support ESL learners in Lesotho who experienced significant delays in L2 reading abilities and comprehension. In the present study, strategies based on the “simple view of reading”, , included, inter alia, effective language exposure, building a rich vocabulary, improving reading fluency and word recognition abilities, and creating socio-linguistic opportunities to develop vocabulary and enhance reading comprehension (for example, creating a “word wall”, interactive story-book reading and the application of the ReQuest reading method). Results from this quantitative study demonstrated that Grade 4 ESL learners in the experimental group (N=36) significantly outperformed those in the control group (N=36) with regard to sight word fluency, word recognition, syntactic awareness, vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. As we move forward in an attempt to understand the nuances of creating a responsive reading environment to support ESL learners’ reading development, assessing the effectiveness of strategies to improve their reading skills is essential
Per Linguam 2016 32(1):21-40
http://dx.doi.org/10.5785/32-1-661
A van Staden
READING IN A SECOND LANGUAGE: CONSIDERING THE ‘SIMPLE VIEW
OF READING’ AS A FOUNDATION TO SUPPORT ESL READERS IN
LESOTHO, SOUTHERN AFRICA
Annalene van Staden
Free State University
Globally, reading proficiency has been a major area of difficulty for English second-
language (ESL) learners. This research inter alia utilised a quantitative, quasi-
experimental, pre-test/post-test research design to address the paucity of evidence-based
second-language reading research internationally, as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa, and
in Lesotho in particular; and to determine if second-language learners (L2) in the
experimental group can improve their L2 reading abilities after being exposed to reading
intervention strategies, based on the “simple view of reading”. Drawing from both
psycholinguistic and cognitive linguistic principles, the authors considered this as a
working model to develop reading strategies to support ESL learners in Lesotho who
experienced significant delays in L2 reading abilities and comprehension. In the present
study, strategies based on the “simple view of reading”, , included, inter alia, effective
language exposure, building a rich vocabulary, improving reading fluency and word
recognition abilities, and creating socio-linguistic opportunities to develop vocabulary
and enhance reading comprehension (for example, creating a word wall, interactive
story-book reading and the application of the ReQuest reading method). Results from this
quantitative study demonstrated that Grade 4 ESL learners in the experimental group
(N=36) significantly outperformed those in the control group (N=36) with regard to sight
word fluency, word recognition, syntactic awareness, vocabulary knowledge and reading
comprehension. As we move forward in an attempt to understand the nuances of creating
a responsive reading environment to support ESL learners’ reading development,
assessing the effectiveness of strategies to improve their reading skills is essential.
Keywords: Grade 4 ESL learners, “simple-view-of-reading” model; word decoding,
vocabulary, reading comprehension.
INTRODUCTION
Multiple and complex factors (both extrinsic and intrinsic) contribute to poor reading
outcomes among second-language (L2) learners. Researchers within the educational
context of South Africa (see Hugo, le Roux, Muller & Nel, 2005; Lenyai & De Wit,
2008) are particularly concerned about factors which place these learners in a high risk
category for failure as a result of their poor reading and literacy (Nel, 2008). Amongst
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these are poverty; the quality of language input at school and home, including parents’
lack of literacy knowledge and their illiteracy; the lack of qualified teachers; and over-
crowded classrooms (Lenyai & De Wit, 2008). Several other language and linguistic
factors also affect the process of acquiring adequate L2 reading skills, namely an
individual’s reading proficiency in his or her first language (L1), and the degree of
overlap between the oral and written characteristics of the home language and the
acquired second language (e.g. English) (Chard, Stoolmiller, Harn, Wanzek, Vaughn,
Linan-Thompson & Kame’enui, 2008). Other researchers have argued that cognitive
linguistic skills may transfer from learners’ first language to their second language, but
they also propose that this ‘transfer’ depends on whether both languages are alphabetic,
whether they are written from left to right or right to left in both languages, whether the
languages share orthographic elements and scripts, and whether they share sounds and
sound-symbol correspondences (Soares De Sousa, Greenop & Fry, 2010).
When one focuses on intrinsic and cognitive linguistic factors and how they relate to
effective reading development, it is important to understand how the various components
(for example, oral language, word reading, vocabulary and reading comprehension) come
together and interact (Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 387). Accordingly we draw on a
model of reading development that has received much attention in the reading research
literature, namely the Simple View of Reading (SVR) (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover &
Gough, 1990). This model specifically emphasises the important role of the two main
interacting ‘pillars’ associated with reading comprehension, namely language
comprehension and those associated with word-level reading skills (i.e., word recognition
and word decoding skills) (Farnia & Geva, 2013: 390). Embedded in the SVR model,
language comprehension involves broader oral language processing skills, such as
vocabulary, verbal working memory, and morphosyntactic skills (Babayağit, 2015: 528).
Furthermore, it is stressed that learners should be able to translate written into spoken
language, understand the meaning of written words, and be aware of the morphological
and syntactic processing of linguistic units. In this way words become part of the working
memory and will thus enable the development of effective reading comprehension
(Babayağit, 2015: 528). The SVR model was further augmented by the inclusion of other
important cognitive linguistic aspects such as phonological awareness, working memory,
syntactical and semantic awareness, orthographic skills and meta-cognitive reading
strategies (Farnia & Geva, 2013: 390). These associated cognitive linguistic processes
make significant contributions to reading comprehension over and above the two main
pillars of the SVR model, namely word level reading skills and language comprehension
(Farnia & Geva, 2013: 390).
In general poor reading skills lead to lower overall academic achievement, both in L1 and
L2 (Chall, 2000), and children who have difficulty with early literacy often continue to
experience failure in later grades and later in life (Lipka & Siegel, 2010: 963).
Consequently, many ESL learners are diagnosed as children with learning disabilities.
Stanovich (1986: 87) describes this as the Matthew Effect, that is, the phenomenon of
the rich get richer while the poor get poorer’. In other words, those who acquire early
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literacy skills have the tools to grow exponentially in their knowledge and skills while
those who fail to develop early skills fall increasingly further behind. With regard to the
current paper, the above-mentioned underscores the importance of early identification of
learners with reading challenges. In addition, researchers have highlighted the detrimental
consequences of not providing effective support (Lipka & Siegel, 2010: 963). These
include a high prevalence of reading and associated problems directly related to reading
that place learners at an even higher risk of academic failure, having to repeat a grade, the
development of social problems, poor peer relations, emotional difficulties, and
depression (Lipka & Siegel, 2010: 963). The consequences outlined above clearly
demonstrate why it is imperative to identify L2 learners with reading impairments as
early as possible.
Despite a growing interest in the value of literacy intervention amongst monolingual
children at risk of reading failure during the past decade (Parris & Hoffman, 2004),
research on ESL reading is not as extensive as that for L1s (Grant, Gottardo & Geva,
2011), both internationally and especially within the Southern African educational
context. This demonstrates the pressing need for empirical research to investigate the
theoretical counts of L2 reading development, and for in-depth longitudinal studies to
expand on the current means of identifying ESL children with reading barriers, including
examining which aspects of early reading problems and associated impairments (for
example, the expressive/receptive, phonological, syntactical, or lexical factors) place
these children at risk to develop reading problems. Consequently many ESL learners are
unable to cope academically, resulting in them either leaving school or failing to pass
Grade 12 (Le Cordeur, 2010: 36).
Drawing from both psycholinguistic and behaviourist theories on reading development,
the SVR model provided us with an appropriate theoretical tool with which to search for
and implement a combination of reading intervention strategies to support the reading
development of Grade 4 ESL readers in Lesotho. These instructional strategies include,
inter alia: (a) building and using vocabulary to develop oral language skills and reinforce
language concepts, vocabulary knowledge, and the decoding of words via multi-sensory
coding exercises, including using a word wall; (b) improving reading fluency (sight
words and text reading) via reading fluency exercises, repeated reading, and fast word-
recognition games; (c) using the Cloze procedure to increase ESL learners syntactical
awareness skills; and (d) improving ESL learners reading comprehension via the
application of the ReQuest reading method, which entails reciprocal questioning and
guiding learners to apply reading comprehension strategies such as predicting,
summarising and making inferences.
METHODOLOGY AND RESEARCH DESIGN
This quantitative study pursued a quasi-experimental, pre-test/post-test research design,
which entailed a controlled intervention in order to compare an ESL experimental group
with an ESL non-exposed comparison group. Similar to randomised designs, quasi-
experimental designs aim to demonstrate causality between an intervention and an
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outcome (Harris, McGregor, Perencevich, Furuno, Zhu, Peterson & Finkelstein, 2006:
19-20). In the present study, the researchers administered pre-test measures to both the
experimental and comparison groups (to assess the initial comparability of the groups
before the intervention) and post-tests after the completion of the experimental
intervention (to determine the efficacy of the intervention). In the next section the authors
will elaborate on the sampling, measuring instruments and the intervention programme
developed for this study.
Participants and Sampling
Reviewing the language policy of Lesotho, it recognises the diversity of the Lesotho
nation and the existence of other languages besides the two official languages of Sesotho
and English (MOET, 2005). Furthermore, it clearly states that learners’ mother tongue
will be used as a medium of instruction up to Grade 3 (resources permitting), after which
English is used as the medium of instruction (MOET, 2005). The main challenge in many
Lesotho schools is that this transition from the mother tongue to English as medium of
instruction occurs at the expense of these learners’ mother tongue (Sesotho) (this is also
known as subtractive bilingualism) (see Masilo, 2008: 11). Moreover, it happens at a
time when pupils have not yet fully mastered or developed communication competency
and literacy skills in their mother tongue; thus they are not yet sufficiently prepared to be
educated or study through the medium of English (Molapo, as cited in Masilo, 2008: 2).
This was also evident in the current sample, with Grade 4 ESL learners experiencing
numerous challenges with regard to reading and spelling development, both in their
mother tongue and in English.
In the present study, the researchers employed a purposive sampling design to investigate
the aims of this study. This design allowed us to select learners who could provide the
necessary information regarding reading and spelling delays amongst ESL learners in
Lesotho. ESL learners from two schools in rural villages in the Mafeteng District in
Lesotho were sampled to take part in this study. These schools were situated in the same
demographic area, providing greater control over variables such as cultural experiences,
language abilities, educational environment and socio-economic status of families and
schools. With regard to socio-economic status, these learners were from challenging
socio-economic backgrounds and the two sample schools were also not well resourced.
Grade 4 educators assisted in identifying the participants from the two primary schools.
All learners that were sampled were ESL leaners whose mother tongue was Sesotho.
Their ages ranged between 10 and 12 years, with the average age for learners in the
experimental group being 10.78 years (SD = 1.58). For ESL leaners in the comparison
group it was 10.88 years (SD = 1.42). The final sample of 72 learners included 37 girls
and 35 boys. With regard to academic performance, focusing on reading competency, the
following criteria were considered: a significant delay on the standardised reading
measurements (i.e. the UCT tests for sight word fluency and word recognition). In
addition diagnostic information on their reading abilities was gathered from the
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respective classroom educators. Learners who demonstrated substantial reading
challenges with regard to sight word fluency, word recognition, vocabulary and reading
comprehension were considered for inclusion in the final sample. Prior to the pre-testing
all learners’ parents/guardians had to sign informed consent letters, giving permission for
their children to take part in this study. Only learners who could provide proof that their
parents/guardians have signed the informed consent letters were assessed and included in
the final sample.
Measuring instruments
The second author administered a test battery consisting of both standardised and non-
standardised (diagnostic) reading tests. All measures were conducted in English, and the
L2 readers were assessed individually both prior to and following the intervention period
of nine months. The following standardised and diagnostic tests were administered as
pre- and post-tests
1
:
The University of Cape Town (UCT) Speed Reading Test: This includes a list of
sight words and the number of correct responses within one minute was assessed.
This is a standardised speed-reading test that has been standardised for South
African children. The norms range from 7.1 years to 14.5 years. The UCT test is
commonly used in South Africa for educational and psychological testing and has
been normed for L1 learners. The test consists of high-frequency words used very
often in English. The test consists of 200 test items/words (Van Wyk 1980);
The UCT Word Recognition Test: This standardised reading test consists of 110
test items/words (arranged from easy to difficult) and is discontinued after the
reader has made 5 successive mistakes. The test has been standardised on South
African L 1 learners, with norms available for children aged 7.1 to 14.5 years
(Van Wyk, 1980);
Progressive Achievement Tests in vocabulary knowledge (PAT-R): The PAT
Reading Fourth Edition has five normed and graded vocabulary tests from the
third year of school to the tenth year. We opted to use Test Booklet 1 for ESL
learners in the current study, which is normed for year levels 3, 4, and 5 and
contains 35 test items. A Cronbach alpha coefficient of 0.87 was calculated
(Australian Council for Educational Research, 2010: 10, 56);
Progressive Achievement Tests in reading comprehension (PAT-R): The PAT
Reading Fourth Edition contains eleven normed and graded reading-
1
The researchers would like to note the paucity of current standardised measures within the South African and Lesotho
education contexts to assess reading abilities of L2 learners effectively. At present the measures are very dated and not
normed for L2 learners. Having said this, the core aim of this study was to utilise measures that we deemed as acceptable
and not culturally or linguistically biased. This was done in consultation with the educators at the sample schools, with the
core aim being to determine the efficacy of the intervention strategies based on the SVR model, and not to determine
whether these children achieved age-appropriate norms on tests standardised on L1 samples.
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comprehension tests for the first year of school to Grade 10. In the current study
we administered the test in Booklet 3, which is recommended for year levels 2, 3,
and 4. The maximum raw score is 28. A Cronbach alpha coefficient of 0.88 was
calculated (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2010:10, 56); and
Diagnostic Cloze-procedure test developed by the first author (test-retest
reliability coefficients 0.89). During the administration of the cloze-procedure
test, learners have to supply omitted words from a reading passage to complete
the sentences. This test requires both critical thinking and syntactical awareness
skills. The maximum score that could be obtained was 15. The alternate-forms
reliability coefficient of the Diagnostic Cloze-procedure measure was 0.84.
The 72 children were assigned to either the experimental or the comparison group after
the pre-tests had been administered (experimental group, n = 36; comparison group, n =
36). The Statistical Package for Social Sciences (IBM Corporation, 2013) was used to
analyse the quantitative data. T-tests revealed no statistically significant differences
between the experimental and comparison groups before the experimental intervention:
chronological age (t = -0.12; df =70; p = 0.96), sight words (t = 0.59; df =70; p = 0.59),
word identification (t = 0.31; df =70; p = 0.75), syntactical awareness (t = 0.17; df =70; p
= 0.86), vocabulary knowledge (t = -0.27; df =70; p = 0.78), and reading comprehension
scores (t = 0.56; df =70; p = 0.58).
Intervention
The SVR model emphasises that skilled reading involves understanding as well as
decoding text (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990). Thus reading
comprehension is the product of two-interrelated but very distinct processes (or
components), namely word recognition or decoding and the development of language
comprehension (that is, language awareness, vocabulary and knowledge of grammar,
whilst it also entails the ability to understand and interpret written texts as well as spoken
language) (Farnia & Geva, 2011). Emanating from the above in the present investigation,
the researchers considered the following intervention strategies based on the SVR model,
namely strategies to improve knowledge of sounds, reading fluency and the development
of effective word recognition and decoding skills, whilst it also aimed to enhance
vocabulary and syntactical awareness and improve reading comprehension via the
application of specific reading methods such as such as the ReQuest reading method.
The intervention for the experimental group, targeted small groups of 6 - 8 learners (five
groups in total) in instructional sessions of 45 minutes, over a period of nine months.
Small-group interventions, via “pull-out” of learners (in groups) were conducted during
normal school hours, by the qualified support teacher, who completed her B.Ed. honours
degree in Psychology of Education (specialising in support teaching). In practise this
implied that she supported each of the five groups three times per week. During the
small-group intervention, the support teacher focused on improving the ESL learners
reading fluency, their word identification, syntactical awareness skills, and decoding of
words. She also tried to expand their knowledge of vocabulary, and systematically guided
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these learners to apply reading comprehension strategies. A typical 45-minute small-
group session would consist of the following instructional components: sight word and
fluency practice for 10 minutes via flash cards and word-matching exercises; new
learning (i.e. the extension of the learners’ vocabulary) via multi-sensory coding
strategies and interactive word-wall exercises for 15 minutes, and reading text for 10
minutes. ESL learners in the comparison group continued with the class readers that were
used at the specific sample school. This included formal literacy instruction by the class
teacher three times per week for the same amount of time. Thus both groups followed the
same reading curriculum by using the same class readers, the only difference being the
two instructional methods that were followed. The learners in the experimental group
received direct instruction based on mastering a sequence of essential reading skills and
utilising a variety of instructional materials and methods (i.e. the components/activities of
the intervention programme, mentioned above) that was developed by the researchers
based on the class readers (i.e. a worked-out reading programme focusing on the
components mentioned above). ESL learners in the comparison group were not exposed
to the components of the reading intervention programme. Their instruction comprised
word study (mainly using dictionaries) and reading stories in groups with neither explicit
instruction nor scaffolding to improve their reading fluency, vocabulary and reading
comprehension strategies.
The teacher attempted to enhance the reading fluency of the learners in the experimental
group by combining word and text fluency practices in intervention strategies. Sight
words from the Dolch list were typed on flashcards and practised daily. In accordance
with performance, the level of difficulty was increased over sessions by decreasing the
exposure time and increasing the complexity of the words. The remaining time during the
session was spent on reading connected text: storybooks of interest that were just above
the learner’s level of reading and/or playing fast word-recognition games such as bingo.
Vocabulary knowledge, including word reading (i.e. the identification of words), was
enhanced through word-wall activities, which used multiple pathways and multi-
sensory activities to enhance word reading and vocabulary knowledge. During these
activities, the teachers guided the ESL learners to use their L1 to support their vocabulary
development and reading comprehension in L2. This meant that L1 was used in a natural
way as a tool to develop their L2 reading skills. This strategy included using multi-
sensory activities, such as linking the target word with a picture/object and providing its
L1 equivalent (if it was a similar word) and vocabulary instruction, which included
explaining the meaning of words and forming sentences in both the learners’ L1 and L2.
For further reinforcement, learners developed their own portable word-walls to use in
class and at home. Syntactical awareness of L2 readers was developed via the application
of the cloze procedure, using different reading passages and words in follow-up sessions,
with an increase in the level of difficulty. The cloze procedure guided ESL learners to use
contextual clues to decipher omitted text/words and, the results discussed later in this
article demonstrate that this technique seemed to improve their reading comprehension
and syntactical awareness skills. Regular passage or storybook reading was introduced
twice per week following the reciprocal questioning reading procedure (i.e., ReQuest).
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RESULTS
This study used a quasi-experimental, pre-test/post-test research design. The authors
investigated the efficacy of a reading intervention programme which included multiple
techniques to develop sight word fluency, word recognition, vocabulary knowledge,
syntactical awareness, and reading comprehension. In addition to our primary
investigation that concerned the efficacy of an ESL reading programme, we also wanted
to investigate the possible relationships between L2 sight word fluency, word recognition,
vocabulary, syntax, and reading comprehension.
The data were analysed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 22.0,
IBM Corporation, 2013). Group data were expressed as means and standard deviations
(see Table 1). It is apparent from these results that ESL learners in the experimental and
comparison groups were very similar prior to the intervention. In addition, inferential
statistics revealed no significant differences between the two groups prior to the nine-
month intervention period. From Table 1 it is evident that the average reading scores of
both the experimental and comparison groups were very weak and that ESL readers
experienced delays in sight word fluency, word recognition, vocabulary knowledge,
syntactical awareness, and reading comprehension. In the post-test scores in Table 1, the
mean scores for ESL learners in the experimental group show a noteworthy improvement
across the variables mentioned above. For example, L2 readers in the experimental
group’s sight word fluency (i.e. the rate per minute of correct responses on the UCT Sight
Word Test) improved from 16 to 35. The average score for UCT Word recognition
improved from 15 correct responses to a mean score of 36. On the cloze-procedure
measure, syntactical awareness improved from 2 to a mean score of 8; and PAT-R results
for vocabulary knowledge demonstrated an increase from an average score of 5 to an
average score of 14 for ESL learners in the experimental group. PAT-R test scores for
reading comprehension increased visibly from the pre-intervention to post-intervention
condition. Specifically, the average scores increased from 4 to 12 following the
intervention. Comparing the number of correct responses of ESL learners in the
experimental group to those in the comparison group, it is apparent that the comparison
group demonstrated a marginal improvement in vocabulary knowledge, but their
performance in reading fluency, word recognition, syntactical awareness, and reading
comprehension were very weak compared to the ESL learners in the experimental group.
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T-tests were conducted to determine whether the results for these reading-outcome
variables were statistically significant (i.e. with regard to the post-test scores of the
experimental and comparison groups). The results for sight word fluency (t = 10.40; df
=70; p < 0.000; d = 0.61); word recognition (t = 9.36; df =70; p < 0.000; d = 0.55);
syntactical awareness (t = 11.61; df =70; p < 0.000; d = 0.65); vocabulary knowledge (t =
13.35; df =70; p < 0.000; d = 0.71); and reading comprehension (t = 12.14; df =70; p <
0.000; d= 0.67) of leaners in the experimental group improved significantly. To
determine the practical significance of these results, effect sizes were calculated (Gay &
Airasian, 2003). With regard to the t-tests, Cohen’s d (Cohen, 1988) was calculated to
determine the effect size for the experimental and comparison groups. From the results
above, it is evident that the effect sizes for the different reading skills ranged from 0.51
0.71. This indicates moderate to high practical significance for the current study.
To explore the possible relationships between sight word fluency, word recognition,
vocabulary knowledge, syntactical awareness, and reading comprehension, a series of
two-tailed Pearson Product Moment correlation analyses were conducted to investigate
whether there were any significant relations between reading comprehension and these
reading outcome variables. We found significant and strong correlations between reading
comprehension and vocabulary size (r = 0.81, p = 0.0001), and reading comprehension
and word recognition (r = 0.76, p = 0.0001), whilst we found moderate correlations for
sight word fluency (r = 0.54, p = 0.0007) and syntactical awareness (r = 0.63, p =
0.0001). These results firstly show the significance of L2 vocabulary knowledge in L2
reading comprehension, and also confirm the important contribution of other reading-
related skills such as fluency, word recognition, and syntactical awareness in acquiring
reading comprehension in ESL learners. From the results above, it is evident that ESL
readers’ comprehension and reading-related skills can be improved significantly
following intervention strategies that are evidenced based, explicitly taught, or include
guided practices involving both lower- and higher-order reading skills to improve sight
word automaticity, vocabulary knowledge, and syntactical awareness. In addition,
guiding ESL readers through various scaffolding techniques to apply reading
comprehension strategies can improve their comprehension and reading-related skills.
The results also demonstrated significant relationships between specific cognitive-
linguistic and reading and related factors for ESL readers. In practice, this implies that
underlying cognitive-linguistic and reading-related factors have specific implications for
ESL learners’ reading comprehension development, and therefore ESL teachers should
include the practice of these cognitive-linguistic skills as part of their daily reading
curriculum.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
This empirical investigation had two broad aims. Firstly, it aimed to determine whether
Grade 4 ESL learners from Lesotho can significantly improve their reading fluency,
syntactical awareness, word recognition, vocabulary knowledge, and reading
comprehension following a nine-month reading intervention period which involved
specific instruction and scaffolding to develop their English reading skills. Secondly, the
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researchers were interested in determining whether there were any significant
relationships between certain reading-related skills in Grade 4 ESL learners. These skills
are reading fluency, word recognition, vocabulary knowledge, syntactical awareness, and
reading comprehension.
Results addressing the first aim demonstrated the benefits of a reading intervention
programme which considers multiple strategies to improve L2 readers’ reading skills.
The intervention programme, based on the SVR model, included the use of multi-sensory
coding techniques to enhance L2 language proficiency and vocabulary knowledge and
decoding of words; fluency exercises to foster automatic/fluent recall of sight words; and
repeated reading activities to enhance text fluency. In addition, ESL readers were guided
via effective scaffolding to apply reading comprehension strategies. With regard to the
second aim, we found significant relationships between L2 reading comprehension and
the following reading-related factors included in the current investigation: sight word
fluency, word recognition, syntax, and vocabulary knowledge. In the general discussion
that follows, we will reflect on previous L2 reading research and integrate this with
findings from the current study by highlighting the following key components of the SVR
model which we included in this investigation, namely: word-reading ability (i.e. sight
word fluency and word recognition) and language comprehension ability (i.e. vocabulary
and syntactical awareness), including the application of meta-cognitive strategies to
enhance reading comprehension
Sight word fluency and word reading ability
There seems to be general consensus amongst L1 and L2 reading researchers that reading
fluency is determined to a substantial extent by the ability to recognize words rapidly and
efficiently (Landi, 2010; Koda, 2005). In line with this argument, one of the predicaments
facing struggling L2 readers is their inability to recognize words correctly at an automatic
response level (Grabe & Stoller, 2002; Koda, 2005). It is hypothesised that their slow or
inefficient word recognition processes constrain the flow of information to the text-
interpretation and comprehension processes, and thus limit the amount of text
information that can be taken in and processed in a limited-capacity comprehension
system creating a bottleneck (Koda, 2005; NRP, 2000). Focusing on the current
investigation, the researchers included activities that addressed both higher- and lower-
order reading skills, namely multi-sensory coding activities to enhance word decoding
and recognition, as well as fluency exercises to support ESL learners to read fluently (at
an automatic response level). Results from the current investigation have yielded
moderate correlations between reading fluency, word recognition, and reading
comprehension, thus supporting previous research on the possible inter-relatedness of
sight word automaticity, reading fluency, and reading comprehension (Landi, 2010: 701,
702; NRP, 2000). In addition, the results confirm the importance of word-reading ability
as one of the key pillars of the SVR model.
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Vocabulary
Researchers have stressed the importance of oral language skills as a foundation for the
development of literacy and especially reading (Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 388).
While there is converging evidence of the positive effect of direct vocabulary instruction
on primary phase first-language English-speaking children, research indicates that the
effects of direct vocabulary instruction with English second-language learners have not
yet been well established (Crevecoeur, Coyne & McCoach, 2014: 53). Moreover, it has
been argued that, in the case of ESL children who often develop their English language
and reading skills concurrently, having well-developed language skills is crucial,
especially when the focus of reading shifts from decoding skills to developing effective
reading comprehension (Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 388). Researchers and
educationalists involved in both L1 and L2 reading agree that vocabulary knowledge is an
excellent predictor of reading success and that vocabulary and reading comprehension are
highly correlated. Verhoeven (2007: 123) states that vocabulary as a measure of
background knowledge can be seen as one of the most important components in reading.
A rich vocabulary saturates the central processes of global interpretation, inference
tracking, and comprehension monitoring during reading. Vocabulary can be categorised
into meaning vocabulary and utility vocabulary, the former being the words a person
understands, the latter those he or she actually uses (Nel, 2008: 126).
Researchers concur that children’s levels of reading comprehension are affected by the
types of opportunity available to them for building an extensive lexicon. These
opportunities in turn depend on the learner’s exposure to a language-rich environment.
This means that children with extensive vocabularies are likely to read successfully
(Farnia & Geva, 2011: 2). It also has clear implications for both L1 and L2 readers from
impoverished linguistic environments including children who have insufficient
language experiences as well as children who learn English as a second language
(Bernhardt, 2005; Koda, 2005; Nation, 2009; Stahl, 2003), placing them in a higher risk
category in terms of having reading problems.
Furthermore, fast and efficient word recognition, word encoding, and lexical access are
necessary for a higher level of semantic processing and the construction of meaning, all
of which are closely related to effective vocabulary production (Nation, 2009). For many
L2 readers, the presence of a high density of unknown words in a text may seriously
hinder comprehension (Nation, 2009). Concurrent with previous research (Nation, 2009;
Stahl, 2003), the current study yielded significant correlations between vocabulary and
reading comprehension. The results of the Pearson correlation analysis showed a
significant and very strong correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary
knowledge (r = 0.81). This confirms previous research findings by Qian (1999: 282), who
also finds very high correlations (r = .82) between the vocabulary scores and scores on
the TOEFL reading comprehension test; and Laufer (1992: 95; 1996: 55), whose
extensive research on different types of vocabulary size tests and reading comprehension
tests show high correlations between vocabulary size and reading comprehension.
Moreover, results from the present investigation corroborate recent findings from a study
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conducted by Crevecoeur and colleagues (2014: 54) that demonstrate the positive
outcomes of vocabulary instruction on reading comprehension for both L1 and L2
learners. In their study L2 learners general vocabulary knowledge increased at even a
faster rate than that of the L1 learners in their study. Post-test results further showed that
there was no statistically significant difference at the end of the study, demonstrating that
both L1 and L2 learners equally benefited as a result of the vocabulary intervention (see
Crevecoeur et al., 2014: 54).
Given the impact of vocabulary size on reading comprehension, practically speaking,
vocabulary size should receive much more attention in L2 classrooms. It is therefore
imperative that teachers create quality opportunities to improve L2 readers’ vocabulary
development. This includes encouraging L2 children through interactive conversation and
using pedagogically sound vocabulary activities to expand the size of ESL learners
vocabularies to support their reading comprehension.
Syntactical awareness
Syntactical ability is closely related to word reading, vocabulary knowledge, and reading
comprehension (Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 388). It has been argued that syntactical
abilities support word-recognition skills by allowing a reader to use the syntactic
constraints of a sentence to decode unfamiliar words, and reading comprehension by
facilitating sentence- and text-level integration and monitoring skills (Cain, 2007: 679-
680; Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 388). Thus, it is quite apparent why L2 learners
with limited vocabulary knowledge may have difficulty in combining sentences and
articulating the rules of syntax in English. Given that significant correlations for syntax
have been established in the acquisition of reading comprehension by monolingual
learners, and the limited research available on the possible inter-relatedness of syntactical
awareness and reading comprehension amongst ESL readers, the researchers in the
current investigation were particularly interested in investigating the role that syntactical
awareness might play in the development of reading comprehension of Grade 4 ESL
learners. Results from the current study point to a moderate, but significant relationship (r
= 0.63) between Grade 4 ESL learners syntactical skills and reading comprehension.
From the above, it is likely that, with more exposure to English syntax and grammatical
rules, ESL learners may develop better syntactical awareness skills which can make a
further contribution to improving reading comprehension in ESL learners.
Reading comprehension
Reading comprehension has been shown to be influenced by cognitive-linguistic and
other reading-related factors, such as verbal working memory, phonological awareness,
word decoding, and reading fluency, syntax, vocabulary, prior knowledge, and cognitive
and meta-cognitive reading strategies (Geva & Farnia, 2012; Farnia & Geva, 2013).
Although limited, research comparing L2 readers to L1 readers concurs that L2 reading
comprehension is a major challenge for L2 learners. Furthermore, researchers assert that
the SVR model of reading development (discussed earlier) is also applicable to L2
reading development (see Geva & Massey-Garrison, 2012: 387; Farnia & Geva, 2013),
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highlighting the interplay of both oral language skills for example syntax, vocabulary and
listening comprehension and word reading abilities in L2 reading development. Although
word recognition and oral language skills are distinct component skills with independent
contributions to reading comprehension, they are also reciprocally related.
Drawing from Bernhardt’s (2005) theoretical model, L2 researchers stress the importance
of L1 literacy skills in fostering and buttressing L2 reading comprehension. With regard
to L2 reading comprehension, Guo and Roehrig (2011) in particular emphasise the role of
L2 language-specific factors (e.g. vocabulary) and L2 grammatical factors (e.g.
syntactical awareness), as well as general and transferable reading knowledge factors
(e.g. metacognitive awareness of reading strategies), and how these different components
interact during the L2 reading process. The above has specific relevance for the present
study, since the reading-intervention strategies aimed to improve L2 leaners’ reading
comprehension in general by specifically targeting their challenges with regard to their
vocabulary and syntactical abilities, whilst they were purposively guided (via scaffolding)
to apply meta-cognitive strategies (see the intervention programme). Researchers (see
Rupley, Blair & Nicols, 2009: 126) further argue that reading comprehension is a skill
with a knowledge base that is similar to all of the elements that support it; hence it should
be taught explicitly. According to them, explicit teaching of reading comprehension can
be described as imparting new information to readers through meaningful teacher-child
interactions and the teacher’s guidance of the learners learning. This means that ESL
teachers should be familiar with all the necessary reading comprehension strategies and
should employ both bottom-up and top-down processes. Focusing on classroom support
to develop L2 reading comprehension, researchers concur that explicit instructional
approaches and scaffolding of reading skills, including the use of multimedia, are
beneficial in improving vocabulary and reading comprehension, irrespective of whether it
is being developed for L1 or L2 reading comprehension (NRP, 2000).
This viewpoint provided the rationale for including a combination of strategies and
techniques to improve the reading comprehension of Grade 4 ESL learners in the current
investigation. Indeed this yielded positive results. Despite having had significant delays
in reading-related skills and reading comprehension prior to the intervention, Grade 4
ESL learners in the current study improved significantly with regard to all reading-related
variables. The learners’ exposure to the explicit instruction of reading-related skills and
scaffolding to apply higher-order comprehension strategies (such as questioning,
predicting, making inferences, and summarizing) resulted in a noticeable improvement in
their reading comprehension. During the reading intervention sessions ESL learners were
introduced to the title, pictures, and new vocabulary in a reading passage or story before
they formally engaged in the reading activity. Through the application of the ReQuest,
they were also guided to use reading comprehension strategies such as predicting,
questioning, making inferences, and summarising or retelling stories in English. Finally,
results from this investigation have demonstrated significant correlations with the
following reading-related skills: fluency, word recognition, vocabulary, and syntax. This
lends further support to the notion that a reading-intervention programme which aims to
improve the reading comprehension of ESL learners should integrate both cognitive-
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linguistic and specific reading-related skills, including guiding ESL learners to apply
comprehension monitoring strategies. Furthermore, it demonstrated the important role of
teachers as reading facilitators in creating positive reading experiences in enabling
reading environments to promote the skills necessary to improve reading whilst also
generating a “love” for reading.
CONCLUSION
The specific reading skills that learners need to acquire to become proficient readers,
regardless of their primary language are well established. According to the SVR model,
both word recognition and oral language processing skills (i.e. vocabulary, verbal
working memory, and morphosyntactic skills) affect the development of sufficient
reading comprehension for both L1 and L2 learners (Babayiğit, 2015: 528). Researchers
argue that difficulties in either of these two component skills can contribute to difficulties
with reading comprehension. Moreover, research findings have shown that weaknesses
within the oral language domain could contribute to difficulties with reading
comprehension even when children have adequate word recognition skills (Nation, 2009)
For example, the study of Catts and colleagues (Catts, Tomblin, Compton & Bridges,
2012) involving older primary school learners, have identified problems with oral
language skills as one of the main factors contributing to reading comprehension
difficulties (Catts et al., 2012). In addition, the available research findings on both L1 and
L2 children’s academic achievement and literacy development, although limited, show
the interrelatedness of language proficiency and subsequent reading skills which are
important prerequisites for learning in content areas for both L1 and L2 children
(Verhoeven, 2007; Gottardo, Chiappe, Yan, Siegel & Gu, 2006; McCardle, Scarborough
& Catts, 2001). Against the backdrop of so many ESL children being wrongly diagnosed
as having learning disabilities, much more research is needed on L2 language and reading
development. Future research should focus specifically on the development of
appropriate assessment measures, effective instructional approaches, effective
interventions, the appropriate training of teachers and their empowerment to address the
reading- and literacy-related challenges of ESL learners.
The current study demonstrated the benefits of creating an L2 literacy environment that
fosters the development of both top-down and bottom-up reading skills. Moreover, this
study agrees with that of Wang and Gutrie (2004) who challenge the complete dismissal
of L1 in the L2 classroom. The present study has highlighted the possible benefits of
using L1 to acquire L2 reading skills for the facilitation of the pedagogical process. In
terms of the dual aim of the current investigation, firstly, Grade 4 ESL learners
significantly improved in all reading-outcome variables included in this investigation.
Secondly, the researchers also examined the possible relationships between L2 reading-
related skills and L2 reading comprehension. Similar to previous research (see Gottardo
et al., 2006; McCardle et al., 2001), the results from the current investigation demonstrate
that L2 reading fluency, word recognition, vocabulary knowledge, and syntactical
awareness correlate significantly with L2 reading comprehension, confirming the
possible inter-relatedness of ESL cognitive-linguistic and reading-related skills.
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PEDAGOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
We have identified several implications that apply to ESL pedagogical contexts in
Lesotho and other Southern African countries. First, one of the major stumbling blocks
that ESL learners face in learning English is their lack of vocabulary. This makes it
difficult for them to express themselves in English or to predict the meanings of words in
context (Asraf & Ahmad, 2003). Secondly, ESL learners’ challenges are further
exacerbated by many ESL teachers’ limited subject and pedagogical knowledge of
English and because they have had very little exposure to a wide range of lexis, syntax,
and genres in English in the school and community (Nel, 2008: 152-153). This is
particularly true for the rural areas in Southern Africa, where educators are not fluent in
English and where there are very few libraries and resource centres. As a consequence,
teachers’ poor English abilities are passed on to many of their learners, with far-reaching
effects (Hugo & Nieman, 2010: 61-68). Third, acknowledging that the role of L1 reading
skills on L2 reading development is dynamic and multifaceted calls for the
implementation of multiple strategies and reflective measures to explore and support L2
readers’ reading development. Researchers stress the importance of empirically validated
research findings to guide ESL literacy development; therefore the real progress of ESL
readers depends on the ability to apply what is learned from classroom interventions. In
agreement with this idea, the current findings have strengthened our theoretical and
pedagogical knowledge with regard to ESL learners’ reading development, and have
demonstrated the value of using L1 in a supportive way to develop L2 vocabulary and to
consider multiple strategies to develop L2 reading (for example the interactive
vocabulary sessions where the “word wall” and learners’ L1 target words, were used to
improve their L2 vocabulary words). In addition, it supports previous research which
challenges the complete elimination of L1 in the L2 classroom. Therefore teachers should
allow for a gradual phasing out of L1 and should be much more tolerant of weaker L2
readers by allowing them to use their L1 skills to develop into more proficient L2 readers.
In conclusion, research findings have shown that struggling readers from challenging
socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to catch up as they progress through the
school system, irrespective of their language background (see Kieffer, 2012; Babayiğit,
2015: 544). Thus it is imperative to identify struggling L2 readers and provide effective
support as early as possible (within a responsive educational environment). Given the
central role of oral language processing skills both in reading comprehension as well as
its role across the curriculum, researchers have called for concerted efforts to meet the
challenges of delivering programmes to support the oral language development of
children. At the same time such programmes could help to bridge the developmental gaps
between L1 and L2 learners, especially those from lower socio-economic environments,
who are often deprived of quality linguistic input at home as well (Babayiğit, 2015: 544).
With regard to limitations in the present study, the authors would like to note the
following: The fact that the study was carried out at one sample school has an influence
on the generalisability of this findings. A further limitation that should be noted is the
lack of measuring instruments developed and standardised specifically for L2 learner
populations (evident in the present study as well). Having said this, however, the findings
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from this study demonstrated the significant gains made by learners in the experimental
group with regard to all measuring instruments that were administered (i.e. tests
administered to determine their reading abilities prior to and after the intervention study).
Furthermore, to some extent it did support the underlying claims of the SVR model,
namely it showed that the teaching of word recognition and word decoding skills,
together with skills that improve language comprehension (such as vocabulary, syntax
and the ability to comprehend spoken and written language) played an important role in
improving the comprehension skills of ESL learners in the present study. Therefore it is
imperative that current research and empirical studies on the effective support of L2
readers should be prioritised, focusing on the most contemporary reading approaches, and
build on existing and emerging information, including studies of responses to
intervention approaches. In this way, all learners, including ESL learners, will be given
equal educational opportunities and advance as readers.
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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Annalene van Staden is a senior lecturer/researcher in the Faculty of Humanities,
University of the Free State (UFS), South Africa. She obtained her PhD in 2006 in the
department Psychology of Education, UFS. Her research interests/area of specialisation
is Psycho-linguistics. She is currently the grant holder of a research project financed by
the National Research Foundation of South Africa (CPRR grant for rated researchers),
entitled the “Cognitive-linguistic processing of learners with typical and atypical patterns
of development”.
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We examined data from an 18-week kindergarten vocabulary intervention study to determine whether treatment outcomes had differential effects that favored English language learners (ELLs) or English-only learners (EOLs) and whether the relationship between initial English general receptive vocabulary knowledge and response to vocabulary intervention differed as a function of language status. Participants from 3 northeastern U.S. elementary schools within 3 separate school districts were assigned to either a treatment condition (ELLs, n = 31; EOLs, n = 49) or no-treatment condition (ELLs, n = 17; EOLs, n = 25). Trained interventionists delivered direct vocabulary instruction using 1 storybook twice per week in 20- to 25-min sessions. Results from 2 × 2 analyses of variance indicated that participants performed better if they were (a) in the treatment condition rather than the no-treatment condition and (b) categorized as an EOL rather than an ELL with evidence of an interaction effect on a target-word knowledge measure (TWKM). Regression analyses indicated that (a) the centered pretest Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test–III (PPVT–III) accounted for a statistically significant proportion of the variance in posttest measures for treatment participants and (b) language status did not explain any additional variance in posttest measures. Each of the 3 mediation models for the dependent measures TWKM, PPVT–III, and listening comprehension, using the independent variable language status and the mediating variable centered pretest PPVT–III, resulted in full mediation. Findings indicate that treatment ELLs and treatment EOLs would most likely perform equally well on posttest target-word and general receptive vocabulary measures if they had similar initial English general receptive vocabulary knowledge.
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Cambridge Core - ELT Applied Linguistics - Learning Vocabulary in Another Language - by I. S. P. Nation
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