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NCE professor publishes key findings on ESL education

September 12, 2012

New research from National Louis proves the ability of adult English language learners to read aloud in English is affected by the learner’s original writing system.

A study conducted by Kristin Lems, Ed.D., professor in the National College of Education, examined the oral reading of English language learners compared with the learner’s original orthography, or writing system.  Lems’ study shows that learners coming from the Roman alphabet transition to oral English reading with the greatest ease, followed by learners from a different alphabetic system, such as Bulgarians.  Chinese speakers, coming from a logo-syllabic orthography which is character based, require the most time to obtain oral reading fluency skills.  Lems’ findings were published in the inaugural edition of the journal “Writing Systems Research.”

“The closer the orthography of the English language learner was to English, the more accurately and more quickly they read [aloud] in English,” Lems said. “You might say that’s a no-brainer, but there wasn’t any research proving that.”

The study tested the fluency skills of 232 literate adult English language learners.  Students using variations of the Roman alphabet grasped English oral reading skills most quickly.  This group included Spanish speakers and Polish speakers, who need less “triangulation” to interpret the sounds and letters of the English language and alphabet.  Native speakers of other alphabetic writing systems, such Ukrainians and Bulgarians, whose languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, made more miscues reading aloud in English.  Native speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, whose written language contains less of a phonological component than alphabetic systems, posted significantly lower oral reading fluency scores.  In particular, native Chinese speakers were unfamiliar with the reciprocal relationship between symbols and sounds found in alphabets.

Lems says her study shows English as a second language instructors need to differentiate their reading instruction working with adult learners or young learners.

“Teachers of students from a similar orthography [to English] should be helping students work on looking for meaning as they read, because it’s easy for them to just trip along and decode,” Lems said. “With the Chinese speakers, [teachers] have to work on teaching skills of rapid decoding.”

In particular, Lems suggests speakers from a language using the Roman alphabet such as Spanish speakers, engage in small group reading, in which readers stop frequently and retell what they have just read to a partner.  This will help avoid the phenomenon commonly called “word calling.” For groups with logo-syllabic writing systems, Lems recommends students practice reading passages with easier decoding, slowly building up to tackle the irregularities of the English language.  Teachers should expect speakers from logo-syllabic writing systems to read more slowly and to engage in word-by-word translation as they are learning English, and should accommodate their needs accordingly.

Lems stresses her study is not an indication of ability to read, rather stressing a different point of entry into reading influenced by the proximity the two writing systems. Her next line of research is to examine how English as a second language teachers can effectively create differentiated learning plans in an era of overworked teachers.


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