Improving Comprehension: Part 1

Welcome to the Improving Reading Comprehension Series!

This will begin a series of 5 posts about the relationship between reading fluency and reading comprehension, especially in ELL/ESL students. For the purpose of this post and further posts about this topic, I will refer to students whose first language is something other than English as ELLs or English Language Learners. You can expect to be given the most important research that has been found, and over the course of the five blog posts hopefully gained some valuable knowledge and strategies about teaching ELL students!

Part 1: Introduction, Research & Asking Questions
Part 2: Purpose of Inquiry and Methods
Part 3: Evidence from the Classroom
Part 4: Results & Conclusions
Part 5: Next Steps

So, let's get started! I will keep it brief to begin.

Whether you teach ELL students or not, you know that the relationship between fluency and comprehension is important. Almost all research suggests that reading fluency in native English speakers is a direct indication of their reading achievement and reading comprehension level. In ELL students, I have found that this is not the case. I see a large gap between oral reading fluency and what the students can comprehend, in my experience.  In an article written by Matthew Quirk & Sofie Beem (2012), a study was done that found the correlation between reading fluency and reading comprehension was weaker in ELL students than that of native English speakers.  There have been a number of studies done in specific countries to examine this correlation including Turkey, Thailand, Korea, and Egypt that I could find so far.

In the setting I currently teach in, all the students in my class are ELLs. There are no native English speakers at all, so one challenge I face is students speaking in Arabic when they 'turn and talk' as we are discussing a text. It then becomes a challenge for them to translate back what they were discussing in Arabic so that I can understand as well. Other challenges I find are irrelevant content, context and challenging vocabulary. Making meaning is especially important for these students.

I would love your feedback to help me focus in on some specific aspects of reading that you find your students particularly struggle with.  Please post answers to any of the following questions in the comments section below! Please begin with a line about where you teach and the makeup of your classroom.

  • Do you find there is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension in your ELL students? 
  • What is the biggest challenge you face when teaching reading to ELL students?
  • What strategies do you use to ensure students are comprehending what they are reading?
Thank you, I really appreciate your feedback!


  1. Do you find there is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension in your ELL students? Yes, I have found a disconnect and it in my opinion basically because the students are spending so much of their mental capacity decoding words as they read they forget to "recall, comprehend, and/or either understand" what they are reading.

    What is the biggest challenge you face when teaching reading to ELL students? Finding reading material that interest them. When teaching reading it is important that reading is enjoyable as students are developing their reading skills.

    What strategies do you use to ensure students are comprehending what they are reading? Allowing students to use post-it notes to either write a phrase or illustrate a drawing after they read sentences or paragraphs in order for them recall once they complete the enter book or passage.


  2. I teach in the Western Reagion of the United Arab Emirates. The make-up of my classroom is 100% ELL learners.
    I think you make some very great points in your article. I too agree that there is a large gap in fluency and actually understanding. For example, I have noted in my students that they may be able to read 110 words per minute, but their comprehension abilitiy ends up being a 1 out of 5 questions. I feel that this is because they are drilled in saying the words but do not comprehend the meaning of the words they are saying. I think this is one of the biggest challenges that we face teaching ELL students. They gain phonetic awareness in the early years but by the time they reach 4th and 5th grade, they have never spent enough time practicing understanding what they have read. I have found one strategy that works is to have them read a short paragraph multiple times and then summarize what they read using the 5 W's. I have also found that if you give them the question first, discuss it so they know what they need to find, and then let them read their comprehension gets better. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

  3. I think this is a great topic of conversation! One that interests me a lot! I will also try and keep my responses brief, but I do have a lot to say. Just so you have an idea of my background, I am currently teaching 5 and 6 year old students here in Brunei. I also help teach the lower level students in year 1 to year 6. All of these students are ELL.

    Firstly, I notice a HUGE divide in my students reading fluency and their comprehension. Seeing as the Malay letter sounds are the same as in English, students here have an advantage when it comes to decoding words. BUT many do not understand what they are reading. This is currently a major issue at the school I am teaching at. Actually, it seems to be an issue everywhere. I am having to go to school on weekends and help these students with comprehension.

    As I mentioned previously, comprehension is the greatest challenge I am currently facing. I feel a strength of mine is teaching how to read unknown words, but following on from that, comprehension of the words in text can be difficult to teach. For example, yesterday I got one of the students to read the following sentence, "Siti and Mohammed went to the shop and got milk and eggs". I then questioned him on the sentence he just read. He was not able to answer the simple who, where or what questions I posed. He knew the words 'shop', 'milk' and 'eggs, but it was like he was not able to comprehend them in a sentence OR the questions I posed.

    What do I do to help students with comprehension? I model reading a text and answering questions. I show how to go back through the text to find the answer. I also question the students a lot when I am reading to the students...who, what where, when, why and how.

    As I said, this topic does interest me and I look forward to reading your blog to get some insightful information. It will also be of interest to me to read what others have to say. Love the blog!

  4. There is definitely a disconnect between reading fluency and comprehension in my ELL classroom. I find that this would be especially true because I teach grade 1 where students are just beginning to learn phonics and decoding skills as well as new vocabulary. Not only do they spend so much time on decoding words (as they would in any grade 1 classroom) but they also are decoding words that may not be very familiar with. This combinations greatly decreases their comprehension.

    Strategies I use to help my ELL students comprehend what they are reading:
    - introduce vocabulary that will be in the reading passage
    - break reading passages into shorter segments allowing students to draw each section as they read

  5. • Do you find there is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension in your ELL students?
    I have definitely found a disconnect between reading comprehension and fluency, working with mostly ESL students over the last 4 years. Much time has been spent on letters, vowels and sounds, that while reading they are focusing on how to say the word correctly, instead of trying to also make sense of what the sentence/text is trying to convey. In order for them to understand and comprehend what the text is saying, I find myself reading the text to them and explaining what is being conveyed.
    • What is the biggest challenge you face when teaching reading to ELL students?
    Making reading enjoyable and interesting.
    • What strategies do you use to ensure students are comprehending what they are reading?
    I try to explain as much of the text that I can in order for them to understand what the text is about. In some cases I pair students up and have them read and explain to each other what they have read.

  6. Thank you for the post. Love the discussion that has been generated and look forward to what will follow. I will answer from a 1-2 grade perspective.
    • Do you find there is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension in your ELL students?
    There is definitely a disconnection between their comprehension and their fluency. Students are learning new sounds to letters, new vocabulary, new skills/strategies to help them read a passage,etc... there is a lot going on when a student is learning to read and most times the context of the text is lost - not just because they do not remember what they read, but a lot of the meaning is lost because they simply do not have knowledge of some of the vocabulary used.

    • What is the biggest challenge you face when teaching reading to ELL students?
    Currently, access to reading material that is level appropriate and engaging. Some students have never cultivated the love for reading, especially in English.

    • What strategies do you use to ensure students are comprehending what they are reading?
    Discuss the topic of the story - what could it be about? What are some possible words you might here a lot in the story? Discuss some key vocabulary words in the text that will shape their comprehension. Discuss and retell the story in small chunks. Ask questions as we go along. Predict and infer throughout the text. Ask about their opinions and feelings regarding what they read. Illustrate/write a sentence or sentences about what happened in the beginning, middle and end.

  7. Thank you for all of your comments! I really appreciate it. What I can gather from almost all of us is that our biggest challenges are finding appropriate reading material for the areas we are in and the level of our students, and instilling a love of reading in our students. We all struggle with their comprehension as the early years tend to focus on phonics before comprehension. I always try to image myself in their position, and give them credit for how well they do!

    Some of the strategies I have gathered that you use before reading include inferring from pictures, introducing unknown vocabulary and discussing their prior knowledge about the texts. During reading, some strategies used include breaking down passages into shorter pieces, questioning a lot using the 5 Ws, and simply explaining when things cannot be inferred. After reading, some strategies include explaining using the 5 Ws, modelling how to find answers within the text, and allowing students to use pictures to illustrate what they have understood about the text.

    I have found all of these strategies useful in my classroom as I'm sure you all have, however I think we need to dig deeper into the strategies we actually use when we question, how we question, how we choose vocabulary words to pre-teach, how we pre-teach these words and how we can better allow the students to make meaning from what they read.

    Thank you for your responses, as they will help me further my focus of inquiry!