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April 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 7

A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading

Focusing reading on one author or theme—using children's literature—helps language learners cross over into academic reading.

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Imagine entering a school in which everyone speaks a language that is completely unfamiliar to you. You try to navigate through this new, challenging—and sometimes frightening—environment. In the classroom, you struggle to pay attention to lesson after lesson, to find the right words so you can respond in class. As you race to catch up to peers who don't have to fathom new, intricate concepts in an unfamiliar language, you feel overwhelmed. Now imagine that the complexity of your reading assignments sharply increases as you reach 3rd grade—and increases at a quickening speed thereafter.
This is the reality for English language learners, the fastest-growing group in U.S. schools today. Most language learners who enter U.S. schools in the primary grades make good academic progress, but many fall behind around 3rd grade because of the changing cognitive demands of increasingly print-based instruction (Olsen, 2006). The volume and scope of academic language used for discussions, reading, and writing in intermediate grades and beyond are daunting, even to some native English speakers. For students learning English, these demands can be insurmountable.
One strategy to help intermediate-level English language learners (ELLs) develop skill with academic language and access grade-level curriculums is to guide them in narrow reading with children's literature. Narrow reading refers to the reading of texts focused on one subject or tightly defined theme—or by one author. Applying this strategy to reading children's books, which may present more concrete concepts and use simpler language than textbooks, provides a bridge to complex academic reading.

Lightening the Load

To support ELLs' academic achievement, teachers must consider both the language and the cognitive "loads" of instruction (Meyer, 2000). Lessons or texts with a lot of specialized vocabulary (such as biome, genre, or democracy) have a heavy language load. The language of classroom work (for example, learning stations or compare/contrast) may add to that load. The cognitive load refers to the difficulty of the concepts presented and the level of instructional materials. Effective teachers understand the need to balance cognitive and language demands so ELLs don't become overloaded on either end. Particularly when new and difficult concepts are presented, instruction must be in language the learner can easily understand.
Unfortunately, textbooks often increase the cognitive load with their encyclopedic nature; lack of specificity; and use of abstract, technical vocabulary and unfamiliar text structures. Children's literature—including picture books, easy readers, and early-reading-level nonfiction and chapter books—can be a rich source of support.
A large amount of good children's literature exists, and the choices feature a range of topics, formats, and language complexity that makes them accessible to learners with varying levels of linguistic proficiency and diverse cultural backgrounds. Considering the wide variance in age, grade, ability, maturity level, and linguistic and cultural background of students who stand to benefit from children's books, it is counterproductive to restrict students to books targeted at their ages or grade levels. Sticking to books aimed at a student's chronological age leads educators to overlook books that could be valuable resources. For instance, many nonfiction picture books—with their focus on content and sophisticated graphics—have rich possibilities across all grade levels as read alouds, supplements to textbooks, or sources for building background knowledge before tackling complex texts.
Wide reading—sampling among different kinds of texts and topics—has been touted as an excellent way to practice reading skills and boost vocabulary. Initially, however, concentrating reading in one area may be the best technique for supporting English language learners. Broad reading can confuse ELLs because texts present so much new vocabulary and so many unfamiliar authorial styles. Although some publishers use readability formulas, decodable text, and controlled vocabulary to create texts at lower reading levels—or adapt texts to such levels—these techniques often result in boring, stilted stories. Many children's books stylistically repeat format, sentence structure, vocabulary, or content, but are more authentic and pleasing to read. For instance, Jim Arnosky's engaging All About … series features such animals as sharks and alligators that many students enjoy reading about. All books in the series use the same format and address similar topics (appearance, eating habits, habitat) to give readers a foundation of information about each animal group and a common descriptive vocabulary.
According to Stephen Krashen (2004), language learners acquire the structures and vocabulary of language through frequent exposure to such structures and new words in a "comprehensible context." English language learners must get past what Yang (2001) calls the "first few pages effect" of becoming intimidated by too many challenges early on in a book and giving up. Narrow reading of children's books helps students do this. Once ELLs build background knowledge about new concepts, pick up the rhythm of an author's style, or figure out the organizational pattern to a text, reading the rest of that text—and others like it—becomes easier.

Linking Narrow Reading and Children's Literature

What does narrow reading with children's books look like in the classroom? Several formats work well, including using a collection of texts centered on a single theme or topic; using books by one author; and concentrating on a single genre, subgenre, or format.

Focusing on One Topic

Narrow reading in a theme or single topic increases readers' background knowledge and provides more context for new vocabulary—both of which boost comprehension. Teachers can focus reading on a theme—such as inventions, music, or how people of different cultures relate to the natural environment—in one subject area; or they can work with colleagues to connect themed readings across multiple content areas, helping ELLs transfer knowledge across domains. Each topic or theme has its own related vocabulary. By immersing themselves in readings on one theme, ELLs will encounter key vocabulary related to a theme over and over and construct a network of relationships linking new words and concepts.
Keep some caveats in mind concerning the repetition of vocabulary and reading by theme. Gardner (2008) found limited repetition of vocabulary in thematic collections of narrative fiction, such as detective story series. In thematic collections of expository material, specialized vocabulary was repeated more often in books with precise themes and topics (such as predation or bees) than in books with loose themes (such as animal behavior or insects).
  • Stair-step books. Teachers can create a sequence of books ranging from lesser to greater difficulty on the basis of content, text length, vocabulary, layout, and amount of text versus illustrations, and start English language learners of different proficiency levels at different points. Offering books with both overlapping and different information gives English language learners many chances to encounter new concepts and vocabulary and thus to build up both language and knowledge.For example, for a unit on the topic of wolves, a "first step" book might be Jim Arnosky's Wolves: A One Whole Day Book, a simple overview of one day with a wolf family as the wolves play, eat, rest, and protect one another. With one sentence on each two-page spread, this book is ideal for an initial read aloud or as independent reading once you have introduced the topic.Stepping up in difficulty is Sandra Markle's Growing Up Wild: Wolves, which is divided into half-page color photos with accompanying paragraphs. The text begins with the birth of a litter and describes the wolves' growth, play, and learning. Seymour Simon's Wolvesprovides even more information with fewer photos. From here, teachers could guide students to a vast variety of wolf-related books, online selections, or sections of a textbook at different levels, up to the young adult novels about wolves by Jean Craighead George.
  • Branching out. Teachers can use a graphic organizer, such as a word web, to brainstorm different aspects of a topic. Provide books and online readings that go deeper into each aspect. For example, you might break the topic desert into geography (and assign Le Rochais's Desert Trek: An Eye-Opening Journey Through the World's Driest Places); desert animals (assigning Hodge's Desert Animals or Sayre's Dig, Wait, Listen: A Desert Toad's Tale); and desert plants (Bash's Desert Giant: The World of the Saguaro Cactus).Throughout the process, expand the web by adding vocabulary and new subtopics discovered through reading and discussion.
  • Wide-angle to close-up. Grouping reading choices from general to specific enables students who get hooked and want to explore a theme or topic further to venture into more titles. Reading collective biographies—such as Zaunders's Feathers, Flaps, and Flops: Fabulous Early Fliers—entices students to specialize in the stories that most intrigue them—for example, following up on Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn an airplane pilot's license, spotlighted in Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman.Animals Nobody Loves, Seymour Simon's collective biography of the unpleasant creatures in the animal kingdom, has been known to engage many intermediate and middle school–level students who were formerly uninterested in reading with the gross and ugly creatures it features.Once so engaged, students can dive into focused study of a specific unusual animal—and be further drawn in through amazing photographs—with books like Sandra Markle's Outside and Inside: Rats and Mice.

Concentrating on One Author

Because many authors write extensively on one topic, teachers can guide a language learner to read pairs of books or a thematic collection of books by the same writer. This links the strength of repeated vocabulary and content with a consistent, recognizable writing style to make reading easier and more inviting.
Any of the many books by Seymour Simon on the planets and the solar system, weather, or the human body could launch a thematic expository collection. Gail Gibbons and Jim Arnosky have each written multiple titles about various animals. All of these authors structure their books in a distinctive way. For instance, both Gibbons and Arnosky use detailed, colorful illustrations and graphically highlight key vocabulary, enabling language learners to gain familiarity with important text features as well as content and vocabulary.

Channeling Reading into One Subgenre

Grouping books by genre or subgenre (such as diaries, question-and-answer books, or books that tell "the story of…" certain objects) is also fruitful. Nonfiction series books, like those published by Franklin Watts (the How Would You Survive? series); Kingfisher (the Young Knowledge or Life and Times series); or Dorling Kindersley (the Eyewitness series) have a predictable format.
Reading many books within any subgenre of nonfiction, in particular, familiarizes students with specific formats, which they can duplicate in "write like" activities (Dorfman & Capelli, 2007; Meeks & Austin, 2003). After having students browse a collection of similarly formatted books, teachers can call attention to the books' similar structures and features (for instance, each page begins with a question in bold print that is answered in one paragraph). The texts serve as "mentor" texts that support English language learners' attempts at writing in a similar format.
The book list available atwww.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200904_hadaway_booklist.pdfshows how a teacher might organize a set of texts around one author or a particular subgenre. I focused on informational texts because building academic language and content knowledge is so crucial to English language learners' academic progress. But choosing multiple titles across genres is an excellent way to develop students' English, as well as their knowledge of different genres. Fiction offers a "hook" by adding a personal quality to academic content, and poetry can provide a powerful introduction to new concepts and supply rich language and imagery that strengthen vocabulary.
Teachers often feel unsure how to provide meaningful reinforcement to English language learners who become overwhelmed by increasingly complex concepts in grade-level instruction, textbooks, and assessments. Narrow reading is one support that makes a difference.

Dorfman, L. R., & Capelli, R. (2007). Mentor texts: Teaching writing through children's literature, K–6. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Gardner, D. (2008). Vocabulary recycling in children's authentic reading materials: A corpus-based investigation of narrow reading. Reading in a Foreign Language, 20, 92–122.

Krashen, S. (2004). The case for narrow reading. Language Magazine 3(5), 17–19. Available:www.sdkrashen.com/articles/narrow/all.html

Meeks, L. L., & Austin, C. J. (2003). Literacy in the secondary English classroom: Strategies for teaching the way kids learn. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Meyer, L. (2000). Barriers to meaningful instruction for English learners. Theory into Practice, 39, 228–236.

Olsen, L. (2006). Ensuring academic success for English learners. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 15, 1–8.

Yang, A. (2001). Reading and the non-academic learner: A mystery solved.System, 29, 451–466.

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