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Visualizing: Essential for Reading Comprehension in Secondary ELLs

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A great strategy to use with ELLs after you have built some background on a topic is visualizing. I feel like this is a reading comprehension strategy that is often overlooked in high school English classes because it feels a bit juvenile, but it is ESSENTIAL for good reading comprehension. Without the mental picture or movie in the mind a lot of reading just doesn’t make sense. Think about how much you visualize when you read!

Visualizing can be tricky for ELLs since the vocabulary and background of many texts gets in the way of them creating good mental pictures. I always use a class read aloud as a touchstone in my classroom. It promotes community and gives student a common base of knowledge. This way I can focus on specific background knowledge and vocabulary and really be purposeful building that up before we begin reading. Read more about how I use this strategy in this post.

After I’ve built a lot of background on a topic and done pre-reading vocabulary work, I like to have the students practice visualizing. If we are reading historical fiction, visualizing after background building is very important so that I know the students are correctly picturing what the historical context looks like. One book I like to do this for is Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

I absolutely love, love, love teaching is Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. A reading specialist colleague recommended it years ago and I have taught it successfully to many ELLs and struggling readers in middle and high school. The rich historical context, complex themes, and compelling characters make it super interesting to kids. The text is higher than what I typically use with level 1-2 class of ELLs, but if you have a mixed level class with more intermediate students than newcomers you could use this book.

We do a ton of background building around the American Revolution and slavery before we start reading. I’ll be posting about that separately.

After building background about the historical context and setting I like to do several visualizing activities to make sure the kids are able to really picture it looks like for the characters in the book. There is a visualizing freebie in my Freebie Library.

If you don’t need the download, the activity looks like this: Project and read aloud chapter 5 starting on page 27 where New York City in 1776 is described. (The text starts with “The ship was tied up at a long dock.”) I’ve typed up the passage for you to project and/or print to give to kids in the freebie, but reading aloud could also work. Then kids will draw what they picture as they read the passage. I like to project it for ELLs because they can keep referencing the actual words as they draw.

I’ll be sharing more about how I teach this book in future posts. For now here’s a link to my TPT product on Chains.

Making sure students can visualize what they are reading is a very important strategy successful reading comprehension. Since ELLs can have a hard time with visualizing concepts or themes that they are unfamiliar with, pre-teaching vocabulary and background first and then seeing how well they can visualize is a great way to improve their overall understanding of a text.

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