Word Meaning Strategies for Emerging Bilinguals

This summer, students in READ 6313 Literacy Development and Language Study were asked to contribute a post to this blog.

By Rebekah Munoz

Reading for an emerging bilingual can be quite frustrating while encountering many unfamiliar words. Most of the time these students will simply skip over unknown words and keep reading which negatively affects their comprehension. Other times they will ask a friend or teacher for the meaning of the word. I am guilty of quickly offering a word meaning to continue with instruction. The last resort is usually the dictionary. Although sometimes beneficial, most students do not understand how to look up words and run into more challenges trying to understand the definitions. I have had many students who find the reading task too difficult with few experiences of success so they quickly become turned off to reading all together. During this summer course while reading From Phonics to Fluency and other online articles, I have found many effective strategies and activities that will help struggling emerging bilinguals during the reading process. My focus now is to encourage students to become problem-solvers so they can become independent thinkers and discover word meanings effectively.

One strategy I have used before was teaching my students word parts such as the suffix and prefix. I had a list of these affixes posted on the wall and every now and then would draw attention to them whenever I remembered. This method was not effective and did not support word meaning. One change I will start implementing this year will be for my students to become active participants in word meaning activities so they can internalize the information. Instead of just having a predetermined list on the wall, I want them to create their own affix word chart.

Teachers can give a list of words starting with the same prefix for students to decode. This will allow them to see how words can be broken into smaller units of meaning. This activity can be extended by having them create a word web to come up with additional words with the same prefix. This allows them to think of other similar word parts on their own. Once completed, the word web can be posted on the wall for future reference. This activity is meaningful because students become investigators of the word meaning process.

Another strategy I find particularly effective is the use of cognates. Cognates are words that can share similar either spelling or sound in two different languages. Such as rosa is Spanish and rose in English. I have just recently discovered the use and benefits of cognates; in fact, as a beginning teacher I was instructed to permit English only in the classroom. I now see how ridiculous it is to disregard my students’ first language especially when it supports the learning of a second language. An easy activity would be to have small groups of students skim through a book to look for words which are similar in Spanish. They can create a word wall to list all the cognates in Spanish and English. Once again this word wall can be posted for future reference and would be continuously added to throughout the year. Using cognates increases their vocabulary and supports the learning process to read and speak in English. Most importantly, it also allows them to use their background knowledge and strengths as a Spanish speaker.

These strategies are easy to use and prove effective to help emerging bilinguals become proficient second language readers. Once students learn new strategies to attack word meanings they will discover that they can figure out unknown words independently.

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