Help English Learners Comprehend Text by Making Connections
Updated: Jan 21
by Rachel Syrja
As a classroom teacher, my biggest frustration was excitedly asking my students to share their reflections with me after having read a chapter or passage only to have them stare back at me blankly, not being able to remember the details of what they’d just read.
It was that sense of frustration that set me on a quest to get my students to read purposefully and connect with what they were reading on a personal level.
Making connections while reading is a cornerstone to comprehending text, but it is a skill that can be challenging to teach when working with English Learners, many of whom have limited experiences and background knowledge. Those connections can make the difference between a student who actively engages with a text and a student who simply goes through the motions and does not comprehend what they are reading.
While many of our English learners have limited background knowledge, they certainly all have meaningful life experiences from which to pull in order to connect to what they are reading. Keep in mind that students must be taught explicitly how to use those experiences to help them make connections to the text.
Simply asking students to share their connections is not enough for them to comprehend and interact with the text in a meaningful way.
The first time you ask students to make connections, whether at the elementary or secondary level, it is important to do it collaboratively so that students have clarity and understand the expectations. For example, clearly explain that as you read the story, you’d like them to listen for events in it that may remind them of something they may have experienced in their own lives. In this way, you are setting students up to listen actively while also holding them accountable to make a connection to something from their own lives.
Students at the earliest levels of language acquisition can draw pictures of something they remember; they do not need to write or speak unless they feel comfortable doing so. You can also use a handout with preprinted sentence frames, such as “I remember when . . .” or “This reminds me of. . .”
For students at the higher levels of language acquisition, you can write the sentence frames on the board or create an anchor chart, which will make it easier for students to use the frames in their responses. You should always introduce and practice using frames prior to a lesson where you expect your students to use them.
For example, in the days preceding this lesson, you might have students work in pairs and respond to a prompt after a short read aloud in which you have them practice using a generic prompt such as, “This reminds me of a time when…” Once students demonstrate that they can use a prompt such as this one, then you can introduce 2 or 3 more. As students begin to feel more comfortable using these, you can continue to expand and add to their list. I also like to have student co-create frames with me.
Here is a list of some sentence frames you can use for connecting with a text:
• This part of the story reminds me of . . .
• What I just read reminds me of . . .
• This story makes me think about . . .
• This reminds me of a time when . . .
• I remember when . . .
The Strategy in Action: Text to Self Connections
Now that the students have become familiar with the frames, you can move on to implementing the strategy in its entirety:
Make sure students have their reading journals open or sticky notes available to jot down their connections. It will also be helpful to have chart paper available. In the early elementary grades, students can share their connections orally before attempting to write them down. For example, students can turn and talk to a partner using the sentence frames to structure their responses.
Choosing a vivid text, picture book, or culturally relevant selection will particularly help students at the early levels of language acquisition feel better able to connect with the story since they don’t have to focus so much on language and instead can depend on pictures and visual cues to help them connect to the story.
As you read sections of the text, stop occasionally and make your own connections using think-alouds to talk through the specific memory, person, or event that you have connected with. It is important to model this sequence for students and teach them that when they reach a good stopping point in the story, they should jot down whether they were reminded of a person, event, feeling, time or place. They can share their connections using the sentence frames that have been introduced and practiced.
Give students an opportunity to share their memories with a partner. Then ask if anyone would like to share a memory with the rest of the class. They can also share a memory they heard from a partner if the partner agrees this can be shared.
Jot down your own connections on chart paper using the sentence frames.
Reflect! The first time around, you should model how making connections helped you comprehend the text. Provide time for students to share how making those connections helped them comprehend and connect with the text and how it also motivated them to keep reading the text because of the connections they made.
Once your English Learners have had some experience making Text-to-Self connections, you can introduce them to Text-to-World and Text-to-Text connections. It is worth noting that making Text-to-Text connections and supporting those connections with textual evidence is a college and career readiness skill that will benefit all students. As with all strategies, remember that they should be modeled and practiced several times so that students are able to internalize them and use them without prompting.
What strategies do you use to help English Learners develop comprehension skills? Please share!