Why Reading is Vital to Middle School ESL Learner's Success:
It's not just about English.
Studies have shown that reading has immense benefits for youth, and these benefits may start as early as before children can even read. Reading is one way teens can spend less time looking at screens. Reading also translates into a multitude of benefits, including brain health and empathy.
Of course, as ESL teachers, we are interested primarily in helping our students improve their English fluency, and engaging middle school ESL learners in reading, both for learning and as a pastime will contribute to their English proficiency.
Let’s look at some of the benefits reading produces for teens who develop a passion and habit of reading from an English proficiency point of view:
- Wider range of vocabulary
- Improved literacy
- Improved writing skills
- Improved confidence with English
How to Choose a Book for Middle School ESL Learners
Choose Fiction over Non-fiction
One of the most important decisions to make is deciding what types of books middle school ESL learners should be reading. We recommend fiction books over non-fiction books. Although reading in general enhances connectivity of the brain and heightens empathy, teens who read fiction have potentially more pronounced benefits. New brain research by University of Southern California scientists shows that reading stories is a universal experience that may result in people feeling greater empathy for each other, regardless of cultural origins and differences.
Choose Books that Appeal to Middle School Learners
It is important to choose books that middle school ESL learners will be able to read without having to look up too many words per page. Overly complex reading for ESL learners will likely negate much of the appeal of the book itself, if they must frequently look up words and their meanings. So, we want to select books that appeal to the interest of this ESL age group, and at the same time, are written using simplistic language.
Choose Books that Have a Movie Version
Books with an accompanying movie version can be motivating for middle school ESL learners to read. Firstly, they may already be interested in or enjoyed watching the movie, so reading the book will likely pique their interest further. As well, reading books that have a movie version enable readers to compare the similarities and differences between the book and the movie. This can add an interesting element to the reading experience as middle school ESL learners anticipate the plot sequence and twists, depending on whether they read the book before or after watching the movie.
Buy Both Book and Audiobook Versions
There are several ways audiobooks can aid students who struggle with reading, and for middle school ESL learners, audiobooks can add to these benefits by giving students opportunities to connect the written word and spoken word. It helps them connect between what they read and how it is spoken, improving both reading and listening skills.
5 Must Read Books for Middle School ESL Learners
The Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling is a clear favorite among middle school students, ESL learners included. This is the second book in the series about a young wizard and his adventures with friends.
The book can be good for getting mid-level ESL students interested in reading more and can also be great for introducing students to books with a large amount of dialog. Rowling does an outstanding job of creating a detailed and descriptive fantasy world while still keeping the reading level simple and easy to follow.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a classic novel and has been taught in schools across the globe for decades. The story is about group of young boys who become stranded on an island after a plane crash. An attempt to govern themselves is made as the boys find themselves slowly being overcome with primal tendencies.
One of the greatest challenges for ESL learners of all ages is being able to explain or describe details when speaking or responding to questions. This book exposes middle school ESL learners to descriptive language and can help them learn how to use descriptive language in their own communication.
Holes by Louis Sachar is about a boy who has been sent to a juvenile correction camp. At the camp, the wards are required to dig holes all day every day for character building purposes. The boys, however, soon realize that there are ulterior reasons the warden of the camp wants them to dig the holes.
This book exposes middle school ESL learners to natural flowing conversations amongst fictional characters who are also teens and pre-teens.
Wonders by R.J. Palacio is about a boy who was born with a facial difference. He wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past his extraordinary face. The book begins from the boy’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
Wonder is an excellent book that touches upon the concepts of the culture of bullying, empathy, friendship, courage, and hope. All of these concepts are not only important to address with middle school learners, but also help ESL learners in this cohort identify with cultural concepts in the English speaking world. Middle school ESL learners may indeed relate to the protagonist in this New York Times bestseller.
“Wonder is the best kids’ book of the year,” said Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate.com and author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is about a girl who spent her childhood in foster care, and, as a result, is unable to get close to others. Her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings, she realizes her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. However, the story takes a left turn when an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger awakens her to what she might be missing in her life, at which point she must decide if it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
This book introduces themes such as abandonment, rejection, coping with and overcoming struggles. What makes this book even more interesting to read is that the protagonist is taken in by a woman who teaches her the language of flowers, and what each flower means. It is through these teachings that she is able to start positively communicating.
Things to Consider when Selecting Books for Middle School ESL Learners
Earlier, we covered what we think are important factors to choosing a book for middle school ESL learners. Beyond these, it is important to foster a culture of reading amongst this age group. This can be accomplished through creative but simple ways, such as organizing book clubs, book exchanges, and group reading.
Many teens struggle with reading, and concentration, particularly with the introduction and assimilation of technology into their lives, and society at large. As ESL teachers, it is important to understand this societal shift and how difficult it is for a generation that has only ever known smart devices exist to relate to a world without them. Many ESL teachers are from generations that grew up largely independent of technology, or with limited technological experience during their childhood years. Thus, ESL teachers should find ways to blend the use of smart technology with reading to accomplish their aims of encouraging students to become avid readers.
Technology also introduces new opportunities that weren’t widely available to previous generations of learners. Audiobooks give ESL learners ways to read and listen simultaneously, aiding both vocabulary growth and pronunciation.