Holly Joseph is an Associate Professor in Language Education and Literacy Development at the Institute of Education in Reading and co-director of Bilingualism Matters@Reading. She agreed to talk to Bilingualism Matters about her latest projects.

Her research focuses on reading and reading difficulties in children who speak English as an additional language (EAL children). In her studies, she uses eye-tracking, which is a technique that allows to capture the processes underlying reading comprehension. When we read, our eyes alternate jumps (saccades) and pauses (fixations), and it is during these pauses that we start extracting the information we need to understand the words we have in front of us. We know from previous research that longer pauses indicate that children are having difficulties understanding what they are reading.

One of Holly’s latest projects looks at high level reading comprehension and specifically at how children make inferences while reading using “clue words”. So, for example if they read about Mr Jones, who looks up in the sky, sees big grey clouds and pulls out an umbrella, they will be using words like clouds and umbrella to make the inference that it is going to rain. Holly’s prediction is that children will spend longer looking at these words when they have not been explicitly told that it is going to rain, and that EAL children will find these passages even more difficult and spend longer than monolingual children fixating these words. The data analysis is still under way, so we don’t know if these predictions will be confirmed, but we will keep our readers posted as soon as we find out!

Another exciting project Holly is working on looks at how children learn new words through reading. She and her colleagues asked children to read a set of sentences that contained rare words, such as confabulated, and looked at what they did in terms of their eye movements when they first saw these words, compared the second, third, and up to the tenth encounter. Holly reports that EAL children reduced their reading time with each encounter to a much greater extent than monolingual children. This result is extremely positive, especially given the fact that EAL children on average tend to know fewer words in English than their monolingual peers.

What this means for teachers is that they should not worry about their EAL pupils finding it difficult or frustrating to read words that are new to them. Instead, encouraging them to find books that are interesting and challenging, to read in their own time is very good advice. In fact, reading seems to be a great way for these children to learn new words. Even those with smaller vocabularies develop a strategy that allows them to extract the meaning of new words from the context after just a few encounters.  

This, concludes Professor Joseph, is a very positive result for those of us who promote bilingualism, because it shows that EAL children are not a burden on our education system; instead, even though they may start out with a disadvantage compared to monolingual children, they are capable of developing unique strategies to catch up with their peers.

Interested in knowing more? Watch the video-interview here