Voices in Education

Comprehension Is Collaborative—and Why That Matters for Emergent Bilingual Students
Children are arguably expert borrowers and re-interpreters, as seen, for example, when they rework ideas they encounter in the media and from classmates as they write (Dyson, 1993), or when they appropriate argumentation strategies for discussion from their peers (Anderson et al., 2001). Borrowing and reinterpreting are strategies adopted no less by children when they are interacting in their second or less familiar language. Indeed, emergent bilingual children frequently draw upon the language they hear from their peers to help them communicate their own ideas; such strategies are characteristic of the dynamic ways in which emergent bilinguals engage in translanguaging at school (García, 2009).
But do young children who are beginning to make sense of text in a less familiar language also engage in borrowing and reinterpreting peer textual ideas when they are working to understand the stories they discuss in school? Most current theories of reading focus on children as individual meaning-makers, emphasizing the transaction between the reader and the text (Rosenblatt, 1978), with little or no targeted attention to how the ideas of other people can shape the process of constructing meaning from text. This emphasis holds true in both first- and second-language theories of reading (e.g., Bernhardt, 1991; Rumelhart, 1981).
Perhaps as a result, educators may be primed to assess and teach comprehension as if it were a skill based in an individual. This means that teachers (and researchers) often direct their focus to what students do individually with the text, even though classrooms are places in which students are frequently reading in and with a community of other readers. When educators focus on comprehension as an individual internal process, the consequences are considerable for students reading in a less familiar language. Because emergent bilingual students may underperform on reading assessments (Hopewell & Escamilla, 2014), they are often thought to have poor comprehension, which may lead to grouping and other instructional decisions designed to remedy this presumed lack. Elementary students placed in lower reading groups are often given activities designed to develop basic skills, resulting in limited opportunities to engage with higher-level text and content, much less with each other (Neufeld & Fitzgerald, 2001).
Together with our co-authors Liam Aiello and Paolo Martin, we set out to examine empirically the extent to which emergent bilingual students engage collaboratively in the work of comprehension. In the resulting article, which appears in the Winter issue of the Harvard Educational Review, we asked:
  1. How did emergent bilinguals talk about the text, and to what extent and how were their text-related utterances related to other students’ ideas?
  2. How did emergent bilinguals explicitly draw upon the text to explain and support their ideas?
We examined the ideas that emerged from dialogically-organized discussions of English-language picture books with a small group of second-grade emergent Spanish-English bilinguals discussing texts in English for the first time. Specifically, we looked at each instance where a student spoke in order to determine whether and how the student’s ideas drew upon previously-raised peer ideas. We found that students’ ideas were, indeed, highly contingent upon the ideas of other children in the group. The children expressed affiliation with the ideas their peers put forward, and also rebutted them in a variety of ways. But they did not simply engage in wholesale acceptance or rejection of peer ideas; instead, they frequently built upon those ideas by elaborating upon, extending, or qualifying what they were hearing. Moreover, students’ language also revealed consistent attention to the text itself, particularly to the illustrations within the text.
In other words, peer ideas helped these students shape and articulate the textual ideas they brought into the conversation. As the children engaged in lengthy and often complex exchanges around what the text might mean, their meaning-making was simultaneously rooted in the text and in the ideas of other children. Their comprehension of the texts they discussed was a collaborative, emergent process that we call intercomprehending.
It is our hope that this descriptive study will help educators and researchers more deeply examine the ways emergent bilinguals intercomprehend as they read in school. A teacher, for example, might ask: How are students building on each other’s ideas? How can my instruction enable and extend this building? Pursuing answers to such questions, we believe, may allow for richer perspectives on emergent bilinguals’ reading abilities than those afforded by relying solely on outcomes of individualized reading assessments. It may also allow for an expanded view of what it means to read, enabling educators to identify engagement with the ideas of other readers as central to the work of reading comprehension, whether readers are constructing meaning from text in their native tongue or in another language they are coming to learn.
Anderson, R. C., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., McNurlen, B., Archodidou, A., Kim, S., Reznitskaya, A., …Gilbert, L. (2001). The snowball phenomenon: Spread of ways of talking and ways of thinking across groups of children. Cognition and Instruction, 19, 1–46.
Bernhardt, E. (1991). Reading development in a second language. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Dyson, A. (1993). Social worlds of children learning to write in an urban primary school. New York: Teachers College Press.
García, O. (2009). Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In A. Mohanty, M. Panda, R. Phillipson, & T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds.), Multilingual education for social justice: Globalising the local (pp. 128–145). New Delhi: Orient Blackswan (former Orient Longman).
Hopewell, S. & Escamilla, K. (2014). Struggling reader or emerging biliterate student? Reevaluating the criteria for labeling emerging bilingual students as low achieving. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(1), 68–89.
Neufeld, P., & Fitzgerald, J. (2001). Early English reading development: "Latino English learners in the "low" reading group". Research in the Teaching of English, 36(1), 64–109.
Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Rumelhart, D. E. (1981). Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In Comprehension and teaching: research reviews (pp. 3–26). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

About the Author: Maren Aukerman is an assistant professor of Curriculum and Learning at the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Lorien Chambers Schuldt is an assistant professor of Teacher Education at Fort Lewis College and a former elementary classroom teacher. They are  co-authors, with Liam Aiello and Paolo C. Martin, of "What Meaning-Making Means Among Us" in the Winter 2017 issue of the Harvard Educational Review