Improving Reading Outcomes for All Children


As of 2021, nearly one fifth of all the pupils in England speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). In other words, most of these pupils are bilingual -or even trilingual or multilingual in many cases. Although bilingualism is generally associated with some cognitive benefits, research from the past few years shows that EAL pupils often underperform in vocabulary, reading accuracy, reading and listening comprehension, compared to their monolingual peers. However, researchers are not yet confident on how EAL pupils can be adequately supported in achieving their educational outcomes. Meanwhile, recent studies on reading comprehension try to shed light on a factor that is relatively under-researched especially among bilingual children: prosody. Prosody is described as the music of language and consists of pitch, stress, rhythm, and pauses. If you are wondering what prosody has to do with reading comprehension and bilingualism, read the section below and watch the video provided.

Improving reading outcomes for all children: where are we heading?

In the introduction, it was briefly mentioned that English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils are usually bilingual. Bilingualism is a complex phenomenon and an ever-increasing percentage of the global population is bilingual. While bilingualism could be viewed as a spectrum, there are two main categories of bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and successive or sequential bilingualism. Simultaneous bilinguals are usually described as those who are exposed to two languages from birth, while successive bilinguals are exposed to two languages later in life. Plenty of research has looked into the role of age of acquisition in bilingualism and has found differences between simultaneous and successive bilinguals. However, EAL pupils in the UK are a broad and diverse group that includes both types of bilingualism. This means that bilingualism researchers have to take into account a wide range of factors when researching EAL: When did the children first become exposed to English? How much exposure have they got? In what languages have they been schooled? What languages are spoken at home? We also need to take into account other societal factors, as many EAL pupils are immigrant children. What are the living conditions of these children? Do they have access to educational resources? Do they have adequate space to study? Can their parents support them?

As you might be able to guess at this point, there are at least two sides to looking into reading comprehension in bilingualism: the language processing side of things, and the socioeconomic factors that impact language processing. Language processing is of interest to psycholinguistics: a sub-discipline of linguistics that brings together psychology and linguistics to explore the processes underlying language acquisition, learning, perception, and production. Meanwhile, sociolinguistics is a sub-discipline of linguistics that explores the relationship between language and society; in our case, how language learning is affected by societal factors. Finally, the outcomes of studies in both psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics are of interest to education researchers, as the results can inform educational theory and practice. Since we want to improve the educational outcomes of EAL pupils, we first need to look into how this group of children processes and uses language.

Prosody is part of processing language: we hear prosodic cues every time we hear someone talk. Rhythm, stress, pauses, and pitch changes are an essential part of language. We use these to show emotions, such as excitement, worry, anger, or sadness. We also use prosody to separate our stream of speech into units that make sense. Similarly, we use punctuation in writing to separate our series of words into sentences and phrases. Additionally, we produce prosody not only when we speak or read aloud, but also when we read silently; the inner voice in our head as we read produces prosody to make sense of the text that is being read. Several studies have shown that prosody plays an important role in language acquisition and in reading comprehension. However, prosody in reading has not been studied in the context of EAL. Could this be the missing link that we are looking for? The video below explains further the components of reading comprehension and the use of prosody in (silent) reading.

Video Resource

Resource activities

Recap: Reading, prosody, and bilingualism

Check out this worksheet once you have read the material above and watched the lecture! 


Activity questions

  • How many types of bilingualism can we detect in the population of students who speak English as an Additional Language and what are they?
  • What processes are essential for reading comprehension?
  • What do we need to consider in order to improve reading outcomes for all children?

Reflective questions

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Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading