Why not learn English- 7th Article (By: Gulaid Mohammed Yassin “Dalha”)

Helping ESL students in Somaliland understand written texts


Every day in school and at home ESL students have many different texts to read. It is through reading that they acquire much of their knowledge and understanding of the different subject areas, and reading often forms the basis of follow-up work such as class discussions or homework questions. For these reasons it is essential that ESL students are helped as much as possible and necessary to understand what they read. Many ESL students, often with their parents’ help, waste a great deal of precious time trying to make sense of texts that are too difficult for them. It is not unusual for a student to pore over a text for a couple of hours with a dictionary and still not understand it very well. Yet with a little assistance their frustrating reading experience can be turned into a more profitable one.

The purpose of this article therefore is to suggest to mainstream Somali teachers how they can help the ESL students in their classes to become more effective readers. Firstly, I list some of the factors that can make texts difficult to understand. And secondly, I suggest ways that the texts that students are expected to read, e.g. in textbooks, can be made more accessible to them.

What makes texts difficult to understand

Here are the main sources of language difficulty for ESL students:


A first, obvious difficulty relates to the legibility of a text. ESL students may have problems that are caused solely by the fact that what they are trying to understand has been poorly printed or copied, is badly set-out or is in a very small type-face.

Unfamiliar Words

A written message may be difficult to understand because it contains many words that are unknown to the student. In the following text, for example, the instruction is simple but the language in which it is expressed is not:

You are requested to desist from masticating gum in this establishment.

Lack of Background Knowledge

Another difficulty arises in cases where the necessary background knowledge is missing. Unless the student has a basic understanding of statistics, for example, there is little point him/her looking up the unknown words in the following passage since the definitions are unlikely to further comprehension.

To minimize two unknowns we differentiate with respect to each variable in turn treating the other variable as a constant. The process is called partial differentiation and the notation used is standard.

Difficult Concepts

The next difficulty can be seen in texts such as the following:

The appeal of the view that a work of art expresses nothing unless what it expresses can be put into words can be reduced by setting beside it another view, no less popular in the theory of art, that a work of art has no value if what it expresses can be put into words.

The words in themselves are not unduly difficult and no special background knowledge is required, but the concept expressed in the passage is complex.

Complex Syntax

The above text about art is also difficult because of its syntactic complexity. In general, long sentences containing subordinate or embedded clauses tend to be less immediately intelligible than shorter, simpler ones. For example, the second instruction below is probably more readily understood than the first, which contains an embedded participial clause.


Nominalization, which is the use of a noun in combination with an “empty” verb, is a feature of academic text that causes problems to ESL students. The following fragments give the same instruction. The second, containing a nominalization, is likely to be the more difficult:

In your answer you should consider the effect of heat loss ..

Consideration should be given in your answer to the effect of heat loss ...


Polysemous words are words with multiple meanings. These can cause difficulty if the student has learned one meaning of the word, but the word has a different meaning in the context of the sentence the student is reading. An example is the word solution which can mean either the answer to a problem or a mixture of two substances. Mathematics is full of words that ESL students are likely to have learned first with their everyday meaning: table, mean, power, even, volume, root, etc.

Jokes and puns are frequently based on the polysemous nature of the words they contain, which is why they are usually so difficult for ESL students.

Complex noun groups

Another syntactic feature of academic text are complex noun groups. Following is an example of a noun (system) which is both pre-modified by an adjective and 3 nouns and post-modified by a phrase that omits the relative pronoun. This kind of noun group can be very problematic for language learners.

He invented a rudimentary binary data-transmission system intended to be operable over distances of more than 10 meters.

Advanced cohesion

Cohesion refers to the way writers link phrases, clauses and sentences into a coherent whole. However, a mature and pleasing style can be impenetrable to language learners. In the pairs of sentences below, the first one in each case will probably be more difficult to understand than the second:

Ali bought a red pencil and Asha a blue one.
Ali bought a red pencil and Asha bought a blue pencil.

The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments its prey before it eats it.
The killer whale tosses the penguin into the air and generally torments the penguin before eating it.

Poor Writing

The final source of difficulty is associated with the many different manifestations of poor writing. For example, a text may be difficult because the ideas are not organized logically, or because punctuation is lacking, faulty or ambiguous, or because cohesion is slipshod.

Any one of the above difficulties alone may interfere with comprehension, but when they occur in combination – such as in texts with complex syntax and unfamiliar vocabulary – the chances of an ESL student readily understanding the text are very much reduced.

How to help students understand what they read in textbooks

Some of what your students have to read will be prepared by you, and there is detailed advice elsewhere on this teacher’s site to help you produce comprehensible worksheets and tests. Much of what the students have to read in your subject, however, will come from textbooks or, more recently, from the Internet. Clearly, you have no control over the content and style of these passages; what you can do however is to decide whether or not to use the text at all with your students, or with your ESL students. Alternatively, you could choose to rewrite the text to make it more accessible. (This is a complex, time-consuming process, and your ESL teacher will be happy to advise or do it for you!)

Assuming you want to use a difficult passage from a textbook as it is, there are various strategies that students can apply to ensure that they have a better chance of understanding. Some of the more common ones are SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review). The most important aspects of these various reading strategies are summarised in the following list:

Make sure that students understand why they are reading the text and what they will have to do afterwards. ESL students often believe they need to understand every word of a text, whereas in many cases they can fulfil the task requirements by scanning or skimming through the passage. Having a clear reading purpose helps them to focus more efficiently on the information they need to extract.

Ensure that students have the necessary background information before they are asked to read long texts. It is most important that they have a chance to focus on the topic and activate their existing knowledge of it before being confronted with the text. This often provides the opportunity to pre-teach essential vocabulary contained in the text

Encourage students to read up about the topic beforehand, or discuss it at home with their parents, in their own language

Have students predict the information they will find out in the text

Ask students to write questions that they would like to have answered by the text

Introduce some key vocabulary from the text

Have students predict the vocabulary they will meet in the text

Remind students of the importance of looking at headings, diagrams, and illustrations and their captions

Tell students to note parts of the text that they could make no sense of. (They can later ask you or another student to explain it to them.)

One more piece of advice: Many textbooks are organised around a unifying principle so that each chapter follows the same pattern. It is helpful to make sure that students know their way around the book, particularly if it contains a glossary.

Much of the above advice is standard practice because it is good for all students, not just ESL students. However, in mainstream classes, as in ESL classes, the emphasis should be on training students to apply these reading strategies independently where possible. It does not help in the long run if they expect to be “walked through” every difficult text they encounter. [See my advice to students on how to become a more effective reader.

Understanding what they read is only one of the difficulties faced by ESL students in school. Another major problem for them is making sense of what they hear. Go to advice on how to help students understand what you say.


Gulaid Mohammed Yassin (Dalha)