Students who study in the United States or another English-speaking country typically learn in English. English for Speakers of Other Languages students often encounter specific difficulties, particularly in reading. As such, ESOL students must learn skills related to critical reading, allowing them to understand a text in English well enough to analyze it.
Critical reading refers to analyzing a text while reading; this contrasts with reading a text simply for the information it provides. Critical readers reread a text to identify patterns within it such as author's values, assumptions and even language usage. For example, making an inference is a critical reading skill. When readers make inferences, they "read between the lines" by taking the given information and making an assumption based on it. The challenge for ESOL students comes in expanding critical reading skills while simultaneously developing their English-language proficiency enough to even understand the text in the first place.
To navigate critical reading in a foreign language, ESOL students must develop text-related thinking skills. For one, they should understand basic textual organization such as the different formatting between a textbook and a novel. Additionally, cultural differences often lead to ESOL students’ perception that they lack background knowledge, meaning they do not have the experience necessary to completely understand a passage. They must learn to make connections to the text based on the experiences they do have. Such thinking skills eventually allow students to bridge to text analysis.
All students, whether native English speakers or ESOL learners, benefit from learning and applying reading strategies. One such strategy is tapping into prior knowledge, making reading deeper into the text easier. Another strategy is interacting with the text, formulating questions and noting ideas for further discussion. In addition, classroom discussion stimulates critical thinking skills that complement critical reading. For example, students can learn to contemplate an issue from various sides, eventually leading to a healthy debate. Similarly, applying reading strategies such as listing the advantages and disadvantages of an issue can lead to increased problem-solving skills.
Educators of ESOL students should teach the values, norms and beliefs that contribute to the background knowledge native English speakers bring to their critical reading. ESOL students should understand goals related to critical reading, including recognizing author’s purpose as well as potential bias. Not only do these skills involve analysis and inference of the text, they involve understanding of the culture in which these texts are meant to function. Once students gain English fluency, they must learn to develop their critical reading skills from the cultural and historical perspectives of the host culture.