Category Archives: pronoun-antecedent agreement

Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

Little kids need to learn pronoun-antecedent agreement

Pronoun-antecedent agreement is a reading skill we expect young readers to understand until we encounter some kids who don’t.

In the sentences, “The dog barked at me.  I was scared,” we take for granted that the child understands that “I” in the second sentence refers to “me” in the first sentence and not to “dog.”

But some kids don’t understand this, especially students learning English as a second language.  Relationships which some students implicitly understand need to be explicitly taught to these students.

In particular, younger students need to practice examples of

  • Singular pronouns which refer back to singular nouns.
  • Plural pronouns which refer back to plural nouns.
  • Masculine pronouns which refer back to masculine nouns.
  • Feminine pronouns which refer back to feminine nouns.
  • Neutral pronouns which refer back to neutral nouns.
  • Pronouns which refer back to words two sentences back.

One way you can test if a particular student understands pronoun-antecedent agreement is to provide the student with a reading passage containing several pronouns.  You circle the pronouns and ask the student to draw an arrow from each circled pronoun to its antecedent.  Or your color-code the pronouns with their antecedents.

Another way is to tape over the pronouns and ask the student to supply them.  Supplying words is always harder than finding words already provided.

A third way is to ask the student to write about a particular subject which involves singular and plural pronouns, such as first grade girls jumping rope at recess.

Some schools teach types of pronouns (subject, object, possessive), but delay teaching pronoun-antecedent agreement.  This is a mistake.  We use pronouns to take the place of nouns we have previously stated.  Students need to hear the relationship between pronouns and nouns in order to understand why we use pronouns at all.