February 2019: Reading Comprehension Difficulties in Language Minority Learners and Native English Speakers

Lesaux, N. K., & Kieffer, M. J. (2010). Exploring sources of reading comprehension difficulties among language minority learners and their classmates in early adolescence. American Educational Research Journal, 47(3), 596­–632.

Summary by Lexy House and Dr. Phil Capin

Overview and Study Purpose

Language minority (LM) learners represent a growing population of students in the United States at particular risk of low academic achievement (August & Shanahan, 2006). However, there is a lack of understanding about the interrelated factors that contribute to comprehension difficulties amongst those from low-income backgrounds currently enrolled in low-performing schools. Prior to the Lesaux and Kieffer (2010) study, no studies had yet examined the word reading and listening comprehension in a sufficiently large sample of LM and native English speakers. Therefore, Lesaux and Kieffer (2010) sought to understand the language and literacy skill profiles of sixth-grade students with reading comprehension difficulties and explore the profile differences between language minority and native English speakers. The following research questions were addressed:

  1. What distinct skill profiles exist in a sample of early adolescent struggling readers?
  2. Are language minority learners more likely than their native English-speaking classmates to demonstrate specific skill profiles?


Sample. Participants were sixth-grade, struggling readers who were identified based on a score at or below the 35th percentile on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Comprehension Test. A sample of 201 LM learners and 61 native English speakers from six urban middle schools serving large numbers of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch were included in this study. Within the sample of struggling readers, 10% were identified with special education designation—the majority of students (7% of the sample) were identified with a specific learning disability. Students were identified as LM learners if a language other than English was spoken at home. Participants’ ethnicity was reported for LM learners as follows: 61% Latino, 16% Asian, 6% African/African America, 3% Caucasian, 3% Pacific Islander, and 11% multiethnic or other. The families of native English speakers reported diverse backgrounds as well: 34% African American, 40% Caucasian, 8% Latino, 4% Asian, 2% Pacific Islander, and 13% multiethnic or other.

Measures. A battery of language and reading measures were used to assess students word reading, oral language, reading comprehension, and working memory. The measures of word reading included psychometrically-sound measures of word attack (Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery-Revised Word Attack subtest), decoding fluency (Test of Word Reading Efficiency), and oral reading fluency (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills Oral Reading Reading Fluency subtest). Measures of oral language included two measure of vocabulary (Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test and the Test of Academic Vocabulary), as well as two measures of morphological awareness (decomposition task and the nonsense suffix choice task). Working memory skills were assessed using the Semantic Association subtest of the Swanson Cognitive Processing Test.

Data Analyses. Preliminary analyses were conducted to understand data patterns and examine whether there were differences between subgroups. Specifically, analyses sought to (a) understand possible differences between the populations (LM learners vs. native English speakers) by conducting t-tests for mean differences, and to (b) determine if LM status was a significant predictor of whether or not students were classified as struggling readers, authors conducted a binomial logistic regression. All of the measures described above were used in the preliminary analyses.

For the main analyses, Lesaux and Kieffer used an approach known as latent class analysis (LCA), which identifies unobservable subgroups within a population using multiple measures. They used LCA to estimate reading and language skill profiles and determine whether LM status was associated with these profiles. All of the measures described above were used except the oral reading fluency measure and morphological awareness measures.

Important Findings

Results of Preliminary Analyses.

  • A majority of the sample were identified as struggling readers (scored at or below the 35th percentile on reading comprehension measures).
  • LM learners were significantly more likely than native English speakers to be identified as struggling readers. Descriptively, 60% of LM learners were identified as struggling readers, whereas 45% of the native English speakers were identified.

Results Related to Research Question 1: What distinct skill profiles exist in a sample of early adolescent struggling readers?

  • Three profiles (or subgroups) of struggling readers were identified: (1) slow word callers (60.3% of sample), (2) automatic word callers (18.3%), and (3) globally impaired readers (21.4%).
  • Each profile exhibited low vocabulary and semantic working memory skills, indicating that the profile groups varied primarily based on their word reading performance.
  • Two of the three profiles (or 78% of the sample) exhibited comprehension difficulties despite demonstrating above-average decoding and fluency skills..

Results Related to Research Question 2: Are language minority learners more likely than their native English-speaking classmates to demonstrate specific skill profiles?

  • Data showed LM learners struggled at higher rates than their native English speaking classmates.
  • However, results indicated primary language status did not predict membership in any of the three latent classes, which suggests that LM students are not more likely than their native English-speaking peers to demonstrate any of the three skill profiles.
  • The full sample of students, on average, demonstrated underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge and relatively well-developed word reading skills.

Conclusions, Implications, and Future Practice

Investigating the skill profiles of struggling readers is important given that instructional design should be informed by understanding the needs of students. The results of this paper suggest that most students (78%) with below average reading comprehension performance in high-poverty, urban middle schools have underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge and language skills despite relatively decent proficiency in word reading and fluency. Although there is some commonality among all of the students, results indicated there are distinct subgroups of students with individual needs.

Results of this study suggest the need for additional research in literacy instruction for adolescents across multiple grade levels. Moreover, the high number of struggling readers found in these schools suggests that instructional adjustments may be beneficial to improving student outcomes. Lesaux and Kieffer noted that many classrooms with middle and high school students lack systematic and explicit vocabulary instruction (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004; Durkin, 1978/1979; Roser & Juel, 1982; Scott, Jamieson-Noel, & Asslin, 2003; Watts, 1995). In response to this concern, Lesaux and Kieffer suggest that students would benefit from explicit, systematic vocabulary, and reading comprehension instruction and that would prevent some of the reading difficulties of struggling readers.

Future research should further evaluate the differences between LM learners and native English speakers to see the extent to which these findings replicate and generalize with other populations. Research that focuses on skill profiles in samples with students of different demographic backgrounds, within a longitudinal framework, is required to better understand the needs of language minority and native English-speaking students to tailor instruction to meet their needs.  


August, D. L., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Biancarosa, G., & Snow, C. E. (2004). Reading next—A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from www.carnegie.org/literacy/pdf/ReadingNext.pdf

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