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California's Reading Dilemma

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How one school gets English learners to read by third grade

Above: Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Pursley leads circle time at Frank Sparkes Elementary in Winton.

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At Frank Sparkes Elementary, words fly everywhere. On a recent Monday, kindergartners sang and danced as they learned about the silent e that changes other vowel sounds.

First graders asked how to spell words like “hamster” to finish writing sentences about how they wanted to spend their piggy-bank money. Third graders discussed out loud whether Oreo or Chips Ahoy cookies are best – the topic of their opinion essays.

Surrounded by almond groves in the rural town of Winton, about 10 miles northwest of Merced in California’s Central Valley, Frank Sparkes Elementary serves mostly low-income Latino students, and more than half are English learners. That’s not unlike many schools in California. More than 1 in 3 children enter school in California not yet proficient in English.

But Frank Sparkes Elementary stands apart from other schools and offers a model of what is possible. Fifty-four percent of English learners at this school are reading and writing at grade level by third grade, according to their scores on Smarter Balanced, the state’s standardized test. That’s more than four times the average in California – only 12.5% of English learners in third grade statewide met or exceeded the standard in English language arts in 2022.

Credit: Zaidee Stavely / EdSource

Frank Sparkes Elementary School Principal Ka Vang grew up speaking Hmong at home.

Led by a principal who was an English learner herself as a child, and blessed with teachers who have stayed for years, Frank Sparkes emphasizes reading and writing. They offer prizes — even bicycles — to the students who read the most books in a year.

They analyze student progress every three months. And in class, students are constantly using language, both by reading and writing and by discussing ideas out loud with each other.

Research shows that in order to learn how to read and understand what they’re reading, English learners need oral language development — practice speaking and listening in English, and more vocabulary, in addition to other skills all students need, like sounding out words and reading comprehension.

English learners also benefit from teachers pointing out the similarities and differences between their home language and English. One example is the different way vowels may sound.

Because of low statewide reading scores, some advocates are pushing California to adopt a so-called structured curriculum that emphasizes phonics and follows the scientific research on reading.

English learner advocates have raised concerns that too much emphasis on sounding out words could leave out the other important skills that English learners need.

An English learner principal

Principal Ka Vang says her own experience as an English learner informs how she leads the school. She was born in Laos and grew up in Stockton, the child of refugees who spoke Hmong at home. She remembers struggling to learn English.

“Now that I’m principal, I’m looking at it from that perspective of ensuring that there’s lots of vocabulary development, a lot of modeling. So it’s kind of like, I do it, we do it, and now you do it, and just giving kids a lot of practice,” Vang said.

When Vang began teaching first grade in Winton more than 30 years ago, she noticed her students struggled to read.

“The kids came to me and they didn’t know a lot of letters or sounds. And I noticed that when I took the kids to the library, they would only check out picture books,” said Vang, who later became a literacy coach.

Once she became principal, Vang set a goal for the school’s students to read 50,000 books a year. Students can win prizes throughout the year for reading, and the student who reads the most books in each grade wins a bike.

She also examines data every quarter to see how many skills students have mastered that they will need in the next grade and discusses with teachers how to get them there.


Frank Sparkes teachers explicitly teach what sounds letters make and how to sound out words when students are first beginning to read. Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Pursley asked students to break down the sounds in the word “kit.”

“K, ih, t” they said, tapping their shoulder, then their elbow, and wrist. Then they made a sweeping movement along their entire arm, saying “Kit.”

Then, they discussed what would happen if an e was added to the end of the word.

Pursley asked the students what Bossy E would tell the vowel i, to make it sound different.

“Say your name, say your name, you better say your name,” responded the students, gleefully.

“So the i says, ‘OK, OK, in this word my name is, Iiiiiiiii.’ And what does Bossy E say?”

“Nothing!” responded the kindergartners, crossing their arms and looking away.

“Kit” had turned into “kite.”

Vang said the school focuses on foundational skills like phonics — learning the sounds different letters make, and decoding — sounding words out — but not exclusively.

“We’re coming from all angles, multiple fronts. We are doing critical thinking. We’re doing oral language development. We ensure that kids get to write a lot,” Vang said.

Researcher Laurie Olsen, a leading advocate for English learners, agreed that using different teaching methods works best.

“If you leave out phonics and decoding and that aspect of foundational skills, there are kids that are really going to suffer and not develop as readers,” said Olsen who co-chaired California’s English Learner Roadmap and serves on the executive board of Californians Together, a coalition that advocates for English learners.

“If you leave out deep engagement with text and multiple purposes of text and engagement in talking about books, there are kids that are not going to become readers ever. If you leave out the cross-language connections and the oral language development and the building up of vocabulary, we have kids who are never going to become readers and writers.”

Oral language

The walls of the classrooms at Frank Sparkes are lined with essays, book reports and poems. And the classes are alive with the sound of students. It’s all part of a deliberate effort to help students learn and practice English.

“If you’re an English speaker, most of the words being used to teach you to read are words that are already in your oral vocabulary. For English learners it’s a different situation — they’re simultaneously learning to speak the language as they’re learning to read and write it,” said Claude Goldenberg, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “If you’re doing phonics and decoding, it really helps if you understand the words. That is the fundamental difference between teaching English speakers and English learners to read in English.”

Teachers also give students individual or small group attention based on their level of English proficiency.

In a first grade classroom, teacher Sandra Morales sat with one student, listening to him read sentences aloud, while the rest of the class worked on finishing sentences that began with “I would save my money to buy….” One student wanted to buy a hamster, another scented markers. On the wall, Morales had posted lists of words students can use to begin sentences or ask questions.

“Depending on their level, we push them that much,” Morales said. “If they need to slow down, then we slow them down,  ’cause we want them to form great sentences. I go and work individually with the ones that need to work on their writing skills or read their sentences.”

Credit: Zaidee Stavely / EdSource

First grade teacher Sandra Morales discusses sentences with a student while other students do a separate writing assignment.

Third grade teacher Patty Lopez read an article aloud to the students about plastic straws ending up in the ocean. The students followed along and discussed what they were learning.

Lopez said she makes sure students feel comfortable speaking inside and outside class.

“We make them feel comfortable by letting them share and then they want to know about us and they’ll ask us questions. And so they get a lot of practice like that as well,” Lopez said.

As Acela Middleton taught her third graders about inference — what you can guess from what you’ve read, using your own background knowledge and clues in the text — students shared ideas about what a character in a story they were reading was feeling.

“If I know there is a word that they might not know, then we stop, we discuss, we give examples. And it’s important that they feel comfortable, that nobody’s going to laugh, nobody’s going to make fun of them, you know?” Middleton said.

As another third grade teacher, Patricia Espinola, broke down the parts of an opinion piece with her students, she asked them to share why they preferred Oreos or Chips Ahoy cookies.

Espinola said she also strives to instill the joy of reading and writing.

“The other day I was reading ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and I’d say, ‘You guys smell that? Can you smell the chocolate?’ ‘I can smell it. I can smell it!,’ they say, you know, and it’s silly things like that. And they just love it. They just devour it. And then they try to find books by that same author or, you know, something along that line,” Espinola said.

When her students write, she tells them, “You paint a picture for me to envision in my head when you do your writing and I want you to be as descriptive as you possibly can. I always tell them, ‘I want to see it in my head like I’m watching TV.’”

Home language

Research shows that students have an easier time learning to read in their home language, but although California is pushing to expand bilingual education, most students in the state learn to read in English.

Even when teaching is only in English, researchers say it’s important for teachers to make connections between students’ home language and English.

Many of the teachers at Frank Sparkes grew up speaking Spanish. Though they don’t teach in Spanish, they do make sure their students know they are bilingual, and that they value bilingualism.

Morales tells students, “I know what it feels like, ’cause I was you.”

Lopez remembers being kept in from recess in second grade to practice pronouncing words in English.

“I would have to sit there and go through every single sound,” said Lopez. “When I taught second grade, I was like, why would my second grade teacher keep me in to do that? That’s just so crazy. I would never do that.”

Teachers who stay

Superintendent Randall Heller believes the district’s relatively high achievement is partially because teachers stay here for years.

“We have little or no teacher turnover here. Some of our teachers are actually our former students whose parents still live in the community,” Heller said. “All of our principals used to be teachers here. I was a teacher here. All of our assistant principals were the same.”

Lopez has been teaching at the school for 25 years. Her husband grew up in Winton and also teaches in the district, and their kids attended school here too.

“Our school is like a family,” she said.

Daniel J. Willis, EdSource data journalist, contributed to this story.

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  1. Sheela Murfee 2 months ago2 months ago

    Yes, learning how to say the sounds is very important. What’s missing from this article is what program or method is being used to teach the teachers how to teach reading, writing and spelling at Frank Sparkes elementary? Evidence Based Literacy Instruction (EBLI) at is the solution!

  2. Dr. Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago

    Frank Sparkes School rocks my world. English Language immersion with relevant links to home language, explicit instruction, and regular formative assessments win the day for our EL students!

    Dual Language? Not so much.