Credit: Zaidee Stavely / EdSource
Third graders write in response to a text they read at Frank Sparkes Elementary School in Winton.
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Low statewide reading scores have sparked many advocates to call for California to adopt a so-called structured literacy curriculum that emphasizes phonics and follows the science of reading.

English learner advocates have raised concerns that districts may focus too much on phonics and other foundational skills and ignore other important skills that English learners need.

So what does the research say about what English learners need when learning to read?

Tim Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is known for helping to lead the National Reading Panel, convened at the request of Congress to evaluate reading research.

He also chaired the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth and co-edited the resulting 2006 report on teaching reading and writing to students who are learning English as a second language, “Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners.”

The report was not published by the Department of Education, so the panel published it privately. As a result, it is available only by purchase or in libraries and is lesser known than the report of the National Reading Panel.

This interview was condensed for brevity and clarity.

What are some main takeaways from the report “Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners”?

Shanahan: Skills that are important to teach in reading, like phonics, or comprehension strategies, work with native English speakers. And the research is very clear:  Those benefit second language learners too. But what I think people don’t often pay attention to is that the payoff is smaller with second language learners.

Phonics or comprehension strategies enable you to apply your language skills. But they can only help to the point that you have sufficient English to be able to use them.

That’s why English learners need oral language development, right? Can you describe that?

Shanahan: In far too many programs, folks have gone, ‘Well, we’ve got the kids integrated, they’re in classes with other children who know English, they’re going to be hearing the lessons in English, and the kids will be talking on the playground, and these kids will pick up English just like that.’ And they will pick up conversational English to some extent, just like that, some much better than others, unfortunately. But they won’t necessarily pick up academic English; they’re not going to necessarily learn to create sentences that are like the sentences in a book or in a news article or something like that. You actually have to have some dedicated lessons that give them a real chance to catch up.

What are some of the other things English learners need in addition to oral language development?

Shanahan: There are things that, depending on the language, might overlap with English and that the children might already know, in which case, those don’t necessarily need to be retaught or certainly not to the same extent as with a first language student. For example, a lot of the sound letter matches are identical across Spanish and English, so if the child already knows how to read in Spanish, the classroom instructor wouldn’t need to put a lot of time into teaching those things. On the other hand, there definitely are sounds that we have in English that don’t exist in Spanish. And studies have found that it’s useful to teach those quite explicitly and thoroughly.

Another example: How do we teach reading comprehension? With native English speakers, I would have them read and I’d ask them questions, get their answers, we’d talk about it. With a second language student, I could do exactly the same thing, and the kids would sit there and not participate at all.

So one little change to that lesson — what if I allow the kids, when I ask my question, to discuss it with each other in Spanish before answering me in English? And the lesson comes alive. The kids participate, give answers in English now that they’ve had a chance to try them out in their own language. Those tiny little things make the kids feel welcomed or give them sufficient support that they can participate.

Is writing important for English learners?

Shanahan: There is a bunch of literacy research showing that writing and learning to write can have wonderfully productive feedback on learning to read. For example, working on spelling has a positive impact. Likewise, writing about the texts that you read increases comprehension and knowledge.

Even English learners who become quite proficient with oral English and reading comprehension tend to lag in writing. Writing demands a high level of understanding of a language. Not providing adequate instruction is problematic because of the importance of writing in advanced educational opportunities.

Does teaching in children’s home language help?

Shanahan: Overwhelmingly, the body of research says yes, kids benefit when you spend some time teaching them in their home language.

It’s important that schools are accepting and welcoming to children of different cultures, that children feel safe and welcomed and that their language is acceptable. You see better results when schools manage to convey that kind of acceptance to the children and to the families. So that’s not an unimportant idea, and it’s one that’s unfortunately not always honored.

There’s some concern from English learner advocates in California that a push to do more phonics will leave out other important skills, including oral language and cross-language connections. What is your perspective?

Shanahan: It gets very tricky when you talk about any aspect of reading, if you say, we need to do this, without any kind of attention to how much time we are talking about. I get emails from people saying, ‘They expect me to do 90 minutes a day of phonics.’ Well, I can’t imagine what idiot is asking for that, because the research doesn’t say anything like that. [After looking at the studies on phonics instruction,] thirty minutes to me seems pretty reasonable, recognizing some kids might not need all of that and some kids might need more.

If all you do is tell people that they have to do a particular thing and that’s what matters and that’s what you’re going to be paying attention to, everybody is going to try to do that. And sometimes they’re going to overdo it. In this case, you’ll probably end up doing more foundational work than language work, with a group that probably needs either greater balance or more language attention than foundational skills attention.

Making sure that everybody is doing everything that kids need, not just parts of it, is really important. I understand when people get worried that somebody’s going to overdo it, because I’ve seen people overdo it. But it goes both ways. The analogy I use is from Chicago history. There was a ship in our river, and at some point, the boat started to lean one way and so everybody did the thing you’d expect – they ran to the other side, it tipped over and drowned like 900 people. It is absolutely legitimate to say, let’s not all run to the other side, let’s do this in a wise way. That notion of, gee, we’re not doing enough phonics, we can fix it if we only do phonics, doesn’t make any sense at all. But you can do exactly the same thing with, boy, these second language kids aren’t getting enough English, therefore let’s take away all the foundational stuff and we’ll build these kids’ language. You’re going to tip the ship over.

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  1. Honorina Harris 2 months ago2 months ago

    Literacy in our public schools has become a critical issue specially for our minority students. Teaching high school students how to read is impossible since secondary teachers are not experts on the foundation of reading. As an ESL/Bilingual department head of one of the largest high schools in Massachusetts, literacy is a concern. The dropout rates among our multilingual students is sky high.