Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Controversies over how best to teach children to read go back many years.

Most recently, two questions have emerged that leave teachers of English learners puzzled: First, does research on reading, sometimes referred to as “the science of reading,” include English learners, or is it based solely on English-speaking monolinguals? Second, do English learners, also known as emergent bilinguals, have a “bilingual brain” that requires a fundamentally different sort of reading instruction than monolingual students require?

First, reading research (whether called science of reading or something else) does apply to English learners. There is, for example, worldwide literature on second-language literacy acquisition. An informative source is a 2019 issue of the Journal of Neurolinguistics. Closer to home is the National Literacy Panel report and studies by Vaughn et al., Ehri et al., and others, all of which I reviewed in recent issues of Reading Research Quarterly and The Reading League Journal.

This research supports that what is true about teaching reading to students who already know the language in which they are learning to read is also true for students learning to read in a new language.

The key difference is that students learning to read in a new language need additional support to help them understand the words and text being used to teach them to read.

This is because, as brain studies and classroom studies reveal, a person must connect (or “bind”) the oral sounds in words to the letters that represent those sounds, then connect that connection to the words’ meanings. Students learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand do not necessarily know the meanings of the words nor recognize all the sounds in the words. It is much more difficult to learn to read under these circumstances. As a result, oral language instruction directly connected to the words and text being used to teach reading is essential.

Second, does the “bilingual brain” require a fundamentally different approach to teaching reading? No, it does not.

I contacted Kenneth Pugh, an internationally-recognized cognitive neuroscientist specializing in the neuroscience of reading in first and second languages. He said it is true that bilingual students have two language systems that interact, leading to measurable differences at the level of brain circuits, but there is no evidence to support the idea that English-only students and students learning English as a second language need to be taught how to read in fundamentally different ways:

“Cross-language brain research confirms that learning to read is based on cognitive universals, specifically, that phonological development makes possible binding letters and sounds to meaning, which is foundational for learning to read in any language.

Our understanding might change as the research evolves, but at the moment, in my opinion, there is nothing about ‘bilingual brain’ differences that suggests distinct or alternative pathways to literacy learning and best practice.”

These disputes are part of a larger and longer story about reading education. We are locked in a sort of literacy “Groundhog Day,” where the details vary but the main idea repeats with deadening regularity: I’m right about teaching reading, and you’re wrong. Whether it’s whole language vs. phonics or balanced literacy vs. science of reading or bilingual brain vs. monolingual brain, with too few exceptions, lines get drawn and cleavages remain deep. Misinformation — for example, that science of reading is only about monolingual English speakers or that a “bilingual brain” requires fundamentally different reading instruction — needlessly complicates things further.

To be clear, students who are not in the mainstream of the school-age population have not always been well-served in our schools. Frustration among parents and advocates for these students is understandable. But we can’t improve the situation if we don’t pay attention to what research shows us. Although many questions remain, there are some things evidence supports and some it does not. We ignore this at our children’s peril.

For example, the evidence is clear that there’s more to learning to read than phonics. Without vocabulary and background knowledge, to name just two factors, phonics has little, if any, utility. The corollary is that the evidence does not support teaching reading by simply teaching phonics. But the evidence is also clear that children need to learn the sound-symbol spelling system in order to be successful readers, “binding letters and sounds to meaning,” as Pugh says. (In the world of reading instruction, this is known as “orthographic mapping.”) But the evidence does not support stopping there. As students learn the sound-symbol spelling system, they must also have oral and experiential exposure to develop their language much further — particularly, but not exclusively, vocabulary — and knowledge. As literacy skills develop, that exposure will include reading (and writing).

The same applies to what goes on in the brains of English learners. Research supports using what children know in their first language to support, or “bootstrap,” their learning in a second language. It also supports the long-term benefits of maintaining and building on the first language, adding a second, and aiming for bilingualism and biliteracy. And it supports providing additional second language support to students if they are learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand. But it does not support teaching reading based on an assumption that the bilingual brain is structurally different from the monolingual brain.

There are many challenges in the reading education field. Chief among them is that we have yet to devise adequate and replicable programs that provide needed instruction for all children. We must continue to work toward this goal, using the best knowledge we have at any given moment, and end the fruitless reading wars.

A good first step would be for all participants to be adequately informed about relevant research and to discuss, or even argue, from informed positions. Otherwise, we’ll continue seeing this movie play out over and over and over, children’s futures threatened or ruined as the adults squabble and talk past each other.

My thanks to Jana Echevarria, Magaly Lavadenz, Yolie Flores, Todd Collins, Malia Ramler, and Kenneth Pugh for their help and feedback.


Claude Goldenberg is Nomellini & Olivier Professor of Education, emeritus, in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University and a former first grade and junior high teacher.

A version of this commentary originally appeared on Colorín Colorado.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Christel Broady 5 days ago5 days ago

    Could you provide me with the references or studies on which you base the publication? Thank you


    • Claude Goldenberg 5 days ago5 days ago

      The references are in the links in the article. Did you check them out?

  2. Nancy Ackles 5 days ago5 days ago

    Could you (or writers on this topic) please include a comment or two on students who learn to read languages that aren’t written with an alphabet, but instead with characters?


  3. Jim 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Research is not valued in setting educational policy in California. This is a state that changed the start times for all high schools and created chaos for districts and parents based on -0- evidence that it would bring any benefits.