Bilingual Reading Instruction: What the Research Does and Doesn’t Say

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 10, 2008 1 min read
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Research shows that bilingual reading instruction helps English-language learners to read in English, but it isn’t conclusive in telling educators how long students should receive such instruction, according to Claude Goldenberg, an education professor at Stanford University, who has written an article about research on ELLs soon to be published in the American Educator. That’s the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers.

In “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does—and Does Not—Say,” Mr. Goldenberg explains (for the most part, in plain English) what guidance can and can’t be gleaned from research on ELLs. He bases his analysis on two research reviews, one by the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, published in 2006 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; and another by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, or CREDE, published the same year by Cambridge University Press.

On this one point about the benefits of providing reading instruction in students’ primary language, Mr. Goldenberg offers seven questions that haven’t yet been answered by researchers with confidence. Among them:

Is primary language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others? For example, those with weaker or stronger primary language skills? Weaker or stronger English skills? Is it more effective in some settings and with certain ELL populations than others? ... In an English immersion situation, what is the most effective way to use the primary language to support children's learning?

Mr. Goldenberg describes some kinds of instruction that research has shown to be promising in helping ELLs to improve their reading comprehension. They include cooperative learning and discussions to promote comprehension (which researchers call “instructional conversations”).

But it seems to me that in many areas of literacy instruction, educators of ELLs will have to follow their instincts—because the research is not much help.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.