Early Literacy and ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 27, 2008 1 min read
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At least one educator, Ted Hirsch, thinks New York City’s new $2.4 million, three-year early literacy program could really help English-language learners. Mr. Hirsch, the principal for K-6 students at South Shore Charter School in Norwell, Mass., made this claim in an interview with a television station after the program was announced this week by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. The reading program was created by the Core Knowledge Foundation and is being implemented in 10 high-needs schools, according to an Aug. 26 New York Times article. The founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation is E.D. Hirsch Jr., an emeritus English professor from the University of Virginia who has written widely about cultural literacy. Ted Hirsch is his son and a vice-chairman of the foundation.

I talked with Ted Hirsch today by telephone, and he said he doesn’t have any “scientific proof” that the program will help ELLs. He bases his view that it works well for them on the fact that eight or so ELLs were among the 49 kindergartners who used the program at his school last year in its pilot phase, and all of the ELLs learned to read. He notes that the ELLs also received additional help to learn English, so it’s not clear how much impact the early reading program alone had on their success. The program has qualities that seem suited to ELLs, he added. “The reason it would work well is that there are illustrations that go along with everything, and you stay on a topic for a long time,” he said.

For more about the early literacy program, see the New York City Department of Education press release and an entry over at the Core Knowledge Blog.

It’s no easy task for schools to make reading lessons work for ELLs because they often lack the background knowledge or vocabulary to understand what they are reading even if they can sound out words. I’m reminded that the federal Reading First program under the No Child Left Behind Act hasn’t been very successful with ELLs in the view of many experts on ELLs, according to my reporting on that program last fall.

Meanwhile, over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli has been tangling with Mr. Klein over whether New York City’s “balanced literacy” program has merit. Mr. Petrilli said balanced literacy was “hogwash” when he wrote a post that applauded the city’s decision to launch the Core Knowledge early literacy program.

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