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Reading Aid Seen to Lag in ELL Focus

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 22, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article should have said that Shelly Spiegel-Coleman is the executive director of Californians Together.

Educators and experts across the country who work with English-language learners are moving toward a consensus that the federal Reading First program needs to be refined to become more effective for children acquiring English.

Administrators in several big-city districts with large numbers of such students are stepping up their training of teachers on how best to teach second-language learners to read under the No Child Left Behind Act’s flagship reading program, which serves grades K-3.

Last school year, the 410,000-student Chicago public school system established a new position at the district level for a bilingual specialist to coach teachers at the city’s 17 Reading First schools with large numbers of ELLs on how to tailor reading instruction to such students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, where 38 percent of the 708,000 students are ELLs, started an institute for Reading First teachers this school year on reading strategies for ELLs.

See Also

For more information on English-language learners, read our blog Learning the Language.

And since last school year the 1.1 million-student New York City school system has been providing workshops and coaching to Reading First teachers and administrators on the same topic.

The U.S. Department of Education’s 11-member Reading First Advisory Committee has enough concerns about whether ELLs are getting what they need under the $1 billion-a-year program that it set up a subcommittee to look into the issue last week, according to Kris D. Gutiérrez, a committee member and a professor of social-research methodology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“My opinion is we have a long ways to go to meet the needs of English-language learners under the current policies and practices of Reading First,” Ms. Gutiérrez said. Among the program’s problems, she said, are that students’ reading skills are tested before they learn English, the literacy curriculum is too narrow, and teachers are not prepared to work with ELLs.

Education Department officials, asked last week if Reading First is working for ELLs, said “state-reported annual performance data show that many Reading First sites are showing improvements in reading fluency and comprehension for their English-language-learner students,” according to an e-mail message from Elaine Quesinberry, a spokeswoman for the department.

New Language

Concern about how to refine reading instruction for English-language learners also has spread to Capitol Hill.

See Also

Read more stories on Reading First.

A draft bill to reauthorize the NCLB law, put forth by the House Education and Labor Committee, calls for Reading First programs to be “linguistically appropriate”—a term not included in the current federal education law.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, a Texas Democrat and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was one of the lawmakers who helped get the phrase into the draft, according to Elizabeth Esfahani, his press secretary. The phrase is mentioned 11 times in the draft.

A number of reading experts and educators said that even though “linguistically appropriate” is a vague phrase, its addition to the law would likely be beneficial for English-learners.

“The advantage of the new [legislative] language is it’s going to nudge states and districts, as they submit their plans, to stress more how teacher training and coaching will lead to teaching English-language development better,” said Russell Gersten, the executive director of the Instructional Research Group, an educational research institute in Long Beach, Calif.

Mr. Gersten headed a panel for the Education Department to write a“practice guide” for education of English-language learners, released in July, and has been a consultant for Houghton Mifflin Company’s reading textbooks.

Margarita Calderón, a professor and research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agrees with others who say Reading First has not worked well for ELLs. The additional language “would be an improvement,” she said, “because schools will have to be accountable and show they are doing this in a linguistically appropriate way.”

But, aside from agreeing on the need for more teacher training, educators’ views of how Reading First needs to be improved sometimes contradict each other, particularly on whether students’ native languages should be used to teach reading.

Mr. Gersten said teachers should teach English structures, such as “compare and contrast” or “cause and effect,” and help students practice them. It’s also helpful for teachers to preview reading lessons with students to ensure that they know what a story is about, he said. Pictures or Web sites can be useful for previewing, Mr. Gersten noted.

But he said it would be a mistake for the words “linguistically appropriate” to steer schools to use students’ native languages for reading instruction. He hasn’t found studies concluding that bilingual education is more effective than English-only methods to be persuasive.

On the other hand, Miriam Calderón, who is not related to Margarita Calderón and is a policy analyst at the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, said her group lobbied members of Congress to add linguistically appropriate to Reading First particularly for that purpose.

And Johns Hopkins’ Margarita Calderón believes that including the term “linguistically appropriate” in the law could encourage the teaching of reading to ELLs through their native languages at the same time they are learning English.

Varying State Policies

While reading experts favored the proposed changes in Reading First for ELLs, state education officials in several states with large populations of English-learners were indifferent. Officials in Arizona, California, and New Jersey all said they already are implementing Reading First in a linguistically appropriate way.

Their approaches, all approved by the Education Department, differ widely, however.

States, ELLs, and Reading First

State plans vary in how they implement the Reading First program for English-language learners.

Arizona
• Requires instruction and materials to be in English.
• No approved list of materials school districts must choose from.

California
• Requires school districts to select materials from an approved list that includes textbooks in Spanish and English. No separate textbooks designed for English-language learners.
• No separate block of time for English-language development.

New Jersey
• Requires that schools provide reading instruction in Spanish if they have a critical mass of Spanish speakers who are ELLs.
• Requires school districts to select materials from an approved list that includes textbooks in Spanish and English and has separate English-language development textbooks tailored for ELLs.
• In addition to the regular 90-minute reading block, schools must teach English-language development to ELLs for a minimum of 30 minutes each day.

SOURCES: State education departments in Arizona, California, and New Jersey

New Jersey, for instance, requires that Reading First schools provide instruction to ELLs in Spanish, while Arizona requires that all Reading First instruction be in English. California permits schools to use Spanish instruction for Reading First in bilingual classrooms that meet state restrictions for using that educational method.

New Jersey also requires schools to select Reading First materials from an approved list that includes core materials in Spanish or English and has separate materials for teaching English-language development to ELLs.

But California has not adopted separate materials for ELLs, and the state board of education’s refusal to enable such an adoption is controversial. In the state’s next adoption process, however, textbook publishers will have to meet specified criteria to address the needs of ELLs. For example, they will need to provide ideas for teachers to preview reading lessons for ELLs.

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of 17 groups that advocate in behalf of ELLs, said the increasing gap in reading achievement in California between native speakers of English and ELLs demonstrates that the nearly 6-year-old Reading First program isn’t working.

As evidence, she said the achievement gap in reading between native speakers of English and ELLs in Los Angeles schools, the state’s school system with the most ELLs, has stayed the same or widened from last year to this year at every grade level tested. Ms. Spiegel-Coleman, who just retired as director of the multilingual-academic-support unit of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, criticized the Open Court Reading materials used for the program, and also said the instruction gave students little chance to practice English. The core language arts series is published by SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Julie Slayton, the executive director of strategic planning and accountability for the Los Angeles school district, said the Open Court materials are high-quality, but noted that the quality of instruction “varies widely.”

David L. Brewer III, the superintendent for LAUSD, said in an e-mail message that, like any other materials, Open Court “gets results when skillful teachers use it properly.” He said the Open Court program “will need to be modified somewhat to better accommodate ELL students, especially teacher professional development,” which he expects to happen in the next textbook-adoption cycle.

The addition of the phrase “linguistically appropriate” to the federal education law, Ms. Spiegel-Coleman believes, would force California officials and school districts to do more for ELLs.

“California has a reading initiative, and Reading First is just more of the same—more assessments, coaches, more intensity, more monitoring.” She added, “You can’t do the same old thing. If you have kids who don’t speak English in Reading First who aren’t doing well, you have to do something else.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Reading Aid Seen to Lag in ELL Focus

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