Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Building ELLs’ Literacy Early Is Crucial

By Corey Mitchell — May 11, 2016 10 min read
Pre-K student Kailyn Walker reaches for a book in her classroom at the Dual Language Academy in Tulsa, Okla., where 50 percent of children are English-learners and students are taught in English and Spanish.
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Leer en español (read in Spanish)

At a time when the value of play is a raging debate in early education, Liliane Vanoy has an almost singular focus for the prekindergarten students enrolled in her school.

Vanoy says the word three times for emphasis: vocabulary, vocabulary, and vocabulary.

“I don’t care if your student comes here with two words. At the end of the year, he needs to know 5,002,” Principal Vanoy tells her teachers at the city’s Dual Language Academy.

Vanoy understands the expectation may seem intense and stressful for 4- and 5-year-olds, especially those learning English as a second language.

Parents often question her about how much playtime their children are getting at the school, where at least two hours per day are dedicated to teaching literacy. Vanoy agrees that children should play, but she also explains to parents that their children are tested early and often in kindergarten.

In Oklahoma, student literacy is assessed during the second week of kindergarten classes, and children are tabbed as above- or below-grade-level before some of them have even adjusted to classroom routines.

“Early childhood is not what it used to be,” Vanoy said.

For nearly two decades, Oklahoma has provided universal access to free prekindergarten classes for every 4-year-old in the state, and Tulsa’s programs are considered the crown jewels.

The laserlike focus on literacy has produced notable early results here, especially for English-language learners—those students who come from non-English speaking homes.

Despite the program’s early success, questions remain about the long-term benefits.

Overall, the Hispanic children who pass through Tulsa’s pre-K classrooms come to kindergarten more academically prepared for school than those who don’t, according to a long-term study from Georgetown University.

The Georgetown researchers have found that they are, on average, months ahead of their peers who don’t enroll in pre-K in reading and four months ahead in writing.

The team has spent 15 years studying Tulsa’s efforts, and the data indicates that English-learners are among the student groups who have benefited most from the access to free pre-K classes.

Teacher Talina Avila helps Joshua Flores talk about his drawing in his prekindergarten class at the Dual Language Academy, where a mix of native Spanish-speakers and English-speakers make up the student body.

But Tulsa’s state test scores in elementary reading have remained stagnant for the past decade and have even slightly declined for English-learners.

Dual Language Learning

Seeking out solutions, Tulsa has undertaken a small-scale experiment at the Dual Language Academy, where the classrooms are an almost-even split of native English speakers and Spanish speakers.

The dual-language approach makes it possible for an English-learner to help a native English-speaking child sitting next to him learn Spanish and vice versa.

Like Tulsa, more states and school districts are aiming to reach English-language learners in the earliest stages of the education pipeline.

Research indicates that early exposure to a language boosts a child’s odds of better academic performance later on.

That’s crucial for Tulsa, a district of nearly 40,000 students that has undergone a dramatic demographic shift in recent years.

Hispanic students are now 31 percent of the student population, outnumbering all other races and ethnicities in the public schools here.

In the past decade, the number of Hispanic students in Tulsa has more than doubled, and many of them are native Spanish speakers. Overall, nearly 1 in every 3 students in the district speaks Spanish at home.

“The urgency of getting this right is even more pressing,” said William Gormley, one of the lead Georgetown University researchers and a co-director of the university’s Center for Research on Children in the United States.

At the Dual Language Academy, a pre-K through 5th grade school, science and social studies lessons are taught in Spanish, while math instruction is in English.

The school’s 40 pre-K students bounce from teacher-led dance- and sing-a-longs to science and art stations every four minutes, with native Spanish- and native English-speakers often paired together to increase their exposure to the languages.

Recent research has found that there are benefits of dual-language learning over English-only classes for English-learners.

A joint study published in 2015 by the Houston schools and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that native Spanish-speaking students in the district have more success learning English when they’re enrolled in two-way dual-language programs that include native English-speakers in the classroom.

It’s among a growing body of research that points to the benefits of teaching students in two languages.

In several North Carolina districts with two-way, dual-language instruction, students score statistically significantly higher in reading in 4th grade than their nondual-language peers, a pattern that continues through 8th grade, researchers from George Mason University found.

Thus far, the Dual Language Academy is the only school in Tulsa that provides dual-language instruction for pre-K students. That means less than 5 percent of the district’s 500-plus pre-K English-learners are experiencing the model.

Hopeful that the school’s approach will yield results for the district’s burgeoning English-learner population, administrators are closely monitoring assessment scores for students who have come up through the dual-language program.

Anecdotal evidence shows that the dual-language approach is working, said Laura Grisso, who oversees the district’s ELL programs.

Kindergarten students who participated in dual-language pre-K are working on writing half-page stories that they can explain in English and Spanish; and English-learner kindergarten students in English-only classrooms are working on recognizing and reciting the alphabet, she said.

Learning English Takes Time

The stakes for achieving student literacy are high in Oklahoma.

State law requires that students who aren’t proficient on a 3rd-grade reading test repeat the grade. It’s one of at least 16 states that requires a do-over for 8- and 9-year-olds who do not meet grade-level reading expectations by the end of that year.

More than 90 percent of children in the Tulsa schools who’ve been affected by the law have been special education students and ELLs, said Andy Mackenzie, the assistant to the superintendent for early-childhood services.

Exemptions are granted for students with a limited grasp of English, namely those who have had less than two years of academic English instruction.

“When you’re learning a second language, it’s all a matter of time,” said Vanoy, the principal. “And sometimes our time does not match up with what our state requires. The law doesn’t even take into consideration how much a child has grown,” in literacy skills.

At Tulsa’s Dual Language Academy, all classroom objects are labeled in Spanish and English. The school’s prekindergarten classrooms put a heavy emphasis on teaching vocabulary in both languages and developing oral literacy skills that are meant to prepare students for kindergarten.

Third grade is considered key for student literacy, as it’s the year that students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In other words, they’re expected to focus less on reading and more on the information they’re reading.

An early focus on literacy is key if children, especially English-learners, are to make that crucial transition, said Maria Adeliada Restrepo, the director of the bilingual language and literacy laboratory at Arizona State University.

“We need rich conversations, exposure to vocabulary, complex language,” Restrepo said.

English-learners who enter kindergarten with a basic grasp of academic language, “either in their primary language or in English,” are more likely over time to be reclassified as former ELLs, an analysis from Oregon State University researcher Karen Thompson found.

Thompson, an assistant professor of cultural and linguistic diversity in the university’s college of education, reviewed nine years of student data from the Los Angeles Unified School District to gauge how long it takes students to develop proficiency in English.

Thompson’s analysis shows that students who don’t reach proficiency by the time they reach the end of elementary school are less likely to do so at all.

Those students share a common characteristic: They enter kindergarten with a limited command of academic language, the skills that allow children to retell stories or solve word-based math problems. Students in this category are 24 percent less likely to be reclassified than their peers. They are also more likely to score lower on academic tests. The also graduate from high school at lower rates than their peers, Thompson’s analysis found.

Does Pre-K Help ELLs in the Long Run?

Even with universal pre-K, Oklahoma has been treading water as it tries to keep up with the average national gains in 4th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Gormley, the Georgetown researcher, said the reliance on state and national exam results to measure the program’s effectiveness is shortsighted.

“Fadeout occurs whether it’s an early-childhood program or piano lessons or anything else that kids are exposed to,” Gormley said.

The larger question, Gormley said, should be whether there are any long-term benefits, such as increased enrollment in honors courses, better grades, and improved discipline and attendance records, for the students who participated in pre-K.

Teaching assistant Richard Nolasco listens to Joshua Flores and Ke’mari Barnes during their prekindergarten class at Tulsa’s Dual Language Academy. The population of Oklahoma’s second-largest school district has shifted dramatically in recent years, with nearly 1 in every 3 students coming from homes where Spanish is the primary language.

Quality preschool programs can play a role in helping establish that strong start, and it’s that much better if students are able to learn in their native language, too, said Restrepo.

There is a clear difference between early-childhood and pre-K programs that focus on language development and literacy and those with environments that more closely resemble a day-care setting, Restrepo said.

“They need to play, but there should be people talking with them,” Restrepo said.

“What I see is kids banging blocks in the corner and fighting with each other for the naked baby [doll] in the preschool classroom and nobody’s building the language.”

English-learners enrolled in English-only courses often face two challenges: Their English instruction is often oversimplified, and there’s no reinforcement in their primary language, she said.

The pre-K classes at Tulsa’s Dual Language Academy could help address those issues, but finding bilingual teachers to staff classrooms has been a struggle in Tulsa, just as it is in many school districts.

Latino Families Least Likely to Access Pre-K

Oklahoma has put a premium on increasing access to prekindergarten, and Tulsa has one of the highest participation rates in the country, with 3 out of 4 4-year-olds enrolled in a pre-K program.

But participation among Hispanics, and English-learners in particular, lags behind other groups here and elsewhere.

Historically, Hispanic parents have been less likely to enroll their children in early-childhood-education programs and Head Start, the federal education program designed to support the needs of low-income children and get them ready for elementary school.

Though Oklahoma offers pre-K that is open to all age-eligible children, the ability for families to access it isn’t universal.

Gina Adams, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute in Washington, has studied the barriers to preschool participation for immigrant children and English-language learners in Silicon Valley and Chicago.

In cities around the country, transportation, cost, and lackluster outreach efforts are among the issues that emerge as obstacles for those families who want to enroll children in pre-K but don’t have the resources or time to do so.

The language barrier between schools and families with a limited command of English is often the primary hurdle, said Adams, who worked as a child-care teacher for infants and as a home visitor for low-income Latino families in Austin, Texas, before coming to the Urban Institute.

“If there’s nobody there who can connect, it makes sense that parents would be hesitant to take their children,” Adams said.

To attract more parents, pre-K providers have to actively recruit families, Adams said.

“If you don’t, the school readiness gap is not going to be addressed, because the kids who need [pre-K] most are not going to be there and they’ll still be coming to school unprepared,” Adams said.

One of the city’s early-childhood-program providers, Community Action Project-Tulsa has started opening Head Start sites in the city’s most heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in its push to get more families through the door.

Paving the way for families to enroll can make all the difference for the English-learners, said Restrepo, the Arizona State University professor.

“We’re trying to make up for lost ground,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Early Jump on Oral Literacy Crucial for ELLs’ Later Success


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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