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English-Language Learners Opinion

Learning To Read While Learning English

By Claude Goldenberg — May 09, 2001 5 min read
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If well used, primary-language instruction is a tool that can help us provide greater success for English-learners in English.

If the Bush administration is serious about “leaving no child behind” in the campaign to promote universal literacy, it should think very seriously about children who come from homes where English is not spoken. There are more than 1.4 million California schoolchildren who speak a language other than English. Nationally, there are nearly three times that many. All indications are the numbers will continue to rise.

These students face a daunting challenge in this day of high standards, unforgiving tests, and an information-drenched new economy. If the issues surrounding universal literacy in general are thorny, they are positively bedeviling for children learning English as a second language. Nostalgic English-only advocates might wistfully recall a simpler time when no one had to worry about children who came from homes where English was not spoken much, or at all. The common school presumably homogenized the immigrant polyglot into an English-speaking melting pot.

But this is a fantasy made possible by the miracle of self-selection: In the early 20th century, very few students, whether immigrant or native-born, were expected to complete high school, let alone go to college. The few who had the resources and did well enough, remained in school. Those who didn’t, left. But even those who left still had plenty of other options for social mobility and economic self-sufficiency. Not so now; if you’re out of school, you’re out of luck. And if you don’t know how to read very well, you’re unlikely to stay in school very long.

Students who come from homes where English is not spoken are among those most at risk of school failure. In analyzing California’s Academic Performance Index scores for elementary schools, I’ve found that the percentage of nonfluent English-speakers at a school is one of the strongest negative predictors of API score. Even controlling for socioeconomic status and other factors, larger numbers of English-learners at a school are likely to mean lower levels of literacy and academic attainment. This should surprise no one, but it serves to remind us of a hard reality for millions of children and their teachers.

Our research base for promoting English literacy among English-learners is sparse and riddled with political and ideological quarrels. Still, we can lay claim to some helpful findings that we can put to good use.

There are more than 1.4 million California schoolchildren who speak a language other than English. Nationally, there are three times that many.

First, English-learners learning to read and write need essentially the same balanced and comprehensive literacy diet as do English-speakers. Such a diet includes interesting and stimulating print-rich environments; direct, explicit, systematic instruction in specific skills such as decoding, vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension; and content-matter instruction in all relevant curriculum areas. Much of what works for English-speakers works for English-learners, too. We do not have to devise a whole new pedagogy.

But second, English-learners do need additional structure and support. Teachers cannot assume that children, particularly children for whom the sounds and meanings of the language are unfamiliar, will pick up reading skills on their own. We have come to understand that letting young children just “figure out” reading is a great disservice to most. For children learning to read and speak English simultaneously, the consequences of letting them figure it out on their own are particularly severe. They must be guided or “scaffolded” in ways that native English-speakers might not require.

Third, learning to read and write in one’s primary language is helpful for acquiring literacy in a second language. This is the premise of most forms of bilingual education, which Californians tried to dismantle with the passage of Proposition 227 over two years ago. Other states are following suit. Debate over Proposition 227 and similar measures probably has little to do with research, but the fact is that the most scientific studies—as opposed to opportunistic uses of data—show that instruction in students’ first language can help them develop literacy and academic skills in a second language. The effects are not huge, probably around 8 to 10 percentile points on average. But if well used, primary-language instruction is a tool that can help us provide greater success for English-learners in English. Making the case is an uphill battle, however, since it is so contrary to most people’s “common sense.” I’m a big fan of common sense, but it’s an imperfect guide to truth: If we relied only on common sense, we would still think the world is flat.


Finally, the form of bilingual education known as “two way” might be the best way to promote literacy, as well as academic development in all areas, for English-learners. Two-way bilingual education also offers important benefits for children who are already fluent in English. Rather than seeing non-English languages as a handicap to overcome, two-way programs see language as a resource. Non-English-speaking children maintain and learn academic skills in their home language, and they learn to speak, understand, read, and write in English. English-speaking students maintain their English, acquire a second language, and learn literacy and other academic skills in both. If the results of early studies are borne out, we have the makings of a “win-win” solution, as our business friends like to say. We could help provide children with the economic, intellectual, and cultural advantages of bilingualism and high literacy levels in two languages, while addressing one of the most serious challenges our educational system faces.

Let us not kid ourselves about the enormity of this challenge, not only for English-learners but also for large numbers of children who must overcome more than their fair share of obstacles on the road to literacy. One way or another, we have to try to figure out ways to provide these children with experiences that build upon the knowledge and strengths they bring to school, in order to help them flourish academically. If we don’t, we will undoubtedly leave plenty of children behind.


Claude Goldenberg is a professor and the associate dean of the college of education at California State University-Long Beach. He was a participant in the Reading Rountable held by President and Mrs. Bush as part of the inaugural events in January.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as Learning To Read While Learning English

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