Reading & Literacy

‘Science of Reading’ and English-Learner Advocates Reach Common Ground

By Sarah Schwartz — November 03, 2023 4 min read
Side view of mixed ethnicity school kids sitting on cushions against bookshelves and reading  books in a library.
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Two groups have aimed to find consensus in one contested area of the ongoing reading wars: what the “science of reading” should look like for English learners.

In a statement released in October, The Reading League, an organization that advocates for the science of reading, and the National Committee for Effective Literacy, a group that promotes research and policies to support literacy development for English learners, agreed on best practices for evidence-based reading instruction for EL and emergent bilingual students.

It’s a collaboration that wouldn’t have been predictable only a year and a half ago, said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, in a panel discussion on the statement this week at the California Reading Coalition’s annual virtual summit.

In 2022, NCEL released a white paper arguing that new state legislation across the country mandating explicit, systematic instruction in foundational reading skills would harm ELs. The laws and policies districts were enacting encouraged drilling phonics in isolation, they said, and neglected the development of the spoken language instruction that is crucial for ELs.

The statement reignited a debate about equity in the science of reading movement. Advocates for some of these state-level changes argue that they’re necessary to ensure that all students, including those with reading disabilities and difficulties, learn how to read well. But NCEL argued that in neglecting ELs’ specific needs, these laws were creating new inequities.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

When NCEL first released the white paper last year, The Reading League discussed whether to respond, said Kari Kurto, the director of the National Science of Reading Project at the Reading League.

“Through the discussion, we developed a feeling that maybe we needed to hear out some of these things that were of concern for NCEL, and maybe let’s not go back and forth without listening to and learning from each other,” Kurto said at this week’s panel.

The result was a series of meetings between the two groups that ended in a summit, where they landed on a series of shared priorities.

The process could be “a little tense” at times, said Martha Hernandez, the executive director of Californians Together, an advocacy coalition for English learners. Still, she said, “we recognized the need for mutual respect and understanding.”

Kurto hopes that the collaborative process can be a model for other groups, including policymakers. If advocates in the field can demonstrate where they’re aligned, it provides a road map for educators and administrators looking to implement effective practice, she said.

“We can avoid that conflict. We can avoid that lost time, because our students need us now,” Kurto said.

Statement offers guiding principles for reading instruction

The statement doesn’t cover every aspect of early reading—including some of the hottest flash points. It doesn’t, for example, offer an opinion on “cueing,” a strategy in which students are taught to rely on context and pictures to decipher words, which many reading researchers say can impede their ability to read text accurately and fluently.

But it does provide a set of guiding principles to frame reading instruction for English learners. Among them:

  • All students should receive “comprehensive instruction” that covers “language development, development of content knowledge, vocabulary, foundational skills for decoding, comprehension, and writing.”
  • Foundational skills should be “explicitly and systematically taught.”
  • Mapping spoken language to written language requires explicit instruction.
  • English-language development must be prioritized for ELs, “to ensure students are not simply decoding, or attempting to decode, words that they do not understand.”
  • Students’ home language is an asset, and students should have access to dual-language programs whenever possible.

The meetings between The Reading League and NCEL offered an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions on both sides, said Hernandez.

In these meetings, participants acknowledged that sometimes the science of reading movement had “overlooked” the needs of emergent bilinguals, she said. Participants were also able to clarify that the science of reading isn’t a rigid instructional program, or just focused on a narrow range of foundational skills—rather, it’s a comprehensive approach to applying evidence-based practices, Hernandez added.

Some of these misconceptions are explicitly addressed in the joint statement, which clarifies that the science of reading is not “a single, specific component of instruction, such as phonics.”

Hernandez hopes that districts can use the statement to identify best practices, and to foreground all students in decision-making about literacy.

ELs and bilingual students should not just be a “box on the side” of curriculum materials and professional development programs, she said.


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