Reading & Literacy

The ‘Science of Reading’ and English-Language Learners: What the Research Says

By Sarah Schwartz — April 21, 2022 9 min read
Odalys Tebalan works on an assignment at Fairview Elementary in Carthage, Mo., on Nov. 26, 2018. Millions of children are suddenly learning at home as a result of school closures prompted by the global coronavirus pandemic. Many parents are trying to guide their children through assignments, but many face the challenge of English comprehension.
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As more states and districts are embracing the “science of reading,” some educators and advocates have raised the question: Will these methods work for English-language learners?

The “science of reading” has become shorthand in some literacy circles for approaches to early reading instruction that emphasize explicit, systematic teaching.

Its proponents favor structured, sequential instruction in foundational reading skills for beginning readers, such as learning letter sounds and sounding out words. Most also oppose the use of leveled reading systems, which aim to match students with a “just-right” text—an approach that many researchers say can trap struggling readers in simplistic books, preventing them from developing the vocabulary and content knowledge that would support them in tackling grade-level work.

Over the past five years, at least 17 states have passed legislation enshrining the “science of reading” into law, in hopes that policy changes will move instructional practice in the classroom. These laws have and will continue to shape instruction for millions of students—including English-language learners, who represent one in 10 students in the United States.

Some researchers and ELL experts say that’s a problem. The National Committee for Effective Literacy, a new advocacy organization formed this year, has argued that states that have taken up these initiatives have narrowed literacy instruction to “a few foundational reading skills” that fail to meet the needs of English learners.

The group’s aim, said Martha Hernandez, an NCEL member and the executive director of Californians Together, is to “ensure that the research and policies and practices that address English learner and emergent bilinguals were spotlighted, and are part of the national literacy conversation.”

Other early literacy researchers, though, have said that NCEL is misrepresenting some of the changes that states and districts are making to their reading teaching methods—and that a lot of the strategies that work for native English speakers can be effective for English learners, too.

So what are these areas of overlap, and where do English learners need something different?

Education Week spoke with researchers who study early literacy development in ELLs to compile this short overview of the research. For more on this issue, and how it’s shaping reading teaching for English learners, see this story.

What do school systems mean when they say the “science of reading”?

Written English is a code. For students to be able to understand words on the page, they need to crack that code: They need to know which letters make which sounds. Decades of research has shown that explicitly teaching students to recognize the sounds in words and to match those sounds to letters—teaching phonemic awareness and phonics—is the most effective way to ensure that kids are able to read words.

But as Education Week and other outlets have reported, many schools underemphasize these skills in reading lessons, and some teach other, disproven methods for identifying words.

States that have recently passed laws aiming to improve reading instruction have mandated that teachers be trained in delivering this kind of foundational skills instruction, or that schools use materials and assessments that support it.

Some ban other methods for word identification, like cueing, an approach that encourages students to rely on multiple sources of information, like pictures and sentence structure, to predict what words say, rather than just relying on the letters. Some research has shown that this strategy can take students’ focus away from the letters on the page, lowering the chances that they apply their phonics knowledge.

Systematic, explicit instruction in letters and sounds is crucial for beginning readers, especially those with dyslexia or phonological processing problems, said Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan, a bilingual speech-language pathologist and an associate research professor at the University of Houston.

Still, she said, “phonology and phonics are one piece of the puzzle. It’s not everything that literacy is about.”

Teachers need to help students develop a host of early literacy skills, like their ability to express themselves through spoken language, their ability to understand what others are saying to them, and their vocabulary, Cárdenas-Hagan said. Students should have opportunities for practice that integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing, she added.

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While these new state laws mandate certain approaches to foundational skills instruction, they direct schools to prioritize other reading skills, too. Many cite the five components of reading studied in the National Reading Panel in 2000—instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Even so, critics of these laws worry that a more comprehensive focus will be lost in their implementation, and that school systems will be incentivized to double down on foundational skills instruction at the expense of all else.

“When it hits the classroom, when it hits district administration, that’s what they look for, that’s what they assess,” said Laurie Olsen, an NCEL member and the board president of Californians Together.

This is a reasonable concern, said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who studies early literacy development in English-language learners. Goldenberg and several co-contributors, including Cárdenas-Hagan, wrote a response to a recent paper and webinar from NCEL, refuting their claim that “science of reading” advocates are pushing a phonics-only approach to reading instruction.

Still, he said, new state laws often don’t specify how much time to spend on different reading skills or how to teach them—nor should they, Goldenberg said: “You can’t expect legislation to be curriculum guides.” That means, though, that these laws’ success or failure lies in implementation, he said.

Does this research apply to English-language learners, too?

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education convened the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth, tasking it with reviewing the research on best practices for literacy development among ELLs.

The panel’s report, published in 2006, found that a lot of what works for kids whose first language is English is also effective for kids who speak a different language at home. Instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension—the five components of reading studied in the National Reading Panel a few years earlier—all had “clear benefits” for ELLs.

But the literature also showed that instruction was most effective when it was tailored to ELLs’ specific needs and unique founts of knowledge. And crucially, kids learning English needed more instruction in oral English proficiency than their peers: things like vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension, and syntax.

The panel found that schools weren’t supporting students enough in these areas, and more recent research finds that schools still aren’t doing enough to help ELLs develop academic language in English.

With these students, teachers need to discuss the meaning of words constantly—even shorter, simpler words that teachers might not treat as vocabulary words with native English speakers, said Cárdenas-Hagan. In working with students who are learning how to speak a new language, teachers need to be purposeful about developing vocabulary and oral language skills in every lesson.

In part, this is so that students can understand that the words they’re sounding out have meaning, said Kathy Escamilla, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an NCEL member. She gave the example of a 1st grade class, where a teacher might ask students to clap out how many sounds are in the word “sofa.”

Native English speakers would know that word, but other students might not. If the teacher doesn’t help English learners understand the meaning, then it’s harder for students to make the connection that these sounds represent word parts, Escamilla said.

And there are other reasons why English learners might need teachers to pay more attention to vocabulary instruction. A word like “run,” for example, has multiple meanings in English: You can run a race, but you can also run your finger down a list, or run a computer program. Discussing those multiple meanings as students encounter these words in phonics lessons is a key part of vocabulary instruction for English learners, Cárdenas-Hagan said.

Teachers need to build students’ oral vocabulary beyond these words, too, so that they’re prepared for the more challenging texts they’ll encounter after the earliest grades, said Goldenberg. This is important for all students, but especially so for English learners.

“If the only English-language development that kids are getting in K, 1, 2 are the words they’re learning to read, that is an impoverished ELD curriculum,” he said.

Research on interventions for Spanish-speaking students who are at risk of reading difficulties has found that successful approaches combine both instruction in the five components of reading identified in the National Reading Panel report, and additional support in developing spoken language skills in English from trained bilingual intervention teachers.

What if students are in bilingual programs and learning to read in two languages?

English learners aren’t blank slates. They come into schools with language—and often literacy—skills from the language they speak at home. These skills can support them in developing proficiency in English.

Many research reviews have found that teaching students to read in their first language helped kids become better readers in English, too. It can also be beneficial for students’ social and cultural development.

Bilingual education is evidence-based. But it’s also politically controversial in many places. Until recently, 40 percent of the nation’s ELLs lived in states under English-only laws, which prohibited English learners from being taught in their home language as well as English; only one state, Arizona, still has this type of law on the books.

The number of dual-language programs in the United States is growing, but there’s still a shortage of certified bilingual teachers—and, as Education Week has reported, English learners often face competition for spots in these programs from affluent, native English-speaking parents who are increasingly seeking out bilingual education for their children.

In its position paper, NCEL outlined best practices for English learners in dual-language programs. Good teaching in a bilingual setting isn’t just “repeating the same thing in two languages,” they write.

It requires “coordinated and aligned” literacy teaching, with a scope and sequence that makes sense in each language. Students should have access to high-quality materials and assessments in both languages, as well as opportunities to write, have conversations, and deliver presentations in both.

And importantly, they write, dual language programs should celebrate diversity, “including learning about the benefits of bilingualism and explicit efforts to equalize the status of ‘minoritized’ languages.”

Despite this evidence base, the majority of English learners are not served in bilingual settings, said Cárdenas-Hagan. She said it’s important for educators to get training in instructional strategies that can support ELLs in English as a second language programs. (For more on this subject, see this story).

But Escamilla says the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive. “While it is true that most of the kids who are labeled as English learners are in English programs, that does not mean that we shouldn’t advocate or push for the development of bilingual programs.”

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