Reading & Literacy

What the ‘Science of Reading’ Should Look Like for English-Learners. It’s Not Settled

By Sarah Schwartz — April 21, 2022 10 min read
Sarah Mireles kneels down to work on reading skills with students at Maplewood Elementary in Greeley, Colo., in January of 2018.
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Over the past few years, some states have spent millions of dollars and passed new laws in an attempt to shift the way that schools teach kids how to read.

These efforts take aim at commonly used ineffective literacy practices and programs, often focusing on teacher training. Many zero in on the foundations of reading, especially, with the goal of ensuring that teachers are using evidence-based methods for teaching the building blocks of literacy—like identifying letters and sounding out words.

But as more states try to tackle these persistent problems in early reading instruction, some advocates worry that these new initiatives may be introducing problems of their own.

A new coalition of researchers, educators, and advocates for English-language learners is pushing back against these policy changes, claiming that new legislation and guidance will disadvantage ELLs with a “one-size-fits-all approach” to teaching reading.

This group, the National Committee for Effective Literacy, released a policy paper earlier this year, claiming that the new approaches focus on drilling phonics skills in isolation, robbing English learners of the context that can support them in learning a new language and leaving teachers without enough time to work on developing students’ oral language. They say that these methods ignore research on dual language development.

The paper made waves among researchers and early reading experts, landing as it did at an inflection point in the “reading wars”—the ongoing debate over how best to teach young students to make sense of the written word.

And it’s added new dimensions to conversations about equity in a literacy movement that sprung largely from attempts to better serve students with disabilities and reading difficulties, propelling dialogue between proponents of structured literacy, English learner advocates, and educators who see themselves as part of both camps.

Advocates want English-learners’ needs prioritized

A central battle in these “reading wars” is over phonics instruction, the process of teaching students how letters match up to spoken sounds.

Decades of psychology and neuroscience research have shown that phonics is the most effective method for ensuring that students learn how to decode words. This is especially important for students with reading difficulties like dyslexia, who may need more practice with these foundational skills to become fluent readers. But as reporting from Education Week and other outlets has shown, many popular curriculum programs and instructional approaches minimize phonics instruction, or teach other, disproven strategies for word identification.

Over the past few years, a group of researchers, educators, and parents—many of whom work with kids with reading difficulties or are parents of dyslexic children—have lobbied school districts and states to adopt methods that teach phonics in a systematic, explicit way as part of an approach called structured literacy.

They’ve clashed with advocates of balanced literacy, the instructional philosophy that’s most commonly taught in teacher preparation programs and held by the majority of early grades educators.

Proponents of balanced literacy say that it combines some explicit instruction in foundational skills with guided practice, as well as independent reading and writing. Detractors argue that the approach doesn’t do enough to make sure that students master the basics of reading.

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The National Committee for Effective Literacy has taken aim at instructional frameworks that place what it sees as an outsized emphasis on phonics instruction. But both its members and the paper’s critics say that they want to move past the phonics versus balanced literacy debate.

For NCEL, equity is the issue at hand—its members want to make sure that the needs of English learners aren’t an afterthought as the national conversation on early literacy ramps up, said Martha Hernandez, the executive director of Californians Together and an NCEL member.

Students who speak a home language other than English have often faced marginalization within the U.S. school system. And 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.

“There’s a political, historical, ideological component to this that you just can’t ignore,” said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who studies early literacy development in English-language learners.

Goldenberg and several co-contributors penned a response to the NCEL paper and a recent webinar from the organization, saying that the group misrepresented changes underway in state legislatures and departments of education: States aren’t proposing that students spend entire literacy blocks on phonics, he said.

But, he said, it’s established science that English-language learners need additional support, beyond the comprehensive literacy instruction that native English speakers need. And he agrees that new state laws mandating “evidence-based” or “science of reading” approaches will require careful interpretation—otherwise, they could be implemented in ways that don’t support students.

“We saw that in Reading First,” Goldenberg said, referencing the George W. Bush-era grant program that incentivized schools to adopt methods based in “scientifically based reading research.”

“One of my concerns has been that we’re repeating those mistakes.”

How should reading—and foundational skills specifically—be taught for ELLs?

Reading First was based on findings from the National Reading Panel Report, which did not include studies that evaluated how best to teach English learners how to read. Later research would confirm that ELLs, too, benefited from the five components endorsed by the panel, but that they also needed additional, tailored instruction.

This meant that many English learners missed out on the language development and knowledge-building that would help them succeed in later grades, said Cristina Sanchez-Lopez, an NCEL member and an associate with Paridad, an educational consulting agency that works on ELL and equity issues. National evaluations of Reading First found that it had positive effects on students’ phonics skills overall, but not on comprehension.

Now that states are using legislation as a lever to improve reading instruction, the English learner community wants to make sure that teachers are equipped to teach all kids, said Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan, the president of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas, and an associate research professor at the University of Houston. Cárdenas-Hagan contributed to Goldenberg’s response to NCEL.

The message from ELL advocates, she said, is: “I don’t want to get the crumbs from your table. I want to be at the table.”

Chief among NCEL’s concerns is that much of early reading practice has been “developed around monolingual students,” said Laurie Olsen, an NCEL member and the board president of Californians Together.

This is a problem, Olsen said, because ELLs are different from students who only speak one language. Kids who are learning to speak and read a new language at the same time need some different supports, and bring some different strengths, than kids who are only doing the latter.

Research is clear on this point. Students learning English still need instruction in foundational skills, vocabulary, and comprehension, just like native English speakers. But they also need more practice developing their spoken language, given that they’re learning to speak and read English at the same time. (For more information on this research, see this story.)

“If I don’t understand the letters in front of me, the letters and sounds, then I have a problem, no matter the language.”

NCEL members worry that because some states haven’t explicitly set aside time for oral language development in their guidelines, it may fall by the wayside as teachers feel increased pressure to cover what is listed.

Olsen and Kathy Escamilla, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an NCEL member, raised concerns about what they see as a narrow focus on phonics instruction, specifically.

“I don’t disagree with people who say, ‘[Phonics instruction has] been kind of scattered, and maybe it isn’t as linear as it should be.’ But I haven’t heard that kind of a qualitative discussion,” Escamilla said. “What I’m hearing is, ‘Let’s do more of it,’ but not, ‘Let’s do it better.’”

Structured literacy advocates dispute NCEL’s claim that states are telling schools to focus on phonics instruction to the exclusion of all else. But Olsen also said that schools often teach phonics “out of context” for ELLs.

In foundational skills instruction, students are regularly asked to manipulate sounds and syllables. But it’s harder for English learners to make the connection that those sounds are part of words if they don’t understand what the words mean, Olsen said. Ideally, “there’s a connection between the content and the language being used,” she said.

NCEL is advocating for states and school systems to bolster dual language programs and put more resources toward helping students develop biliteracy.

This is a good goal, said Cárdenas-Hagan. But teachers don’t have to be in bilingual settings to draw on students’ knowledge of their home language, she said.

Teachers can use cognates, or words in two different languages that are related in origin, to help students understand word meanings. They can also start letter-sound instruction with letters that make similar sounds in English and the student’s home language.

There are lots of ways to adapt foundational skills instruction for ELLs, Cárdenas-Hagan said. But she emphasized that it still needs to be explicit and systematic.

While phonemic awareness and phonics are only “one piece of the puzzle” when it comes to literacy, she said, “if I don’t understand the letters in front of me, the letters and sounds, then I have a problem, no matter the language.”

A collaboration to support ELLs in Illinois

In one state, Illinois, ELL advocates and structured literacy proponents are trying to figure out how to negotiate priorities through legislation.

There, literacy advocates were pushing for the state legislature to pass the Right to Read Act this session, a proposal that would have led to three big changes in early reading instruction in the state: requiring teachers to pass a foundations of reading exam for certification, establishing a grant program that districts could use to adopt evidence-based curricula, and mandating that the state board of education offer professional development for educators.

“It’s fundamentally an equity issue here,” said Jessica Handy, the policy director at Stand for Children Illinois. The group is part of the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition, which worked on the bill. Both bill sponsors are members of the Black Caucus, and the issue of early literacy was discussed in negotiations for the caucus’ education agenda last session.

The Latino Policy Forum saw literacy as an equity issue, too. The group, which advocates for Latino issues in the state, hadn’t been involved in drafting the original bill. But after NCEL released its position paper, the forum reached out to the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition.

Members of the forum raised concerns that implementation of “science of reading” laws elsewhere had harmed English learners and pushed for changes in the bill language. “Part of the issue was the narrow definition of what literacy was within the legislation,” said Erika Méndez, the associate director of education for the Latino Policy Forum. “The concern was that it would narrow the set of practices that teachers would have in their toolbox.”

The bill’s sponsors pressed pause on the legislation this session. Now, the state board of education plans to convene stakeholders, including both the Latino Policy Forum and the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition, to work on literacy guidance this summer. Handy hopes that another version of the bill will be ready to propose during the veto session in November.

The challenge, said Handy, is developing a comprehensive plan that’s inclusive, but not so broad as to be “a bunch of fluff.” Still, she’s hopeful.

“We don’t want to enact a bill that’s going to be harmful to a major population of our students,” she said. “We in the coalition believe, first and foremost, that we’ve got to get it right.”

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