“How Do English Language Learners Learn To Read?

by Ricardo Castillo in ,


BookMarks OutlooK-12 Magazine

The 24 hour news cycle has turned us into a society that only values and looks for the latest news to stay informed. “Yesterday’s news” has become a derisive term to describe any news or information that isn’t hot off the presses, but there is a value and relevance to the vast archive of periodicals and books that have been written over the years. We’ve gone back to the “stacks” and “bookmarked” some of those insightful articles that add context and perspectives to the very topics in education that we are debating today. Here’s one on the challenge of teaching English Language Learners (ELLs).

Topic: “How Do English Language Learners Learn To Read?
"Educational Leadership"; March 2004, by Robert E. Slavin and Alan Cheung

What’s the best way for students who come from homes in which a language other than English is spoken -- so-called English language learners -- to achieve success in school and on standardized tests? According to research analyzed in the March 2004 issue of “Educational Leadership,” the prevailing thought that bilingual programs retard or are detrimental to English reading performances of English language readers is a misconception. In fact, the research shows just the opposite. Bilingual programs and innovations spawned by those programs have actually improved the students’ reading skills.

“How Do English Language Learners Learn To Read?” by professors Robert E. Slavin, Co-director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University and Alan Cheung, scientist at the Success for All Foundation, illustrates that the importance of the study cannot be underestimated especially at this point in the new century. The current political climate has left many educational programs in the lurch, and there’s no telling what the future holds. As the authors put it, “... Because many federal and state policies now mandate that schools demonstrate adequate yearly progress of every student subgroup, schools with large English language learner populations face serious consequences unless these students succeed.” 

The dilemma facing teachers of English language learners is simply this: how can students learn how to speak and read in a language that is not their own at the same time? Traditionally, the writers explain, phonics are used. Students sound out the letters. This is the key element in teaching reading to native English speakers. However, it doesn’t help when English is not the primary language. That is why, writes Slavin and Cheung, “Advocates of native language, or bilingual, instruction argue that schools must teach reading in the student’s native language first; only after the student is proficient in that language and has developed substantial proficiency in spoken English should he or she be transitioned to English-only reading instruction.” 

By and large, the studies of elementary reading instruction found significant positive results -- and few if any detrimental effects -- for bilingual education. And the authors were startled to discover that there was valid evidence to supporting the positive effects of... “Teaching students to read in both their native language and in English at different times of the day.” 

The researchers examined three studies that testing bilingual education versus other methodologies. These three in particular were focused on Spanish-dominant students in New Haven, Connecticut; Perth Amboy, New Jersey and Houston, Texas respectively. The students were randomly placed in English-only or Spanish and English reading classes in the New Haven trial as were the New Jersey students. In both instances, students taught two languages were more successful. In the Houston study, 50 percent of the students were “randomly assigned to a class in which instruction was primarily in Spanish in kindergarten, in both Spanish and English in first grade and primarily in English in second grade.” The test scores in the English Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills showed that the best results were among students taught in both languages. 

The authors came to the conclusion that how students are taught -- the methodology -- may be more significant than the language in which they’re instructed. The authors studied three different reading programs that have been evaluated by experimental researchers. All three, including Success For All, Direct Instruction and Jolly Phonics, employed both the English only and bilingual variations. In every program, both methods were equally successful. (And while Cheung and Slavin are connected to Success For All, their prejudice should not be cause for suspicion because of the additional studies analyzed.) 

Research also revealed that tutoring programs were also a good method for assisting beginning readers who were English-language learners. A study by K. Escamilla in 1994 analyzed the Reading Recovery tutoring, while B. Gunn, A. Biglan, K. Smolkowski and D. Ary’s research in “The Journal of Special Education” in 2000, looked at Direct Instruction’s small group and one-to-one tutorials. In both cases, tutoring was deemed very successful. 

In the final analysis, Professors Cheung and Slavin sum up how the research can be applied to policy and practice. At the top of the list is their finding that the use of native language in reading instruction is overwhelmingly positive. In fact, there is no evidence of anything negative about it. And paired with bilingualinstruction, it is even more effective especially from grade one and up. The second major finding, according to the authors, is that an increase in bilingual programs is warranted based on the success it has already enjoyed. They say that educators must be more aggressive in pursuing these programs, and further research should be done to evaluate the long-term effectiveness in the future. Finally, the writers’ third finding is that phonics works. They express their opinion that phonics are consistently positive in teaching reading and will continue to be used and supported by educators. In addition, they renew their enthusiasm for small group and tutoring programs. “These students can learn to read, and replicable programs and policies greatly accelerate their reading progress,” writes Slavin and Cheung. •