Reading and Second Language Learners

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Executive Summary

This document provides a synthesis of the research on teaching and learning to read in English as it relates to students in U.S. public schools who speak little or no English. Focusing our attention on children of primary acquisition age,3 this research summary addresses the following questions:

  • What are the prerequisites that children need to meet in order to become proficient readers in English as a second language?

  • If English-language learners (ELLs) are experiencing difficulties reading in English, is it a language problem or a reading problem?

  • What are the school, program and classroom characteristics that support the reading development of ELLs?

The following is a summary of our primary findings:

  • For children, the acquisition of English as a second language is a developmental process that is similar in many respects to the first-language acquisition process. As a developmental process, second-language acquisition can not be rushed (although it can be facilitated through effective instructional techniques, the creation of supportive classroom environments, etc.). In fact, research has shown that even in those educational contexts most conducive to second-language acquisition, initially non-English speaking children require 5-7 years to acquire a level of English proficiency that allows them to sustain academic achievement at a level equivalent to that of their native-English speaking peers.

  • As with their first language, children learn a second language as a result of their need to communicate with others. Their emphasis, particularly during the early stages of the acquisition process, is on getting the meaning of messages across rather than on grammatical form.

  • Because second-language acquisition is a developmental process, the linguistic “errors” made by individual ELLs are usually not random, but instead are indicative of the learner’s present knowledge of English. These errors provide a picture of the child’s growing language proficiency and should be used as insight into the instructional needs of the child.

  • Children acquire language naturally, and in the long run, often obtain a higher level of proficiency in a second-language than adults. Over the short run, adults learn second languages more quickly than young children. Common misconceptions about the ease with which children acquire second languages are harmful when they produce expectations that are impossible for children to meet. Educators should understand that learning a second language is a process that is just as difficult for a child as it is for an adult, if not more so.

  • The ability of an ELL to participate in seemingly effortless communication with his or her peers on the playground or in other “context-embedded” situations is often wrongly perceived as an indication of readiness for English only instruction in the regular classroom. In fact, the language skills needed by an ELL in such situations are simplistic in terms of their linguistic and cognitive characteristics, and should not be considered sufficient for effective functioning within the specialized, “context-reduced” discourse of the mainstream classroom.

  • The completion of the first-language acquisition process among ELLs (normally occurring around the age of puberty) is of vital importance. The failure to complete this process may result in cognitive difficulties for the child, as well as difficulties in acquiring a second language.

  • Children with strong first-language skills will acquire a second-language more quickly than children with less developed first-language skills. Many of the language skills learned in the first language will transfer to the second language.

  • Linguistic development, cognitive development and academic development are interdependent processes, and must all be supported simultaneously if educators are to succeed in developing deep levels of English proficiency among ELLs. To do this, schools should provide ELLs with cognitively complex academic instruction through their first language for as long as possible, while providing cognitively complex instruction through the second language for part of the school day. In addition, educators should employ interactive, discovery learning approaches to teaching the academic curriculum through both languages.

  • ELLs face a number of challenges in learning to read in English. Among these challenges is limited English proficiency itself, due to the critical role English proficiency (especially vocabulary size) plays in reading comprehension. Similarly, ELLs initially lack the phonemic and phonological awareness, as well as an understanding of the alphabetic principle, requisite for learning to read in English. Another challenge involves the fact that the background knowledge that ELLs bring to the reading process is usually very different from the background knowledge presupposed in the English reading material they encounter in the classroom; such a mismatch can interfere with reading comprehension. Finally, ELLs often face sociopolitical challenges such as discontinuities between the culture of their school and that of their home in terms of educational values and expectations.

  • Initial reading instruction should be conducted in an ELL’s first language whenever possible. Many of the reading skills and strategies acquired in a student’s first language can be transferred to English reading.

  • Initial reading instruction in an ELL’s first language is not detrimental to the child’s acquisition of English. On the contrary, initial instruction in the second language can have negative short term and long term impact on student achievement.

  • Formal reading instruction in English should be delayed until a reasonable level of oral proficiency in English is acquired by the student. During this period, the ELL must be supported in acquiring the requisite “reading readiness” for English, including a sufficiently developed English vocabulary (approximately several thousand words), phonological and phonemic awareness in relation to the English language, and initial awareness of the alphabetic principle. The complex process of providing such support should be carried out while incorporating the students’ background knowledge. Furthermore, this process should simulate the developmental process that native-English speakers experience while developing reading readiness at an earlier age. It is recommended that this process be implemented in an age-appropriate way, through a challenging curriculum in non-threatening, enriched classroom environments.

  • Both before and after the introduction of formal reading instruction in English, ELLs should be immersed in language learning experiences that provide optimal conditions for building the English vocabulary necessary for the domain of school. These activities should be purposeful, meaningful, challenging, contextually rich and age appropriate.

  • Immigrant ELLs who arrive in the United States during their teenage years need extra support to meet high school requirements. It is particularly important that these students receive instructional support through their first language, or through intensive sheltered English to do grade level work in that language.

  • Testing should emphasize how much an ELL has learned, and not how much the child does not know in comparison to a native-English speaker. The standards developed for state and school district performance assessments are based on the typical performance of native-English speakers on these assessments. But because ELLs' lack of English proficiency places them at a disadvantage when taking standardized tests conducted in English, many of these students initially achieve well below this level of typical native-English speaker performance on such assessments. Because of this, while the average native-English speaking student needs to make only 10 months worth of academic progress in each 10-month school year in order to meet these standards, these ELLs must make substantially larger yearly gains in order to "catch up" with their native-English speaking peers. Given this fact, assessment data reflecting such gains should be viewed as positive, irrespective of whether or not the ELL has achieved the performance standards set for native-English speakers.

  • Recent comprehensive studies of programs serving ELLs confirm a strong positive correlation a) between the long-term academic achievement of ELLs and the degree of instructional support these students receive in their first language, and b) between the amount of formal school ELLs experience in their first-language and the rate at which they acquire English as a second language. In contrast, several earlier studies had reported little difference between various program models (i.e. early exit bilingual, ESL, structured immersion, etc.) in terms of ELL academic achievement and English acquisition outcomes. These studies lack validity due to both their short-term perspective and their limited focus on student achievement in the early grades.

  • Programs that provide ELLs with long-term first-language instructional support (i.e., late-exit [developmental] bilingual education and two-way developmental bilingual education) have been shown to succeed in producing long-term ELL achievement in English reading and other academic areas that reaches parity with that of native-English speakers, while programs with little or no first-language support (e.g., structured immersion and early-exit [transitional] bilingual education) do not.

  • Programs are not unitary but a complex series of components; programs that share the same nominal label can vary greatly, both in terms of these underlying components and in terms of student achievement outcomes. Therefore, a more sophisticated approach to finding effective methods of educating ELLs is to go beyond a debate over broad programmatic categories to an effort to identify those school-and classroom-level factors that support the academic achievement of these students. Research suggests that the following school-and classroom-level factors are effective in supporting the academic achievement of language-minority students: positive classroom and school-wide climates; the use of effective grouping strategies; instructional strategies that enhance understanding; the provision of cognitively complex, on-grade-level instruction; the provision of a balanced curriculum; the provision of ample opportunities for students to practice English; school efforts to build school-home collaboration; and effective staff development.

  • Several popular reading programs are used to instruct ELL’s. Many of these lack published research data to support their effectiveness with this student population. Both Success for All and Reading Recovery have published research relative to these students. While indicators are that both these programs have been used successfully, some findings remain contentious especially with regard to Reading Recovery.

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