Reading and Second Language Learners

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Reading and Second Language Learners
Research Report

May 1999

This report prepared by Magda Costantino, Ph.D.

The Evergreen Center for Education Improvement

The Evergreen State College

Olympia, Washington 98505

With assistance from:

Joe St. Charles

Susan Tepper

Edlamae Baird

Acknowledgment to Gary Burris and Lynne Adair

For their invaluable assistance with the project

This material is available in alternative format by request. Contact Bilingual Education at 360-753-2573,

TDD 360-664-3631. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction complies with all

federal and state rules and regulations and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color,

national origin, sex, disability, age or marital status.

Table of Contents

(click on page number for access)

Table of Contents i

Introduction 1

Executive Summary 3

Chapter One 7

Language Acquisition and the Language Learner 7

Section One: How Does First Language Develop? 7

Section Two: How Does Second Language Develop? 9

Foundational Theories 9

Creative Construction 9

Error Analysis 10

Interlanguage 11

Linguistic Transfer 12

Implications for Educators 13

Theoretical Models of L2 Acquisition 14

Krashen’s Model 14

Cummins’ Model 15

The Prism Model: Language Acquisition Model for School 16

Social, Linguistic, and Cognitive Processes Model 20

Section Three: Learner Characteristics 20

That Influence Second-Language Acquisition 20

Age 20

Degree of First-Language Development 22

Age of Arrival 22

The Role of Formal Schooling in the First Language 24

Attitude and Motivation 25

Identity and Second-Language Learning 26

Affective Filter Hypothesis 27

Intelligence 28

Second-Language Aptitude 29

Personality 30

Learning Styles 30

Conclusion 32

Chapter Two 33

English-Language Learners and Learning to Read 33

Section One: Challenges English-Language 33

Learners Face in Learning to Read in English 33

Language Proficiency 33

Phonological and Phonemic Awareness 35

Vocabulary 37

Background Knowledge 37

Cultural and Sociopolitical Risk Factors and Challenges 38

Section Two: Learning to Read in English 39

Reading Readiness in English 40

First-Language Reading Instruction 41

First-Language Instructional Support 47

Conclusion 48

Chapter Three 50

School, Program and Classroom Characteristics That Support the Academic Achievement of English-Language Learners 50

Section One: Relative Effectiveness of Program Models 50

National Evaluations 52

Reviews of Smaller-Scale Evaluations 53

Thomas and Collier (1997) 56

Section Two: Characteristics of Effective Schools and Classrooms 60

Study Methodologies 61

Positive Classroom and School-Wide Climates 63

Effective Grouping Strategies 64

Customized Learning Environment 65

Use of Native Languages 66

Instructional Strategies that Enhance Understanding 66

Cognitively Complex, On-Grade-Level Instruction 67

Balanced Curriculum 68

Opportunities for Practice 69

Collaboration Between Home and School 69

Effective Staff Development 70

Conclusion 71

Appendix A 72

Program Models for the Education of 72

English-Language Learners in Washington State 72

Appendix B 75

Model of Program Development in 75

Relation to Language of Instruction 75

The Ideal Case 75

The Gradual Exit Plan's Grounding in Theory and Research 77

Modifications Consistent with Local Contexts 77

Appendix C 79

Reading-Related Programs That Influence the 79

Reading Achievement of English-Language Learners 79

Reading Recovery 79

Success for All 81

Glossary 84

References 90


Learning to read is a very complex developmental process that begins at birth. It is also a process that presents many challenges to young learners. For English-language learners (ELLs) who are learning to read in English, the process presents additional challenges because the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of these learners are different from the language and culture embedded in the reading process. Nevertheless, because the ability to read is necessary for social and economic advancement in our society, it is essential that ELLs in U.S. public schools successfully meet these challenges. Hence, it is imperative that educators and policy makers are informed as to what current research suggests are the best methods for helping these ELLs do so.

This document was created as a resource for educators and policy makers on this issue, providing 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.1 Focusing our attention on children of primary acquisition age,2 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 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?

In answering the questions listed above, this document incorporates a substantial portion of the theory on early reading development presented in Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998), an extensive research summary produced by the National Research Council. This document also incorporates much of the information provided in Educating Language Minority Students (August & Hakuta, 1997), a synthesis of research on educational issues pertaining to linguistically diverse students. Also produced by the National Research Council, Educating Language Minority Students served as the foundation for this document's summaries of the research on second-language learning, and the school, program and classroom characteristics that support the reading development of ELLs.

This document contains three chapters and three appendices. In Chapter One we discuss the theories and different aspects of the language acquisition process. Classroom practitioners need to create optimal conditions for the second-language acquisition process to take place because proficiency in the English language is the fundamental prerequisite for learning how to read in English. Language is text and text is learning. In this chapter we also discuss the influence of a number of individual learner characteristics on the process of second-language acquisition.

In Chapter Two we discuss the primary challenges that ELLs face in learning to read in English and the skills and abilities that these students must develop in order to be successfully in initial English-reading instruction. Also discussed are the most effective ways for educators to support the process that ELLs must undergo in order to learn to read in English and to continue their schooling in academic subject areas.

In Chapter Three we summarize the research on the relative effectiveness of various program models for the education of ELLs (e.g., early-exit bilingual education). We also provide an overview of those school- and classroom-level factors that have been shown to be effective in supporting the academic achievement of language minority students.

In Appendix A we provide a brief overview of the types of special programs Washington State operates in order to meet the needs of ELLs in the State's public schools. In Appendix B we provide a framework for the development of an effective educational program for ELLs in terms of the language used for instruction. In Appendix C we summarize the published research on the degree to which widely used reading-related programs in Washington State's public schools are effective with ELLs.

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