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Second Language Learners

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.  BalancedReading.com, 2003

Learning to read is a challenging task for people who only have one language to deal with.  Among mono-linguistic children, approximately 32% of 4th graders score in the "below basic" category on the NAEP.  Among children who are learning English as a second language or who are raised bilingual, that number is considerably higher.

Learning to read is a tremendous challenge for second language learners because the connection between text and oral language is difficult to make.  For mono-linguistic children, when a word is decoded appropriately, it usually corresponds to a word that they are familiar with.  But for the second language learner, often the words, once decoded, do not have meaning.  Thus the second language learner often has difficulty understanding the relationship between text and speech.

Consider the simple view of reading (R=DXC).  What this simple equation implies is that in order for children to develop decoding skills, the words they decode should correspond to a language they comprehend. Otherwise reading comprehension will not result.

What this means, then, is that when possible, decoding skills should be taught in whatever language the child is most comfortable with. Once a child develops an understanding of the function and mechanics of text, and gains some proficiency with decoding in one language, then transferring those skills to a second language is fairly easy. At that point, text can actually facilitate second language acquisition, and bi-literate children actually have considerable advantages over children who only read one language (Durgunoglu, Arino-Marti, and Mir, 1993).  Spanish in particular has advantages over English when it comes to reading instruction because Spanish orthography is so shallow (meaning that words have predictable, regular spellings). 

However, according to Schirmer, Casbon, & Twiss, (1996), 85% of all second language learners in this country are taught in classrooms where there is little or no support for language development and where English is the only language spoken.  I was speaking with an assistant superintendent of Dallas ISD recently, and he mentioned that there are 110 languages spoken by children in his school district.  Census data suggest that by the year 2020, 25% of all children in this country will be English Language Learners.  While 70% of those children will be primarily Spanish speakers, the other 30% will speak a host of other languages.  This means that it is extremely challenging for teachers (who obviously do not speak 110 different languages) to find ways to teach literacy skills to children in their native or primary language, and to use each child's primary language to provide support for both language development and reading development.

This does not change the consistent findings from research, however.  Clearly, if it is at all possible to provide reading instruction in the child's primary language, the child stands a better chance of developing proficient reading skills (Clay, 1993; Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998), and the child can easily transfer those skills over to a second language (Collier and Thomas, 1992; Cummins, 1989; Rodriguez, 1988).

Sometimes it is simply not possible to teach reading skills (or rather decoding skills) to children in their primary language. Under those circumstances, researchers suggest that it is best to focus on helping the child to develop proficiency in the second language so that later, when decoding skills are emphasized, the connection between decoding and language comprehension will be strong (Snow, Burns, and Griffin, 1998).

When children have limited English proficiency and limited English vocabulary, teaching them to decode the few English words they know probably won't help them much. The act of reading is really all about getting meaning from text, and children who can only read a few words are not likely to learn that text has a function or to develop an appreciation for the value of that function. That's why reading to children is so important -- reading to children does not help them to develop their own reading skills in any significant way, but it does help them to appreciate and value the act of reading. They understand why people read. But when text only contains a few words that have meaning to them, children often fail to develop an appreciation for why they should value reading.

By focusing on language comprehension development first, it may seem that decoding instruction will be significantly delayed (possibly subjecting the child to Matthew Effects), but even under these circumstances, I hasten to point out that there are many "sub" decoding skills that can and should be taught, regardless of the child's second language proficiency. Children who do not yet have proficiency in English still benefit from instruction in Concepts About Print, Letter Knowledge, Phoneme Awareness, and the Alphabetic Principle. There is no reason to ignore all print-related instruction while an emphasis is placed on language comprehension. 

For example, several studies have shown that phoneme awareness instruction can be done using words from the child's native language, and that once the child has phoneme awareness in one language, it transfers over to second languages (Chiappe and Siegel, 1999; Cisero and Royer, 1995; Durgunoglu, Nagy, and Hancin-Bhatt, 1993).

I also hasten to point out that careful assessment is always critically important. It is never safe to make assumptions about children, and a few simple activities can reveal quite a bit about what children know about text and reading. Children who already have foundational literacy/decoding skills in their primary language do not need the same kind of support as children who do not have any literacy/decoding skills in any language. It is important that teachers diagnose each child's reading/decoding/language skills individually and develop a plan for instruction that builds on the strengths that each child brings.

For more information about teaching reading to second language learners, I recommend Cathryn Au's book, Literacy Instruction in Multicultural Settings.  Chapters 9 and 10 of this book are very informative and provide some very practical ideas that teachers can use with their students.

A Question from the Discussion Forum, and my response:

What are the problems that facing ESL learners during reading?

To some extent that depends on whether the ESL learner can already read in his or her native language.  There are two components to the act of reading -- decoding and language comprehension (see "S is for Simple View"). 

If a student already understands the mechanics of reading (decoding) in one language, then the challenge of translating those skills to a new language is a challenge of building comprehension skills (vocabulary, syntax, semantics, etc.).  But if a student does NOT already understand the mechanics of text and reading (decoding) in ANY language, then the challenge is both a challenge of decoding AND comprehension.  Trying to tackle both at once may be overwhelming and frustrating.

ESL students, by definition, have limited English language comprehension skills.  This means they have poorer English vocabularies, limited appreciation of English syntax and semantics, and possibly limited background knowledge about relevant subject matter.  Dealing with that is enough of a challenge.  Teachers do not need to add to the challenge by trying to teach the student decoding skills in a language the student does not really understand.

Ideally, students should be taught decoding skills in the language with which they are most comfortable.  If, for example, a student primarily speaks Spanish, the student should be taught to read and decode Spanish text.  That way, when each word is decoded, it connects with vocabulary the student understands, thus reinforcing the connection between written and oral language.  If it is not possible to teach the student in his or her native language (i.e. if there is no teacher available who can teach the child in his or her native tongue), then it is better to focus instruction on developing English comprehension skills first, and THEN focus on teaching decoding skills in English.


Chiappe, P. & Siegel, L.S. (1999).  Phonological awareness and reading acquisition in English- and Punjabi-speaking Canadian children. Journal of Educational Psychology  91(1), 20-28.

Cisero, C.A. & Royer, J.M. (1995).  The development and cross-language transfer of phonological awareness.  Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20, 275-303.

Clay, M. (1993) Reading Recovery in English and other Languages. Keynote address presented at the West Coast Literacy Conference, Palm Springs, CA. 

Collier, V. and Thomas, W. (1992) A synthesis of studies examining long-term language minority student data on academic achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, 16(1-2), 187-212. 

Cummins, J. (1989) Empowering Minority Students. Sacramento, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Durgunoglu, A. Y., Arino-Marti, S. and Mir, M. (1993) The role of first language in acquiring literacy in a second language. Paper presented at the meeting of the European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction, Aix en Provence.

Durgunoglu, A. Y., Nagy, W. E., and Hancin-Bhatt, B. J. (1993) Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 453-465. 

Rodriguez, A. (1988) Research in reading and writing in bilingual education and English as a second language. In A. Ambert (Ed.), Bilingual Education and English as a Second Language. New York: Garland Publishing.

Schirmer, B.R., Casbon, J., & Twiss, L.L. (1996). Innovative literacy practices for ESL learners.  The Reading Teacher, 49, 412-414.

Snow, C. E., M. S. Burns, and P. Griffin, eds. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 

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Last Updated 1-2-09