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;
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.