Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners

This module describes the basic assumptions about students that undergird literacy instruction of native English speakers in contrast to the assumptions and theoretical orientation of literacy instruction of English Language Learners (ELL).

Literacy Achievement in California’s Schools

California’s public schools face many challenges in preparing students for productive and prosperous futures in the information age in an increasingly diverse and competitive global economy. One of the greatest challenges we face as policy makers, educators, parents and local communities is providing effective instructional programs for children who are learning English as a second language, called English language learners (ELL). According to the 2007-08 Language Census Report from the CA Department of Education, 45% of California’s public school students speak a language other than English in the home and 25% of all students are classified as limited in English proficiency.

Passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 made sweeping changes in the programs that are provided for these students. School districts throughout the state are grappling with the complexities of teaching these children to speak, read and write in English while also ensuring their progress in learning the academic content outlined in the state’s academic content and performance standards. One of the key factors in success for English language learners is a solid foundation in language and literacy in the early grades.

Literacy Development

Children usually begin their schooling in kindergarten or first grade at the age of five or six years old. When children who are native speakers of English enter school, they have had five or six years of language development since they have been interacting with other children and adults since birth in the language. Therefore, the children have acquired a level of proficiency in English equivalent to their age mates. Since teachers take their students’ level of linguistic competence in English for granted, they proceed to teach the children literacy skills based on a certain set of assumptions. Teachers assume that children have an age-appropriate range of vocabulary–words that are associated with their meaning. They also assume that native English speaking children can discern differences in sounds within words that change their meaning, including vowel and consonant sounds. This ability is called phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness (PA) is one of a cluster of concepts and abilities referred to as “metalinguistic” knowledge. Beginning readers acquire metalinguistic knowledge as their intuitive or implicit knowledge and functional control of linguistic processes become explicit. This allows children to reflect on language and to gain an intentional and conscious control over their language as they learn to read and write.

Teachers make the assumption that their early elementary students have a control of English sentence structure and grammatical patterns, such as the use of verb tenses and word inflections that result in changes of meaning. In other words, they implicitly know the “rules” that govern spoken English and apply these rules as they listen to and speak English. Teachers in early elementary begin instruction utilizing students’ linguistic skills as a foundation for instruction in letter-sound associations (phonics) and reading comprehension, as learners apply what they already know about the phonological and grammatical patterns of spoken English to decoding and extracting meaning from written text. This is English language arts instruction (ELA) with an emphasis on teaching children to read and write.

Literacy Learning in a Second Language

Consider the different set of assumptions that teachers must make when instructing English language learners who come to school without a knowledge of spoken English. These children will normally have developed these linguistic competencies in their native language but will not have these prerequisite skills in English. In the case of bilingual instruction, these children would begin at the same point as a native English-speaking child if they are taught to read and write in their native language. (In California in 2008, 85% of ELLs are native Spanish speakers.) However, if literacy instruction is to begin for these children in English, the teacher must proceed with knowledge that children will require instruction in many features of the English language that their English-speaking peers have mastered in their preschool years. This type of instruction is called English Language Development (ELD) or English as a second language (ESL). For ELLs to advance at a normal rate in becoming literate in English, they need instruction that is different in focus and intensity from the instruction provided for native English speakers. ELLs require much more oral language development with a focus on listening and speaking. ELL students require instruction that provides ample opportunities for them hear and discriminate the words and sounds of English, to increase their vocabulary and to practice their oral English skills.

Although some level of basic phonics instruction is appropriate for these children, it must be carefully timed and paced to be effective. English language learners do not benefit from teaching that isolates parts of language such as letters and words that are taken out of a meaningful context. There is a high risk that isolated phonics instruction can result in students who are able to decode written English but are unable to comprehend what they read or to read fluently to grasp the broader meaning of a story or content-area text. These children benefit from English language development and literacy learning activities that focus on working orally with written text before decoding and manipulating language structures within the text to reinforce their growing fluency and competence in English.

Reading/Language Arts Adopted Textbooks

Among the five program options currently adopted for Reading/Language Arts instruction, literacy instruction for EL is addressed in each program model to “foster universal access, which means access to the Basic Program curriculum for all students.”

Program I: Reading/Language Arts Basic Program, K-8 requires “supporting instructional elements” to “reinforce and extend” the Basic Program are provided requiring 30 minutes of “extra support” for EL and “a minimum of 90 lessons of 15 minutes each” (22.5 hours of instruction) for the development of “technical skills” in a “Reading Intervention Kit” for K-3 .

Program II: Reading/Language Arts/English Language Development Basic Program, K-8 requires one hour daily of “additional ELD instruction…that “assists students in acquiring English as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Program III: Primary Language/English Language Development Program, K-8 requires “ELD instructional materials or as a partial or a supplemental resource.”

Program IV Intensive Intervention Program in Reading/Language Arts, Grades 4-8 is a “stand-alone” program designed to “position students to rapidly progress toward successful reentry to the Basic Program at student’s [sic] appropriate grade level.” This program design is based on the following stated premise in the state textbook adoption criteria (p. 457, #39, lines 484-489):

“Students who are two or more years below grade level will not benefit from grade level instruction in the Basic Program because grade level reading and instructional materials in the Basic Program are above students’ reading comprehension level. Publishers choosing to submit an Intensive Intervention Program in Reading/Language Arts must submit it as a separate, stand-alone program.”

Program V: Intensive Intervention Program for English Learners, Grades 4-8 “addresses literacy and language development” and “incorporates the elements for English language development…designed to provide intensive, accelerated, and extensive English-language development that complements and supports reading/language arts instruction.” This program is based on the following premise: “The instructional design of the program should assume that students can gain two grade levels per one year of instruction.”

These program models appear to be based on a set of assumptions about the characteristics of English Learners (EL) and elements of program design that provide “access” to effective and efficient instruction:

  1. If EL are provided extra time and additional lessons addressing aspects of English language development and the language arts and reading to supplement instruction using the “basic” program designed for their native English speaking (NES) peers at the same grade level, ELs will be able to learn the same skills and content at the same rate.
  2. There are minor modifications and adjustments to the “basic” program in teaching reading/language arts instruction that teachers can make for EL students that will be sufficient to overcome their lack of English proficiency. These include extra or supplementary vocabulary teaching, additional practice of skills, pre-teaching of vocabulary and a focus on certain substrands of the Reading/Language Arts Standards that are likely to pose difficulties for EL.
  3. It is not necessary for an English Language Development (ELD) program to be integrated into the “basic” program of Reading/Language Arts instruction. Therefore, providing one hour of separate15-minute “ELD lessons” is sufficient to keep EL students at grade level in English reading and language arts. Concurrently, there need not be any concern about the content-area instruction EL are missing which engaged in extra ELD instruction.
  4. If EL students are “struggling readers” when they reach the fourth grade, then they can be provided an intensive intervention program that assumes that they can make two grade levels of academic gain per one year of instruction in order to catch up with their NES peers.

The theoretical underpinnings, research base and instructional design of the current programs for Reading/Language Arts instruction are inadequate for addressing the academic needs and learning challenges of English Learners. English Language Development (ELD) instruction is much more complex and involved than simply providing an add-on or supplementary program to a “basic” program in reading/language arts. There is no research to support the notion that merely providing additional time or supplementary lessons focused on elements of language and literacy for EL is an effective approach to addressing their language acquisition and/or academic learning needs. Furthermore, the basic premise stated in the Program IV Intensive Intervention Program criteria that students who are two grade levels below grade level in their literacy development will not benefit from grade level instruction in the Basic Program in grades K-3 applies equally to EL students in all grades K-8

Policy Implications

What are the policy implications of these developmental differences between English language learners and native English speakers and the different instructional approaches that they require? Sound education policy must be in place to support school administrators and teachers in three areas: Teacher professional development, effective instructional materials, and effective English language development program implementation.

  1. All literacy teachers must be well prepared in the theoretical and research base in second-language acquisition and in the technical aspects of teaching second language learners to read and write. Teachers must be knowledgeable about the normal learning curve of English language development among bilingual learners so that they can set realistic expectations and monitor students progress through appropriate assessment. Teachers should be well versed in the particular points of difficulty that second language readers and writers experience with English at each stage of their language and literacy development. Ideally, teachers will also be knowledgeable about the phonology and alphabetic system of their students’ native language.
  2. Policy makers must adopt English language arts materials that include ample information, teaching strategies and support materials for English language learners to participate in sufficient targeted instruction and learning activities to fully develop their oral English skills as they learn to read and write English. These materials must be based on authentic language rather than contrived or artificial language, such as the language in decodable text, that is less meaningful and more difficult for ELLs. The State Board of Education should require textbook publishers to design and submit for approval a stand-alone Reading/Language Arts program for K-8 specifically targeted for ELs as an option for school districts with high concentrations of English Learners enrolled in their schools.
  3. Administrators and teachers must collaborate to design and implement English language development programs based on sound pedagogical principles and research that support the use of effective teaching strategies in a structured and sequenced progression through the elementary grades.