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Asking the right question: teaching reading to bilingual learners

Phonics has, and continues to be, be a point of contention for many in the field of ELT. Professors Ester de Jong and Socorro Herrera discuss how to contextualise phonics instruction for bilingual learners.

In an early response to the science of reading movement in the United States, the National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) noted that the body of research included in the science of reading is derived from the cognitive sciences (neuroscience, linguistics, psychology) and is largely based on research on native English speakers learning to read in their home language. Literacy development, the report argued, includes discrete reading skills – phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, comprehension – but notes that these will not be sufficient until they are also embedded within our understanding of the social and cultural elements connected to student learning.

Caution is needed to ensure that recommendations from native speaker studies are not uncritically extrapolated to what works for students learning to read in English as an additional language. A recent joint statement by the Reading League and NCEL underscores the importance of explicitly addressing English learners (ELs) when considering implications for policy and practice. Educators and policy makers must ask what we know about teaching reading to ELs based on studies that have been designed to specifically examine how ELs learn to read in English as an additional language. We can then talk in an informed way about what practices work for ELs/EBs and to what extent these align with and/or diverge from what we do for native English speakers.

Teaching phonics is one such area that warrants additional consideration. The question is not ‘should phonics be taught or not?’ for ELs. Given English orthography, there is no question that phonics is an important component of reading for native English speakers and ELs alike. A better question is: What conditions are necessary for phonics instruction to be effective for ELs? Processes that lead to fluent reading comprehension in a given language rely upon:

  • The learner’s oral comprehension of the target language for multiple purposes.
  • The learner’s exercise of literacy skills that allows for a seamless transition from decoding of print to making meaning.
  • The teacher’s ability to contextualize instruction.

Building a strong oral language foundation

Native English speakers begin school with basic grammar, commonly used vocabulary, and receptive oral language skills. Phonics instruction designed for this group of students rightly takes this foundational oral proficiency and uses it to make sound-letter connections. When children come to school speaking a native language other than English, they also have these skills, but in their home language and varying abilities in English. They need to continually develop an oral language base – including listening comprehension – in English while applying the processes necessary for reading to existing language assets. Research on second language development has consistently emphasized the importance of oracy development. Effective classroom strategies that promote oracy include:

  • Promoting contextualized, language rich interaction opportunities. The learner needs to be invited to use their full linguistic repertoire, such as through instructional conversations.
  • Incorporating students’ ability to hear and identify sounds in meaningful words. Phonics should be directly tied to the words that children use daily. These may come from interactions with community and family members or from other experiences, such as television, peers or video games.

Understanding the influence of L1

Communication, comprehension, and expression are deeply bound by the learners’ first language(s) as they enter the second language for literacy/reading. Instructional practices that are pivotal for effective literacy development with ELs include:

  • Using words that ELs comprehend and know from their own experience. Students may perceive sounds differently based upon the phonologic patterns in the first learned language. For example, CVC words are very common in English, but rare in languages where more words end on vowel sounds. Furthermore, those vowels carry significant morphological meaning related to gender, tense and so on. Final consonants factor less in many languages than they do in English where the last bit of sound must be correctly perceived to distinguish words. When phonics instruction focuses on final consonant clusters, it is important to use words chosen from learners’ own experience where the perception of the final consonant changes the meaning of a relevant message. Merely drilling from prescribed lists of English words is unlikely to facilitate understanding and, as a result, fails to achieve the intended outcome.
  • Recognising and respecting variation in oral language. Linguistically, vowel and consonant sounds are influenced by mouth shape and placements and vary by surrounding sounds. The first sound in ‘door’ is usually spoken differently than the sounds represented by ‘d’ in words like ‘drain’ and ‘walked’, with the latter sounding more like ‘t’. Socio-linguistically, native English speakers reflect tremendous variation in their pronunciation of these same words. For ELs, their pronunciation is also shaped by their home language(s). Given the variance for native English speakers, imagine the challenges speakers of other languages encounter when ‘rules’ of spelling and mouth formation do not match the language they see and hear spoken among native English speakers. Our linguistic and lived experiences influence sound perception in ways that either promote or hinder the synergy of literacy processes required to read.

Contextualized instruction

Phonics is part of the process that leads toward the real goal of reading; namely, comprehension. As we engage in phonics instruction, it is imperative not to lose the forest for the trees. A critical strategy to support the comprehension of ELs is:

  • Embedding phonics instruction in meaningful content that is comprehensible. Comprehension is not a static system. Context and familiarity also shape what we hear. The automaticity with which students hear sounds and sound strings as units of meaning (words) and then associate those representations with print symbols is highly dependent upon the use of materials/stimuli which equitably allow learners to access meaning. Literacy skill practices that fail to prioritise meaning instead relegate decoding and fluency to word calling. Such practices later compel remedial measures that detract from students’ learning of content. When phonics is devoid of meaning and simply becomes memorisation and word calling, it neither advances fluency nor builds comprehension.

A prerequisite condition for the effective literacy practices described are teachers’ dispositions toward ELs and what they bring to school. None of these strategies will matter if the teacher views ELs with a mindset that says: this student cannot speak English fluently, has a vocabulary gap, does not have the right background knowledge and so on. The strategies presented here are premised on the understanding that ELs bring rich cultural and linguistic experiences to the learning task, though these experiences are likely different than those of mainstream English speakers. When enacting effective instruction, teachers recognize these experiences as resources for learning and begin there—valuing who the student is and what they bring.

Image courtesy of Library
Ester de Jong and Socorro Herrera
Ester de Jong and Socorro Herrera
Ester is Professor and program leader in the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education program at the University of Colorado Denver. She has published extensively on dual language education and general education teacher preparation for English language learners. Dr. de Jong was President of TESOL International Association (2017-2018); Socorro is a keynote speaker, district consultant, and trainer of trainers, as well as a professor in the College of Education and director of the Centre for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy (CIMA) at Kansas State University. Her K–12 teaching experience includes an emphasis on literacy development, and her research focuses on literacy opportunities with culturally and linguistically diverse students, reading strategies, and domestic and international teacher preparation for diversity in the classroom.
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