Blog Series

Part Two: Myths Surrounding ELLs and Literacy: Why Student Success Depends on Teachers’ Knowledge Base

by Voyager Sopris Learning on Feb 28, 2019

Antonio Fierro

An interview with Dr. Antonio Fierro, reading consultant, award-winning educator, and LETRS® instructor


Myths and misconceptions have long been part of our educational system. When it comes to instruction targeting the English learner, the same holds true. As research is published that focuses on culturally and linguistically diverse students, the more we know what is true and, simply, what is not…we can better serve these students and proliferate their potential.

In last week’s webinar about this topic, Dr. Antonio Fierro shared firsthand what it means to be an English language learner and how he has dedicated his life and career to helping ELLs develop literacy and reach their full potential.

A dynamic speaker and inspiring educator, we interviewed Dr. Fierro about his fascinating life and why he believes teacher knowledge is paramount to helping ELLs (and all learners) develop the literacy skills that will help them succeed both academically and personally.

Here is Part Two of our enlightening conversation with Dr. Fierro. You can also read Part One here.

Voyager Sopris Learning® (VSL): When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in education?

Dr. Fierro: I knew from a very young age that I was going to be a teacher. It was in Ms. Floodburg’s class. I just knew it. She was doing a lesson and I thought to myself, “You know, I could do a whole lot better than that.” I remember that. Let’s fast forward to going to college. Back then, to graduate from high school would have been enough. My parents saw the need or the benefit to me graduating from high school but they never thought of the need to go beyond that. So, I remember going to my counselor and saying, “Well, I think I need to go to college,” and he looked at my transcript—and this is the only bad part that I have to share about education—and said, “You are not meant to go to college. You are going to have to go to vocational school.” And I thought, “But, I have really good grades!” But the counselor insisted that I was “really not meant to go to college.” I graduated top 10 in my high school, but this counselor was telling me I couldn’t go to college. Friends had enrolled at the university and I thought, “If he can go, I can go! I am going to go!” I began as an education major because that was in my blood. I am not sure what happened, but I switched over to business. I graduated from college with a business degree in marketing and management. Before the end of my senior year, I was recruited by the Department of Justice. I ended up working with the Bureau of Prisons. One day, the warden came up to me and he said, “You have an education background. One of our reading teachers is going to go on maternity leave and I would like for you to substitute while she is gone.” This was a class to get them (inmates) to pass their GED, but also teaching them to read because most of them could not read. That’s when I first became involved with reading.

I have seen it all. I have worked with 3 year olds, all the way up to prison inmates. I have to say, that 90 percent of those inmates were reading at a second or third grade level. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone through a whole area like, “Let’s see what their phonological awareness is like. Let’s get some additional information.” I would venture to say that most of them had a reading disability. Most of them had dyslexia that was never identified. Crime is never an excuse, but without literacy, without the ability to read and write, your choices are extremely limited.

The bottom line is I got to see what happens when an individual is not given the opportunity or support to learn to read. That is when I knew and that love I had for teaching came back out again. I said “This is my calling!” I will tell you when they started decoding, here were these grown men who had committed many serious crimes and they were smiling and laughing because they were reading.

So, that was my calling to go back to school and say, “This is what I want to do. I want to teach. I want to teach kids how to read. I want to be teacher.” Everyone thought that was the craziest thing I could have done. I was going from a very stable, very well-paid federal position and I was going to be a teacher. My family thought I had lost it.

VSL: What immediate changes do you personally think are needed to help every English learner succeed? What needs to happen now?

Dr. Fierro: When we say these are our English learners and these are our Gen Ed students…the bottom line is they are all our students. What is good for our Gen Ed population is good for our English learners.

I think we have to do a better job in higher ed of preparing our teachers for the issues they are going to face in the classroom. We are doing a poor job overall preparing our teachers in understanding what the science of reading is. The bottom line is that if kids can’t read, it doesn’t matter if they are English learners, or English speakers—it just doesn’t matter. If they can’t read, they may end up in that facility where I began my career. I am not saying it is a given, but the odds are greatly against them.

Having worked with LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) and all of the research that goes into LETRS, it’s very clear to me that it doesn’t matter what program is out there or what is the latest trend. We have to equip our teachers with the knowledge base that is needed based on research. Especially for the teachers who are working with English learners. They MUST be linguists. It doesn’t mean they have to learn German or Spanish or Arabic. It means they have to understand how THIS language works. It is about the knowledge that teacher possesses.

You know, there is so much information out there and what I really like about what I teach, especially from the LETRS standpoint, is that teachers need to organize their learning because they are learners themselves and then organize their teaching based on these conceptual models of reading, for example, that we know work and we know are based on research.

So, my belief is that we absolutely MUST do something at the higher ed level to have our teachers come out ready to rock and roll.

VSL: So, what you’re saying is that an ELL or a non-native English speaker is no different than any other student. Every child is different and every teacher needs to be able to diagnose that and then help the child appropriately.
Dr. Fierro: Exactly. We have wanted this magic bullet or silver bullet to address our English learners. But the silver bullet and the magic formula is that teacher. It is THAT teacher and the better equipped he or she is as far as not only the science of reading, but teaching pedagogy, is going to be of great benefit to students.

The key is not only knowing “This is what I need to teach,” but also knowing HOW to teach it.

VSL: So, districts with large ELL populations should focus on better teacher training?

Dr. Fierro: Oh yeah, absolutely. The next thing is the intervention and it all goes back to teacher knowledge. You have to know how am I going to build on the child’s oral language, I need to be teaching this child vocabulary and background knowledge, right? And, this is where the system completely breaks down and I get that. I want kids to develop vocabulary oral language background knowledge. But what is missing in that equation is that the foundational skills have not been taught. So, when we look at the simple view of reading, by teaching especially our English learners vocabulary and background knowledge, yes, I get it and yes, I would never say don’t do that. I would absolutely support it. My question remains: When are you teaching the foundational skills of word recognition? This is what I keep on asking districts over and over and over again.

VSL: When ELLs succeed how do you think that impacts their families and their communities?

Dr. Fierro: I lived it. I was about 10 years old when I realized what language is all about, and then, what did I do? I sat my sister down so she watched Sesame Street because I wanted her to know about it, too! The bottom line is once an ELL succeeds, it just lets the family know that anything is possible. And, what better way to celebrate this greatness then to get other members of the family to believe in education? The bottom line is when any kid succeeds the world opens up. Especially when it is an English learner and he or she is coming from a family that just, for example, came to the United States or they are a second generation. The possibilities are endless for not only the family but for the community. We need them to be successful. If not, we have to go back to my early start. Who wouldn’t want all kids to be successful? It is a win-win situation for all of us.

VSL: As a national LETRS instructor, what part of the program do you think specifically helps teachers help ELLs?

Dr. Fierro: That question is very easy to answer and I feel very passionate about this. What LETRS does is it organizes our learning. For our professors, it organizes their teaching. LETRS helps in-service teachers organize their learning. So, when they are teaching, it organizes their teaching. It is a two-way street. As learners, LETRS helps organize their learning.

Watch the on-demand webinar presented by Dr. Fierro at your convenience. This fascinating and informative presentation illustrates what it takes to work effectively with ELLs to set them on a path of literacy and lifelong success.

Dr. Antonio Fierro is a reading consultant, award-winning educator, LETRS instructor, and a lifelong English language learner. 

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