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Is Literacy Instruction for English Learners Different from Literacy Instruction for English Speakers?

by Claude Goldenberg on Jun 8, 2020

  • ELL
  • Literacy
Claude Goldenberg

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Learning to read in a language you are simultaneously learning to speak and understand is more complicated than learning to read in a language you already know. This is the challenge faced by millions of English learners (ELs) whose English proficiency is low and school achievement generally poor. What do we know about teaching English learners to read and write and develop as English readers and writers? Literacy interventions, classroom studies, and neurolinguistic research all demonstrate two basic facts: First, learning to read in a second language is very similar to learning to read in a first. Second, however, there are differences having to do with limited English proficiency; these differences become increasingly pronounced at more advanced stages of literacy development when English language proficiency becomes increasingly important for literacy development.

Learning to read and write in a language such as English with an alphabetic orthography (i.e., writing system) requires learning the alphabetic principle, the idea that letters or groups of letters (graphemes) represent the speech sounds (phonemes) in words. English has an opaque orthography, meaning it is more complex and irregular than relatively transparent orthographies such as in Spanish, Dutch, or Hebrew. Yet, it is more regular and systematic than irregular and unpredictable. As a result, using the alphabetic sound-symbol system is the single-most reliable way to read and recognize words. Accurate, efficient, and fluent word recognition is the bedrock of successful reading acquisition and further literacy development.

Full-fledged literacy requires more than recognizing speech sounds in words (phonological awareness), associating letters with sounds and how they form words (phonics), and accurate and efficient word recognition. But there is a reason this group of skills is called foundational: They are a prerequisite for the literacy edifice under construction. As with any building, if all you have is a foundation, no matter how solid, you haven’t got much. But the foundation is still essential. The foundational knowledge and skills ELs must learn to be able to read in English are identical to the foundational knowledge and skills proficient English speakers must learn: How the alphabet represents sounds and how letters and sounds are combined in a rule-based system to represent comprehensible words. Of course, what is “comprehensible” to ELs is precisely the issue. ELs must accomplish these foundational tasks without age- and grade-level command of English. This then requires instructional adjustments to help students learn the words they are learning to read. But what needs to be learned to get on the road to reading is fundamentally the same for English learners and English speakers.

Neurolinguistic research also suggests significant overlap between learning to read in a first and second language. Verhoeven, Perfetti, and Pugh (2019), for example, write that “L2 reading involves the learning of systematic relationships among the surface forms of words and their meanings in the target language which highly conforms to L1 reading” (p. 3) … “Studies show networks of brain activation that are similar across a reader's two languages in linking print and speech processes and in supporting phonological awareness, grapheme-phoneme mapping, morphological decomposition, syntactic binding and text and situation modeling with support of uniform control networks.” (p. 5).

Beyond foundational skills, large bodies of research suggest vocabulary, language comprehension, and other factors such as motivation, engagement, exposure to different types of texts, and opportunities to engage in meaningful reading and writing, play a similar role in supporting English reading for ELs. For example, vocabulary and comprehension are important both for English-proficient students and ELs, especially as students move from the beginning and early stages of literacy to intermediate and advanced stages where language demands increase rapidly through the grades. This then suggests that a sustained emphasis on developing English language proficiency becomes increasingly important to sustain reading progress and academic progress more generally.

One theory of reading and reading instruction that is particularly pertinent for ELs is the Simple View (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). The Simple View indicates that reading comprehension is a function of two sets of skills: (1) accurate and fluent word recognition and (2) sufficient language proficiency to comprehend texts. According to this view, ELs will require greater emphasis on oral language development as they progress through the grades so they attain adequate language proficiency that in turn will permit reading comprehension (assuming adequate and fluent word-recognition skills). The theory remains the same for ELs and non-ELs; the practical application differs since ELs will require more attention to developing oral proficiency than will students already proficient in English.

As students advance through the grades, they must contend with a school curriculum that requires increasing language proficiency to keep pace with the increased demands of textual and oral materials. Beginning around mid-elementary school, ELs start to show growing gaps compared to English-proficient peers, particularly in language-intensive subjects. A meta-analysis of studies comparing phonological awareness, decoding, reading comprehension, and language comprehension and vocabulary of students learning to read in their first and second languages found that differences in phonological awareness and decoding were small between first- and second-language students (effect sizes around .1). Differences in reading and language comprehension and vocabulary were much larger, effect sizes .6 and 1.1, respectively (Melby-Lervåg & Lervåg, 2014). The role of these factors is similar for all students, but the needs—and therefore what needs to be taught—increasingly diverge for ELs in the intermediate and later stages of reading development.

Furthermore, what is critical for all students, and particularly challenging for ELs, is academic language. In contrast to conversational or everyday language, academic language is more formal, abstract, complex, assumes greater prior knowledge, and generally makes greater cognitive demands of both speakers and listeners, e.g., connectors such as moreover; discourse features such as generalizations followed by examples; abstract words such as dimension or concept; and discipline-specific language, e.g., a lab report or analytical essay, technical terms such as asymptote, zoonotic, plutocracy, topology, metaphor. Academic language is essential for ELs—or any students—to be equipped for school success.

As we continue our search for instructional and curricular approaches to promote widespread improvements in ELs’ literacy development and school success, it is imperative that we prioritize using what we know about the nature of the reading process, how learning to read is very similar for ELs and native English speakers, and the critical and increasing importance of English language development for ELs. What we are sorely lacking at the moment are robust programs that help accelerate ELs’ journeys to full English proficiency. Long-term bilingual programs offer better alternatives than English immersion (Umansky & Reardon, 2014), but neither is adequate in helping bridge the chronic achievement gap these students and their teachers face. Attacking this gap must become a priority for educators and researchers. I spoke about this topic, focusing specifically on beginning and early literacy, during my presentation as part of Voyager Sopris Learning’s Literacy Symposium.


Gough, P. & Tunmer, W. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6–10.

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Lervåg, A. (2014). Reading comprehension and its underlying components in second-language learners: A meta-analysis of studies comparing first-and second-language learners. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 409–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033890.

Umansky, I. & Reardon, S. (2014). Reclassification patterns among Latino English Learner students in bilingual, dual immersion, and English immersion classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 879-912.

Verhoeven, L., Perfetti, C., & Pugh, K. (2019). Cross-linguistic perspectives on second language reading. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 50, 1–6.

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