Myths Surrounding ELLs and Literacy: Why Student Success Depends on Teachers’ Knowledge Base
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 the 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.’
Dr. Antonio Fierro knows firsthand what it means to be an English language learner and has dedicated his life and career to helping ELLs develop literacy and reach their full potential. A dynamic speaker and inspiring educator, Dr. Fierro presented an on-demand webinar in which he shared why teacher knowledge is paramount to helping ELLs (and all learners) develop the literacy skills that will help them succeed both academically and personally. We recently spoke with Dr. Fierro about the experiences that led to his career in education and why he’s passionate about ELLs and literacy.
Here is Part One of our enlightening conversation with Dr. Fierro.
Voyager Sopris Learning® (VSL): Dr. Fierro, tell us a little bit about your background growing up and which teachers made a true impact.
Dr. Fierro: I am an English learner myself, and as I have always said, once an English learner, always an English learner, as we’re always taking in new information and learning about this wonderful language of ours. I grew up in El Paso, which is a border city to Juarez/Chihuahua, Mexico. Although I was born in El Paso, as a second-generation English learner, I did not learn English until I started school. Back then, in the 60s and 70s, it was possible to grow up in a border city and make a living and never really learn English. The jobs were very difficult, usually blue collar or hard labor jobs, but my parents were able to sustain a living and my siblings and I were raised in a Spanish-speaking household.
It wasn’t really until about fourth grade when things started to open up for me; before that, I was isolated and limited. I had wonderful teachers in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades who saw not only my potential, but the potential in many of us who were Spanish speaking. These attentive teachers took us under their wings to teach us all about English and teach us how to read English and build on our vocabulary. Thanks to these three wonderful teachers, several of us were able to really come alive and start interacting with our surroundings and with society. I struggled until these three lovely ladies unlocked the mysteries of English and helped my world come alive. I could learn, I could succeed, I felt the joy of accomplishment, and I wanted more.
VSL: What did that time in your life illustrate to you about young learners and how does it translate to what you know about helping ELLs develop English literacy skills?
Dr. Fierro: I will tell you, one of the things we know about English learners is what we call a “silent period.” It’s when kids are just at the receptive level and trying to understand the language and they’re just taking it in. We know that we really need to minimize that and we do that by providing a “safe environment.” By providing plenty of opportunities for kids to be expressive and start learning the language by being supported and engaged. Back in the 60s, we didn’t know anything about English learners. The thought was to throw them in, to “sink or swim.” I often ask myself what it was about those three teachers that truly made a difference for me and I know that they gave me a safe space and helped me unravel and demystify English. They taught us how to read through good, old phonics instruction and, once we could read, we were able to get into books, build on our vocabulary, build on all the other components of reading comprehension. That was our ticket. My silent period was kindergarten through third grade. I don’t remember too much about those early years of school and it’s not because of age—it’s because I didn’t feel safe. But I will tell you, in fourth grade, it was kind of like an awakening. Suddenly, all of my surroundings became alive. My teacher was so kind and got us all library cards and we would walk to the library. It was like this enormous energy and enormous hunger to learn and to read and suddenly the world opened up. I will tell you, that was the difference, the reading instruction they gave us that allowed us to maneuver through that new language we were trying to acquire that was so different from Spanish.
VSL: Were you angry about the early teachers and how you felt alone and unable to participate?
Dr. Fierro: I will tell you, I don’t blame them at all. Back then, education as a field, didn’t know how to work with English learners. The only thing that made sense is, “Well, they are going to have to get in there in learn it.” The other thing that didn’t help was what we call ‘reading wars,’ which we have had for decades.
In the 50s, there was the “site message” approach. When the Dick and Jane books became very popular, the premise was that all kids would learn to read by just being exposed to the word numerous times without anyone giving those students any kind of consideration about how those words worked. The magic of those teachers for me was that they brought words to life. I will never forget that. Every word has a story to tell. When you go through the “site method” approach, the words are just there and you just memorize them. I was good at memorizing, so I was able to maneuver through Dick and Jane quite well. Take away Dick and Jane, and I was a mess, as were all of my ELL peers. Unfortunately, it is still going on, these reading wars, and I was very much a part of it growing up. It wasn’t until these three teachers changed the site memorization approach and showed us there is something about how these words are built and these vowels. These teachers were able to give us the keys to all the mysteries of our language. I still see that with many of our kids today. Trying to unlock the mystery of why this language works the way it does. Kids are still looking for the answer. So, it is a very necessary part of who we are as English learners. We need to provide them the answer of how these words actually work. It’s not a mystery. They really made us fall in love with the language and become more curious. That is the start of where I gained this love of what English is all about.
VSL: Were your siblings as fortunate to have the same teachers to “take them under their wings,” as you put it?
Dr. Fierro: This is the neat thing about what happened. My sister is six years younger than I am. So, back in the late 60s, early 70s, this thing called Sesame Street came to life. I would have my sister watch Sesame Street, because my teachers would have us watch Sesame Street when the episode included phonics. Let me tell you, my little sister began first grade with quite a large English vocabulary and just took off. I remember that so well, my sister does not, but I do. By the time my brother came along, he is 10 years younger than I am, those fantastic teachers had retired. By the time my brother started school, the teachers he had were very much linguists. They understood the language. We all managed to become quite diligent in our reading and writing of English. My parents never learned English. The odds were against us. Now, my brother is an administrator who lives in London and my sister works for the State Department.
VSL: Your parents must be very proud.
Dr. Fierro: Yes, they were. It’s really funny, even at home we had to speak Spanish, even as adults we had to speak Spanish as to not be rude in front of my parents. But we succeeded, thanks to these three English-speaking teachers who saw the potential in every kid.
As I’ve said, these teachers took us under their wings. This was a high-poverty school. This was a violent area. And, yet, they were so prim and proper. They were always wearing dresses and closed-toed shoes, and here we were, quite the opposite. These teachers who had it in their hearts to do the right thing for their kids.
Watch Dr. Fierro’s fascinating and informative on-demand presentation and learn what it takes to work effectively with ELLs to set them on a path of literacy—and lifelong success. Don’t miss it!Don’t miss Part Two of our interview with Dr. Fierro.