Educator Accountability: Preparing for the Tough Literacy Challenges Faced by English Language Learners

Antonio Fierro

Antonio Fierro
Reading consultant, award-winning educator, and LETRS instructor

Release Date: March 17, 2020


Antonio A. Fierro is a former Texas State Teacher of the Year and currently a member of the national LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) cohort of literacy consultants led by Dr. Louisa Moats. He also is a visiting professor working with university and college professors throughout Mississippi. Dr. Fierro has more than 25 years of experience in the field of education and has contributed to several literacy curricula focusing on instruction for the English learner. He is a co-author of Kid Lips®, a curriculum that teaches the phonetics of English to young children. His areas of interest include early childhood education, all aspects of phonology, and research that impacts students’ learning of English as a second language. Dr. Fierro has a personal interest in advancing the knowledge base and understanding of dyslexia and other reading disabilities because he has a child living with dyslexia.


Schools are failing to support English language learners by not providing educators with the knowledge they need to teach reading effectively. With literacy leading as the main indicator of academic success, it is time for educators to accept responsibility for preparing ELLs for the tough challenges they face along the path to literacy, and learn ways to help these students reach literacy success.

In this podcast, Dr. Antonio Fierro shares his journey from English learner to award-winning educator. He talks about the knowledge he gained from working with educators across the country in the science of reading, including the crucial knowledge educators need to work effectively with ELLs.

Dr. Fierro discusses:

  • Common myths and misconceptions about English learners
  • Why accountability is with educators, not students
  • The necessary factors educators need to create a path to literacy
  • Best practices in ELL literacy development

Developed by renowned literacy experts Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Carol Tolman, LETRS® is a flexible literacy professional development solution for preK–12 educators. LETRS provides teachers with the skills they need to master the fundamentals of reading instruction—phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, writing, and language


Explore a Research-Based Blended-Learning Solution for Adolescent Readers, including English Language Learners
LANGUAGE! Live® is a comprehensive blended-learning intervention solution for struggling readers in grades 5–12 that inspires a new level of confidence and drive to help students become proficient readers


Schools are failing to support English language learners by not providing educators with the knowledge they need to teach reading effectively. With literacy leading as the main indicator of academic success, it is time for educators to accept responsibility for preparing ELLs for the tough challenges they face along the path to literacy, and learn ways to help these students reach literacy success.

In this podcast, Dr. Antonio Fierro will share his journey from English learner to award-winning educator. Dr. Fierro will talk about the knowledge he gained from working with educators across the country in the science of reading, including the crucial knowledge educators need to work effectively with ELLs.

Narrator: Welcome to EDVIEW360.

Antonio Fierro: Having been an English learner myself, I go back and think about how difficult English is. The good is that there are skills that are transferred from one's native language to English, but at the same time there's a lot of skills that don't transfer, and if they do transfer, they transfer incorrectly. Teachers of English learners must be masterful. They must understand how language works. We cannot leave it up to chance and we cannot leave it to the child inferring how English works because it probably will not happen.

Narrator: You just heard reading consultant, award-winning educator, and LETRS instructor, Dr. Antonio Fierro. Dr. Fierro is our guest today on EDVIEW360. Here's your host, Pam Austin.

Pam Austin: This is Pam Austin. Welcome back to the EDVIEW360 podcast series. We are so excited to have you back with us. I'm conducting today's podcast from my native New Orleans channeling the heart of Voyager Sopris Learning® in Dallas, TX. Today, we are honored to have with us Dr. Antonio Fierro, reading consultant, award-winning educator, and LETRS instructor. Welcome, Antonio.

AF: Thank you, Pam. How much do I owe you for that introduction? That was like super cool.

PA: Free of charge. It's just because I like you. We are very pleased to have you with us today. You know, I have to let the audience know that I've crossed paths with Dr. Fierro on many occasions. I've had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of Antonio's personable expertise and been privy to the impact of his work as a consultant for LETRS with teachers in many schools across our great country here. I understand that you have a great story to tell, that tells us how you became involved in education. Can't you?

AF: Thank you, Pam. I'd love to share my story. I would have never dreamed that I'd be doing this 25 years ago by any means. I began my journey in education, I actually started my undergrad work as an education major and took some classes in education, but was talked out of it, to be honest with you, by friends and family. So, I also took some broadcasting classes. I didn't know what I really wanted to do. I felt that education was going to be my thing, but everybody was saying you should try something else. So, I actually graduated with a BBA in marketing and management, and this is where the story gets kind of interesting. Because right before I graduated, many of us received letters from the Department of Justice congratulating us on our upcoming graduation and said that we had high GPAs and if we would consider a position or a job with the Department of Justice, but particularly in/with the FBI, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

So, I thought, wow, this is really, this is very interesting. I think we, I'd like to try it. Why not, right? And I'm thinking, what are the chances, right? I went in and I interviewed as a special agent/linguist, and that's what they called us at the time, which meant that we went in as an agent speaking another language, and mine, of course, being Spanish. And after about, I guess about almost three, three, maybe four years of interviewing and testing, I received a call from the Department of Justice saying that I had been assigned to my Academy in Quantico. I needed to take one more physical and it was going to be very easy, just blood pressure, weight, nothing, nothing that was going to be extremely difficult at all. And what I found out at that, during that physical, was that I was color blind.

And, so, I see colors, but I see different shades. They're not probably as vivid as what everybody else sees. So, anyway, I was still hired by the Department of Justice. I did still go to the Academy, which was very interesting, a lot of fun. But I was assigned to, I had a choice of the CIA, Secret Service, or Bureau of Prisons, and they all sounded kind of scary. Right? So I did, though, ended, I ended up with the Bureau of Prisons. And, so, I was hired by them, or went with the Bureau of Prisons. I was a federal, I was a correctional officer for six months, because we all had to do training. So we knew how to defend ourselves. We knew how to manage the prison. But my assignment was not as a correctional officer, but I was in human resources, so worked in the business office.

And, one day, the warden came up to me and said, "Officer Fierro, I was looking at your transcripts," and I guess I had submitted them at some time, "and see that you have education courses under your belt." And I said, "Yes sir, I do." And he asked if I would consider becoming a substitute teacher, because the prison teacher was going to go out on maternity leave. So, I said, "Well, why not?" And in the federal system, I think it's a policy that, not a law, I think it's a policy, that if the inmate comes in to the prison system without a high school diploma, he or she has to leave with a GED. And that's the real challenge. So, I started teaching GED classes. But how can you teach how to take those tests or the content that's going to be presented or yeah, it's going to be part of the test, if the inmate cannot read?

And that was the, that was it. That was my calling. I knew at that point in time that I wanted to be a teacher. I was going to be a teacher. I told all my friends and my family that I was going to go back to school and become a teacher. They thought I had lost it, because here I was a federal officer with the Department of Justice in a good position that would allow me to move anywhere within the Department. But I went back to school. I did get my teaching credentials.

Now, I did, I must say that at this point in time that my teacher-prep program dealt entirely with whole language methodology or whole language philosophy, which was, yeah, well, there was, whole language philosophy isn't, there's nothing explicit about it. So, but anyway, so that was my training.

I do remember, though, I have to share this story. I do remember one college professor, actually my supervising professor who was watching us as we were, or taking care of us as we were doing our field study. She threatened us. This professor threatened us and said, "If I go into your classrooms and I see you conducting a phonics lesson, you will fail my class."

PA: Oh, no.

AF: So, yeah. Right?

PA: Oh, so sad.

AF: Yeah, I know. I know. So, yeah, so I did what I was told. I graduated. I had my teaching credentials, and I left the federal system, the prison, on Friday and I began my work with, in education, on Monday. And I went from a very safe and happy place working with the inmates to working with 3 year olds on Monday. What was I thinking?

PA: Good question. So, you went from special agent educator to early childhood teacher.

AF: With 3 year olds. Pam, I must've aged about two years in about two months.

PA: Yes. Yes, I can see that.

AF: But the interesting thing was that I had, of course, I also have my bilingual and ESL endorsements. So, I was working with English learners, and that was meant to be. I fell in love with early childhood. I have spent most of my, in the classroom, spent most of my time either working with 3 year olds, kinder up to second grade, and then I did intervention in upper grades. But when I had my class, it was always, always early childhood.

PA: All right. Awesome. What a story. That is an amazing story. You're one of a kind and I am certain that we don't have very many special agent educators that went to early childhood. So, you are unique.

AF: You know what…Actually, that first year that I was teaching 3 year olds, there was a “perp,” as we call them. We had a man who walked into our school and stole a VCR. Can you believe that? I'm aging myself, right? A VCR.

PA: Yes. OK.

AF: That was a Friday afternoon. He runs out. I'm walking out of my room. My principal is yelling, "He stole our VCR." And I ran after him and caught him.

PA: Oh. Awesome.

AF: I had all this training. I still had all this training under my belt. So, the police officers, when they got there, scolded me that that was dangerous. And I told him, "No, I knew what I was doing. If this would have happened, I would have done this, this and this." And they asked, "How did you know that?" I said, "Well, I was a federal agent with the Department of Justice." And one of the officers said that, "Do you want to work for the Dallas PD?"

PA: They wanted to recruit you, right?

AF: I was awarded the Citizen of the Month and had lunch with the mayor.

PA: That's awesome. I love it. But instead of venturing into the Dallas PD, you became a LETRS trainer.

AF: Right.

PA: Tell me how that happened.

AF: Yeah. So I stayed in education, a classroom teacher. I mean that's the best. If anyone asks for advice, I say you have to stay in the classroom and be in the classroom as long as you can. And even if you step out of the classroom, you have to go back and teach what you are learning. And that's what I like to do as well. But so if I fast forward, I became a coordinator, a reading director actually, for one of the education service centers in Texas. We were going through the Texas Reading Initiative and we were receiving wonderful, actually the Texas Reading Initiative is a precursor to Reading First. So, we had lots of fabulous training.

I was asked if I would train or teach the material that was reported by the National Reading Panel that talked about the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and text comprehension. We were having these academies, would I help teach this material? I said, "Yes." And they said, "And we're going to make sure that you get the best kind of learning that's out there. All the trainers who are part of this cohort."

And wouldn't you know it? I ran across this article titled Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, and it just made so much sense to me that I had not, I hadn't been properly prepared in my teacher-prep program to understand the components of language. I always questioned, "Tell me. I need to know all the steps. What goes into the teaching of reading?" And when I started learning the material that was being presented through the Texas Reading Academies and the Texas Reading Initiative, they also brought researchers to help teach us. And wouldn't you know it, that this researcher who had authored Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, Dr. Louisa Moats, was one of our instructors and it was fabulous.

So, I got to learn from her, from Dr. Roland Good, Dr. Sharon Vaughn, Dr. Adams. It was just amazing. And I just, I followed Dr. Moats and I became a groupie. And anytime she had any kind of sessions, any learning sessions, any kind of training, I was there. And she was just so, so open and so willing to help that she said, "If you have any questions," she would address all of us. "If any of you have any questions, please email me. Please call me." And guess what? Of course, I was emailing her and calling her. So, she was always so gracious and always responded and always took the time to teach me as well.

And, so, I fast forward a few years later and I have learned, I learned a lot from her, from Dr. Carol Tolman, who was one of the original LETRS trainers as well. Judi Dodson, who else? Anne Whitney, Mary Dahlgren. Oh my gosh. So many of her colleagues who helped also steer me in the direction that I am now.

And, so, fast forward, just a tiny bit. She said, "Antonio, why don't you join us?" And I said, "No."

PA: I can't believe you said no, Antonio.

AF: I said no. And it was out of fear. And, also, I knew the caliber of the expertise of Louisa and Carol and Judi and Annie and Mary. And I'm wondering how in the world can I ever get to that level? And I still don't consider myself being at that level, but boy, I have learned a lot from Louisa, from all of my colleagues. And here I am now, 12 years later. I love what I do. Why? Because we are teaching the components of language. How does reading occur? How is reading acquired so? And over and over and over again, Pam, I just, we all hear the same thing: “Why didn't I learn this in college?” Well, because if you had a professor like I had a professor who said, "I'll fail you if you do, if you see a phonics lesson." And I think that's another, that's probably now my last chapter of my career, that I want to do something for teacher-prep programs.

And I've been very lucky to have been part of the LETRS project that helped steer Mississippi to this incredible growth that was reported in November of 2019. That the state of Mississippi saw the largest reading gains. And it was because of just of the focus, the collaboration of many professionals. But I'll tell you what was the underlying fabric there. The underlying thread was what the knowledge base that we taught from LETRS, because LETRS was very obvious, was very evident throughout their six-year learning process. It took Mississippi six years. But anyway, here I am and loving every minute of it. It feels like I don't go to work because I love what I teach.

PA: You love what you do. And what an opportunity you've had. You know, you were definitely destined to be where you are, Antonio. Just that opportunity to interact with and learn from the experts. And guess what? Whether you believe it or not, you're one of those experts. Yes. Now you mentioned the fact that you worked with English language learners. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with teaching English language learners?

AF: Well, so I have been now teaching definitely over 25 years, and all those 25 years I had been involved with working with English learners. And having been an English learner myself, I go back and think about how difficult English is. And even if, can you imagine, I mean English especially, even if you're not an English learner, it's difficult, right? Can you imagine being an English learner?

PA: I agree.

AF: And what happened in my situation as a young learner was that I had three teachers who were marvelous and who unraveled the mystery of English for me. And because we need that. All children need that, but especially English learners need to understand how this language works. Because we take the skill set from our native language and transfer many of those skills over to English. Now that's good and bad. The good is that there are skills that are transferred for one's native language to English, but at the same time, there's a lot of what I call cognitive dissonance, right?

I mean there's a lot of skills that don't transfer and if they do transfer, they transfer incorrectly. So, the mysteries of English and how English works, they have to be unraveled. They have to be explained. They have to be demystified. We cannot leave it up to chance. And we cannot leave it to the child inferring how English works because it probably will not happen. So, that's what to me, for working with the English learners, not only ensuring that the child acquires language, because that's first and foremost, but the minute that we are perhaps at an early production to a speech emergent stage of language acquisition, that we began working and know how to begin teaching phonological awareness and decoding and so forth.

PA: So, there's something that you say, that accountability lies with educators and not students. What do you mean by that statement?

AF: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Thank you, Pam. That's true. The accountability lies with us. We are the professionals. We are the ones who must understand the different components of language. And also as far as working with English learners, these stages of language acquisition, I've always stated that we should have teachers who are kindergarten, who are in kindergarten or first grade, second grade teachers, these three grade levels. Our teachers should be masters of linguistics. And I mean that in the sense of not that they have to know other languages, and knowing other languages well, but a linguist knows a language and knows a language well. We need to be able to, like you said, Pam, explain why our language works the way it does, for one thing. The other thing is we need to be sensitive also to the areas of language acquisition and be able to promote language acquisition. What are we going to do in the classroom to ensure that the child gets, leaves the silence stage early, quickly? All right. Do we provide a safe environment? How do we promote their participation in activities and their participation in discussion so that they do move out of this silent period and start experimenting with the language?

So, getting back to your original question, the responsibility lies on us to understand all aspects of either how this language works. Well, that's one. But also what are the levels and how does language, how's language acquired as well? So, if our English learner, our teachers, teachers of English learners must be experts. Teachers of language or English learners must be masterful. They must understand how language works and be able to promote that and support that with young children.

PA: I love the idea of being a linguistic genius.

AF: Right?

PA: We need to, right? Because you talked about students being able to move out of that silent stage.

AF: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that goes back also, thinking about it, and we think about the science of reading and we think about how we teach the science of reading to our teachers, is teachers understanding that science of reading, that is definitely going to assist us as we teach our English learners. So, yes, for our English learners, it's very important, obviously, for kids to acquire vocabulary and oral language. Yes. For them to comprehend, absolutely. That's essential for all. I do want them to acquire vocabulary. Absolutely. I want them to acquire that oral language. But we also have to know how are we going to teach the phonology of English, for example, and how does that compare? Gosh, the more we know about the child's native language, the better off we are.

PA: Right. Right. We can make those parallels and connections and understand which parts of the language doesn't exist in that child's language. What should English language learning teachers think about first and then next and next as they build those skills for their students?

AF: Right. Well, first and foremost, we need to ensure that there is oral language and there is some vocabulary, which means that we need to make a connection to the home environment. So, getting the assistance from parents, from extended family members, it's just so important. And I don't think that anyone would argue about that. We gain so much information from parents. We can give so much, also some advice to parents as to what they can do at home to encourage language acquisition. And you know what? If there is no one at home who speaks English, that's OK. I want you to speak to them in your, in the language of love, right? In the language that they're hugged in and they're kissed in. The bottom line is that they have to have lots of language interaction. And, of course, if there is an opportunity or the opportunities at home exist for more interactions in English, then by all means, but not at the expense of their native tongue. So, I want that participation. I want that help from parents and families, and they must know that we're doing this together. The more that we understand also in this, especially teachers of English learners, how language is acquired so as we're talking about perhaps early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, those levels, our teachers of English learners, they understand that. And how is language acquired?

Unfortunately, Pam, here is my concern. That the training that many of our English, that our teachers of English learners go through is still missing a lot of the science behind reading. And that's what concerns me. That we are still, yes, we are about language acquisition. Absolutely. We are about vocabulary development. No one's going to argue that. But what I see a lot in the colleges that are providing endorsements for teachers of English learners is that they're not diving deep enough into the science of reading. And that is a crucial, crucial component. And, unfortunately, that still exists today, that we're just not prepared in the science of reading yet. And that is a very important component when we're talking about working with English learners.

PA: Right. So, that means we still have our, you still have your work cut out for you, Antonio. And as much as I can...

AF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yep.

PA: So, we talked about teachers, educators, and what they can do. What about district leaders? What can they do to help support the teachers of English language learners. How do we take care of the teachers?

AF: Yeah, and actually, so this is probably a, this is an answer that I would provide across the board, whether it's teachers of English learners or teachers of general population. We have administrators who many are not trained in the area of reading acquisition or language acquisition. And rightly so. I mean that's, we have many different fields or many different areas of interest that accompany our administrators.

So, I've always said, and this is where the dilemma arises though, Pam, is that our administrators also need to be as well versed as our teachers when it comes to all these areas of language acquisition and particularly the science of reading. I have been a part of so many initiatives at state levels, district levels, and they start falling apart because our administrators have not…we have not shared the information with administrators that we've shared with teachers.

Now, I realize, I realize that our school, our district administrators have a lot of responsibilities and have many things on their plate. But I think that providing the support is going to be absolutely essential from the lens of they know what to look for. They know how to provide additional feedback. But if they, themselves, do not understand how language is acquired or the science of reading, they do not know what to look for. My ongoing concern and probably even a gripe is that, again, going back to, just like our teacher-prep programs, when our administrators go back for their certification to become school administrators, that there has to be a heavier load, a heavier focus in their content area on these areas that are so essential. Again, reading, and again language acquisition.

Unfortunately, unfortunately I could probably, I can tell you that most of the principal certification programs have maybe one class that has to do with content and everything else has to do with law. Everything else has to do with climate. And I get that. I understand that. But if we have administrators coming into positions without the background, then they cannot provide the support. I wish we could, we could do a better job. And then let me tell you, I'm not throwing them under the bus. I realize how much work they have to do. I realize that. And I was a district administrator as well. And it's so easy, it's so easy to lose focus. But if you do not have that, if you do not own the background knowledge, it's going to be very difficult.

PA: Well, you know there's truth in the statement that knowledge is power.

AF: Absolutely, isn't it?

PA: And I can relate.

AF: And you know what, Pam? Right now, I am working in New Mexico just a few minutes away from my home. I live in Texas, southwest Texas, and I am in Gadsden, and I'm at the Gadsden Independent School District. I had two days’ worth of teaching administrators last week. And let me tell you, it was just amazing. And they said, "No, no, no. I want, don't go into too much into systems. I know what I have in my district, and I know what I have in my school, that I know about the data, the data banks and so forth. Teach us content." I was so impressed that I had administrators, a room full of administrators who wanted content. And, let me tell you, by the end of the day, both days, they said, "We are exhausted." And I didn't even go deep into the areas that our teachers do.

But it was so much fun. And what was so enlightening for me was that they were saying, "Well, oh, now I know what to look for. Oh, OK. Oh, so you know, if they're clapping to the syllables, I know that it has to do something with phonological awareness and wow. And now we're going to be doing some phonography mapping." Like really? Administrators talking that way, because they have so much on their plate already. But I applaud and I applauded them. And absolutely. I think this is the issue of the same…we probably have the same type of outcome across the district, or across the country really. Having administrators, not learn deep content, but content that will help support not only our teachers of English learners, but all, all teachers.

PA: All right. And we've been chatting for a while, but I've got one more question for you.

AF: All right.

PA: Now, finally, if you could wave a magic wand, just picture yourself with that wand in your hand, Antonio. And if you could change anything in the world of education, what would you change and why?

AF: Oh, I think that magic wand is starting to already work and I'll tell you why. Because there is this huge push and interest now pertaining to the science of reading. All right? Which is something that we had tried, what was it, 10 years ago? No, 20 almost 20 years ago when we were dealing with the national reading, or reading first at the national level. It's the same thing. But I just feel a very different sense of energy this time around that it's sticking. And we came, my colleagues and I, with the teaching of the language essentials that are presented in LETRS, I think we have definitely added to that energy, added to that enthusiasm.

So, the magic wand is, I think, is already been waved because now I see that people are starting to understand, our field is finally starting to understand what the science of reading is all about. And here it is, Pam. The science reading is evidence that we have acquired over the last almost 50 years, using gold standard methodologies. Having to deal with reading acquisition, reading instruction. That is wonderful. The science of reading is evidence. It's not philosophy. It's not belief. It's not an opinion. It's looking at what we know works. It's trusting that we are going to look at that accumulated years of research to inform the “hows” and “whys” of reading instruction. So, I think the wand is already making, is really already creating some magic.

However, I'm still going to take you up on that wand. If there was anything that I would change in the field of education to enhance, to inform, to get behind the science of reading, to do away with opinions and philosophies and beliefs. I would wave it across every, oh-oh, I would ensure that every teacher-preparation program across the country, at universities, in colleges across the country, began teaching the evidence behind the science of reading. It's there for us to teach. And we must teach it. And that's what I'm so proud about.

In Mississippi, I have, I work with a cohort of about 20 professors, and guess what? They, they get it. They get the science of reading. It's just fabulous, is that here I have university professors who say, "Antonio, come in and let me watch you teach my students and let me learn from you. And then you come back, let me teach, and you provide me feedback." We need that magic wand to give us a complete revamping of our teacher-prep programs across the country. And I think that my friends in Mississippi have said, "You know what? We're not scared. We realize that we have a lot more to learn and we're here to learn." And I think that says a lot. That says a lot and where, that's the way all the teacher-prep programs should be, should look.

PA: Yes. And getting to the root of it. That magic wand. That is awesome. Starting in Mississippi, that's where it's happening now. We're going to keep our eyes on Mississippi there, Antonio.

AF: We are.

PA: That magic wand is working there. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Antonio Fierro. It's been a pleasure speaking with you.

AF: It's been a joy.

PA: I love your wonderful stories. This is Pam Austin, bringing the best thought leaders in education directly to you.

Narrator: This has been an EDVIEW360 podcast produced by Voyager Sopris Learning. For additional thought-provoking discussions, sign up for our blog, webinar, and podcast series at If you enjoyed the show, we'd love a five-star review wherever you listen to podcasts, to help other people like you find our show. Thank you.