Strategies to Boost Early Literacy Skills in English Learners
Learning to read may be tough for many students, but it can be especially challenging for those whose first language is not English. While English Learners (ELs) have many assets, including the potential to be fluent in more than one language, they may also need extra help with such important pre-reading skills as vocabulary development and decoding.
This is why, as the nation’s percentage of EL students steadily rises, many researchers argue that early literacy intervention for ELs is crucial.
The stakes for EL students who struggle with reading are high. By the end of third grade, nearly all students are expected to be ready to “read to learn” rather than still learning how to read. But, as literacy expert Linda Espinosa has stated, “English learners are particularly vulnerable to low literacy levels by the end of third grade.” Scores from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP) seem to back this up, with average reading scores for EL students hovering in the "basic" range—nearly 40 points below these students' more English-proficient peers. For eighth-grade students, the gap in reading scores between EL and non-EL students was even higher.
The goal for many policymakers, teachers, and parents is to focus on early literacy efforts so that more children—including those learning English—exit third grade with sufficient reading skills. (Research has shown that it becomes much harder for struggling readers to “catch up” academically after fourth grade.) While there is no one-size-fits-all guide book on how to boost the early literacy rates of EL students, some strategies are worth looking at more closely.
Professional development matters
Colorin Colorado published a piece looking at early literacy interventions for EL students considered at-risk for learning disabilities, using the example of teachers and students at an urban school. One of the clearest points researchers found was that teachers at all levels of experience need sustained, meaningful training and support in order to put “sound pedagogical strategies for teaching EL students” into practice. One-off workshops are not enough, asserted writer Diane Haager; instead, teachers should be given “significant follow-up training and ongoing, personalized support.”
Not all EL students are the same, of course. The Bank Street College of Education has advice for teachers working with students who have had formal reading instruction in their home language, as well as advice for working with students who have not had the same level of instruction. The Bank Street website walks early literacy teachers through the process of helping EL students—no matter their background—become skilled enough in English to be ready to speak, read and write in their new language, with an emphasis on the importance of oral language skills. “Language acquisition is a very complex process that may not always follow a straight path,” the website noted.
Families matter, too
Early literacy is a broad concept, beginning with the very first speaking and listening skills children learn at home. For this reason, researchers—including Espinosa, who centers her work on the needs of EL students—point out that parents and other family members are a “crucial” aspect of any early literacy intervention plan. Parents can help lay the foundation for future reading skills by singing with and reading to their children in any language—including their home language—thereby helping them access the kind of “rich linguistic input” necessary for later success.
But schools can also rethink how they invite parents into the learning process, argued authors Larry Ferlazzo and Lorie Hammond in their book, "Parent Engagement in Schools." As referenced in this blog post about reaching EL parents, Ferlazzo and Hammond advised shifting away from parent involvement—a “top-down model”—and toward engaging with parents to find out more about their cultural traditions and what ideas they may have for “improving bilingual family involvement.” Another point: Don’t ask for parent input until it will actually be put to use. (Translation: Have a parent engagement implementation plan ready to go, and think about how it will be funded and maintained over time.)
Building blocks for language and literacy
The Colorin Colorado website is filled with evidence-based ideas for early literacy intervention for EL children. Among the specific approaches recommended is incorporating children’s home language whenever possible, using outside resources such as songs or videos if necessary. The site points out that “many literacy skills transfer across languages” and advises teachers to send home English language books so parents and caregivers can learn and practice alongside their children. Moreover, educators should engage in “explicit, systemic instruction in vocabulary” through guided conversations, joint book reading, and the use of themed lesson plans to help EL students make the connection between words and “scaffold their learning.” Researchers have found that, with careful planning and support from teachers, this can be accomplished through dramatic play as well. (This page on building reading comprehension skills in EL students is also helpful.)
Intervening early to put EL students on the path to reading success is not simple work, and the bar is set high. As the Education Alliance at Brown University advises, “effective” teachers of EL students “strive to understand … cultural differences and respect them” while helping these students gain the specific skills needed to read well in English.
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