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|Volume 26, No. 3||Summer/Fall 2003|
With the nation’s schools striving to meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the significance of reading has never been greater. Not only must all students be able to pass reading tests in Grades 3, 5, and 8, they must also be able to read at levels high enough to understand the content taught in subjects such as math, science, and social studies. No Child Left Behind has also increased accountability for English language learners (ELLs) by requiring that all students be included in state-mandated tests. There are no exemptions for students who are still learning English. It is thus of utmost importance that ELLs be able to read and write in English and achieve at levels comparable to those of their native-English-speaking peers. It is up to their teachers to help them develop the skills required.
This article describes the literacy patterns of ELLs in the United States and factors that influence their literacy learning. It also offers research-based guidelines for literacy instruction for ELLs in Grades K–12. Literacy is defined here as the ability to read and write in multiple contexts.
Differing patterns of literacy exist for ELLs and native English speakers in the United States. Research shows that ELLs’ achievement in both reading and writing tends to be lower than that of native English speakers (Padrón, 1994; Truscott & Watts-Taffe, 1998). For example, the most recent reading assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2002) found dramatic differences between Hispanic students and non-Hispanic white students: 56% of Hispanics in Grade 4 performed below the basic reading level for their grade, compared to 25% of non-Hispanic white students. Similar differences were found at Grades 8 and 12, with Hispanic students reading at significantly lower levels than native-English-speaking students. Such differences place ELLs at risk for school failure, as academic success is highly dependent on literacy skills (Padrón, 1994).
Factors that influence ELLs’ learning of English literacy include their first language literacy, the type of literacy instruction they receive, and uses of literacy in their homes.
Research has shown that literacy skills in the first language influence the acquisition of literacy in an additional language. Cummins (1979, 1989) has posited that cognitive academic skills in the first language are likely to transfer to the second language. Recent research supports this view.
A study of Spanish-speaking students transitioning from second to third grade found that those students who had been explicitly taught to read in Spanish transferred a variety of skills such as phonemic awareness, word reading, word knowledge, and comprehension strategies to English (August, Calderon, & Carlo, 2002). Students with a strong academic background in their first language are able to utilize metacognitive skills when acquiring literacy skills in another language. For example, students who have developed literacy in their first language may be able to recognize cognates—words that look similar and have the same meaning in both languages. They may also be able to transfer their knowledge of academic strategies such as note taking from their first to their new language. Grabe and Stroller (2002) add that students must have a sufficient amount of knowledge in the second language to make effective use of first language skills to enhance their comprehension in the second language.
The type of literacy instruction that students receive also influences their acquisition of English literacy. Researchers have found that schools that enroll large numbers of students from diverse backgrounds, including ELLs, tend to spend less time on instruction and activities that foster higher-order thinking skills than do schools that serve primarily middle-class, English-speaking students (Au, 2000; Moll & González, 1994). Literacy instruction for ELLs is mostly passive, with little time allocated for active student participation (García, 2000; Truscott & Watts-Taffe, 1998). Au and Kawakami (1994) found that teachers of ELLs tend to focus on decoding, pronunciation, and other low-level skills at the expense of reading comprehension. In a study of eight predominantly urban schools with a majority of Hispanic students, Padrón (1994) found that ELLs remained mostly passive in class, listening to their teachers read to them and not spending much time actively reading themselves. In a study of mainstream classes with ELLs from diverse linguistic backgrounds, Truscott and Watts-Taffe (1998) observed no opportunities for students to read texts at their own reading levels and very little emphasis on reading comprehension.
Reading development is strongly influenced by parental and community attitudes toward reading and uses of literacy (Grabe & Stoller, 2002). While ELLs’ perceptions and uses of literacy at home may differ from those of native English speakers (Street, 2001; Szwed, 2001), this does not mean that literacy activities do not take place in their homes. Research shows that rich literacy experiences take place in the homes of many ELLs, often in more than one language. For example, Delgado-Gaitán and Trueba (1991) found that literacy activities in Hispanic households included children telling stories and singing chants and older siblings reading to younger ones.
While ELLs’ daily lives outside of school may remain somewhat of a mystery to their teachers, students’ experiences and knowledge do play a role in their acquisition of English literacy. Researchers contend that children fare better in school when their instruction is congruent with their experiences at home (Au & Kawakami, 1994; Gee, 2001; Moll & González, 1994). Teachers need to be aware that although ELLs’ knowledge base may differ from that of native English speakers, they bring rich funds of knowledge to the classroom (Moll & González, 1994).
With knowledge of the factors described above, educators can design instruction to address ELLs’ literacy needs. This instruction should take into account the social contexts for literacy use and the specific literacy skills that students need.
In order to provide ELLs with effective English literacy instruction and incorporate their prior knowledge into instruction, teachers need to become familiar with and build on the literacy experiences and knowledge that ELLS bring to school (Alvermann, 2001; McCarty & Watahomigie, 2001; Moje, Young, Readence, & Moore, 2000; Moll & González, 1994). One way to connect home and school experiences is to integrate spoken and written narrative forms and to draw narrative content from the culture of the community. To do this, teachers can have students write about themselves in journals. Students can also conduct interviews with each other and with their parents (in English or the native language, whichever is appropriate) and write biographies in English based on the interviews. If possible, teachers can spend time with the students outside of school, observe what they are able to do in a variety of contexts, and center instruction around projects that focus on meaningful content in authentic, real-world situations (Moje et al., 2000). One example of such a project would be to develop a unit around food, where students bring in recipes from their cultures, talk to their family members about their favorite recipes, go to a grocery store to look for needed items, and publish a class cookbook. The use of multicultural literature allows students to build on what they know about their own cultures, learn about others’ cultures, and read about topics that interest them (Moll & González, 1994).
Many researchers argue that the relationship between ELLs and their teachers is also central to the development of English literacy. For example, García (1994) posits that effective programs for ELLs show evidence of a highly informal, almost familial social and collaborative relationship between students and teachers. Au (2000) stresses the importance of strong teacher-student relationships that build students’ trust in the teacher and enhance their learning. Moll and González (1994) argue that the relationships between teachers and students influence students’ engagement with the content and skills taught.
Traditionally, reading instruction has centered around two approaches, commonly referred to as “bottom-up” and “top-down.” Bottom-up reading instruction focuses on how readers extract information from texts—from the page to the mind. Top-down instruction focuses on readers’ background knowledge, higher-level cognitive processes, and interactions with texts. A growing body of research suggests that a well-planned combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies helps ELLs to achieve higher levels of reading comprehension (Birch, 2002; Grabe & Stoller, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000).
Areas of research conducted with ELLs on bottom-up reading instruction include phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary instruction. For example, Au (2000) contends that systematic instruction in phonics should be part of reading instruction for ELLs, yet properly timed so that students are able to make sense of what they are reading. Phonemic awareness can be taught by having students listen to stories as they follow along in texts and encouraging them to sound out new words as they read (Birch, 2002). Research shows that phonemic awareness training is effective in increasing ELLs’ reading comprehension, although larger effect sizes have been found after phonemic awareness training was provided for native English speakers than for ELLs (National Reading Panel, 2000).
The research literature also suggests that literacy programs that focus too much on the teaching of phonics and not enough on the reading of meaningful texts are unlikely to be very effective (National Reading Panel, 2000). Eight kinds of instructional strategies appear to be effective for increasing students’ reading comprehension:
When teachers use a combination of these strategies, students show general gains on standardized reading comprehension tests (National Reading Panel, 2000).
Many studies have shown that reading ability is related not only to phonemic awareness and phonics skills, but also to vocabulary size (Grabe & Stoller, 2002; National Reading Panel, 2000). These studies suggest that as ELLs learn words in English through direct instruction and extensive reading, they build up their knowledge of morphemes (the smallest meaningful units of a word), rimes (the part of a syllable that consists of its vowel and any consonant sounds that follow it), and syllables. Grabe and Stoller (2002) contend that teachers need to focus on increasing ELLs’ vocabulary, and that they should not encourage students to skip words that they do not know in order to get the gist of what they have read.
In this age of increased accountability through high-stakes testing, coupled with the increased literacy demands of an information-based society, ELLs are being expected to read and write in English at ever higher levels. In light of the increased expectations of their students, educators of ELLs need to be aware of the latest research that can inform their literacy instruction. Current research shows that ELLs benefit most from English literacy instruction that combines appropriate bottom-up approaches within meaningful, culturally relevant activities that build on students’ prior experiences and knowledge. Educators must learn more about their students’ backgrounds, experiences, and needs to better design appropriate English literacy programs for them. Only then can they begin to make literacy instruction meaningful and effective and develop students’ passion for a lifetime of literacy.
Alvermann, D. E. (2001). Effective literacy instruction for adolescents. Chicago: National Reading Conference.
Au, K. H. (2000). A multicultural perspective on policies for improving literacy and achievement: Equity and excellence. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.). Handbook of reading research (Vol. III) (pp. 835-851). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Au, K. H., & Kawakami, A. J. (1994). Cultural congruence in instruction. In E. R. Hollins, J. E. King, & W. C. Hayman (Eds.), Teaching diverse populations (pp. 5-24). Albany: State University of New York Press.
August, D., Calderon, M., & Carlo, M. (2002). Transfer of skills from Spanish to English: A study of young learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Birch, B. (2002). English L2 reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222-251.
Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering language minority students. Sacramento: California Association for Bilingual Education.
Delgado-Gaitán, C., & Trueba, H. (1991). Crossing cultural borders: Education for immigrant families in America. New York: Falmer Press.
García, E. E. (1994). Attributes of effective schools for language minority students. In E. R. Hollins, J. E. King, & W. C. Hayman (Eds.), Teaching diverse populations (pp. 93-104). Albany: State University of New York Press.
García, G. E. (2000). Bilingual children’s reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.). Handbook of reading research (Vol. III) (pp. 813-834). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gee, J. P. (2001). Literacy, discourse and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy? In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 525-544). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and researching reading. London, England: Pearson Education.
McCarty, T. L., & Watahomigie, L. J. (2001). Language and literacy in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 156-171). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Moje, E. B., Young, J. P., Readence, J. E., & Moore, D. W. (2000). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 400-410.
Moll, L. C., & González, N. (1994). Lessons from research with language-minority children. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26, 439-456.
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No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, 115 Stat. 1446 (2002).
Padrón, Y. (1994). Comparing reading instruction in Hispanic/limited English proficient schools and other inner-city schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 18, 49-66.
Street, B. (2001). The new literacy studies. In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 430-442). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Szwed, J. F. (2001). The ethnography of literacy. In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll, & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 421-429). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Truscott, D. M., & Watts-Taffe, S. (1998). Literacy instruction for
second-language learners: A study of best practices. In T. Shanahan & F.
V. Rodriguez-Brown (Eds.). Forty-seventh yearbook of the National Reading
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Chicago: National Reading Conference.
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