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Reading Foundations

Silvia Gonzalez-Powers explains how structure can improve literacy rates for English learners

Educators are often left unprepared to meet the unique needs of the increasing number of English learners (ELs), especially when it comes to literacy. As their number continues to grow, it is critical that teachers are equipped with the proper resources they need to connect with EL students. There is also a need for schools and districts to provide additional means and resources for the students and their families.

Just like non-EL students, EL students come into the classroom with varying reading proficiency levels and diverse backgrounds and abilities. Each has a different way in which they learn and a different home environment that could involve living with multiple generations of family who may or may not know English. These combinations present unique challenges for educators in getting to know their students and creating an effective instruction model to equip all students with the knowledge they need in order to succeed.

Professional Development and School Support
There is a need to provide ongoing learning opportunities and skills development, like teacher training, and other resources to encourage and support educators. Investing in resources and professional development empowers educators to be agents of change toward equitable literacy instruction. It also helps them build confidence in knowing they are equipped with the proper skills and training for teaching EL students to read and write in English, paving the way to achieving better reading outcomes in schools and districts.

Additionally, resources like translation and interpretation services must be provided for the students and their families to ensure they feel supported. Hiring bilingual staff and having resources available at all times allows families who are not proficient in English to have access to written documents, meetings with teachers, and schoolwide events in their native languages.

Building Connections between Languages
In addition to arming teachers with the knowledge needed to help EL students learn how to read, we should encourage educators to make connections between students’ first languages and the English language. This does not mean the teacher must become fluent in every language represented in their classroom. There is, however, a benefit to knowing the general structures of those languages and determining if there are structural similarities between the students’ native languages and English.

One way to find out if there are connections in languages is to identify cognates.1 A cognate is a word whose appearance and meaning are the same in two or more languages. The Romance languages—Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, French, and Spanish—all evolved from Latin. Between them, one can notice words that share common roots (aqua, flor) or prefixes and suffixes (contra-, dys-).

English, which is not part of the Romance language family, belongs to the German language family. Even though these languages belong to different language families, there are many shared cognates between English and Romance languages. For example, the English word academic and the Spanish word académico have similarities in spelling, pronunciation, and meaning.

While cognates exist across many languages, there are fewer cognates in languages as the gap between their origins and alphabets widens. For example, even though English and Chinese don’t share cognates by definition, they have loanwords—a word adopted from a foreign language with little or no modification. One instance of a loanword is the English word pizza and the Chinese word pīsà/bǐsà.

By being able to identify and understand cognates, loanwords, and other similarities across language structures, teachers are able to help ELs make those connections and aid the students in learning to read and comprehend English.

Another way to help ELs is for educators to consider the writing systems of each language represented in their classrooms. Does the student’s first language use a similar alphabet to the English alphabet, or does it use a writing system based on characters and symbols? EL students with first languages that use a writing system based on characters and symbols face a greater, less common challenge and may need more in-depth instruction. These students are not only learning new words and grammar rules but also learning a whole new alphabet and the sounds of each letter that makes up the alphabet.

Establishing connections between a student’s first language and the English language not only can help them achieve success in English literacy but also allows them to continue to build upon that success using their native language.

Educators should encourage parents to read books to their children in their first language and to continue to engage in experiences and language-rich conversations in their native language. This encouragement not only helps students to develop proficiency and fluency but also allows them and their families to stay connected to their cultural origins, an important component in finding identity.

It is also critical that teachers do not deter or interfere with the spoken language in children’s homes. Families should not be expected to support English language proficiency, especially if they themselves are not English proficient.

The Structured Literacy Approach
Schools should form a strategy around the instructional methods their teachers use. In some US classrooms, only the targeted language is used and the focus lies heavily on speaking rather than grammar. Another common approach to teaching English is inquiry-based learning, in which students are expected to solve problems by participating in tasks and projects, with the teacher simply serving as a facilitator.2 The challenge with these methods is that they require children to engage in speaking and comprehension activities when many of these students don’t even know the sounds, alphabet, or words that make up the English language.

Structured literacy differs from other approaches used for teaching students how to read and has proven to be effective for EL learners.3 Structured literacy is a term created by the International Dyslexia Association in 2016 to help unify the names of the researched approaches to reading, including Orton-Gillingham, phonics-based reading instruction, systematic reading instruction, and synthetic phonics.

Phonological awareness, which is a major component of structured literacy, is a phonics-based reading instruction that helps children understand the alphabetic principle (letters have names and sounds that form words).4 Not only is phonological awareness the foundation for reading but it is also the most important aspect to a child learning how to read, because it lets children recognize and work with the sounds of spoken language, for example by picking out words that rhyme, counting the number of syllables in a word, and noticing sound repetition (“Susie sold six salami sandwiches”).

Structured literacy also emphasizes the structure of language through:
• Sound–symbol association—the relationship between sounds and symbols
• Syllables—words or parts of a word that contain one vowel phoneme
• Morphology—the study of the forms of words
• Syntax—sentence structure
• Semantics—the meaning of words

The types of instruction used to teach the elements of structured literacy include:
• Systematic and cumulative—lessons are organized and built upon previously learned concepts
• Explicit—instruction is direct and intentional
• Diagnostic—assessment is ongoing (formal and informal)

Implementing structured literacy is one of the most effective ways to help students achieve reading success and to improve overall literacy rates among EL learners.

As we continue to see the EL student population grow, so too does the need for the involvement of teachers, schools, and districts in helping ELs achieve reading proficiency. This means expanding resources for children and their families and equipping educators with the skills and knowledge needed to teach children to read through professional development, like structured literacy training. This joint effort will afford EL students the same opportunity as English native students in learning to read and to prosper in life.


Silvia Gonzalez-Powers is an educator for Boston Public Schools and a level-five Master Instructor at the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education.

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