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Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall V: Collaborate to Thrive

Let’s Start Here Educator collaboration is an essential component...
HomeFeaturesUnifying Language Acquisition with Literacy Instruction for Language-Minority Students

Unifying Language Acquisition with Literacy Instruction for Language-Minority Students

Linnea Ehri, Ester de Jong, Kari Kurto, Joel Gómez, and Raúl Escarpio share their impressions on merging methodologies

Lexia Learning, a company specializing in structured literacy, recently convened a roundtable on a subject that has been given considerable attention in Language Magazine over recent years, “Unifying Language Acquisition with Literacy Instruction for Language-Minority Students.”
Organized by José A. Viana, former assistant deputy secretary and director of the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), the event brought together some of the nation’s, indeed the world’s, top experts and practitioners in literacy education (see list below) and its application to multilingual learners with the intention of clarifying the application of research-based approaches to literacy education for ALL learners.

Viana’s brainchild sparked considerable and heated discussion, while providing a solid basis on which policy recommendations will likely be formulated, so Language Magazine is planning a series of articles to cover this initiative in depth and spur the conversation.

To start the ball rolling, several of the panelists are sharing their takeaways. So much was covered during the roundtable that comments will appear below and online at

Linnea Ehri:

I was taken by surprise when the moderator posted a slide portraying my theory about phases of development in learning to read and asked me to explain this theory. I was glad that educators desiring to improve reading instruction for ELLs were interested in this work. The theory is based on research findings that reveal essential processes enabling beginners to acquire skill in reading words. The theory applies to all children learning to read in an alphabetic writing system. The essential processes include learning letter shapes and names, the major grapheme–phoneme relations of the writing system, and applying this knowledge to decode new words and to spell words.
Acquiring this knowledge and these skills enables children to store the spellings of individual words bonded to their pronunciations and meanings in memory so that they can recognize the words automatically when they see them as they read text. This allows them to focus on comprehending the text while the words are recognized without conscious attention or effort. The goal of systematic phonics instruction is to teach these skills explicitly and help children acquire proficiency in reading words.

Linnea C. Ehri is distinguished professor emerita of educational psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has received research awards from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the National Reading Conference, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR). She has held elected offices in these organizations, including as president of SSSR. She is a fellow of AERA and the American Psychological Association, Division 15, and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame.
From 1998 to 2000 she served on the National Reading Panel, commissioned by the US Congress to report on research-based methods of teaching reading effectively to elementary students. Ehri’s research and teaching are focused on reading acquisition processes—the course of development in learning to read words by decoding and from memory by sight; preparing children to learn to read by teaching letters and phonemic awareness; vocabulary learning; learning to spell; reading instruction, particularly systematic phonics instruction; the impact of literacy on language processes; and the causes, prevention, and remediation of reading difficulties. She has published more than 130 research papers in books and scholarly journals, edited two books, and served on editorial boards of eleven scientific journals.

Ester de Jong:

We must recognize the centrality of literacy in school and life in the 21st century and the importance of students being engaged. As some of the focus of science of reading (SoR) is on phonics/phonemic awareness/spelling as it is being interpreted by educators and publishers, it is important to remind ourselves that the purpose of becoming literate is to learn and communicate—it’s not simply a matter of discrete skill building. Given the diversity of student experiences when they enter school, no one-size-fits-all approach will work, and we need to provide educators with key questions and principles that can help them make the right decisions for the students they are teaching.
For English language learners/emergent bilinguals (ELLs/EBs), we need to pay explicit attention to the intersection of multilingualism and the SoR (i.e., reading research) and not assume that ELLs/EBs have been included in the research. If we skip this inquiry, we may generalize for policy and practice where this is not (yet) warranted. To say it in a different way: when citing research findings, it is important to confirm “population validity”—was the research explicitly inclusive of students who speak a language other than English at home and who are still in the process of learning English as an additional language? What were the findings for this particular subgroup of students? Note that this is not the same group as “struggling readers,” “students with dyslexia,” “students with disabilities,” “students from low-SES backgrounds,” or even general “culturally and linguistically diverse students.”

A major theme of the roundtable was the important role that oracy development plays for multilingual learners as part of developing reading and writing skills; listening, speaking, reading, and writing must be integrated for meaningful communication and learning.
Dual language (bilingual education) approaches need to be centered much more in this work as an effective approach to reading and writing for multilingual learners. The research is clear on its positive impact on language, literacy, and content learning. In English-medium settings, the SoR research needs to pay much more attention to the role that knowing, speaking, and using a language other than English play in learning how to read and write in English. While some of the proposed practices may not harm ELLs/EBs, they may also fail to accelerate leaning for these students, a crucial task for educators given the double task these students have of language learning and content learning in an additional language.

Neuroscience has shown differences between bilingual and monolingual brains—what implications does this have for reading and writing development for bilingual learners? Where are the similarities and where are the differences? Given that bilinguals already have negotiated multiple languages prior to coming to school, it would make sense that our approach to literacy development would indeed have to be different.

We need to remember that not all ELLs/EBs are in the early grades—what needs to happen for older students, for students who come to school with significantly interrupted and limited schooling experiences?

Ester de Jong is the director of the School of Teaching and Learning and professor in ESOL/bilingual education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Prior to coming to the University of Florida, she worked with Spanish–English and Brazilian–Portuguese bilingual programs as the assistant director for bilingual education and ESL programs in Massachusetts.
Her research focuses on equity and integration in the context of dual language education and preparing teachers to work with bilingual learners in K–12 schools. Her book, Foundations of Multilingualism in Education: From Policy to Practice, published by Caslon Publishing, considers a principled approach to school, program, and classroom decision-making for multilingual learners. Dr. de Jong was president of TESOL International Association (2017–2018).

Kari Kurto:

As the national science of reading project director for The Reading League (TRL), I believe it is important to always remember our mission, “to advance the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction.” We believe all children deserve to learn to read and all teachers can learn to teach them. The Lexia Learning roundtable discussion in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, illustrated the efficacy of collaborative conversations among experts from different disciplines who share this common goal of advancing literacy outcomes for all students.

Each attendee was provided a copy of The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide, which proved to be a helpful anchor for conversation throughout the day. In particular, Dr. Raúl Escarpio referenced the final sentence of the guide’s equity statement, which reads, “Our children are worth the labor of pressing through the unknown, holding challenging conversations with high expectations, and even falling forward while building expertise” (The Reading League, 2022). Discussing this idea of falling forward together embodied the positive intent of all participants and strengthened the willingness to have open and honest conversations while also listening to understand.

Experts from the multilingual learner (MLL) field discussed the critical role of embracing students’ home languages and cultures as assets. They offered examples of students who learned to decode automatically, yet struggled to comprehend the text due to their limited vocabulary or background knowledge. Experts from the reading field agreed on the necessity of strong language comprehension skills, discussed the integral role of building accurate foundational reading skills to proficiency, and clarified that this is often not being done in classrooms that use practices that are not aligned to the science of reading. The roundtable discussion provided a space to have frank conversations regarding these common practices, yet also helped to fortify an understanding of critical elements of instruction for MLLs that must be named and included in the literacy conversation more often. The Reading League and partner organizations are committed to continued conversations with experts from the MLL field who are bravely willing to fall forward with us to guide the field, clear confusion, and consequently provide a runway for successful literacy outcomes for all students. Citation: The Reading League (2022). The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide.

Kari Kurto is the National Science of Reading Project director at The Reading League. She was a literacy specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Education where she worked mostly on implementing the Rhode Island Right to Read Act that provides teacher training in the Science of Reading and Structured Literacy. She is an educator and Orton-Gillingham practitioner who has worked at Rawson Saunders School in Austin, TX and Middlebridge School in Narragansett, RI, and she is also a member of the Science of Reading: A Defining Movement coalition among other professional organizations.
Prior to her work in literacy, Kurto was an independent casting director with over nine years of experience.

Joel Gómez:

The Lexia-sponsored roundtable discussion offered a great opportunity for experts with different areas of expertise to discuss for a day the intersection of literacy, equity, language acquisition, language development, and multilingual learners. A large part of the morning focused on a spirited discussion on the need for equitable, asset-based instructional approaches for multilingual learners. The afternoon session provided an opportunity to discuss issues related to literacy and English language instruction.

One of primary outcomes of the discussions was the case made for the importance of teaching the fundamentals of reading as an important step toward learning how to read. It was emphasized that instruction on the grapheme-to-phoneme relationship was an important element of these fundamentals.

However, a counterpoint to this approach was provided by some of the roundtable participants, who shared memories on how they learned to read as children. Some of the participants stated that they learned to read before attending school by listening to books being read and then looking at books. One participant said that he learned how to read by listening to oral tapes synced to pages on the book. Another participant shared that he learned to read in Spanish without being taught how to read in Spanish by making a connection with his knowledge about reading in English.

Overall, a major takeaway from the roundtable discussion was that even though the invited group of participants agreed on equitable and asset-based instruction for multilingual learners, the discussion on teaching them literacy skills was still primarily predicated on literacy instruction for English monolingual students. All of the participants agreed that teaching literacy fundamentals is important. However, the point was made during several parts of the day that while literacy fundamentals are important, literacy instruction for multilingual students must be approached from a multilingual approach and not from an English monolingual student approach.

Admittedly, there is a paucity of studies on teaching literacy skills to multilingual learners. However, there is evidence that shows that successful literacy approaches for multilingual learners are more effective when based on multilingual literacy approaches rather than on monolingual approaches. The works of Hornberger and Winlund provide support for a socio-ecological and multimodal framework for developing biliteracy among multilinguals (Hornberger, 2004, 1990; Winlund, 2020). A study by Sparrow, Schepers, and Escamilla shows that developing strong oracy and literacy skills in two languages concurrently provides a strong building block for developing literacy skills among multilingual students (Sparrow, Schepers, and Escamilla, 2021).

More generally, the National Academies of Science report How People Learn II concludes that “Effective instruction depends on understanding the complex interplay among learners’ prior knowledge, experiences, motivations, interests, and language and cognitive skills; educators’ own experiences and cultural influences; and the cultural, social, cognitive, and emotional characteristics of the learning environment” (p. 160).

It further states that “Learning in school may be facilitated if the out-of-school cultural practices of students are viewed as resources, tools, or assets” (p. 140). The report describes how connecting students to their community funds of knowledge and creating “a third space” between students and teachers are two examples of asset-based approaches to instruction. The number of multilingual students in US public schools continues to grow, and as such, researchers, policy makers, teacher preparation programs, and school-based educators must support equitable and asset-based literacy and schooling practices for multilingual students from a multilingual perspective.

Hornberger, N. H. (2004). “The Continua of Biliteracy and the Bilingual Educator: Educational Linguistics in Practice.”
Hornberger, N. H. (1990). “Creating Successful Learning Contexts for Biliteracy.” WPEL, 6(1),
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Winlund, A. (2020). “Emergent Literacy Instruction: ‘Continua of biliteracy’ among newly immigrated adolescents.” Language and Education, 34(3), 249–266,

Joel Gómez is the president and CEO of the Center for Applied Linguistics. He joined CAL from George Washington University (GW), where he held a joint appointment as a faculty member and chair of the Department of Education Leadership and where he also served as associate dean for research for the Graduate School of Education and Human Development. Dr. Gómez’s areas of expertise include bilingual and bicultural education, higher education, national online information centers, and federal funding of education research and development. He has also worked at the international level as an evaluator and technical assistance provider in countries such as India, Pakistan, Macedonia, and Dominican Republic, among others.

Raúl Escarpio:

As a facilitator, my role was to guide the conversation, but more often than not, I found myself mesmerized by the depth and breadth of the important issues being raised. I kept on using the word layman to describe myself when the panel discussed multilingual readers and literacy, hoping to bridge their knowledge and experience with my work in special education. By the end of the day, I understood that multilingual learners and students with special needs share more commonalities in learning to read and being successful than is initially perceived. This important conversation must continue!

Raúl Escarpio currently serves at the district level as a leader and subject-matter expert in behavior. He is a collaborative, highly motivated, and accomplished education leader with over 20 years of experience working with students and leaders from preschool through the college level.
His main focus is rethinking educational practices to ensure the success of students of all ability levels and engaging leaders in transformational conversations that allow for the development of student-driven initiatives and models to ensure the success of all students.

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