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HomeScience of ReadingEnglish Literacy for Multilingual Learners: Voices from the Field

English Literacy for Multilingual Learners: Voices from the Field

Socorro Herrera and Ester de Jong talk of inclusivity

Moving at the Speed of Light

Literacy is at the heart of the educational enterprise. It is therefore not surprising that researchers, teachers, parents, and policymakers are highly invested in ensuring that all children grow up learning the critical skills of effective communication, orally and through reading and writing.

Most recently, we have heard a lot about the science of reading—a body of research that draws from different cognitive research traditions (including the neurosciences, psychology, linguistics, and educational studies) and aims to understand how children learn to read from a cognitive science perspective. While this research does not address the broader social and cultural context of literacy (including writing and multimodality), understanding what happens cognitively when children read is important for teachers.

Unfortunately, what we have seen nationwide is that the media, parent groups, and policymakers have selectively taken this research and have rapidly turned it into strict state mandates for professional development, curriculum and materials, and teacher preparation requirements. These efforts, better referred to as the science of reading movement, unfortunately misrepresent much of what the reading research indicates and rarely do justice to the nuances and complexities that are integral to language and literacy teaching and learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2020).

In fact, the public conversation about teaching reading and the perceived reading crisis is too frequently reduced to how best to teach phonemic awareness and phonics. This crisis perspective commonly has resulted in a narrowed emphasis in classroom practice, relegating learners who are experiencing reading difficulties to reductionist methods of teaching reading.

In this article, we want to expand the current conversation about reading—and particularly the conversation driven by the science of reading movement—to be explicitly inclusive of one of the fastest-growing populations in the US—that is, children who grow up knowing a language other than English at home, or multilingual learners (MLs).

Shining Light on Multilingual Learners

Public school classrooms in the US reflect significant levels of linguistic diversity. Across the country, more than five million students (10.4%) are classified as English learners (ELs). In twelve states, at least one out of every ten students is an EL/ML, and in an additional 22 states ELs/MLs comprise 6–10% of total enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2022). Many school districts have populations of ELs/MLs that far exceed the national average. For example, learners in one rural Midwestern school district speak 45 different home languages and account for 46% of the student population.

The Reading League recognizes the need for a “more intentional focus on ensuring the right of literacy for our nation’s multilingual citizens and students” (Kurto, 2023).

It further indicates that practices that prevent students from developing skilled literacy are at the heart of the urgency in the science of reading movement. This is certainly true and would call for a review of scientific research that has been conducted specifically with EL-designated students.

The lack of attention to MLs unfortunately and dangerously leads to an assumption of universality that is not supported by research. Both research on second-language literacy development (August and Shanahan, 2006; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2017) and other research (e.g., Guilamo, 2021) clearly point to fundamental differences between monolingual children learning to read in their native languages and bilingual children learning to read in their second languages.

Moreover, a recent systematic review of the science of reading research identified two glaring gaps: research on cross-linguistic connections and research on reading comprehension (Kittle et al., in press; cited in Budde, 2023).

Listening to and Amplifying ML Teacher Voices

Follow any conversation from the many teacher groups that have popped up on social media and you will hear themes in the comments of educators attempting to apply the science of reading within the contextualized realities of their unique spaces.
Although many teachers appreciate being informed about the existing research base on how the brain learns to read, they are left to grapple with disjuncts between instructional practices promoted, cautioned, and/or discouraged by the science of reading movement and the language, literacy, and socioemotional needs of learners. In this section, we highlight three of the most common themes, weaving in the voices of three teachers in three different districts (both urban and rural settings) as they entered into conversation with us regarding their experiences with teaching reading.

The Realities of the Science of Reading Movement

  1. Phonics is not the/a magic bullet
    There is little doubt that phonics instruction is important in the process of learning to read in English. The hyperfocus on phonics and phonemic awareness mandated by policies passed in the name of the science of reading has greatly undermined teachers’ abilities to meet their students’ diverse needs and, more specifically, to provide their MLs with access to effective instruction.
    Phonics instruction stands out among teachers for the intensity of focus and the time spent. They struggle to see the applicability of instruction hyperfocused on foundations, especially when such foundational skills for reading are approached from a sequential perspective (with prerequisites) rather than a simultaneous one.

    One challenge the teachers identified, for example, is the overreliance on testing for phonics and fluency. Passing these tests has become a prerequisite for students to be “allowed” to engage in other reading-related activities. Not passing the test means more instruction exclusively directed at isolated phonics instruction designed for students who are already fluent speakers of English. Progress in literacy skills development by ELs/MLs often is determined solely by utilizing tools designed to capture advances made by monolingual learners. Given the pressure to increase scores and make benchmarks on tests that “matter,” other methods of gathering evidence of incremental gains are underutilized. The result is an endless cycle of students failing to make sufficient gains on standardized assessments, with the interventions used to “differentiate” their subsequent instructio­­­n reflecting the same types of limitations as those evident in the core instruction. As one teacher attested, “the kids felt defeated even before they began to read.”
  2. One size does not fit all
    Researchers aligned with the science of reading assert that differentiation of instruction is key to meeting the individual needs of the learner. I­­n practice, states and districts purchase scripted programs that ask teachers to adhere to a systematic, timed, and rigid plan for reading instruction, assuming universality of appropriateness for all learners. This undifferentiated, “one-size-fits-all” approach fails to recognize the diversity in today’s classrooms. As one teacher participant explained,

    “The focus is on a blanket reading curriculum that every kid needs to fit. And oh, well, this curriculum says some ELL options down here at the bottom. So we’re going to call that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ thing, you know?… A student who one: struggles with the language, and then two: also struggles to read is never going to pass a phonics screener. And so, they give them [ELs] these phonics screeners. Well, of course, he bombed the thing.”

    Experienced ML teachers note that these programs fail to sufficiently attend to oral language development, comprehension, and reading to achieve meaningful goals (e.g., pleasure, exchange of ideas, self-expression, participation in the life of a literate community). One teacher commented on the insufficient opportunities to use language for authentic communication. She shared,

    “I didn’t see a lot of opportunity for kids to have the academic discourse. To really practice the language. And just to fall in love with reading because it [the curriculum] was again really fast-paced [so] the kids just felt that, okay, it’s a task. It was very much pressured and like I never saw that enjoyment.”

    A fellow participant similarly expressed her desire to use both the science of reading and her knowledge of theory- and research-based literacy practices to reach learners in more effective ways:

    “Taking what I know about [the] science of reading and combined with what I also know about needing to have rich language and being exposed to rich text, umm, trying to figure out, how can I combine both to try something brand new? That hasn’t been done… so that… we aren’t just giving students the exact same thing that they’ve gotten their entire elementary career when we know it’s obviously not working.”

    Teachers, through their daily interactions with students, are poised to be responsive to the needs of individual learners as they apply the science of reading. The comments of these teachers raise questions about whether the science of reading is being maximized in ways that benefit all learners.
  3. Students Need Asset-Based, Meaningful Learning
    Advances in neuroscience and psychological and educational research demonstrate the need for teachers to engage the whole child. An emphasis on rigid instructional cycles that decenter the learner leads to literacy instruction that becomes lifeless and devoid of relevance, meaning, and joy.
    Reading is intended to open doors to communication, idea generation, and perspective taking. The science of reading movement has led many teachers to feel pressured to retreat from utilizing instructional methods and strategies designed to leverage learners’ assets, experiences, and knowledge systems (home, community, and school). Doing so leaves teachers and students to operate from a deficit perspective, as learners are not provided the opportunities to make public and utilize what they know and can do. As one teacher described,
    “They came to just read this book that didn’t make any sense to them, and they… had that idea in their mind already, like ‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything’… Rather than getting them excited and helping them realize that they do. They bring a lot to the table. They do know. They do know a lot.”
    This discrepancy in what knowledge and ideas matter for literacy development results in tension for teachers as they make daily decisions between doing what is right for learners (as evidenced by gains in learning, language, and literacy) and staying within the prescribed boundaries for instruction. Teachers’ comments reveal the reality that they experience limited autonomy to apply their knowledge of the students they serve in order to reach the shared literacy goals.

Concluding Thoughts

The research represented by the science of reading (scholarship) makes an important contribution to the knowledge base surrounding the reader’s cognitive processes. However, the picture represented by this research, particularly as the science of reading has been taken up through the media and by politicians, is only one dimension of all that is involved in becoming a literate citizen of the world. Missing from the current conversation are considerations such as the following:

  • Research-driven understandings that reading and becoming literate are additionally a social act, not merely an individual’s cognitive process
  • Insights from research that is inclusive of cross-linguistic phenomena (bilingualism/multilingualism), oracy, and language comprehension
  • Allowance within systems for research that is grounded in alternative and innovative methodologies that bridge between the science of reading and what is known about the emergent bilingual/multilingual learner
  • Feedback and insights from experienced ML teachers who observe both the positive and negative impacts of limiting reading instruction methods and curricula for MLs and their access to high-quality and appropriate instruction

The science of reading movement has been allowed to hijack the more nuanced research base that informs the science
of reading. It also has positioned teaching as a simplistic technical act and teachers as technicians who are expected to implement what has been given to them.

We know teaching is more than that and teachers’ feedback and voices need to be heard. We urge policy makers and practitioners to engage in a critical dialogue which ensures that reading instruction keeps the ultimate goal of education and literacy front and center: “learning to communicate, read, and write as a means of expression to gain knowledge by accessing stories, information, and voices across time and across the world” (National Committee for Effective Literacy, 2022, p. 3; Darling-Hammond et al., 2020).

August, D., and Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Washington, DC.
Budde, C. (2023). “The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners.” Presentation, CCSSO-ELL/ELA Collaborative. Virtual Conference.
Darling-Hammond, L., Flook, L., Cook-Harvey, C., Barron, B., and Osher, D. (2020). “Implications for Educational Practice of the Science of Learning and Development.” Applied Developmental Science, 24(2), 97–140.
Guilamo, A. (2021). “The Science of Reading in Dual Language.” Language Magazine.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) (2017), Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC.
Escamilla, K., Olsen, L., and Slavick, J. (2022). “Toward Comprehensive Effective Literacy Policy and Instruction for English Language Learner/Emergent Bilingual Students.” National Committee for Effective Literacy.
Schwartz, S. (2022). “The ‘Science of Reading’ and English Language Learners: What the research says.” Education Week.

Socorro G. Herrera is a keynote speaker, district consultant, and trainer of trainers, as well as a professor in the College of Education and director of the Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy (CIMA) at Kansas State University. Her K–12 teaching experience includes an emphasis on literacy development, and her research focuses on literacy opportunities with culturally and linguistically diverse students, reading strategies, and domestic and international teacher preparation for diversity in the classroom.

Ester J. de Jong is professor and program leader in the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education program at the University of Colorado Denver. Prior to UC Denver, she was the director of the School of Teaching and Learning and professor in ESOL/bilingual education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. She has published extensively on dual language education and general education teacher preparation for English language learners. Dr. de Jong was president of TESOL International Association (2017–2018).

Both authors want to express a deep-felt thank-you to the three teachers who dialogued with us and helped us understand the realities on the ground. We are grateful for their time and ongoing efforts to engage others in advocating for effective literacy practices for MLs. They wished to remain anonymous for the purpose of this article.

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