Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall III

Margarita Espino Calderón progresses from one language to biliteracy and content in two languages


Nationally, there is a high demand for biliteracy. High-quality biliteracy can be developed in a variety of contexts when curriculum, instruction, and professional learning are carefully crafted and implemented school wide.

To expedite bilingual biliteracy programs, more vocabulary, discourse, reading, and writing are taught across all subjects in both languages. To advance academic success for multilingual learners and all striving readers, the whole school participates in evidence-based learning on how to integrate language and literacy into all core content areas.

High-quality biliteracy means:

There is a balance of time devoted to two languages.

Academic language, foundational reading, reading comprehension, and writing skills are taught in both languages.

Cross-disciplinary instruction (math, science, social studies, and language arts) is in both languages.

Speakers dominant in one language are given timely opportunities to become dominant in two languages.

There is an understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity and equitable instruction.

School leaders value and understand immigrant students, use data to measure progress, and engage families.

All ESL/ELD, special education and core content teachers, coaches, counselors, equity directors, and administrators participate in comprehensive year-long professional development and school-site collaborative learning.

While this article advocates for dual language programming, it is worth noting that in monolingual settings many of the evidence-based features are the same. Both bilingual and monolingual teachers can foster the multilingual learners’ (MLLs’) bilingual/biliteracy development and make visible the value of the home language and culture. With teachers as facilitators, multilingual learners of the same partner language can readily interact, exchange different perspectives, brainstorm ideas, or offer feedback while working on projects. The use of the students’ home language in such structures will enhance opportunities for graduation and a Seal of Biliteracy.

Imagine This School!

The whole faculty, leadership, instructional coaches, and counselors attend the same professional development series of workshops at the school. Each workshop is delivered in English and Spanish. Teachers get to choose in which language to engage.

After each workshop, the on-site coaches and principals shadow the expert coaches as they observe, give feedback, and plan next steps with the teachers—because they themselves are shifting coaching and evaluation practices to fit the new instructional approaches. A monthly session on assessment helps everyone gauge students’ progress. In teacher learning communities, teachers study student performance data and their own coaching summaries. Co-teachers work together on the next steps. Coaches return to coach the co-teachers.

The Research Base on Multilingual Learners’ Success

Empirical studies and reviews/syntheses of the literature have served to develop guidelines for program implementation and instructional practices on literacy or biliteracy in dual language and monolingual classrooms. This article focuses on reading and highlights some examples for vocabulary, discourse, and reading comprehension. Writing and other components are found in Chapter 3 of Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall (Soto et al., 2023).

The Urgency for Change

Regardless of the program and language(s) of instruction, MLLs need reading instruction in all core content areas (math, science, social studies, language arts) in elementary schools. In secondary schools, all core content teachers who have or will have multilingual students must be prepared to integrate academic language, reading comprehension, and writing skills into their math, science, social studies, language arts, Advanced Placement, and STEM classes. 

The Vocabulary and Discourse Connection with Reading

Reading comprehension is anchored with key vocabulary from any text that students are about to read. This is what we know from empirical research:

Vocabulary is a precursor to reading. Words selected to preteach before students read come from books at grade level—basal readers, science and social studies texts, and math problems. STEM projects are ideal because MLLs are pretaught words to read and they use these words repeatedly throughout the lesson. In STEM inquiry, MLLs can use the language of their choice to facilitate discussions, clarify concepts, and anchor concepts. This is followed by attempts to stretch their self-confidence and use those new concepts in English.

Discourse anchors language, literacy, and content. The proverbial “MLLs need to talk more” is often heard but rarely enacted throughout a lesson. Teachers can provide opportunities for partner and team practice of discourse skills during reading and writing. Techniques that enhance reading comprehension and discourse development include verbal summarization after reading each paragraph, formulating questions with peers about the text, discussing characteristics/text structure and written summaries, and verbal retelling or enacting (August and Calderón, 2008; Calderón, 2007). 

Reading expedites word knowledge and discourse in any language. Most textbooks and basal readers select core content words and define them in the glossary. Even so, teachers know that there are more important words to select. Textbooks mostly select what are called Tier 3 words—content-specific words—whereas the words that affect comprehension for MLLs are those that nest content-specific words. These are the words in long sentences, typically called Tier 2 words, and they consist of information-processing words, polysemous words, transition words, cognates, false cognates, idioms, and words for specificity. Tier 1 words are those simple, easy, everyday words that most, but not all, non-MLLs know by second grade.

From Vocabulary to Verbal Discourse

Discourse is spoken or written communication; a formal discussion of a topic in speech or writing; or a conversation, debate, or presentation around a text students read. 

Integrating Discourse into Every Lesson, Home Language, and Translanguaging

Reduce teacher presentation to no more than five minutes and stop to ask students to “Teach your buddy what I just said and use my words.”

After writing part of a math equation on the board, stop and let them teach each other.

During the inquiry part of science, let students discuss at every step.

After relating a historical event or a social studies issue, chunk the content and ask students to summarize what has happened so far or share ideas.

Build content ideas by explicitly saying,

This is the concept;

These are some facts;

These are some claims;

Let’s explore…

Working in teams of four with a mix of English-speaking students and multilingual learners, ask students to talk about:

Different types of graphic organizers for scientific concepts;

Key information from each paragraph;

New ways of solving the math problem;

Team presentations to the class.

Have students use their own background knowledge, culture, personal history, and home languages to:

Design a path for the character who must solve a dilemma;

Set a goal;

Come up with a different ending of a story;

Build a better community.

Bring closure to the learning during each class period by:

Debriefing with open-ended questions;

Having partners summarize for each other what they learned in both languages.

Points to Consider for Developing Literacy or Biliteracy

Literacy for second-language learners. Literacy for MLLs is a comprehensive, multidimensional approach that integrates the speaking, listening, reading, and writing domains. Language and literacy are the link with academic content learning in one or more languages.

The science of reading. Since school districts are moving toward the “science of reading,” the Reading League and the National Committee for Effective Literacy’s joint statement (2023) emphasizes that both literacy development and language development must be attended to for students to comprehend texts. Language and literacy development for MLLs requires more than the “big five” components:phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. These five must be addressed differently for MLLs by integrating a sixth, which is word knowledge and discourse/interaction, and a seventh, which is cultural, social–emotional, and linguistic instructional practices(August et al., 2008).

The science of reading in two languages. For second-language learners, lessons are amplified to include word meaning for all words being introduced, followed by ample oral practice with new words. While the phonemes and the letter–sound correspondences are different between English and Spanish, the process or strategies for decoding are basically the same (e.g., letter recognition, letter–sound correlation, blending in English/syllable recognition in Spanish, word recognition, spelling, word application in own discourse). Knowing where MLLs fall within the dual language foundational reading subcomponents provides insights into reading difficulties or strengths in either language, and into where to focus instruction or extra assistance.

The skills for reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is based on knowing how to decode, but it has its own list of components (e.g., text features, text structures, comprehension strategy, metacognition, executive function). Partner reading with summarization has been shown to be the most effective reading approach for integrating all foundational skills along with speaking, listening, and depth of comprehension. When students read aloud in pairs, alternating sentences, they anchor decoding, develop prosody, and understand sentence structure and punctuation. When MLLs stop after each paragraph and summarize verbally with a peer, they practice the new vocabulary and discourse protocols, comprehend at a deeper level, clarify their thinking, and learn the content.

Foundations of reading for older newcomers and long-term ELs. We must acknowledge in grades 4–12 that newcomers and even other, more advanced MLLs still need foundational skills. Long-term ELs might have missed quality basic reading instruction. Newcomers might never have developed reading skills in their native languages. Without decoding skills, there can be no fluency and much less comprehension as they struggle through large, dense pieces of text in middle and high school. Notwithstanding, the instructional approach to foundational skills (phonics) must be compatible with their ages, educational backgrounds, and types of need (e.g., decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension strategies).

Interrelationship of both languages occurs when the reading subcomponents are taught, compared, and contrasted in both languages. Even the smallest units of reading such as /p/ in English and in Spanish can be practiced when contrasting the phonemes in words such as paper and papel by holding a piece of paper up to their mouths and watching which parts of the words move the paper Besides linguistic features such as affixes, cognates, text features, and structures, critical thinking (generating and testing ideas), author’s craft, writing, editing, revising, and social norms for interacting with others also transfer.

Collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Multilingual learners enjoy listening to themselves and others read for pronunciation and fluency because reading with a buddy makes it a safe environment to take risks. They learn to delve deeper into their own thinking and comprehension by verbally summarizing what they read while getting help from a peer. Working with same-language peers becomes an opportunity for translanguaging as they put together strings of discourse to build comprehension. Equally valuable, heterogeneous grouping is effective when the native Spanish speakers help the native English speakers during reading in Spanish, and the tables turn when it is time to read in English. Collaborating on summaries also gives second-language learners opportunities to practice their new discourse skills and social–emotional competencies or collaborative skills. Whole-class interaction such as debriefing after reading a section provides additional opportunities to anchor both languages and prepare for elaborate writing.

Equity. Equity, in this context, involves giving all students access to excellent teaching and rigorous, rich, relevant learning opportunities in two languages. It means helping students learn as much as possible, building on their strengths and developing their talents and interests as we meet and anticipate their needs along the way. It means helping them develop stronger relationships with their multicultural peers.

The Intersection of Academic Language and Reading Comprehension in Both Languages

The integration of language and literacy continuously adds depth to word knowledge, grammar, comprehension, and the soft skills that help students build confidence, appreciate their own talents and cultures, and collaborate and communicate with peers. The figure on the previous page displays some of the subcomponents of literacy and biliteracy and how social and self-awareness skills and competencies can be developed. They are not in sequential order.

Dual language schools want quality implementation. A dual language–centered professional development design will provide learning opportunities to expand educator expertise in evidence-based learning for MLLs. Educators have effective coaches and scheduled opportunities to learn from colleagues, share successes, and repair common problems of implementation. Teachers are given time and space to test and refine their practice and reflect with others. The time afforded to revise lessons to integrate new practices is not a luxury but a prerequisite to successful delivery. Leadership plays a major role in providing these collaborative structures and solicits feedback from teachers on how to improve their learning spaces. Continuous focused, authentic praise and encouragement is routine for dual language teachers and dual language students.


August, D., and Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

August, D., Beck, I. L., Calderón, M., Francis, D. J., Lesaux, N. K., and Shanahan, T. (2008). “Instruction and Professional Development.” In August, D., and T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing Reading and Writing in Second-Language Learners: Lessons from the Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

August, D., Calderón, M., and Carlo, M. (2001). Transfer of Reading Skills from Spanish to English: A Longitudinal Study of Young Learners. Report ED-98-CO-0071 to the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs, US Department of Education.

Lindholm-Leary K. J. (1995). “Effective Leadership.” In Review of Research and Best Practices on Effective Features of Dual Language Education Programs (pp. 29–32).

Calderón, M. E. (2007). Teaching Reading to English Language Learners, Grades 6–12: A Framework for Improving Achievement in the Content Areas. Corwin Press.

Calderón, M. E. and Tartaglia, L. M., with H. Montenegro. (2023). Cultivating Competence in English Learners: Integrating Social-Emotional Learning with Language and Literacy. Solution Tree.

Cheung, A. C. K., and Slavin, R. E. (2012). “Effective Reading Programs for Spanish-Dominant English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Elementary Grades: A synthesis of research.” Review of Educational Research, 82(4), 351–395.

Hiebert, A., and Kamil, M. (Eds.) (2005). Research and Development on Vocabulary. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Howard, E. R., Lindholm-Leary, K. J., Rogers, D., Olague, N., Medina, J., Kennedy, B., Sugarman, J., and Christian, D. (2018). Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (3rd ed.). Center for Applied Linguistics.

Slavin, R. E., and Calderón, M. (Eds.) (2001). Effective Programs for Latino Students.  Lawrence Erlbaum.

Slavin, R. E., Madden, N. A., Calderón, M. E., Chamberlain, A., and Hennessy, M. (2011). “Reading and Language Outcomes of a Five-Year Randomized Evaluation of Transitional Bilingual Education.”  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(1), 47–58.

The Reading League and the National Committee for Effective Literacy (2023). “Joint Statement: Understanding the Difference: The science of reading and implementation for English learners/emergent bilinguals (ELs/EBs).” Reading League.

Margarita Espino Calderón ([email protected]) is a professor emerita at Johns Hopkins University. Her research centers on evidence-based learning for MLLs and their teachers. She is an international speaker, has over 100 publications, and works with hundreds of awesome teachers and administrators.