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The Science of Reading and English Learners: 3 Takeaways for Policy and Classroom Practice

Young English learners face a two-fold challenge in learning to read.

They need to learn how to map spoken sounds to written letters, the phonics skills that allow them to decode words on the page, just as native English speakers do. But at the same time, they’re also developing new language skills in English—knowledge that’s essential to their ability to understand written text.

How to address these dual priorities was the subject of an Education Week webinar on March 4. Two experts in the field discussed a joint statement, authored by advocates for the science of reading and advocates for English learners, that outlines guiding tenets for classroom practice.

The statement is the result of a sustained, and sometimes challenging, collaboration, said webinar guests Martha Hernandez and Kari Kurto.

Hernandez is the executive director of Californians Together, an organization that supports English learners in California’s schools. Kurto is the director of the National Science of Reading Project at the Reading League, a group that works to advance the understanding and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction.

The document grew out of shared concerns, they said. Some in the English learner community worried that science of reading policy had neglected emergent bilingual students’ specific needs, prioritizing decoding skills at the expense of oral language development. Science of reading advocates wanted to address any misconceptions that the movement was only about phonics—an essential foundational skill for all readers, but not the endpoint of reading instruction generally.

Hernandez and Kurto spoke with Education Week about how the joint statement can inform teaching and assessment, what the groups agree on, and where differences of opinion persist. Read on for three highlights from the conversation.

1. Implications for classroom practice

The joint statement outlines some broad areas of agreement in what classroom practice should look like for young English learners who are learning to read.

Explicit and systematic instruction in foundational skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding, and encoding—are necessary, said Kurto. But they’re not the only components of a comprehensive literacy program. “When we’re reading, we’re reading language. We will only comprehend when that’s language that we know,” she said.

A host of other language and literacy goals are also essential, said Hernandez. For example, English learners need instruction in English language development, vocabulary, content knowledge, and effective expression, she said.

Teachers should leverage students’ home language when possible to make connections to English, she added, and professional development and materials should prioritize English learners’ unique needs—not tack them on as an afterthought.

Exactly how and when to teach phonics—how letter symbols correspond to written sounds—was also a topic of conversation.

Some English learner advocates have argued that phonics instruction has to be embedded in context, said Kurto. This is an approach in which students mainly practice the letter-sound correspondences they struggle with while reading whole texts, rather than learning these correspondences in a systematic and explicit sequence.

“I just have not seen the research to support that,” Kurto said, referencing the idea of favoring this context-based approach. There’s more research to support that phonics skills can be taught in isolation, she said. Still, she added, for children to fully store a word in their long-term memory, it’s essential to also understand the word’s meaning.

2. Identifying students who struggle

Even with well-planned instruction in a whole class setting, some students may need extra support. Identifying these children requires strategic assessment and careful interpretation of data. For English learners, there are additional considerations that teachers should keep in mind, Hernandez and Kurto said.

Some English learners may struggle to read because they have trouble decoding words, while others might not have the English language proficiency to understand what they’re reading, said Hernandez. It’s important that schools and districts train teachers to differentiate between these two issues, she said.

Kurto echoed this point: Just as schools should take a comprehensive approach to literacy learning, they should take a comprehensive approach to data analysis, she said.

“There are just as many students that are speakers of other languages that will struggle with word reading skills, and I think our students deserve that instruction that meets their specific needs,” Kurto said.

Still, she added, culturally and linguistically appropriate assessments for English learners and emergent bilingual students can be hard to find. Kurto referenced resources for planning and choosing assessments collected on the Reading League’s website. The topic will also be featured in sessions at the group’s annual conference this April, she said.

3. Differing perspectives on reading mandates

While the joint statement outlined agreement on instructional best practices, Hernandez and Kurto offered differing perspectives on how to ensure those practices make their way into classrooms.

In California, recently proposed legislation would mandate that elementary teachers take a state-approved training in evidence-based reading methods, and that schools choose reading curricula from a state-approved list. Decoding Dyslexia CA, an organization that aims to support dyslexic students in the state’s schools, championed the measure, along with the advocacy groups EdVoice and Families in Schools.

The bill is similar to science of reading legislation enacted in other states, but if passed, it would represent a stark departure from California’s tradition of local control—allowing districts to make their own decisions about materials and methods.

Californians Together is opposed to the legislation, said Hernandez.

“The state-mandated approach, in our opinion, is not the direction,” she said. “And I think we need to separate the content and the implementation mechanisms proposed by the particular legislation, which we feel are very concerning. We disagree with the way of making this happen.”

“This does not mean that we are opposed to a comprehensive, research-based literacy approach,” she said, adding that guidance on instructional methods should come from the state department of education, rather than legislation.

But Kurto said that mandates are sometimes necessary to effect change.

“With local control, sometimes the only thing to move those really deep-seated knowledge and beliefs that are not aligned with the science of reading is through a mandate or legislation,” she said. “I worked at a state department of education. A lot of folks thought that we had a lot more power than we did—we did not. You can guidance the heck out of people, but sometimes it does take additional efforts.”

For more on early reading best practices for English learners, or to learn about steps that other states are taking to support these students, watch the full webinar here.

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