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English Language Learners and Reading Difficulties

By: Catherine Snow, Susan Burns, Peg Griffin
English language learners are at risk for future reading difficulties for a number of reasons. Here are some factors all teachers of ELLs should know.

When a preschool child's home language is not primarily English, the ease of learning to read printed English is likely to be impeded to some extent, particularly if reading instruction in English begins before the child has acquired oral proficiency in English (see August and Hakuta, 1997).

One difficulty in trying to evaluate the degree of risk associated with limited English proficiency is that cultural as well as linguistic differences are also involved and may introduce other kinds of risk factors.

Many Hispanic children with limited English proficiency also have in common that their parents are poorly educated, that their family income is low, that they reside in communities in which many families are similarly struggling, and that they attend schools with student bodies that are predominantly minority and low achieving.

Not surprisingly, the other factors that have been proposed to explain the typically low levels of academic achievement among Hispanic students include many that have been cited as contributing to the risk factors facing other minority groups, including low socioeconomic status (and its many concomitant conditions), cultural differences between the home and school (e.g., regarding educational values and expectations), sociopolitical factors (including past and ongoing discrimination and low perceived opportunities for minorities), and school quality.

In summary, low English proficiency in a Hispanic child is a strong indication that the child is at risk for reading difficulty. That low reading achievement is a widespread problem among Hispanic students even when they are instructed and tested in Spanish, however, indicates that linguistic differences are not solely responsible for the high degree of risk faced by these children and that the role of co-occurring group risk factors, particularly school quality, home literacy background, and socioeconomic status, must be considered.

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Excerpted from: Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. Editors. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Chapter 4: Predictors of Success and Failure in Reading. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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