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Preventing Difficulties for Low English Proficiency Children

By: Susan Burns, Peg Griffin, Catherine Snow
Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk of reading difficulties. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age.

Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk of reading difficulties. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age.

Many of these children also have parents who are poorly educated, come from low-income families, live in low-income communities, and attend low-achieving schools. With multiple risk factors in place, we can predict that, without excellent instruction, large numbers of these children will be at risk for reading difficulties.

Despite various controversies, considerable evidence suggests that limited or non-English-speaking language learners are generally more likely to become betters readers of English when they receive initial instruction in their native language.

Spoken language must come before written language; it is extremely hard to read a language that still is incomprehensible to the ear. Some language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English, but speaking a different language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers.

These children should be taught the basics of reading in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English, and they should be subsequently taught to extend their first language literary skills to reading in English.

Other language-minority children will arrive at school with no proficiency in English and speak a language for which the above conditions cannot be met--and for which there are insufficient numbers of children to justify the development of the local capacity to meet such conditions.

In this case, the initial instructional priority should be developing the children's oral proficiency in English. Print materials may be used to support the development of English language skills.

But formal reading instructions in English should be postponed until an adequate level of oral proficiency in English has been achieved. Ensuring this proficiency will require extremely rich and well-adapted oral language environments.

In general, non-English speakers in the United States are highly motivated to learn English, but they still require an adequate amount of time and exposure to well-structured input from native speakers to do so.

"Parents need to understand that we are living in a society in which learning English and fostering the native language both are very important. We have parents in our system who may be only concerned with having their children learn English. But they do not understand that a lot of times it is done at the expense of their native language. Often the result is mediocre levels of achievement; many children will not learn how to read or write well solely in English because the language they think in, the language they function in, the language they speak at home is different.

"Native language instruction has to be a part of the learning process. It's simply because, through native language instruction, children are able to communicate their needs, to acquire concepts, to express themselves, to ask questions, and to acquire English. English is the dominant language in America, but we live in a multicultural, multilingual world. There is tremendous benefit in being not only bilingual but also biliterate. In terms of children's futures — in high school, college, and the job market — having a second language is a great asset."

— Carmen DaCosta
Bilingual specialist
Early Childhood Programs
Chicago Public Schools

Excerpted from: Burns, M. S., Griffin, P. & Snow, C. E. (Eds.). (1999). Starting Out Right: A Guide to Promoting Children's Reading Success. Copyright by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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