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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Phonics for Second-Language Learners?

December 3, 2018

Teacher letter:

30% of our children are second-language learners — mainly from Mexico and Central America. The reason that I’m writing is that our school’s RtI program only provides Tier 2 interventions that are aimed at teaching decoding. That means when our 1st and 2nd graders are having trouble in reading (and many of them are), they get more phonics teaching. What do you think of providing so much phonics to Spanish speakers? It makes no sense to me, but no one will listen. 

Shanahan's response:

Great letter!

I, too, have seen this at many schools — and many of my colleagues who specialize in bilingual education tell me that this kind of over-referral of ELLs to phonics and fluency interventions is all-too-common.

But before getting to that, let me challenge your claim that second-language learners don’t need phonics.

That is not the case. English is an alphabetic language and learning to decode is essential — just as it is for native English speakers.

If your students are already literate in Spanish, then they likely don’t need a full-dose of phonics because of the overlaps and transference of these kind of skills from one language to another. Some instruction directed to the differences or to the spelling patterns of sound-symbol relations that aren’t like those in Spanish can be sufficient.

But most of the young ELLs that I observe tend not to already be literate in their home language when they enter school, so some attention to phonics in L1 or L2 or both is recommended.

Research shows that phonics instruction is beneficial for second-language learners (Shanahan & Beck, 2008). However, the effects for such instructional efforts are more modest than those for first-language learners. That means those Spanish speakers whom you are concerned about do benefit from phonics, but the payoffs are smaller than what will be obtained by their native English classmates.

Which brings us back to your question. The reason those effects are smaller is likely due to the fact that phonics helps readers to translate from print to oral language — which is great, unless you don’t yet know the language.

Sounding out words is essential in English but its payoff depends on whether you know the word menings that you have managed to pronounce. Usually young English speakers will know most of the language they are asked to read, so decoding allows them to go from print to pronunciation to meaning.

But for those who don’t know the meanings of those English words, decoding provides pronunciation, but not comprehension. In other words, phonics is a necessary but insufficient condition for reading comprehension.

This is definitely an issue for second language learners, like your students, but it can also be an issue for children whose language is limited by poverty or for the learning disabled whose problems may be linguistic rather than or in addition to orthographic-phonemic.

Recently, Richard Wagner published a series of valuable papers showing the prevalence of reading comprehension problems that were due to language deficiencies in various populations. The percentages of such children were considerable — particularly in the second-language population.

Our question highlights the problem that occurs with Tier 2 programs when they are only aimed at one kind of reading problem.

I certainly sympathize with the teacher or principal who wants to help a student who is struggling to read in Grade 2. His phonics skills may be adequate according to the screening and monitoring measures, but they feel like they have to do something for him. Since the phonics program is the only choice available, that’s where he ends up. Can’t hurt, right?

But, in fact, it can hurt — as phonics does nothing to build English. Schools need to provide more than phonics and fluency support, though those are essential, and children with needs there in the earlier years are likely to predominate. But boys and girls whose deficiency is more linguistic than phonemic-orthographic need help as well; and this is especially likely among children who are just learning English.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald