Teaching English Language Learners to Read
In classrooms around the country, teachers need to teach reading to children who don't speak English, and they haven't been trained. Experts Diane August, Margarita Calderón, and Fred Genesee discuss the best research-based practices for teaching English language learners.
For this webcast:
- Program description
- PowerPoint presentation (accompanies webcast)
- Recommended resources
- Discussion questions
This webcast is made possible by AFT Teachers, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, as part of a Colorín Colorado partnership between AFT and Reading Rockets.
In classrooms around the country, teachers need to teach reading to children who don't speak English, and they haven't been trained. For this webcast, we brought you three members of the panel who shared their expertise as independent researchers in the area of second language acquisition.
This webcast was produced by Reading Rockets in partnership with the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), the National Education Association (NEA), the International Reading Association (IRA), and the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE). Funding for this teleconference was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education.
Diane August is a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Applied Linguistics.
Margarita Calderón is a Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University, Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR).
Fred Genesee is a Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
Delia Pompa is the moderator of this webcast. She is the Vice President of the Center for Community Educational Excellence, at the National Council of La Raza.
- Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades (IES Practice Guide, U.S. Department of Education)
- The difference between social and academic English
- Selecting vocabulary words to teach English language learners
- Reading comprehension strategies for content learning
- Using cognates to develop comprehension in English
- Cooperative learning strategies
- Identifying language and academic needs for program placement
If you currently teach English language learners (ELLs) you may find the following downloads useful:
- ELL Starter Kit for Educators — Tools for Monitoring Language Skills.
- Colorín Colorado — AFT Toolkit for Teachers — Reaching out to Hispanic parents of ELLs.)
- Multilingual reading tips for parents — Available in 12 languages!
- How does your school district assess language proficiency of incoming ELL students? Is social proficiency assessed differently from academic proficiency?
- In your own words, describe the difference between word-level skill and text-level skill attainment for ELL students. Then, describe specific things teachers can do to increase ELL students' text-level skills.
- Consider a read aloud you recently used. What vocabulary or concepts were presented in the book that could cause confusion for ELL learners? What could you do to scaffold the read aloud experience that would benefit ELL learners?
- Compare and contrast the teaching of comprehension strategies to ELL students and to native English speakers.
- Create a list of teaching behaviors that could promote comprehension skill development for ELL students.
Delia Pompa: Hello. Welcome to this year's final show in the Reading Rockets teleconference series, Achieving Success in Reading. Today, we're going to be talking about teaching English language learners to read. In classrooms across the country, teachers need to teach reading to children who don't speak English, but most of our teachers have not been trained to do this.
Today, we have three independent researchers. Dr. Diane August is a senior research scientist for the Center for Applied Linguistics. Dr. Margarita Calderón is a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Fred Genesee is a professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. And we have teachers, administrators, special education professionals, and parents. Later in the program, we will take questions from the audience and open the phone lines to viewers in this country and Canada. Thank you all for joining us.
Diane, why is teaching English language learners so hot these days?
Dr. August: Well, I think it's a hot topic for several reasons. First, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of English language learners in the United States, especially in the last ten years or so. So, I think lots of parts of the country that didn't have large numbers of English language learners before now are experiencing these children in their classrooms. So, that's one issue.
But the other is the No Child Left Behind Act. It is an act that has some very strong accountability provisions that require all children within the next, well, 12 years to reach standards in reading. And for the first time, the assessment data has to be disaggregated by English language proficiency status. So, schools are very aware now of the strengths and academic weaknesses of their English language learners, and schools will be held accountable for making sure these children meet standards.
Delia Pompa: Well, given that as a base, what do we know about the characteristics of these learners that might affect our work with them?
Dr. August: Well, I think one very important thing to keep in mind is it's a very diverse population. But the label "English language learner" encompasses lots of different kinds of children. For example, although most of the children are at the elementary school level, there are substantial numbers of children both at the middle and secondary school level. Though about 70 percent of them come from Spanish-speaking homes, there are also children from other first language backgrounds.
In addition, children come to school with very different literacy and language skills in their first language, which impacts their ability in the second language. For example, some children come to school literate in their first language, and these skills can really transfer to literacy acquisition in their second language. Some kids come to school with very well-developed oral language proficiency in their first language. This also positively impacting their ability to become literate in English. Children come to school with different levels of English oral language proficiency.
Some children who are a language minority and English learners actually have been born and raised in the United States, so they have experienced a context wherein English is spoken all around them. Other children come to the U.S. and start school as soon as they arrive here, so they have not been in an English-speaking context before. So, there are many different factors that differentiate these children, and I think it's a real mistake to think of English language learners as one population of children.
Delia Pompa: I know you have been doing a lot of work on vocabulary development in the second language. What role does that play in teaching the children to read as they acquire a second language?
Dr. August: Vocabulary is critical and, unfortunately, it's been neglected. For example, in research, I'm a member of, and principal investigator for, the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth. Since 1980, there have been three quasi-experimental studies focusing on helping English language learners develop vocabulary in English. This is quite amazing, because vocabulary plays such a critical role in reading comprehension. Children can manage without knowing a few words in a task, but as soon as they don't know more than a few words, they really have issues with comprehending that text. So, vocabulary plays a critical role in reading comprehension, and it's something we need more research on – and something we need to explicitly teach.
Delia Pompa: Is that research helping you find out what instructional practices work best with these children, and what would those be?
Dr. August: This is again a very long answer. It's a very broad question. As part of the National Literacy Panel, we have reviewed all the research on practices that work for English language learners. The first thing I should tell you is that there are 18 studies in all that look at the development of component skills of literacy. When you compare this with the 400 studies that are cited in the National Reading Panel report, you can see what a need we have for more research in this area. But I can tell you these 18 studies tell us that working on component skills of literacy is very important. And by the component skills of literacy, I mean phonological awareness, word reading, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension – things like this. It's very important to target these skills.
We also found that you can really build on first-language reading research, but you really have to make modifications in that research to make sure that the techniques work with English language learners. With many of the studies that we have located, the practices build on effective practices for English language learners, but there are modifications in these practices to make sure they are effective with English language learners. And I could give you a couple of examples.
Delia Pompa: If you could give us one, and then we will move on. But give us one example right now.
Dr. August: Well, one example. If we are talking about vocabulary in the way of comprehension, you can't just sit an English language learner down with a chapter in a book, or three or four pages, and expect them to read through these and understand. You need to pre-teach some of the vocabulary. You need to scaffold the reading of the text with the children, asking frequent questions to make sure that they understand what the text is about. Those are some examples.
Delia Pompa: Diane, it seems like we know a lot about what it takes. What do we need to do to implement these pieces of research that we've found and all the components of reading?
Dr. August: Yes. This is also a very complicated question, given the amount of research we have in this area. I think it's very important to use research-based practices, so, again, we need a lot more good research in this area. Given that, I think professional development is extremely important. Teachers need to understand the theory that drives whatever intervention they're implementing.
I think having materials in the classroom is very, very important; because, quite frankly, I don't think professional development alone does it. I think teachers need something to work with. I think it's very important for teachers to pay attention to how whatever programs and practices they're using in the classroom work for these children.
Assessment is critical. You can't assume that because something is "research based" it's going to work for the children in your particular classroom. So, teachers need to attend to, "Is this working?" And if it's not working, they need to really think about why it's not working and what they can do to make improvements in whatever strategies they are using.
So, professional development and careful monitoring of student practice.--
Delia Pompa: Fred, Diane has given us a lot of ideas about what teachers need to be doing – ideas – and different approaches and the whole panoply of solutions teachers need to look at. Are there advantages or risks to different approaches that teachers should know about?
Dr. Genesee: I would have to say yes. It's hard to answer without a specific approach in mind; but, in effect, good teachers need a repertoire of instructional strategies to use when working with English language learners. This is true for native English speakers. It's particularly true for teachers working with English language learners, because, as Diane said, the children come to school with very different cultural backgrounds and first-language skills, and very different levels of literacy in the first or second language; and teachers need to be able to tailor their instruction to respond to those individual needs.
There's another feature of working with these children which classroom teachers working with English-speaking children don't have to deal with. They can come in at any grade level – grade five, six, secondary school – and some of them present a particular challenge, calling for specific kinds of instructional strategies.
Delia Pompa: Is there reliable research that tells us about how children learn to read in a second language? And, what may be some of that research that teachers would need to know about how children learn to read in a second language?
Dr. Genesee: The National Literacy Panel, which Diane referred to, is really the first serious attempt to look at the research in a very comprehensive way. And one of the driving questions is the question as to whether reading in a second language is the same as reading in the first language and, if there are differences, how do we respond to those differences? So it would probably be premature for me to say on behalf of the panel what the findings are. But it's my sense it would be interesting to see what Diane says as a researcher, that there's a lot of converging evidence that learning to read in a second language is very similar to the first language insofar as the underlying cognitive and skills are involved. The same component skills important in the first language like: phonological awareness, ability to name letters, vocabulary knowledge, how you use context to figure out the meaning of words– these are all foundation skills that children need, whether reading in a first or second language.
But you always have to filter what might be regarded as a kind of almost universal processes of language acquisition, reading acquisition, through the filters the kids bring, which are the cultural and linguistic differences.
Delia Pompa: Margarita, what role does the native language play in the students' learning to read in the second language?
Dr. Calderón: Again, going back to the preliminary findings of the Panel, it plays a major role. Learning to read in the primary language definitely helps students learn to read in the second language. But, again, it depends on how well a program is structured and the development of a program, as well as a very solid research-based transition into English reading that is critical. I think that is one of the biggest hurdles we need to deal with in schools – how do we develop reading in the primary language so that it is very effective, very comprehensive? And it's very much what they have mentioned already. It's all the different components.
Even reading in Spanish, for example, has to have a lot of phonemic and phonological awareness, word knowledge – everything Diane mentioned about vocabulary learning. If it does not take place in the primary language, it will be very difficult for the children to transfer a lot of concepts and word knowledge into English reading.
Delia Pompa: Do we know what aspects of learning to read in a first language carry over to the second language? Diane, you look like you have an answer.
Dr. August: We are doing a lot of research funded through the National Institutes for Child Health and Development and Institute for Educational Sciences, Office of English Language Acquisition, we have done a longitudinal study from the end of second grade through the end of fifth grade, looking at children who were instructed first in their native language, which happened to be Spanish, and then into English-only instruction to see what components transferred from the first to the second language. And we found that, regardless of whether they were instructed in English or Spanish, phonological awareness skills transferred from the first to second language. But for skills like word reading and experience to transfer, children need to be instructed in Spanish first. So, language of instruction plays a major role in transfer. Even though all these children were from Spanish-speaking homes, children had to be instructed first in Spanish for the skills to transfer.
But I also wanted to say something in response to one of your previous questions about issues related to implementing effective programs and practices for English language learners. And I think we can't forget how important resources are in making sure we have sound programs for these programs. And I say that because children entering kindergarten who are very limited English-proficient and from poor families, for example, really need a lot of support to master English literacy. They need extra time in school. They need to be with a teacher who really is well trained, so that they know how to scaffold instruction. They need to be in a small enough group so that the teacher can respond to the needs of these children. And this we will not have unless we have sufficient resources. It's not just a matter of research.
Delia Pompa: You know, this segment has had lots of interest. Not to put you all on the spot or anything, but teachers were waiting for this particular segment, and one question we had was how often should a teacher correct a second-language mistake that students make, and how does that fit into instruction and reading?
Dr. Genesee: Well, this is a question that comes up frequently in all forms of second-language education, whether it's a bilingual or emerging program, or certainly when you're teaching literacy. We are coming from a period where a lot of people felt we shouldn't provide correction; but now thinking is changing a little to the point where people believe at certain times correction is appropriate, because there are technical aspects of the language. Spelling is a good example, also vocabulary – how you organize text for a science report or a narrative.
This is all knowledge that is in many cases acquired more easily if you are told explicitly how to do it and if you are corrected when you don't do it correctly. So, I think if correction has a goal in mind and is also done in the broader context of literacy, it can be very effective.
But, obviously, one has to use it judiciously; because if you over-correct, you will turn students off.
Delia Pompa: Another topic is children with learning disabilities who are learning a second language. Are there special considerations for these English language learners, who also have a disability?
Dr. Genesee: I can say I think you have to be really careful before you label a child "learning disabled." The child needs to be provided with really sound, effective instruction and be monitored carefully, because a lot of children labeled learning disabled have not been instructed properly. So, it's very important to discriminate between the children who have not received proper instruction and those who really have a learning disability.
Dr. Genesee: Yes. And if I could add, the terms "learning disabled" and "learning disability" are, I think, really overused. You don't just see it in the schools, but in the research literature. Often, researchers distinguish between "normal," or typical children and then those with learning disabilities. This is probably a very heterogeneous group, and I can think of at least three groups within the larger group that you should distinguish among: children who are having trouble learning because of trouble with language impairment, or with a reading disability, or those having difficulty learning because they actually have a cognitive or intellectual problem. And before you can actually work with these children effectively, you have to actually make a correct sort of assessment.
Delia Pompa: Acknowledging the difficulty in diagnosing these children, what special considerations would you have to consider, would you have to take into account, once you start actually knowing what issues the children face are? And, what would you do in the classroom?
Dr. Genesee: Well, if it's a child with – I'll start the ball rolling and see if there's something specific. If you have a child who seems to have a language impairment – has trouble learning language – first of all, it would show with difficulty both in the first and second language.
First of all, it's important to realize these children are capable of learning a second language within the limits they have. In other words, being language-impaired does not mean you can't learn a second language to a high level of proficiency, but there will be limits. So, you want to give these kinds of children particular attention, individualize their instruction to give them more enrichment and more opportunities to practice the language more, and so on. Otherwise, within that, children with language impairment should be getting the same kind of programming as other children and shouldn't be given less – because they really need more. And by giving them less, we are making their impairment a reality.
Dr. August: And another issue, when people see a child as an English language learner, they tend not to diagnose them as learning-disabled. So, proper diagnosis is important, but so are services for this population of students.
Dr. Calderón And I think it's particularly important for older English language learners, children coming into the upper elementary or middle school, or even high school. They're labeled learning disabled too early without looking into their background and seeing what is lacking in either vocabulary or some of the basic reading skills. So, it's important to have a very thorough process for diagnosing those three areas that Fred mentioned.
Otherwise, they may be either placed too quickly into a category, or not placed at all.
Delia Pompa: So many things to think about, but right now, let's meet K.B. Lee, a kindergarten teacher in California, who has the task of teaching children speaking several different languages. Let's watch as he introduces them to new letters and sounds.
Narrator: The Mark Hopkins school is at the center of Sacramento's large Hmong community. K.B. Lee has been teaching here since 1996.
Mr. Lee: One of the reasons I chose Mark Hopkins to come and work is because of the diversity in the community. We have English speaking students, Hmong speaking students, Spanish, Hindi, Tongan. It's like a bowl of salad with everything mixed together.
Narrator: With so many of his kindergartners speaking foreign languages at home, Mr. Lee works extra hard to teach reading in English.
Mr. Lee: We need Leo to help us, he's coming to look at who is ready. Now, Leo has a problem. He wants to say a word but he keeps forgetting a sound – a sound at the end. Leo wants to get some ice cream.??
Narrator: Experts say kindergarten teachers should help their students achieve phonemic awareness, the realization that within a word are individual sounds, or phonemes.
Mr. Lee: "I want to sing about ice crea-" What sound did he forget? Very good. So the next one, another word. The stars so bright. The stars so bright.
Narrator: Being able to hear the sounds inside a word is just one step down the path towards reading.
Mr. Lee: "A big glass of mil-" – what's the sound?
Narrator: A child must also learn which letters go with which sounds – phonics, in other words.
Mr. Lee: We are going to do letters, pictures and sounds. Ready? Letter, picture, sound.
[Students respond ]
Narrator: Even in kindergarten, an important ingredient is assessment.
Dr. Edward Kame'enui: We don't want to start in September and wait until June to get a sense of whether or not we are successful. We want to see how we are doing in the middle of September, end of September, beginning of November– every month we want to see if the interventions are effective for kids, and we can't do that without progress-monitoring systems.
Mr. Lee: Samuel, show me the front of the book.
Narrator: Mr. Lee regularly measures each student's progress. Today, it's Samuel's turn.
Mr. Lee: Show me the title of the book. Good. I will show you letters. You tell me the name of the letter. Okay?
Mr. Lee: "T" – good.
Mr. Lee: Good.
How about this one?
Mr. Lee: Right now, he is low in terms of reading, letter recognition.
Mr. Lee [to student]: Listen: door, floor. Sound the same? Good.
Mr. Lee: But he should come up.
Mr. Lee [to student]: How about mix, shoes?
Narrator: Hearing a rhyme requires phonemic awareness, and these quick tests tell Mr. Lee which skills need to be boosted. Help is offered to the bottom fifth of students.
Mr. Lee [to student]: Can you write your first name and last name for Mr. Lee?
Mr. Lee: Most – or, in fact, almost all – of my students at the beginning of the year do not know anything. And at the end of the year, I have the feeling I have done something good with them. They just blossom.
Mr. Lee [to student]: Good. Keep going.
Mr. Lee: Even those who don't speak English, so I feel real good about that.
Mr. Lee [to student]: Very good, Samuel.
Narrator: K.B. Lee is leading his students on one of the most important journeys of their lives. His last stop today is bringing together phonemic awareness and letter-sound correspondence. Almost all of Mr. Lee's kids are on track for becoming readers.
Mr. Lee [to student]: What sound? Well, help me.
Narrator: Did you know we have a Web site especially for Spanish-speaking parents and educators? It's ColorinColorado.org, teaching English language learners to read. We'd like to remind you that we will be taking your calls shortly. Our toll-free number is 1-888-493-9382.
Delia Pompa: Welcome back, and thank you for joining us for this Reading Rockets teleconference. With us in the WETA studio in Washington, D.C., are panelists: Dr. Diane August, Dr. Margarita Calderón and Dr. Fred Genesee. We also we have an audience of teachers, administrators, special education professionals and parents.
Dr. Margarita Calderón is a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk at Johns Hopkins University. Margarita, I'm sure you have seen many classrooms as we just saw.
What teacher preparation and knowledge are required to ensure success in these kinds of classrooms?
Dr. Calderón: Extensive teacher preparation, a lot of staff development days; but also follow-up in the classroom. Teachers who are learning to combine not just effective reading practices, but also second language teaching and learning practices, need a lot of extensive practice themselves. They need to see some demonstrations in the classrooms. They need support afterwards to make sure that they're doing this accordingly.
What we noticed in this videotape is that this teacher was also doing some very meticulous assessments. So, it's not just a matter of learning strategies– teaching strategies– but also learning the implications of the assessments, learning how to improve their practice continuously and to adapt it to the children, the population that they have. This was a wonderful example of a kindergarten classroom, but if we think about middle school children, immigrant children, newcomers, who are also in need of phonemic awareness, you would not do a train, or you would not have a puppet; but, rather, a teacher would need to be very sensitive about how to teach phonemic awareness, which will be critical to the coding, word knowledge, fluency, comprehension and everything that goes along with the rest of the reading train.
And so for that, middle school teachers and high school teachers are, perhaps, the ones most in need of extensive staff development practices, very comprehensive programs where they are learning something that they may never have had in a teacher preparation program.
Delia Pompa: How do we train all these teachers across all the levels? What are the vehicles we can use to train them?
Dr. Calderón: Differentiated staff development, definitely, for elementary teachers; programs that demonstrate and use approaches for elementary middle and high school; and differentiated staff development. But staff development is not just the little bag of tricks for Monday morning; but, rather, what does the research base say? What is the theory behind these practices? The teachers need to internalize the rationale, the purpose for doing one thing versus another.
Like Fred said, there've been some myths and, perhaps, some things that we have done in the past; but as we grow more knowledgeable about the field, we need to bring these practices into the classroom. But teachers cannot teach what they have not been taught, so it's a matter of doing massive staff development in all the schools at all levels. Every teacher is new to what we are talking about here – every, single teacher. ESL teachers need to learn more about reading. Reading teachers need to know about second language practices. Bilingual teachers need to learn how to incorporate everything that we've learned into teaching Spanish, or whatever the primary language is. And so it's massive training all around.
Delia Pompa: Let's say we had a magic wand and all the teachers were trained already. Once that is taken care of, how do schools find the best strategies that teachers can implement in working with English language learners?
Dr. Calderón: I can think of one example, which I think is a wonderful example, of a school district where the superintendent organized a learning community. The superintendent's staff is doing a lot of research themselves, and they had to look for the appropriate approaches to meet the needs of their schools, and the principals were involved.
So, they have set up smaller learning communities throughout the district and in the school for continuous study, discovering what works and what might not work. And so this terrific school district in Kauai, of all places, has really approached learning about second language learners through their own particular study; and in that inquiry and discovery process, that's where everything begins to fall into place. But everyone has to be involved, including the principals. We cannot leave this for teachers alone. It's no longer just something that a teacher can do; but, rather, what is the whole district doing? What are the administrators learning?
Delia Pompa: So, it's a mission of self-discovery, it sounds like. What advice do you have for rural schools that may just be starting to serve English language learners. What are some teaching strategies to use?
Dr. Calderón: There should be a comprehensive reading program, but also we've learned a lot about second language learning, and sheltered language instruction, which I think Fred can talk about this a little more. There are very specific strategies mainstream teachers can use in their classrooms when they have a few students, and it helps all the students. It's not just those two or three; but, rather, through these instructional approaches with a lot of hands-on examples, all children learn.
Delia Pompa: Let's turn to the Spanish-speaking population, which, as you know, makes up almost 80 percent of the English language learners in this country.
Diane, for those children whose first language is Spanish, are there particular approaches that might be useful?
Dr. August: Well, I think that for children whose first language is Spanish and who are literate in Spanish, a very important thing is to make children aware that they have a lot of word knowledge in their first language that they can transfer to their second language. That is, there are many words, called cognates, where the meaning of the word is the same and the way the word looks is the same from, say, Spanish to English. Helping kids take advantage of all this knowledge they have in their first language and apply it to their second language would be an important thing to do.
And I don't think people realize how many cognates there are between Spanish and English. One-third of all English words are cognates with Spanish – from 10,000 to 15,000 words. What's even more interesting is many of these words are low-frequency words in English, so they are words people would consider SAT-type words. But they are high-frequency words in Spanish that people use every day.
An intervention right now we are working on is funded through the National Institute of Child Health and Development. Its intent is to help literate children in Spanish transfer their knowledge from their first to their second language and make them aware that they have this rich base that they can build on. So, again, this is research funded by NICHD and the Institute for Educational Sciences, intended to help kids build on this cognate knowledge.
Dr. Calderón And along the lines of teacher development, what we are finding in the NICHD and other studies is that teachers need to be very deliberate in pointing out what a cognate is. Sometimes, even the youngest children have difficulty figuring out that president and presidente are cognates.
So, when the teacher can explicitly point out simple things like that, or that there are differences in the way we pronounce the "r" in English and in Spanish – those are the tiny subtleties that are also important for teachers to know, so that they can help ease the transition and help children capitalize on their primary language.
Dr. Genesee: And the research shows that English language learners who are good readers in both Spanish and in English use the same strategies and have a conscious awareness of these transfer effects of these cross-linguistic relationships. Whereas, students who are poor language learners and poor readers in Spanish, don't see the connections between the languages – not in the oral or written form. When you actually provide interventions which help these students see this connection, they actually start to benefit from this.
Dr. August: And I can add that to understand what one's reading, one really needs an understanding of the concepts that are embedded in the print. So, it's not just a matter of being able to decode the words in English or of having the English labels. One has to really understand what one is reading. And this kind of conceptual knowledge, this background knowledge, this content knowledge is knowledge that can easily be developed in children's first languages. I mean, therein lies a lot of value in providing children content knowledge in their native language as they are acquiring proficiency in English – because without this background knowledge, this content knowledge, even with being able to decode the words or understand what the words mean in sort of pieces, you cannot put the picture together.
Dr. Genesee: Building on what Diane is saying, when we work with native English speakers, teaching them to read, we assume we need to start with what they know as a jumping-off point; so we embed literacy instruction in the experiences these children bring to school with them. We need to be consciously aware of doing that with English language learners, too. They won't have the same kinds of experiences as native English speakers, though one has to be careful because some English language learners have similar experiences. The teachers need to connect with the students on the level of their experiences. The teacher on the video should be introducing words they are likely to know already and helping them to break the words down.
Delia Pompa: That's an interesting point some of the viewers may have asked. Are there environmental factors that might affect some native Spanish speakers' ability to read or write in English, that affect Spanish speakers as a group, perhaps?
Dr. August: Environmental influences?
Delia Pompa: Factors like poverty, or level of education of parents, or those kinds of factors.
Dr. Genesee: Well, the research is quite clear in showing that, first of all, if children come to school and they are already literate in their first language, most teachers will tell you, it's much easier to teach them to read and write in English. If they emigrate from Mexico, for example, from a solid school, and they are nine or ten years of age, and come to the school in the United States, if they can read in Spanish. Then, teaching them to read in English is quite straightforward.
But students who live in the United States and grow up in a Spanish-speaking at home, they may have literacy experiences. But many children grew up in families where the parents are not literate, or they are so busy earning a living, they are not sharing those literacy experiences with the children. These children don't bring such literacy benefits to school with them, so it's useful to know what is going on with the family.
And as far as the disability issue, the child may seem to have a disability, but there may have been a literacy impoverishment for that child.
Dr. August: And while children are gaining literacy in English, providing them access to content in their native language is a way to help them develop the content knowledge they need to make sense of the English they are reading.
I'm quite concerned, actually, about some aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act; because I think if one focuses just on discrete skills in reading, for example, and reading narrative text and math, and the kids don't have an opportunity to learn content in other subjects, it's going to really impact their ability to comprehend what they're reading. So, again, there's the importance of providing children access to rich content in a language in which they understand the content.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's very important to provide these children with the skills they need to become literate in English, and I don't propose we wait a long time to do this. One needs to provide systematic instruction in English reading from a fairly early age and really build these kids' abilities to access English content. It's critically important.
Delia Pompa: Margarita?
Dr. Calderón: I was going to add that it's also very important if the children are starting out to read in the primary language – say, in Spanish – that they are in this program long enough to build those reading comprehension skills and other skills that, if they're going to transfer them, they have to be developed. I think what happens too often is they get only a small dose of decoding and the rest, and most important reading skills are left out of the primary language instruction program. Therefore, when the children are transferred into English reading, they are expected to have all of these other skills, and maybe they don't because they were not there long enough to develop them.
But I agree with Diane. Unless the English is being developed also, systematically from an early stage, we may wind up with children whom many schools think are unable to transition into the fourth or fifth grade. And that is a little late. When the children get to middle school, it's very difficult for them to pick up all those dense texts and be able to read and tackle the content, because their reading in English is not developed as far as it should be.
Delia Pompa: The connections with what happens in the home and then in school are very important, beginning in early childhood. Let's meet a scientist who has been studying infants' amazing ability to distinguish subtle differences in speech sounds.
[Speaking various languages]
Narrator: The human voice can produce at least 150 different speech sounds, or phonemes, and English uses only about 40 of these sounds.
[Speaking various languages]
Dr. Werker: Thank you again for coming in. We really appreciate it.
Narrator: Psychologist Dr. Janet Werker wants to know how babies learn to distinguish speech sounds of their native language.
Dr. Werker: Babies, like adults, are interested in new information. So when they hear something that's different from what they've been hearing, their interest perks up. You can measure that in a number of ways – sucking pattern or looking time, or even through something like a head turn.
Narrator: Werker trains babies to turn their heads whenever they hear a change in sound by rewarding them with a view of a musical bunny. Babies are turning their heads the moment they hear a change, anticipating the bunny. Headphones prevent the adults from hearing the speech sounds and accidentally cuing the baby. Werker can now find out if this 6-month-old can hear the difference between two English sounds. Keeping the baby engaged, phonemes are played over a speaker.
Voice: Da, da, da. Ba.
Narrator: This baby can hear the difference between "B" and "D". In fact, even newborns can tell them apart.
Dr. Werker: Look!
Narrator: Next, Werker tests if the baby can distinguish another pair of sounds.
The phoneme will change from one kind of "D" to another. The two sound distinct to speakers of Hindi, but adults who speak only English can't hear the difference.
Voice: Da, da, da, DAO.
Narrator: The baby hears the difference between the two sounds, one of which she has never heard before. By the age of 10 to 12 months, infants not regularly exposed to Hindi lose the ability to distinguish these sounds.
Voice: Da, da, da, DAO.
Narrator: 12-month-old babies have already become specialists in their native language. We now know that even in very young children, the ability to hear language is highly developed. For parents of future readers, Workers' research has an important message.
Dr. Werker: As a parent, when you are talking to your infant, you are not just having a wonderful time and setting up a great emotional relationship. You may be providing them with essential information for them to become accomplished readers several years later.
Narrator: Nobody wants to give up on a struggling reader. Now, nobody has to. Whether you are an educator, parent or someone who just cares about kids, check out readingrockets.org, the definitive resource for teaching kids to read, another great production of WETA, Washington, D.C.
We remind you, we will be taking your calls shortly.
Delia Pompa: Welcome back, and thank you once again for joining the Reading Rockets teleconference. We'll be taking your calls shortly.
Dr. Fred Genesee is Professor of Psychology at McGill University. He has done extensive work in total immersion, and simultaneous acquisition of two languages. Fred, let's take a few steps back. Can these students really learn to read English if they can't speak the language?
Dr. Genesee: There's a lot of progress you can make with English language learners before they are proficient in the oral language. So, you can lay the foundations for later literacy. We focus a lot up until now on phonological and phonemic awareness, early vocabulary development, teaching children the name of letters and so on, and the correspondence between how a letter looks and how it sounds, corresponds to that letter. Those are skills that actually can be taught before children have very high levels of oral proficiency.
I think it's important though, and most good teachers know this, because most of them start with those kinds of skills early on. But at the same time, they need to be laying the foundations for more advanced levels of kinds of reading. So, as the children get older, these kinds of foundational skills will not be enough, and they will need to be able to understand words in context. They have to understand complex grammatical structures. Those kinds of reading skills, the more advanced ones, do require more advanced levels of language proficiency. But in the beginning, you can build a bit of progress in teaching reading and, in fact, reading can be the basis for oral language development.
Delia Pompa: What can teachers take away from that for reading instruction for their practices?
Dr. Genesee: My opinion would be two things. One, they need to start small. Start on the small pieces from the very beginning. And then the other one is at the same time, there should always be this background of a more contextualized reading and writing. As you focus on the small pieces, embed that in reading and writing activities which are probably beyond the students at that point, but they will become important later on.
It's really what I was saying before. The task of teaching reading is complex, because teachers need to do several things at the same time.
But what they're focusing on at any point depends on what stage the learner is at.
Delia Pompa: You have focused much of the work of the last several years on language acquisition. Can you tell the audience the different ways in which a child may acquire a second language?
Dr. Genesee: There's lots of ways. And especially young language learners, like the children in this videotape, preschool children, but even early school-aged children can't help but learn language. It's almost impossible to prevent a child from learning language.
It's sort of interesting to reflect on how much difficulty we have teaching a language. Children learn a lot of language from one another. And at some point, it's very, very important that English language learners have contact with other native speakers – but native speakers of English who are the same age. That will help them acquire the kinds of social language skills for interaction and social survival.
At the same time, exposure to native language speakers is not enough. They need to be exposed to more mature language learners, like teachers and older students, who can provide models of a literate language. By that, I don't mean just the ability to read and write, but the ability to use oral language in ways that are like literacy. Because it's really that kind of oral language proficiency that ultimately is very important in academic settings. We have to take English language learners and native speakers from where they start, which is with proficiency in social uses of language, to proficiency in uses of the language for academic purposes.
Delia Pompa: Does the way a child learns a second language impact his success as a reader or academic achievement?
Dr. Genesee: No doubt that children learning a second language such as English to a high degree before they come to school – they definitely have an advantage in learning to read and write in English. But that's not enough. They need to be taken beyond these social uses of language to the use of language for reading, for writing, for talking about complex material. So, children who have learned English as a second language not just intensively, but in the context of talking about complex ideas or making an argument for or against something – these children have an additional advantage, because they are already beginning to learn some really critical components of literacy.
Delia Pompa: The question you must get 25 times a week: how long does it take for an immigrant child to learn English?
Dr. Genesee: It depends on what kind of English language proficiency you are talking about. One of the things I think we have learned about language is it's not a single thing. So say someone is proficient, you have to qualify it by saying in what way. Virtually all children can become proficient in the oral uses of English, and they can do it relatively quickly – but not as quickly as we think. One of the myths is that children soak up English as a sponge, and it sort of happens overnight, but it is not true.
In a study in Alberta, Canada, young English language learners surrounded by other English speakers, she's looking at oral development. And even after two years of exposure, they have not mastered basic grammatical rules and are making mistakes with tense, pronoun use and so on. They are highly communicative, but it's not because their language is advanced, but because they have developed strategies for communicating which don't rely on oral language.
The situation becomes more complex when you ask, how long does it take for them to acquire the language skills they need to use in school?
There's a lot of evidence suggesting between five and seven years. If you monitor the language proficiency of English language learners on things like reading tests, you will find they do not start to score at the levels of native speakers often until grades five, six or seven. And one of the reasons is that the language in schooling is not entirely natural. It's something you have to learn and be taught, and it takes longer than learning through social communication.
Delia Pompa: Margarita, it seems we know a lot about how we learn language, how kids learn to read. But there seem to be a lot of misconceptions still floating around. What misconceptions do people continue to have?
Dr. Calderón: I think one of them is that it's just some really basic phonics and not – not a comprehensive program. That's one thing. But the other misconception that we hear is that children cannot learn to read in two languages simultaneously. And we have looked at some studies through the panel, and also through some of our CRESPAR studies where children are learning to read in what we call 50-50 programs, or paired programs, where they learn both languages.
Now, these programs are very carefully orchestrated, so that the teachers are addressing all the different issues of the two language structures. The longitudinal results have shown that the children in the 50-50 program, in comparison to transitional and to the average district achievement in reading, have done extensively better. But when you stop and analyze the programs and the staff development process that went on, all of these factors contribute to saying, yes, children can be very successful learning to read in two languages.
And I think many of us did the same thing. I think there's a lot of us walking around out there in the world and that experienced this. But unless it's carefully orchestrated, it will take a little bit longer.
Delia Pompa: You're the resident Canadian expert. We have heard so much about the Canadian immersion model, and people have tried to export it. Can you tell us how the model worked and what happened in the United States when we tried to implement it? What was different?
And, Diane, I would love for you to jump in, too, because I know you have experience with this.
Dr. Genesee: This is an interesting phenomenon, because the word "immersion" is being used in very different ways in Canada and the United States, and I'm going to give a definition. "Immersion" in Canada is used to teach French as a second language to native English-speaking children, and these programs were initiated almost 40 years ago as part of Canada's official policy on bilingualism, designed to help young English-speaking children learn Canada's other official language. These are children who already speak the dominant language of the community, and we know this is one of the dominant languages in the world. And these were children who had the advantages of growing up in families who were literate and used that literacy a lot.
The programs were highly successful. They were introduced in the U.S. shortly after, in the same way they were created in Canada. That is, they were made available to English-speaking American children. Spanish immersion programs in Southern California were the first, for English-speaking children. And, again, they were very successful with results similar to Canada's.
But then what started to happen was the term "immersion" started to be used for teaching English to Spanish-speaking children, for example.
So the notion of immersion was transformed in a way not true to its origins in Canada. So, now immersion in the U.S. refers to English immersion for Spanish-speaking children. And as a result of that form of immersion, you really can't use the Canadian results on immersion in any way to inform you about immersion for Spanish-speaking children. They are two entirely different populations of children. In Canada, they are children who speak the majority language. In the U.S., they speak a minority language.
Delia Pompa: Diane, would you like to add something?
Dr. August: I was going to add to the issue of the acquisition of English proficiency and issues around that acquisition. As we talked about it before, it's important to take individual difference factors into account when we discuss this. One of the things that the research studies find is that you need a certain amount of English proficiency to sort of bootstrap yourself to the point where you can take advantage of the instruction provided you. So, children who enter schools as English language learners, who are below that threshold of English proficiency, will have a much harder time taking advantage of the English context around them, to acquire additional proficiencies. And this again has implications for the kinds of scaffolding and additional instruction given to these children who enter U.S. schools with fairly limited English proficiency.
Dr. Genesee: At the same time, the other thing I think we have learned about second language learning is that language learning actually occurs most effectively when the students are not focusing on language learning. In the immersion program, for example in Canada, we have learned children can learn a lot of academic knowledge or cognitive skills through the medium of a language they haven't mastered yet. And, in fact, by focusing the students' attention on learning other kinds of skills or knowledge, you can actually facilitate second language acquisition.
In the case of English language learners, even though we know it takes time to learn oral or academic language skills, we shouldn't be misled to think we have to wait until they have mastered those skills to teach them content or new academic skills. They need basic language skills, but you can move fairly quickly to teaching them new knowledge and new skills through the medium of the language. You have to provide scaffolding to do that, but we can't wait five or six years to teach science. And we don't have to, because doing that, we will also facilitate their English language development – if, as Margarita says, we do it in a very careful way.
Delia Pompa: There's a lot of room for error in our schools and instructional systems for, perhaps, not using the correct strategies for students. What are the strategies we may use now that some of these things have happened to motivate English language learners to learn to read in the second language?
Dr. August: High-interest activities in the content areas. Science is a great way to engage students where they do not need too much oral language and can be exposed to a lot of rich content and more vocabulary. There are a lot of cognates, and teachers can capitalize on cognates as a bridge to develop more English proficiency. Even social studies teachers are learning ways to introduce different concepts to students who are very limited. I think if the focus is too much on language, on learning the technicalities of language, especially for the older students, that may not be as helpful and successful in motivating them as it would when they're learning something, that they're learning content, that they're able to read. Additionally, in the primary grades, if the children also are seeing that their parents are very much engaged in the reading process, and if the schools are providing workshops for parents to help them in this, that's very motivating. A family literacy program connected with the school's literacy program, I think, is an absolute must to continue to motivate the students – at home and at school.
Delia Pompa: Sure, Diane. Really quickly.
Dr. August: What is very important is making sure that teachers scaffold whatever they are, say, reading to children, so that, on an ongoing basis, children are questioned to be sure that they understand what is being read. A very effective strategy is storybook reading, or reading expository text, but asking lots of questions on an ongoing basis to clarify misunderstanding. This is a good way to build up proficiency. We were talking about errors before. The teacher can repeat what a child says, repeat it correctly and elaborate on students' responses. This give-and-take around the teacher reading to children is a very important way to build both content knowledge and oral language proficiency, but it requires very careful and thoughtful scaffolding.
Delia Pompa: You're offering lots of tips and new knowledge that will help us all.
And now a little treat, a preview of the latest show in the Reading Rockets "Launching Young Readers" series, airing on PBS stations around the country this spring and fall. It's a show just for kids with trouble reading. Maricely is a fifth grader. Her school offered her the appropriate support, and with proper intervention and a little TLC, she learned to read and speak in English.
Maricely: Today we are going to see the secret lives of teenagers getting ready for a talent show.
Narrator: This is fifth grader Maricely.
Narrator: Man, I love this music!
Narrator: She lives in Hartford, Connecticut, but was born in Puerto Rico. See the flag?
Narrator: This girl loves the spotlight, but that has not always been the case.
Maricely: I was reading and then I came across a word I didn't know. And when I started saying it, everybody starred laughing.
Narrator: Maricely, she had trouble learning to read. She was learning in a second language. Could you imagine learning to read Chinese or Greek? She moved from Puerto Rico when she was just two. Her family speaks a little English, but everyone in the neighborhood and at home generally speaks Spanish, and it's hard to practice her English.
Maricely: It's hard to learn English, especially when your family speaks Spanish only. I didn't know how to read or write English, and most of my friends would pass me a note and write it in English. So when I went to read it, I didn't know.
Narrator: One thing that confused Maricely was the same sounds being spelled in different ways. What' that all about?
Maricely: Christopher, it sounds like "f-e-r," but it's "p-h-e-r." And I would be like, it's too hard.
Narrator: Things got so tough for Maricely, they decided she needed to repeat the fifth grade.
Maricely: I was mad, and it was hard for me. I wanted to quit, but then I decided not to.
Narrator: You go, Maricely! A lot of kids would give up, but not Maricely. She buckled down and worked extra hard with her teachers.
Maricely: The teachers always gave me a book, and I started reading that one. When I finished it, I read it again. Then they give me one book harder and one harder, and they will make me understand the English more.
Narrator: Maricely also worked at home with her big sister Bette Marie.
Bette Marie: It's hard, and at some points in time you feel like giving up, because maybe you think it's not worth it. But it's worth everything. All the struggles and everything – it's going to be worth it.
Narrator: Maricely thinks so, too.
Maricely: I want to show them as I learn a second language. And here I am, talking in English, and so can you.
Narrator: And guess what? Next year, she will be heading to sixth grade, speaking and reading both English and Spanish.
Narrator: Did you know we have a Web site designed especially for Spanish speaking parents and educators? Visit Colorincolorado.org to find the best information for teaching English language learners to read.
Call in now. The toll-free number is 1-888-493-9382.
Do you have a personal question you would like to ask an expert about reading? Go to readingrockets.org and click on "Ask Reading Rockets." Send us your question, and we will respond within a few days with a personal, confidential answer.
Delia Pompa: Welcome back. We are opening up the phone lines to take your calls; but, first, members of our studio audience. Let's go to the first question.
Audience Member: How can educators motivate parents from other cultures who have had negative experiences themselves with the schools, so that they can become involved in the educational process at home and at school?
Delia Pompa: Oh, a big question. Margarita?
Dr. Calderón: I will start. Some of the things I've seen in several schools and districts is that they have a variety of activities for parents. Some parents can come in only for breakfast meetings. Others can come in right after school to pick up the children and stay for a few minutes, where the teachers or someone can be prepared to help them out, give them materials, do a little demonstration on how to listen to reading. Others can come on evenings and Saturday mornings. So, where family literacy programs have worked is where they have a variety of things – not just one – and where the parents are proposing what can be done and how they, themselves, can collaborate with the schools.
Dr. August: I think it's very important to provide professional development to school staff, because I think there are lots of parents who are eager and enthusiastic about getting involved in their children's education, and they feel shut out. So, I think schools need practice in welcoming parents.
Dr. Genesee: I saw a brilliant project within a school in California, in fact, where the issue was precisely the one you raised: how to get the parents involved. They recognized the competencies the parents had, and this happened to be a fairly large group of Hmong speakers from Southeast Asia, who were farmers in their countries of origin. And they created a community garden, and the teachers and students were involved. They integrated the gardens into their science and social studies lessons. It was a way of recognizing the competencies the parents had and how they could contribute to the education of their children. It was brilliant and worked very, very well.
Delia Pompa: Well, this is an international issue. We have a question from Montreal, Canada.
Caller: Thank you. My question is related to the former one, but more extensive.
Regarding awareness and training and teaching English language learners, Dr. Calderón described learning communities in school districts where principals are also involved. My question is: to what extent is this being done and, indeed, required elsewhere, to involve not just the teachers and families, but administrators and school board members? How widespread is this?
Dr. Calderón: I know that NCLB has set aside funding for staff development. I think the focus has been too much on retooling, retraining teachers, rather than focusing on a whole school, a whole district. And that is something that I think even the Reading First initiative and all the initiatives should look at – setting aside staff development components for staff, [as well as] professional development components for administrators and counselors, particularly at the secondary schools. Everyone impacts the life and education of an English language learner, so those kinds of components for comprehensive staff development, I think, should be included.
Delia Pompa: I'll jump in here. I know that in this country, we also have a lot of the professional organizations becoming engaged in instruction by having their membership learn more about what happens in the schools, including the PTA and the National Association of School Boards. So, it is a trend that I think we see beginning. It's certainly not near as well set up as we would like, but it's something that is going to take on more interest as we move along and implement good reading programs.
We have another question from the studio audience.
Audience Member: I would appreciate your thoughts on how I can get native English-speaking students to accept students who are English language learners (ELL's).
Dr. August: One thing I tried – actually, this was my dissertation, and it did work – was to have pairs of children working together, English only children and Spanish speakers. And I taught the Spanish-speaking students – some kind of creative activity. These children were first to third graders. And then they had the responsibility of teaching the English-only students. So, this was a way for the children to work together, and it raised the status, in a sense, of the Spanish-speaking children.
Dr. Genesee: The other initiative under way to address this kind of issue, are called two-way immersion programs. You may be familiar with them. They're programs where you have half the students in the class are native English speakers, and the other half are native speakers of another language, often Spanish. Both of these groups of students are learning the other group's language at the same time that they are learning to read, write and do all the things we do in school. These programs are very effective at breaking down some of the cultural barriers that exist in many schools.
Dr. August: Right. It provides equal status to both languages and cultures.
Dr. Genesee: I have seen variations on this that are less extensive, where you have high school students interested in learning Spanish, and they help Spanish-speaking students learn English and vice versa. It's a way of validating the competencies of both groups of students and breaking down barriers.
Delia Pompa: Let's go to New Jersey now, we have a question from there.
Caller: Good afternoon, and thank you. I have two questions. The first is, what do you suggest for non English-speaking students who arrive in middle school or high school and don't really have the opportunity to learn English from square one?
Delia Pompa: Hit it, gang.
Dr. August: Well, there have been newcomer programs established for these children, and some have been very successful. These are either programs within a school or separate from the school, generally a year or two in duration, that work to quickly develop students' English language and literacy proficiency. Where possible, the programs continue content instruction in the children's native language. They help children understand issues around cultural differences with regard to differences between their native culture and English. These programs have been very successful.
Caller: Thank you. And my second question is, what about students who don't have the opportunity to participate in a bilingual program to develop their native-language reading skills?
Dr. Calderón: Then I would say an intensive, immediate intervention in English reading would help, but that intensive intervention probably has to be part of a secondary program where the teachers who will be receiving the students right after this intervention are also well-trained in order to facilitate that transition into the mainstream classroom. So, again, it takes quite a few teachers beyond a newcomer program or other programmatic intervention to facilitate the academic achievement of a recently arrived ELL.
Dr. Genesee: There are also instructional approaches designed to help students integrate into classrooms, if they don't already know English at a high level. And one of the ones that I think is particularly good is called "sheltered instruction." It's an approach that helps teachers present academic content through the medium of English to students who are not proficient in English yet. And at the same time, they can present the content in a way that helps them apply their English. It's what Diane referred to as "scaffolding," but there's an actual approach called "sheltered instruction."
Delia Pompa: And Fred, your fan club is here. We have a question from Quebec.
Caller: Yes, as you are well aware, our context in Quebec is radically different from the one you have been describing. The majority language in Quebec is French. So, I wondered if you had any thoughts on teaching ESL in a context where English is not the language of the majority.
Dr. Genesee: Well, this is an interesting question because for native French-speaking children in Quebec, they all are required to learn English as a second language; but it's not exactly the same situation – as you point out – in the U.S., because these children can live and survive very comfortably in the context of French in Quebec. Quebecers have the advantage of teaching English as a second language to Francophone students. These students are already affirmed in who they are and their language, so they're what we would call an additive bilingual situation, in other words they can add English without any threat to their native French language skills.
On the other hand, if we are talking about immigrant children in Quebec going to French school and, ultimately, also having to learn English as a second language, you are really almost facing a situation that's almost a cross between a foreign language and second language.
You have many of the issues you have in the United States. These children are in a potentially subtractive bilingual situation. How do we teach them the second languages without loss of their native language? What we talked about today is more relevant to those children, and not so much to French children learning English in Quebec.
Delia Pompa: Texas, we would like to hear from you now. Texas, are you on the line?
Caller: Yes, for Dr. Calderón. I wanted to know how she has seen teachers teach first-grade students learning to read for the first time in both English and Spanish, simultaneously.
Dr. Calderón: I have seen it in classrooms– team-teachers– where one teacher focuses on teaching English and the other one in Spanish, and [instruction in] both languages is completely separated. It actually starts in kindergarten and goes up the grade levels, but it remains a 50-50 program all the way through the fifth grade. The languages are separated for teaching reading, but eventually both languages come together. And, in fact, around the third, fourth and fifth grades, instruction [alternates] one week in Spanish, one week in English, so that equal time is allocated to both languages.
Dr. Genesee: It seems to me that in the Canadian context and other bilingual contexts people tend to keep the literacy separate. They teach reading in one language before introducing the other. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if you were going to teach them simultaneously, you would want to keep them separate in other ways. It's probably important to have different teachers for English and Spanish; and, if you are using content, to have different content associated with a single language, so the children are not mixing up sounds and letters and so on.
Delia Pompa: Diane, did you want to add anything from your studies?
Dr. August: No.
Delia Pompa: We have a question from our studio audience.
Audience Member: We have students with little or no schooling who are 11 and 12 years old. How do you teach them the basics, like phonemic awareness?
Delia Pompa: Go ahead.
Dr. Genesee: There's very – I want to start by saying we're primarily researchers – or I am – so, I always address these issues from a research point of view. One of the huge gaps in the research area is these kinds of learners, who come to English-language schools in middle school or high school with no, or very little, prior literacy instruction or experience.
The little bit that we do know suggests that the same kinds of component skills and big-picture skills are probably important for older learners, but you need to fast-forward it. It seems that phonemic instruction, building vocabulary and all those things are important, even for older learners; but you would not spend as much time on those skills as with young learners. Young learners can be quite engaged in these types of activities for a long period of time. You have to have strategies for making these kinds of instruction interesting to children, and even listening to phonemes can be interesting for an infant – but not to a 12-year-old or young adult.
With respect to phonemic awareness, there are all sorts of things you can do related to rap music or popular music that are highly relevant to structure and sounds of language. With a little imagination, I think teachers could draw on the culture of adolescence.
Delia Pompa: Use rap!
Dr. August: I think you need to make sure the children don't already have phonemic awareness when they are that age. I would advocate assessing phonemic awareness in their native language first, because it's likely that's not an issue for them.
Delia Pompa: We have had so much to discuss today. Can each of you give me a final comment to leave the audience with, briefly? Fred?
Dr. Genesee: Well, one of the things that strikes me is that language is important in education, but there's more to education than language. Our job as educators is to educate these children completely. One of the tasks is literacy, but it's not all there is. We shouldn't be so focused on literacy that we sacrifice other components.
Dr. Calderón: Extensive, comprehensive professional development programs.
Dr. August: I would like to say that I think we undervalue the strengths and enthusiasm that children bring to the process of learning to read. I think it's very important we nurture this in children and validate all that they bring to classrooms and support them. All children can learn with the right support and care.
Delia Pompa: Thank you, everyone. It's been wonderful. And thank you for participating in our 2003-04 teleconference series, "Achieving Success in Reading."
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