Building early literacy skills is imperative for all students, especially the five million English learners (ELs) being educated in today’s public schools. The mastery of these skills—including oral language, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and use of phonics—helps ELs develop the strong reading foundation needed for grade-level learning and success across all subject areas. Whether these early literacy skills are taught in students’ first languages or the target language of English, they are critical to ensuring students’ long-term success.
By the Numbers: The Need to Support ELs
Data shows Hispanic students experienced greater unfinished learning in reading, as well as math, over the last two years due to the pandemic. The Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021 report found schools serving majority Hispanic students saw almost double the amount of unfinished learning in third-grade reading and math over these two years as compared to schools serving majority White students. The percentage of Hispanic students who are behind grew by 14 points, according to i-Ready Assessment data.
Californians Together also cites that of the 1.15 million EL students in California alone, 200,000 of these students are classified as long-term English learners (LTELs)—EL students who have been in US schools for six or more years without reaching the levels of English proficiency needed to be reclassified.3 Another 130,000 ELs in the state are considered at risk of becoming LTELs, according to the organization.
These numbers reinforce the immediate need to address foundational reading skills with EL students. So, what exactly can educators do to support ELs when it comes to their early literacy development?
Understanding the Differences
The Overview of Reading white paper in development by Curriculum Associates delves into the many aspects of teaching reading in both English and Spanish. It, importantly, reminds educators that:
- Learning to read is not an automatic process
- Reading requires learning the codes of the language
- There are distinct differences between early literacy development in Spanish and English
To effectively teach reading in both Spanish and English, it is first important for educators to really understand the distinct differences between the two languages—especially since the two languages can appear fairly similar. Likewise, it is important for educators to teach these differences to students.
To begin with, English has 26 letters in the alphabet and 44 phonemes or sounds, whereas Spanish has 27 letters and 22–24 phonemes.
The white paper describes English as “an opaque language” that is highly irregular and does not have a one-to-one grapheme–sound correlation. For example, the letter a has many sounds, as in above /ə/, pat /æ/, late /eɪ/.”
Spanish is described as “a more transparent language,” meaning that “the correlation between a letter and sound is regular, one-to-one, and highly consistent.” An a is always /a/, for example.
Focusing on Phonological Awareness
The white paper goes on to say that the languages’ different phonologies can impact students’ phonological awareness, or their ability to “identify and manipulate various pieces of oral language, such as sentences, words, syllables, and individual sounds.”
With this in mind, educators should always try to remain authentic to the phonology of each language when teaching. Educators should also work to deliver intentional, explicit, and systematic instruction to support biliteracy. And, for skill development, educators should provide opportunities for students to make cross-language connections and develop metalinguistic knowledge. Implementing an appropriate scope and sequence focused on phonological awareness can effectively support this type of instruction. To support ELs and literacy instruction in dual-language classrooms, a phonological awareness scope and sequence should ideally:
- Address the skills students need to be successful in both Spanish and English
- Include lessons that focus on one skill at a time
- Provide the opportunity for educators to instruct on these skills and time for students to practice these skills
- Continually build upon skills and understanding students learned in prior lessons
- Keep students engaged and focused throughout the learning process
The scope and sequence should also include lessons that focus on one phonological awareness skill—such as rhyming, blending, segmenting, isolating, manipulating, and stressed syllable—at a time to help support and accelerate students’ progress. When choosing high-quality lessons, educators should additionally look for ones that feature:
- High-utility, grade-appropriate words
- Opportunities for blending letter sounds and syllables
- Engaging, alliterative text
- Decodable text experiences for students
- Culturally relevant stories and illustrations
In early Spanish reading instruction, it is effective to teach students about vowels first. Once these letters are mastered, educators can move to high-frequency consonants. This helps students more easily decode words and apply letter–sound associations to words with target sounds as they read.
Providing Support in Both Languages
In addition to the strategies above, it is important to remember that emerging bilingual students do best when they are supported in both English and Spanish. The study “English Reading Growth in Spanish-Speaking Bilingual Students: Moderating Effect of English Proficiency on Cross-Linguistic Influence” found students whose native language is Spanish and who had early reading skills in Spanish showed greater growth in their ability to read English.
According to the study, students who spoke Spanish and had stronger Spanish reading skills in kindergarten also performed better across time.
These findings further reinforce the need—and benefit—of educators teaching reading in both languages. Since some literacy skills can transfer across languages, educators can help students use what they have mastered in Spanish to support reading in English, and vice versa.
For example, once students learn that the prefix im- means “not” in both Spanish and English, they will quickly be able to add more words—such as impossible/imposible and impatient/impaciente—to their reading vocabulary.
Teaching students to read is a complex process. And teaching EL students to read in two languages at the same time can undoubtedly provide additional complexities. However, by delivering explicit and systematic instruction and utilizing the right strategies and resources, educators can help ELs develop the strong reading skills—in both Spanish and English—needed for ongoing success.
National Center for Education Statistics (2021). “English Language Learners in Public Schools.” https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgf
Curriculum Associates (2021). Understanding Student Learning: Insights from Fall 2021. www.curriculumassociates.com/-/media/mainsite/files/i-ready/iready-understanding-student-learning-paper-fall-results-2021.pdf
Californians Together. Long Term English Learners. https://californianstogether.org/long-term-english-learners
Relyea, J., and Amendum, S. (2019). “English Reading Growth in Spanish- Speaking Bilingual Students: Moderating Effect of English Proficiency on Cross-Linguistic Influence.” https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.13288
Claudia Salinas is the vice president of English learning at Curriculum Associates and the regional manager for Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas. She is responsible for helping school leaders meet the needs of their English and struggling learners by bringing research-based professional development, assessments, and standards-based instructional materials into school districts.