Blast from the Past: This blog first posted November 16, 2018 and was re-posted on November 20, 2021.
Since this blog first posted, English Learners continue to lag, and schools continue to try to provide pull-out and push-in interventions for them. I thought it was time to revisit the issue. There was no need to revise the phonics comments here as research still shows that ELs can benefit from extra decoding instruction, but it also continues to find that such instruction does not have as big a learning impact as it does on English speakers. There is clearly a need (and a benefit) for providing English language interventions in addition to decoding ones for these students. I have added a reference list this time around.
Thirty percent of the children in the U.S. 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.
I, too, have seen this too 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 since 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 meanings 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 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 must 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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Gonzales, W., & Tejero Hughes, M. (2021). Leveraging a Spanish literacy intervention to support outcomes of English Learners. Reading Psychology. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02702711.2021.1888352
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Roberts, T. A. (2005). Articulation accuracy and vocabulary size contributions to phonemic awareness and word reading in English Language Learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(4), 601-616. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.1681
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