Appropriate Beginning Reading Instruction for English Learners?

  • 16 November, 2018

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.

Teacher's question:

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. 

Shanahan's response:

Great letter!

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.


Ehri, L. C., & Flugman, B. (2018). Mentoring teachers in systematic phonics instruction: Effectiveness of an intensive year-long program for kindergarten through 3rd grade teachers and their students. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(2), 425-456. doi:

Gonzales, W., & Tejero Hughes, M. (2021). Leveraging a Spanish literacy intervention to support outcomes of English Learners. Reading Psychology. doi:

Gottardo, A., Chen, X., & Huo, M. R. Y. (2021). Understanding within? and cross?language relations among language, preliteracy skills, and word reading in bilingual learners: Evidence from the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, doi:

Hwang, J. K., Mancilla-Martinez, J., McClain, J. B., Oh, M. H., & Flores, I. (2020). Spanish-speaking English Learners’ English language and literacy skills: The predictive role of conceptually scored vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 41(1), 1-24. doi:

Landry, S. H., Assel, M. A., Carlo, M. S., Williams, J. M., Wu, W., & Montroy, J. J. (2019). The effect of the preparing pequeños small-group cognitive instruction program on academic and concurrent social and behavioral outcomes in young Spanish-speaking dual-language learners. Journal of School Psychology, 73, 1-20. doi:

Pollard-Durodola, S., Mathes, P. G., Vaughn, S., Cardenas-Hagan, E., & Linan-Thompson, S. (2006). The role of oracy in developing comprehension in spanish-speaking English Language Learners. Topics in Language Disorders, 26(4), 365-384. doi:

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:

Roberts, T. A., Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2019). Preschool instruction in letter names and sounds: Does contextualized or decontextualized instruction matter? Reading Research Quarterly, doi:

Spencer, M., & Wagner, R. K. (2017). The comprehension problems for second?language learners with poor reading comprehension despite adequate decoding: A meta?analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 40(2), 199-217. doi:

Yeung, S. S. (2018). Second language learners who are at-risk for reading disabilities: A growth mixture model study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 78, 35-43. doi:




See what others have to say about this topic.

Ghada Alwani Jan 20, 2020 03:33 PM

I think learning phonics is essential and it helps in building their writing abilities as well for English as a second language learner I learned English without phonics and I still until now I have problem writing . Of coarse phonics alone is not enough but at the same time it is a basic essential to be able to read and then to write

Dan Vollstedt Apr 14, 2020 02:25 PM

I feel having phonics skills is very important. A lot of our struggling readers lack phonics skills which in turn makes it difficult for them to be strong writers.

Grace Vyduna-Haskins Nov 20, 2021 08:08 PM

You tell us what is incomplete but I'd like to know what the additional elements are and how to provide them. I spent years as a volunteer assisting a teacher in adult ESL classes. My contribution was largely in the area of articulation but I felt that there was much more needed than the curricula provided. In a reverse situation, three years of college Spanish did nothing to help me speak Spanish. There needs to be some element of actually writing the words to cement the learning. With young children, it seems to me that there should be a lot of picture labeling of common objects and creating sentences around these pictures. What really works?

Tamara Nov 20, 2021 10:34 PM

Miss Emma,

Curious to know what schools you are referring to. Are you not the person behind Monster Mapping? Is that not an “SPP program”.

Robert Femiano Nov 20, 2021 11:17 PM

Yes, after 30+ years as a primary grade teacher, I agree that understanding how words are composed of individual sounds (phonemes) and how the alphabet is used to encode these sounds is the single most important step for a smooth start for all beginning readers, so that needs to be mastered regardless. However, in the case of language learners, including English speakers with limited vocabulary, the additional step of vocabulary development is obviously crucial since reading comprehension is the goal.

In my classroom, which had many ELL children speaking Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and so on, I had two mechanisms for dealing with this -- both borrowed from Speech and Language department. I kept a set of vocabulary development picture cards (preferably photos, in color, rather than drawings but anything is better than nothing). The sets are organized by categories for quick reference (animals, transportation, food...) so I could show students what word we were studying. (Children's picture dictionaries and such were also helpful to keep by my side.) The second activity I used to develop vocabulary was the Handbook of Exercises for Language Process (HELP Series) which is what Speech/Language Pathologist (SLP) teachers would use. I would spend 15-20 minutes, 3-4 days a week building vocabulary and helping students "hear" English in use. These professionally designed exercises engaged both thinking and vocabulary and are seriated in difficulty, which allowed me to call on students and vary the difficulty depending on their language ability. (e.g., what animal barks, or more challenging, what animal neighs? or Name an object that bounces vs. name an object that is round and cannot bounce).

Both of these items are available for purchase on the internet, but talking with the SLP in your school might provide them for free along with a few other helpful tips from these specialists.

Patty Ewing Nov 20, 2021 11:20 PM

After 10 years in RTI, I strongly agrees with, “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.” Poverty impacts language and background knowledge; students drag this deficit through the school years.

I teach targeted reading mechanics. Our EL students get language instruction. We see slow progress, for our students who start school at a deficit. We need effective systematic changes beyond what we now do. Let me know what it is and I’ll do it!

Diane Nov 21, 2021 12:42 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on phonics instruction and the importance of building in vocabulary for comprehension for our EL’s. What are your suggestions for best tier 2 vocabulary intervention?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2021 01:07 AM


It wasn't Tier 1 work, but I don't think that matters in this instance... the best studies that I've ever seen on vocabulary instruction was conducted by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown... not their kindergarten work, but the studies they did with 4th graders. Their lessons focused on collections of words that had related meanings, they worked on definition and thinking with those words, connections with the students lives, they also did drill practice with them and a ton of ongoing review. They managed to raise reading comprehension by building student vocabularies.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2021 01:10 AM

I certainly agree that writing/spelling plays can play an important role in children's grasp of decoding. But with second language students I think the language piece is the one that seems to be missing most often, especially in those situations in which the students' initial instruction is in Spanish.


Janis McTeer Nov 21, 2021 02:50 PM

I agree with Miss Emma. We focus too much on phonics and too little on fluency. The National Reading Panel report says that once a student becomes an independent reader phonics isn’t as effective for improving their reading. I know it may be a dated concept but repeated reading brings amazing improvements in reading even for ELLs. Research shows students can see their own word patterns in words and transfer them to new texts. If done as a whole class repeated reading can help students develop their word knowledge because they hear texts discussed by other students who are fluent and have the necessary prior knowledge to understand the text. I gave my students their own spiral notebook for a dictionary and they put in words that were important to them and they wanted to use in their writing. It greatly improved their vocabulary. We also spent time discussing text we were reading together repeatedly so they new the meaning of words. Phonics tends to be boring but involving students in repeated reading, letting them point to the words and use funny voices or clapping and grouping patterns helps reading to be more fun and they are increasing their word knowledge. My ELLs loved it and made great progress in reading, vocabulary, and writing. Loved it!

paul Nov 21, 2021 02:51 PM

Fascinating discussion, lased with the typical, and yes necessary discussion about the need for phonics instruction for ELL children. Equally interesting was the input from ELL teachers on the need for vocabulary and comprehension instruction.

I wonder Tim, how you would answer the question that has been well researched and documented regarding the neuroscience of phonology and orthography in teaching decoding, "what is the brain based code(s) to vocabulary/language comprehension that phonology/orthography are to decoding"? To follow, what is the pedagogy/instructional practice that taps into that brain system that effects vocabulary/comprehension?

Lisa Jimenez Nov 21, 2021 04:28 PM

Wow, so timely for me. Thank you. I work in a district that is 18% ELD but the district has decided to slavishly require a testing regime, ( not actual instruction) that is having level 1 EL'S being put into "emergency level" and requiring, sight word memorization and decoding devoid from comprehension. All of the elementary ELD leaders have requested a meeting with our administration. This old gal agrees with Miss Emma, instructional decisions are dependent on student language level, student strengths and weaknesses in terms of background ( limited formal? fluent reader in native language?) and then requires actual sentence level language instruction that raises in complexity along with vocabulary and general knowledge.

Laurie A Nordby-Heath Nov 21, 2021 05:37 PM

What is the most beneficial intervention program for these second language students? What are the essential elements? I have a lot of EL students needing help, and my district is focusing on systematic phonics based instruction. I worry that decodable, controlled vocabulary programs put the students in a sort of " language bubble" where they get used to being able to decode everything, and they are used to encountering only familiar vocabulary. When they encounter text outside of the program, they lose confidence and become discouraged.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2021 06:25 PM

I rarely comment on specific programs. There are two kinds of intervention programs; those that are targeted on a specific skills area (phonics, fluency, comprehension), and those that are meant to be a somewhat comprehensive program for below grade level readers. For the former, you need to look to see what good instruction in those skills areas may be (this site can help with that); for the latter, make sure the program provides an emphasis on both decoding skills (PA, phonics, fluency) and comprehension/language.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2021 06:37 PM

There is a growing body of research that is exploring the impact of learning new vocabulary on the brain. These studies have focused both on first- and second-language learners. I think that work is interesting but, as with the decoding research, I don't think it has anything to say at this point about instruction or assessment. Given that, as an educator, I am not working hard to develop expertise in that body of research (since it has no real implications for what I would do as a teacher).


Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2021 06:37 PM

There is a growing body of research that is exploring the impact of learning new vocabulary on the brain. These studies have focused both on first- and second-language learners. I think that work is interesting but, as with the decoding research, I don't think it has anything to say at this point about instruction or assessment. Given that, as an educator, I am not working hard to develop expertise in that body of research (since it has no real implications for what I would do as a teacher).


Peter Bowers Nov 21, 2021 06:47 PM

Hey Tim,

I think Grace Vyduna-Haskins raised a key point here. If phonics isn't enough for students who are not native English speakers, the key question, what is it that we should be teaching. As you point out successful decoding of words you do not know does not result in understanding what is being read. So clearly effective vocabulary instruction is particularly important component of early literacy instruction in general -- but in particular non-native English speakers.

Given that situation, morphological instruction seems a logical means of building vocabulary. After all, if you teach ten words that share a base, the learner is not being asked to learn the spelling, pronunciation and meaning of 10 isolated words and meanings. Instead teaching the meaning of any of one word in a morphological family gives the learner traction to make sense of the other words. For example, if you teach the word "act" including its meaning and grapheme-phoneme correspondences, you can then point to the spelling-meaning connections between that base and words including: actor, "acting," "active," react," "action," "reaction" and many more. Notice that studying this family can be used to help explain why the word "action" can't be spelled with an digraph for that /?/ phoneme. English spelling favours consistent spelling of the units of meaning (morphemes) over the consistent spelling of the units of pronunciation (phonemes). By teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the context of morphological families, not only do we build vocabulary, but we also provide a meaningful context in which to make sense of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that are not understandable without morphology. The link between words like "act" and "action" allow us to show that the grapheme can spell the /?/ phoneme if it is followed by an or . In this way we address both the vocabulary and grapheme-phoneme correspondences students need -- especially those coming from a different language who lack English vocabulary knowledge, and need to understand English grapheme-phoneme correspondences as well.

I do not know of research evidence that has compared explicit instruction of the interrelation of morphology and phonology compared to teaching these language features in isolation. But we do have evidence from all 4 of the meta-analyses about the effects of morphological instruction (Bowers, Kirby & Deacon, 2010; Goodwin & Ahn, 2010, 2013; Galuschka, Görgen, Kalmar, Haberstroh, Schmalz & Schulte-Körne, 2020). All of these studies found that the younger and less able students gained the most from including morphology in literacy instruction. One of the explanations for this may be related to the way teaching morphology provides clarity for how phonology is represented in spelling. It is true that we have a limited number of morphological studies with young children, so this finding needs further study. However, given that many researchers have long suggested holding of morphological instruction until later years, this consistent finding in direct contradiction of that view deserves close attention. The evidence is that we should teach younger and less-able students about morphology. Young, non-native English speakers fit both of those criteria. What we don't have evidence for is how best to teach morphology.

And when we dig into the details in those studies, we see evidence that including morphological instruction improves phonological outcomes. Goodwin and Ahn (2010, 2013) looked at the effect sizes for a wide range of literacy outcomes in their two meta-analyses. Effects were positive for all outcomes. But the most striking finding was that the greatest effects from teaching morphology were for phonological outcomes. In every case but one, the effect sizes for phonological outcomes were higher than the effects on morphological outcomes. This finding should motivate researchers seeking the best possible phonological instruction. It marks a potential new avenue of research for improving instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences that is not available according to published definitions of phonics. In the case of the topic of your post - such instruction would be likely to have the added benefit of vocabulary learning for non-native English speakers.

As an added point, it is worth noting that the Galuschka, et. al (2020) meta-analysis was on the effect of morphological instruction for dyslexic students on spelling. Some of their key findings countered the hypotheses of the authors and I suspect would surprise many. They found that as the severity of children's spelling deficits increased, the effects of phonics instruction decreased. By contrast, the more sever a child's spelling deficit, the more effective were morphological and orthographic interventions.

It seems to me that research evidence is pointing quite clearly that morphological instruction should be a clear component of literacy instruction in general, but especially for younger and less able students -- including non-native English learners. We are in desperate need of more research in this area, especially in terms of how best to teach morphology.

We can draw on theory and early instructional evidence to guide provide informed guidance for teacher practice. We know we have a morphophonmic language in which grapheme-choice is constrained by morphology. We know learning associations of graphemes and phonemes is so important - so teaching how morphology informs that understanding is a logical proposal. The evidence is that teaching morphology benefits all students, but in particular the younger and less able - and it has benefits for vocabulary learning - which is clearly important for non-native English speakers.

Readers interested in more on this frame of instruction may enjoy this piece on the theory, research and practice of SWI

A video explaining how grapheme-phoneme correspondences work in our morphophonemic system can be found here:

I hope that this post and the links I am sharing make one point very clear. Structured Word Inquiry instruction is extremely focused on providing the best possible instruction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences from the beginning of literacy instruction. It simply argues that to do that, we have to teach how they operate in our morphophonemic system.

Harriett Nov 21, 2021 11:06 PM

Hi Pete,
Thanks for taking the time to explain the importance of morphology. As I've said to you many times, using the morphological matrix has made me a much better teacher--and I have you to thank for that. However, after all the videos and articles I've explored over the past four years when I first became acquainted with Structured Word Inquiry, I still completely disagree with your point below that it is the best way to teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

"I hope that this post and the links I am sharing make one point very clear. Structured Word Inquiry instruction is extremely focused on providing the best possible instruction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences from the beginning of literacy instruction."

Pete Nov 22, 2021 02:44 PM

Hey Harriet, thanks for your comment. You are of course welcome to your opinion about structured word inquiry (SWI) and the instruction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences. I just want to be clear that we are talking about the same thing. In SWI we would provide explicit instruction about grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the context of words. We explicitly draw children's attention to individual phonemes in the word and link them to the graphemes that represent them. Compared to phonics, a key difference is that we teach those grapheme phoneme correspondences with the understanding that graphemes only occur within morphemes, and that we can often understand why one grapheme is used for a given phoneme when more than one is possible.

What I am unclear about is whether your view that SWI is not the best way to teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences means that you think we should avoid drawing on morphological information to explain a grapheme phoneme correspondence in a word. I gave the example of teaching the spelling and reading of the word "action". Could you explain how you would explain why this word uses an grapheme for the /?/ phoneme rather than the digraph which is the more common way to represent that phoneme?

Another word I often use to explain why I think it is important to draw on morphology when teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences it the word "does". In phonics instruction, this word is taught as an "exception" that kids need to memorize. By contrast, in SWI we explicitly draw attention to the consistent spelling and meaning of the base DO when it is a word on its own, and in words like "doing" and "does" to attend to the change in pronunciation of the base. (I know you've seen this video before Harriett, but in case other readers have not you can see a video of this instruction in action here: Is it your view that it is better for student learning to teach "does" as an irregular word children need to memorize than to explain the influence of morphology on grapheme choice?

Finally, I'm curious about your take on the implications of the finding from the meta-analyses of morphological instruction by Goodwin and Ahn (2010, 2013) that the outcomes with the greatest effects from including morphology instruction were phonological outcomes. Those effects were even greater than the effects on morphological outcomes. To me, this indicates that even without drawing explicit attention to the interrelation of morphology and phonology, that increased attention to morphology helped children make more sense of phonology in words than they had before.

Explaining their result, Goodwin and Ahn (2013) wrote, "“Similar to Bowers et al. (2010), results suggest that early morphological instruction may be particularly helpful perhaps because of the synergistic relationship between phonology and morphology and the larger repertoire of root [base] and affix meanings available for use. If a reciprocal relationship exists between morphological knowledge and makes sense to jump start this knowledge from an early age” (Goodwin & Ahn, 2013, p. 23).” The only thing I would add to that is the recommendation to make sure instruction is explicit about the synergistic relationship between phonology and morphology.

In my view the explicit instruction of the influence of morphology on grapheme choice in SWI is supported by research findings like this, and also the view that children will learn high frequency words like "does" more efficiently when they are taught not only what the grapheme-phoneme correspondences are, but also why they make sense in that word to mark a meaning connection to a related word with a different pronunciation with consistent spelling. You are welcome to disagree with that view, but I wanted to be clear about the research basis and theoretical basis for the way grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught in SWI.

(BTW, I have no idea why the text in my comments is underlined! Sorry for the visual noise.)

Harriett Nov 22, 2021 04:39 PM

As you know, Pete, we have been around the block several times on this issue, so let me just say that I have watched all the videos you and Jeff have shared and also watched the lengthy interviews you both have done, and I would urge all K-1 teachers to do the same to evaluate whether they think--as I do--that SWI imposes a layer of complexity on the beginning reader that leads to cognitive overload. In brief, I would never teach the word 'action' to my beginning readers (though we would certainly talk about it). However, my K-1 students would be able to use their letter-sound knowledge and blending/segmenting instruction to read and write the word 'act'. I still think Mark Seidenberg's phonics recommendations make the most sense: get in, get out, move on. I think moving on to exploring the morphological matrix is a great move. 

Leah Falkowski Nov 23, 2021 05:57 PM

Where is the research of how reading instruction is important for teaching ELL learners especially in phonics instruction?

Leah Falkowski Nov 23, 2021 05:57 PM

Where is the research of how reading instruction is important for teaching ELL learners especially in phonics instruction?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 24, 2021 01:41 AM

Not all of these studies meet appropriate standards but the consistency of the findings matter in such cases. Here are some examples:
Araujo, L. (2002). The literacy development of kindergarten english-language learners. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 16(2), 232-247. doi:

Baker, D. L., Burns, D., Kame'enui, E. J., Smolkowski, K., & Baker, S. K. (2016). Does supplemental instruction support the transition from spanish to english reading instruction for first-grade english learners at risk of reading difficulties? Learning Disability Quarterly, 39(4), 226-239. doi:

Dussling, T. M. (2020). The impact of an early reading intervention with english language learners and native-english-speaking children. Reading Psychology, doi:

Ginns, D. S., Joseph, L. M., Tanaka, M. L., & Xia, Q. (2019). Supplemental phonological awareness and phonics instruction for spanish-speaking english learners: Implications for school psychologists. Contemporary School Psychology, 23(1), 101-111. doi:

Gonzales, W., & Tejero Hughes, M. (2021). Leveraging a spanish literacy intervention to support outcomes of english learners. Reading Psychology, doi:

Hall, C., Steinle, P. K., & Vaughn, S. (2019). Reading instruction for english learners with learning disabilities: What do we already know, and what do we still need to learn? New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 2019(166), 145-189. doi:

Shanahan, T., & Beck, I. L. (2006). Effective literacy teaching for english-language learners. In D. August, & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth; developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth (pp. 415-488, Chapter xvi, 669 Pages) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, Mahwah, NJ. Retrieved from

Vadasy, P. F., & Sanders, E. A. (2012). Two-year follow-up of a kindergarten phonics intervention for english learners and native english speakers: Contextualizing treatment impacts by classroom literacy instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(4), 987-1005. doi:

Vanderwood, M. L., Linklater, D., & Healy, K. (2008). Predictive accuracy of nonsense word fluency for english language learners. School Psychology Review, 37(1), 5-17. Retrieved from


Pete Nov 24, 2021 03:18 PM

Hey Harriett, I know we've been around this block before, but I can offer you a recent anecdotal story that may help you and any other readers here get a sense of one way including morphology in literacy instruction with a non-reader that was transformational for his learning. I was tutoring a Grade 1 student who was getting nowhere in literacy and very unhappy. In our first session together it became clear that he was only naming letters accurately about 60-70% of the time. As I read with him, we would stop and investigate specific words, and quickly noticed an "-ing" suffix in a word like "playing". I used that word to introduce the idea of bases and how we can fix things before and after bases to build a new word. After that, I encouraged him to let me know if he saw another word with an "-ing" suffix as we read on. He did almost immediately, and then we started finding other prefixes and suffixes. Whenever we identified written prefixes, suffixes or bases, we referred to them by spelling them out-loud, not by pronouncing them. He became excited about becoming a great "suffix finder". I encouraged him and his mom to start a collection of prefixes and suffixes they thought they found when his mom read to him. We were also noticing graphemes in bases which we would spell in groups and link to the phonemes. So instead spelling a word like "teach" one letter at a time, we would spell it "t-ea-ch" and link those graphemes to their phonemes.

These practices soon let to a remarkable transformation in his ability to name letters accurately. Morphemes were orthographic chunks he could get his head around. And since morphemes are the only units of language that link to meaning, noticing them helps you to think about the links between the spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words just as orthographic mapping (Erhi, 2005, 2014) suggests. Crucially, because he could recognize these spelling structures as we read together he had an experience of success that motivated him to look closely inside the spellings of words for familiar orthographic structure. Success in this process gave him a reason to practice naming letters.

It seems to me that the recent meta-analysis on the effect of morphology in reading aloud by Mousikou, Beysermann, Ktori, Javourey-Drevet, Crepaldi, Ziegler, Grainger, & Schroeder (2020) provides a useful frame for thinking about this student's experience. They argued, "Importantly, poor readers of English often exhibit phonological processing deficits, so these children might benefit even more by teaching methods that focus on optimal grain sizes of their writing system (i.e., morphemes), which would allow a more straightforward mapping between print and sound, in addition to an easy mapping between print and meaning." I would add that the success this student had investigating morphemes was provided him with the first motivation to attend closely to orthographic structures - and that this attention was essential to his ability to name letters. To bind associations of spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words, it takes cognitive effort, so instruction needs to motivate learners to want to look closely at orthographic structures. To get more detail about this particular story as an anecdotal illustration of leveraging morphology to help a student become more fluent in naming letters among other crucial literacy learning, you can go to this link:

Annashay Salas Sep 11, 2020 08:34 PM

anyone know of a phonics program the specifically highlights differences in English and Spanish? I.e. a program aimed at students already literate in Spanish that are learning to read and write in English? I can go through our English phonics programs to find the lessons but I find that a) most of the teacher talk will be incomprehensible to beginning ELLs and b) the high quantity of unknown "easy" words used in most beginning English phonics lessons are also unknown to ELLs and without context.

Donald Potter Nov 20, 2021 06:20 PM

Pull out the old look-say basals. I am not a fan of using them to teach reading to English speaking students, but they had the high frequency vocabulary needed for laying the foundation for vocabulary, sentence structure, and story sense. I was an elementary bilingual teacher for 15 years. I guarantee you they work better than much of the current material written to target that population.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 20, 2021 06:42 PM

I agree that the controlled vocabulary and amount of repetition in those books is very supportive of beginning readers. I think it makes sense to combine this kind of book with decodable readers (texts that provide lots of repetition of particular letter-sound relations or spelling patterns. Not just for ELs, but for all students.


Miss Emma Nov 20, 2021 07:06 PM

Unfortunately if the school is failing a lot of kids in first couple of grades it’s likely there isn’t anyone there understanding why, and then implementing an effective intervention. Easy to pick a phonics program as if that’s the issue. Often the phonics program chosen in first two grades is an issue - slow paced, graphemes taught in isolation, the only books given to the kids to read themselves are ‘decodable’, there is no real focus on vocab and comprehension of texts...and a huge percentage not only aren’t reading, they’ve been put off wanting to read when they don’t have to. They get to middle of grade 2 and can’t comprehend the math word problem or read their science text book etc. So they are given more phonics?

At our schools we figure out what each child needs - the focus is on empowering teachers so they teach (rather than follow a program) A school in SA with over 80% English as a Second Language just got their national reading level results (NAPLAN) and are currently in top 3 schools in State, and most improved overall. They dropped a synthetic phonics program to focus on oral language, phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocab knowledge and comprehension - at every stage. An intervention is planned around what the child needs. We’re focused on what each child needs from day 1- and for a lot of kids they’re actually learning to speak (and comprehend) English - vocab is key!
As you said, no point being able to decode words if you can’t understand them. Sure, they can pass a phonics test (end of year 1) but what does this matter if over 90% can’t actually read? Reading is the goal.

Annelise Jan 23, 2023 07:08 AM

I'm thinking about the comments here between Harriet and Pete.

It makes sense to me to start with both phonics and morphology, as that's how our language is. We don't want to make morphology study harder later on by giving phonics as the entire first impression. But it also makes sense to me to focus strongly on phonics at the beginning, because it unlocks such a large amount of words (particularly high frequency ones) so quickly. If this allows students to access real books sooner, then they can practice all the skills in combination, spend much more time with print, and start gaining intuition about the how written are linked both to natural language and to each other.

I've done the Reading Simplified training, which doesn't spend time on teaching lots of rules or any syllable types. I think this makes it easier to blend with morphology instruction. It mostly just includes word chaining (to advanced levels with adjacent consonants, for phonemic manipulation), sorting the spellings of each long vowel, handwriting/dictation of words, supported reading of decodables, and rereading for fluency. This program apparently gets many struggling readers into natural text within a few months.

The question I have is, even though I don't think morphology should be excluded from the early months of literacy instruction, how much morphology can we include without really slowing down the process to fluent reading of whole books?

Also, if morphology has a great effect on phonics, but that effect isn't as great as things like word chaining or grouping long vowel graphemes according to phoneme, then isn't there potentially a loss if we don't initially focus a fair bit on the truly most effective phonics activities?

My intuition is that morphology and etymology discussions should happen verbally from the preschool years and continuing into primary school, and that beginner learners should be introduced quickly to some affixes and to the way morphology affects spelling. I think looking at the words 'one' and 'two' and their related words is a simple place to start, probably easier for beginners than the pronunciation that happens with 'action'. We can press forward with teaching phonics in the most efficient ways possible, adding in morphology asides for any HFWs that are easier to orthographically map via links to related words. We can also link this to the phonics sequence, teaching do/does after students have learnt short o and voiced s; teaching say/said after they know the long a spellings.

Even adding in five minutes of word chaining, a few times a week, next to more focused morphology study would probably make a difference, as would teaching the sets of long vowel spellings alongside SWI. But I wonder whether focusing more on phonics, at first, then more on morphology later, while keeping a dual thread all along, could be the better balance if we want students to have both good foundation and an early-as-possible boost into lots of time with natural texts.

Annelise Jan 23, 2023 07:15 AM

Edit for second paragraph-
"and start gaining intuition about how written words are linked both to natural language and to each other."

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Appropriate Beginning Reading Instruction for English Learners?


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