Should We Teach Phonics to English Learners?

  • 07 March, 2010

Blast from the Past: First posted March 7, 2010; re-posted April 25, 2018; and re-posted again on November 18, 2023.

I wrote this blog entry largely based on the conclusions that Isabel Beck and I had drawn on behalf of the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth. There were very few experimental studies that looked at the particulars of teaching reading to English Learners, but what was there was consistent: instruction that had been effective with native language populations generally was effective with second language learners, too. There were only three studies of explicit teaching of phonics to ELs at the time and they agreed that such teaching was beneficial. With so few data to go on, I think it is fair to say that I was guessing to some extent.

However, since that blog posted, evidence has continued to accumulate, something I noted when this blog entry first re-posted. Since then evidence has continued to build, and it is no longer a guess: Indeed, explicit phonics instruction is beneficial to English Learners. Another conclusion of that Shanahan & Beck review was that the effect sizes for teaching phonics to ELs were lower than for teaching native speakers. That is because decoding can only get one so far in reading; being able to decode words that you have no idea as to the meanings of is not particularly efficacious. That's why explicit teaching of vocabulary and other language skills is so essential for anyone learning a new language. What English Learners need is like what native speakers need when it comes to learning reading -- but these students' lack of knowledge of the English language will remain the biggest barrier to their success, long after English decoding has been mastered. Not only has the research made me a big fan of explicit decoding instruction for English Learners, but I am a big fan of Claude Goldenberg's notion that these students need a daily period devoted to English language instruction as well (rather than just hoping they'll pick it up socially).   

Back in the 1990s, there were lots of arguments in reading education between those who believed that explicit phonics was helpful in teaching reading and those who advocated whole language (whose views ranged from no phonics to occasional mini-lesson phonics as needed).

These days, those arguments don’t happen quite as often. The National Reading Panel reviewed data on phonics studies; the National Early Literacy Panel reviewed data on phonics; and phonics studies continue to accumulate. It seems clear that phonics instruction is helpful in getting reading started quickly and appropriately and so most teachers in the primary grades usually try to deliver such teaching.

But there still are arguments about that from the second-language community. The thought among some experts on English language learning is that such teaching may help native speakers, but it isn’t beneficial to those who don’t already know English.

Are they crazy?

No, they are not, but it appears that they are wrong; or partly wrong. They fear that teaching students to focus on sounds instead of meaning will derail things for kids who need to be intensely focused on meaning. They also, again quite rightly, point out that those phonics studies reviewed by the various panels did not include English Learners; therefore, we can’t use that evidence to determine what is best for such kids (seems like a fair argument to me).

However, phonics research on English Learners has been accumulating for the past decade (I’m in the middle of meta-analyzing that), and it seems evident now that such teaching is beneficial to those kids, too. Phonics not only appears to improve the decoding of English Learners, but this decoding advantage carries over to comprehension as well.

But I said that those English Language Learner experts weren’t entirely wrong.

How does that work given those findings?

One of the main reasons that those experts bridle at phonics for second language learners is because schools often only have one plan for helping students who are low readers. That means the English learners are always stuck into the phonics group, no matter what assessments would show about them.

I just read some terrific studies by Sharon Vaughn and her colleagues. They came up with an intervention that explicitly taught phonics, but also explicitly worked on English Learners’ vocabularies and comprehension. And that makes sense. Even if these kids struggle with decoding, they still will need help with oral language and comprehension. None of the studies that have shown the benefits of phonics to English learners has done this in a vacuum; these kids were getting language and comprehension support too.

Teach phonics to English learners who are beginning readers or who are struggling with decoding, but teach that phonics along with substantial high-quality instruction in meaning as well.


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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:

Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Carlson, C. D., & Pollard-Durodola, S. D. (2007). The cross-linguistic transfer of early literacy skills: the role of initial L1 and L2 skills and language of instruction. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38(3), 249-259. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2007/026).

Connor, C. M., May, H., Sparapani, N., Hwang, J. K., Adams, A., Wood, T. S., Siegal, S., Wolfe, C., & Day, S. (2022). Bringing Assessment-to-Instruction (A2i) technology to scale: Exploring the process from development to implementation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(7), 1495–1532.

Dussling, T. M. (2020). The impact of an early reading intervention with English language learners and native-English-speaking children. Reading Psychology, 41(4), 241-263. doi:

Gonzales, W., & Tejero Hughes, M. (2021). Leveraging a Spanish literacy intervention to support outcomes of English learners. Reading Psychology, 42(4), 411-434.

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, 166, 145-189. doi:

Ludwig, C., Guo, K., & Georgiou, G. K. (2019). Are reading interventions for English language learners effective? A meta-analysis. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 52(3), 220–231.

Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2017). Early indicators of later English reading comprehension outcomes among children from Spanish-speaking homes. Scientific Studies of Reading, 21(5), 428-448.  doi:10.1080/10888438.2017.1320402.

Mathes, P. G., Pollard-Durodola, S. D., Cárdenas-Hagan, E., Linan-Thompson, S., & Vaughn, S. (2007). Teaching struggling readers who are native Spanish speakers: what do we know? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38(3), 260-71. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2007/027).

Parker, D. C., Klingbeil, D. A., Hanrahan, A. R., Schramm, A. L., Copek, R. A., & Willenbrink, J. B. (2022). Effects of a multi-component decoding intervention for at-risk first graders. Journal of Behavioral Education, 31(2), 326–349.

Share, D. L. (2021). Is the science of reading just the science of reading English? Reading Research Quarterly, 56, S391-S402. 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 (pp. 415-488). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.  

Sprenger-Charolles, L., & Colé, P. (2013). What are the most effective methods of learning how to read? Studies with children who have learned to read in their mother tongue or second language. Approche Neuropsychologique des Apprentissages chez l’Enfant, 25(123), 127-134.

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.


LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Cheryl Deutschman Apr 25, 2018 08:46 PM

Good afternoon! Has she published these studies; is there another book in the offing or are these ideas in her most recent text? Thank you in advance.

Jennifer Garza Apr 25, 2018 09:55 PM

I was a student of the explicit, multi-sensory phonics by Romalda Spalding. I was also a teacher trainer for the Riggs Institute. I have witnessed ESL students making amazing gains using such methods. Gifted and talented are not bored either. Have you studied the writings of Dr. Hilde Mosse and her complete handbook to correct and prevent learning disorders? Google her.

It would be a pleasure to share a pedagogical discussion with you about early education.

Forgive me but "the reason is because" remains a dreadful syntactical structure. Write "the reason is that" when the need arises. Semicolon use should also be employed with care; I am a stickler like Lynn Truss. Modeling proper usage is quintessential for learning as I am confident you would agree.

Please view my website, and perhaps we can chat about our passion for education. Thanks for your efforts towards literacy! Jennifer

Grace Vilar Apr 26, 2018 02:15 AM

I have been working with synthetic phonics in Spanish English countries with ESL students for over 12 years now. I am a synthetic phonics teacher trainer and as so I have trained thousands of teachers and hundreds of bilingual schools in Latin America with wonderful results. English learners gain enormously by learning to read with phonics as they will decode and want to know the meaning when they do not understand. We use the simple view of reading which balances decoding and understanding. Phonics also is extraordinary for spelling being English language so complex in its spelling, knowing how the English alphabetic code works helps the learners enormously. Also it is helping with a better pronunciation as it works at a phoneme level. All in all, the ESL situation has improved dramatically since the application of phonics in second language settings.

Aileen May 24, 2018 06:07 PM

Is there any format for teaching phonics to ENL students that has shown promise? I am semi-trained in the Wilson program and that starts very basic. I would appreciate any guidance as to teaching young students who are coming in with very little to no English. The student is working with our ENL teacher, but I would like to work with him as a reading teacher next school year. He is not even a level A in the the Fountas and Pinnell and he is just finishing 2nd grade. He came early in the year. Thank you.

Lauren Nov 18, 2023 05:18 PM

We saw tremendous growth with students coming in as total non-English speaking or reading students. I started by going through letter sounds and then on up the line with CVC, blends, digraphs etc. I think the key is to have a program with lots of picture cues with the systematic phonics instruction. I did a lot of matching pictures with spelling pattern words such as pool, moon, boot, tooth etc. I also did leveled pattern readers, and I would translate the readers into Spanish. (Eventually they didn't need me to translate.) They also need to study sight words with the Spanish translation.

I would just comment that it matters whether they are able to read in their native language. I would also comment that the strict phonics only approach does not work, with no pictures and little meaning in the text. Nonsense words also don't work.

Kevin Zugel Nov 18, 2023 07:05 PM

I was able to conduct and publish research that included phonics instruction as part of comprehensive reading instruction. The results were positive. I currently use and recommend phonics to all students as part of their reading instruction.

Beth Hankoff Nov 18, 2023 07:08 PM

I have found phonics helpful for ELLs, even if they are speaking and reading on grade level. Spelling in English often eludes them, even if they do a lot of reading. Teaching some basic phonics rules helps tremendously.

I work with students one-on-one, which allows me to adjust to individual needs. Students with learning disabilities often improve dramatically in reading, writing, and spelling when phonics is introduced.

Jane Nov 18, 2023 07:59 PM

Thank you for this. Could you give more information or give direction to accessing Sharon Vaughn’s work concerning vocabulary and comprehension instruction for ELLs? I’m not sure whether or not the book “Research Based Methods of Reading Instruction for ELLs” is what you are referring to.

Betty Clemens Nov 18, 2023 09:09 PM

What condescending comments, you get ! I always appreciate your answers, which are "right on", always. My question is when did we reject grade level instruction and why? Hope you will address this for me. If we can't pinpoint grade levels in teaching, why do we use grade levels in testing? Many states are ignoring standardized testing, seemingly, to avoid telling teachers, students, and parents the awful truth. Criterian refernced testing avoids that truth. What do you think? Thanks.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 19, 2023 03:16 PM

Grade level reading instruction started to fall out of favor in the 1910s and by 1950 it had become accepted truth in the field that many students should be taught with texts under grade level. The approach has persisted despite research showing it to be more effective to teach kids with grade level texts.


Timothy Shanahan Nov 19, 2023 03:31 PM

Jane-- Besides the study cited above, here are several other studies she has conducted on that population. Her book may summarize many of these studies.


Vaughn, S., Mathes, P. G., Linan-Thompson, S., & Francis, D. J. (2005). Teaching English Language Learners at risk for reading disabilities to read: Putting research into practice
Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 58–67.

Vaughn, S., Swanson, E., Fall, A.-M., Roberts, G., Capin, P., Stevens, E. A., & Stewart, A. A. (2022). The efficacy of comprehension and vocabulary focused professional development on English learners’ literacy. Journal of Educational Psychology, 114(2), 257–272.

Cho, E., Capin, P., Roberts, G., Roberts, G. J., & Vaughn, S. (2019). Examining sources and mechanisms of reading comprehension difficulties: Comparing English learners and non-English learners within the simple view of reading. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(6), 982–1000.

Vaughn, S., Martinez, L. R., Williams, K. J., Miciak, J., Fall, A.-M., & Roberts, G. (2019). Efficacy of a high school extensive reading intervention for English learners with reading difficulties. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 373–386.

Donna Villareal Nov 19, 2023 04:33 PM

Thank you for circling back to the topic of literacy instruction for multilingual English learners. Direct instruction of sound symbol correspondences is critical. We also need more information about those correspondences that are different for English learners due to their previous experiences in other languages and cultures. For example, some sound symbol correspondences may not exist/conflict or otherwise challenge students as they navigate differences between codes. Teachers need to recognize and understand the challenges of multilingual learners learning more than 1 language code/dialect-or at least respect the challenges and collaborate with TESOL specialists.

Sara Dewey Nov 20, 2023 01:49 PM

You mentioned that Sharon Vaughn has an intervention for EL's. What is it called? Where can I find it? I tried looking on her website but did not find it.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 20, 2023 02:35 PM

See my response to Nancy and there is also a reference to Vaughn's work above.


Stephen Young Nov 21, 2023 09:27 PM

Could you please elaborate on the phrase, "substantial high-quality instruction in meaning." Is it vocabulary and sentence structure instruction? I would appreciate an example of a program you think does this well for English Language Learners.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 21, 2023 09:34 PM

The most obvious feature of language that second language learners need to master is vocabulary but syntax, cohesion, and structure also all are important. I am a big supporter of using programs, but I do not make program recommendations. If you search through my blogs you will find a lot of information about how to teach vocabulary, sentence comprehension, cohesion, text structure, etc.


Jen C. Tucker Nov 22, 2023 04:06 AM

"Indeed, explicit phonics instruction is beneficial to English Learners. Another conclusion of that Shanahan & Beck review was that the effect sizes for teaching phonics to ELs were lower than for teaching native speakers."
Speaking from 30 years of experience in successful work with young students learning easily, young students with learning difficulties, ELs, and older high-achieving students who read and spell inefficiently, the lower effect sizes would be related to knowledge and perception of vowel sounds, native-speaking students being less apt to struggle with the vowel system of English. The peculiarities of the vowel system and its perception constitute a variable that is more complex than phonics instruction.

Nicole Kennedy Nov 22, 2023 06:00 PM

Where can we find more information about the reading intervention that Vaughn and her colleagues came up with?

Timothy Shanahan Nov 22, 2023 08:13 PM


Dr. Vaughn has developed and researched several interventions. I have cited several of her studies in these comments and I would recommend that you check out your favorite bookseller to examine her many books on the topic.


vasan City Acadamey Jan 08, 2024 12:24 PM

Interesting blog about teaching phonics to English learners! Shanahan on Literacy offers insightful analysis from a well-rounded standpoint. We appreciate you bringing up this crucial subject and adding to the current dialogue in education.

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Should We Teach Phonics to English Learners?


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