Blast from the Past: First posted March 7, 2010; re-posted April 25, 2018. To some extent I was guessing when I originally wrote this, but since then the evidence has been steadily accumulating (Adesope, Lavin, Thompson, & Ungerleider, 2011; August, McCardle, & Shanahan, 2014; Sprenger-Charolles, & Cole, 2013; Vadasy & Sanders, 2012). The continued need to teach second-language kids to read and the new evidence suggest this is a good time for a reposting.
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 pretty 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.
By all means, 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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