Teaching Phonics to English Learners

  • 07 March, 2010

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.


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 originslearningservices.com, 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.

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Teaching Phonics to English Learners


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He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.