3 Ways to Ensure English Learners Benefit From the Science of Reading

Blog Post
Feb. 22, 2024

Since 2013, 37 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted new reading laws and policies built on what is broadly referred to as the “Science of Reading” (SoR). This embrace of SoR was influenced by declining reading proficiency scores across the country as education and policy leaders, as well as parents, looked for a solution.

As this movement gained momentum, advocates and researchers for students identified as English learners (ELs) began to raise concerns about how these students’ unique literacy needs were being integrated into policies and practices adopted in the name of SoR. This tension led to a multi-year effort between EL advocates, The Reading League, and the National Committee for Effective Literacy to build common ground on the issue. Their effort culminated in a joint statement released last fall to help the public understand the nuances of the body of knowledge behind the SoR and how to ensure its implementation does not overlook students identified as ELs.

Last week, New America’s English Learner initiative partnered with SEAL, an organization that provides professional development, curriculum and technical assistance to support linguistically diverse students in California, on a webinar focused on the alignment of SoR policies with the needs of students identified as ELs. The event consisted of two panels: the first addressed research and advocacy considerations, and the second explored the practical implementation of SoR policies for EL-identified students. Here are three key takeaways from the webinar.

1. Policies and practices enacted in the name of SoR must include much more than just phonics

According to panelist Martha Hernandez, executive director for Californians Together, the prevailing narrative around the SoR has favored a very narrow definition on foundational skills and phonics. However, as professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University, Susan B. Neuman explained, the large body of research behind the SoR emphasizes a structured literacy approach to instruction whereby students receive explicit and direct instruction on what are referred to as the “Huge Seven.” According to Neuman, the Huge Seven include the five pillars of reading from the National Reading Panel, plus two additional skills (highlighted in red), which the field now recognizes as being crucially important for students identified as ELs (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Huge Seven Pillars of Reading

Source: New America. The five pillars of reading in green come from the National Reading Panel, and the two additional skills in red highlight what the field now recognizes as being crucially important for students identified as ELs.

According to the SoR literature, these skills cannot be taught in isolation and must be taught in culturally responsive and personalized ways so that literacy lessons are meaningful to students. Hope Langston, director of instructional services at Northfield Public Schools in Minnesota, underscored the importance of recognizing background knowledge as content knowledge, highlighting that what a student learns in school contributes to their preexisting knowledge. Gladys Aponte, postdoctoral research scholar at The Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University, added that because reading is cultural, and not just a static practice disconnected from children's experiences, educators need to help students recognize and leverage their linguistic and cultural assets for literacy learning.

This broader conceptualization of SoR is critically important for schools with dual language programs because, as Hernandez shared, a narrow application of SoR through an English-centric lens can impact the integrity of bilingual programs and diminish the efficacy of their goals of multiliteracy. In New York City, the Office of Multilingual Students has been helping school districts implement their state-approved reading curricula in a way that maintains EL-classified students’ cultural and linguistic identities, shared Aponte. In one school district with a dual language program, for example, a pre-existing literacy implementation guide has been leveraged to help teachers foster translanguaging practices (i.e. moving fluidly between two languages) in their classrooms. These cross-linguistic practices have been embedded into curricula with the help of instructional coaches provided by the department of education who have been able to provide resources that pay explicit attention to biliteracy development (Spanish/English), not just English, within literacy development contexts.

2. English learners’ oral language abilities in their home language and English should be the starting point for literacy instruction

Several panelists remarked on how the vast research base on bilingual and biliteracy development is currently missing from the SoR conversation, so much so that we forget that students identified as ELs come to school with linguistic resources other than English. Panelist Ester de Jong, professor of culturally and linguistically diverse education at the University of Colorado-Denver, emphasized that these students have an oral base in their home language that has been developed through exposure and experiences in that language, a resource that is critical in second language acquisition. Students identified as ELs have seen literacy practices in their home language, even if in informal ways, and not taking these resources into account when it comes to literacy instruction puts these students at a disadvantage.

“Everything in reading depends on the knowledge of spoken language” - Ester de Jong quoting Mark Seidenberg, from a talk he gave at the Yale Child Study Center

In practice, this means teachers must understand that they can and should build cross-linguistic connections (i.e. applying what is learned in one language to situations presented in another language) between their home language and English to encourage skill transfer and develop meta-linguistic awareness (i.e. understanding of how language works and how it changes and adapts). Additionally, panelists reminded the audience about the essential nature of English language development (ELD) services for students identified as ELs as it is intimately connected to their literacy development. ELD services are supposed to provide ELs access to grade level content and help them become proficient in English. However, as de Jong explained, ELs come with varying levels of English proficiency, which means instruction should be differentiated for students who are at the beginning levels of English language development. Langston shared that a simple yet massive shift for teachers at Northfield Public Schools was being able to offer their literacy screener in Spanish to newcomers and other EL students. Doing so has allowed them to see what their strengths are in their home language before they start anything else. Ultimately, the question is how to help all EL students understand the connection between what is in print and spoken language.

3. Consistent collaboration between English learner specialists and early literacy departments is key to ensuring English learners are not left out of SoR reforms

When SoR started rolling out in Oakland Unified School District, Nicole Knight, executive director of English language learner and multilingual achievement in Oakland shared that it was solely focused on foundational skills (i.e phonics) at the expense of broader literacy skills that are critical in the SoR. As a result, dual language instructors felt they were being pushed towards monolingual English instruction despite everything known about how ELs learn language and content. In response, Knight joined forces with the early literacy director and together created a language and literacy framework for all classrooms in grades TK–5.

“Science of Reading doesn’t mean we take a universal approach to teaching reading. Schools need to make sure the right curriculum is chosen for bilingual children and that all teachers are trained to understand bilingualism and biliteracy.” –Gladys Aponte

Similarly in Delaware, Maria Rodriguez, multilingual learner education associate for the state’s Department of Education, shared that although early literacy teams were engaged by state legislators before legislation was introduced, attention to ELs was not part of those initial conversations. Rodriguez pushed for what became a standing meeting that led to a statewide policy brief laying out how to ensure ELs were represented in SoR changes.

Collaboration between early literacy and English learner teams allows for teacher professional learning that factors in both language and literacy needs for EL-classified students. In Oakland, for example, the district has been providing coaching to school sites as they adjust their language and literacy blocks to ensure they are allocating the right amount of time to each and that English language development was not being left out of the foundational literacy block. In Delaware, reading specialists and interventionists have been partners in helping teachers understand what skillful implementation of SoR materials look like when attending to the needs of ELs.

The joint statement described the SoR movement like a bad game of telephone plagued with frequent miscommunications or misinterpretations of the term “Science of Reading.” Many panelists expressed similar frustrations about the full message not getting to districts, parents, legislators, and the public at large, a problem they attributed largely to the simplistic way the issue is portrayed by the media. When asked where the message is getting lost, Neuman focused on journalists and the terms they use. “Our journalists are coming out with ‘phonics-based instruction’. And if you look at what the policy-makers are saying, they are mimicking what the journalists have told them or have said to them.” Instead, Neuman emphasized, the messaging should convey the importance of a comprehensive approach to literacy.

Moving forward, panelist Kari Kurto, national science of reading project director for The Reading League shared that she hopes the joint statement will continue to be used to guide healing discussions in school buildings where misunderstandings are still rampant, that it is integrated into teacher preparation courses, and used to frame statewide SoR guidance. Despite the concerns, panelists seemed optimistic that this shift in literacy policy and practice can be an opportunity to ensure students identified as ELs are integrated into literacy programs from the beginning, instead of an afterthought.


To learn more about the panelists and to watch the full webinar click here.

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English Learners