Q & A with Ester de Jong on the Bilingual and Biliteracy Dimensions of the Science of Reading

Blog Post
April 8, 2024

Ester de Jong is a professor of culturally and linguistically diverse education at the University of Colorado-Denver and co-editor for the Bilingual Research Journal. Professor de Jong was panelist on a webinar New America co-hosted with SEAL about how to align Science of Reading policies with the needs of students identified as English Learners (ELs). I followed up with Dr. de Jong to dig deeper into questions about how the Science of Reading applies to bilingual and biliteracy development. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Leslie: We have seen anecdotal evidence that state and local education leaders are using the Science of Reading (SoR) to push English-only literacy agendas. Does the research support that the SoR applies only to English?

Ester: There are two pieces to that. One is that there’s a lot of research in terms of cognitive sciences and reading in other languages that is similar to what we see in the United States. There is research in Italy, the Netherlands and in other countries with the same idea of understanding how children learn to read in their home language. So it's not an English phenomenon, per se, in terms of what we know about how kids learn to read.

I like to remind people that the processes are similar in the brain. Children [regardless of home language] still need to connect whatever is presented orally to what is on paper. That is the level of commonality that we have. At the same time, there are some language-specific differences in terms of whether you're learning to read in Spanish versus when you're learning to read in Dutch or in English or Arabic. So, there’s commonality because of the process of mapping, the oral language and the written word; but also differences due to the nature of the languages themselves.

Secondly, what we are seeing in terms of the Science of Reading is that learning additional languages are not being brought into the conversation, as though learning to read in your home language is the same as learning to read in your second or third language. It’s sort of implied that the Science of Reading applies to any child learning in any language; the nuance of learning to read in your first versus additional language gets lost in the conversation. And when English learners specifically are considered, there is a very strong emphasis on what we think happens or would happen for these bilingual learners in English-medium settings.

What isn’t being talked about as part of the Science of Reading is how students learn to read in dual language bilingual education program settings, that is what happens in biliteracy development. And because of this omission it may seem like the Science of Reading is not interested in learning bilingually.

I can see how the Science of Reading can easily be turned into an English-only conversation because that's where the focus is in our education system. This is why I think we need to keep emphasizing that it doesn't matter what program the student is in, whether they are in a [dual] language program or in an English-dominant setting, we still need to think about these students as bilingual children.

Leslie: What can we expect to see in terms of the efficacy of SoR policies on ELs’ literacy development if practices enacted in the name of Science of Reading do not adequately address pillars that are critically important to ELs like incorporating their home language oral skills and cultural differences into instruction and making sure literacy instruction accounts for ELs’ varying English proficiency levels?

Ester: Unfortunately, one thing we already see happening is that more English learners are being referred to special education. This will happen because they will not match where the curriculum or the assessment says they are “supposed” to be. They will be identified as “at risk” or “struggling readers” even though they are simply still in the process of developing proficiency in English as their additional language. Another thing we have seen in practice, is that - in response to this assessment- they will get intervention program after intervention program until that is all their schooling is.

The second thing that will happen is that their curricular experience is going to be extraordinarily narrow. This will not prepare them for state tests which means they will not do well on those tests and then the whole cycle continues. This will only get worse over time.

We are already seeing this happen where kids are being referred to special education and speech pathologists because they don't do the “right” mouth movement. There seems to be a fine line between wanting these students to make a connection from oral language to print and creating a narrow understanding of what is the “ right” oral language for this print.

And lastly, I think the other thing you're going to see is a school experience for bilingual children that is stripped from anything that recognizes them for who they are. This disconnect will lead to early dropouts because they will disengage from instruction. We know how important it is for kids to see themselves in the curriculum, to see themselves in being recognized for who they are, and have this sense of connection and belonging in school. It’s an important aspect of both psychological well being but also academic achievement. And although there are people who are talking about the need for culturally responsive materials as part of the Science of Reading curriculum, this will not matter if the pedagogy does not put that into practice.

Leslie: Several panelists explained that the Science of Reading is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum or model. How important is it to consider the instructional model used to educate students identified as ELs (i.e. dual language/bilingual or English as a second language) in how Science of Reading is rolled out?

Ester: Yes, it is important but the model is just one dimension. We know that when the goal [of a model/program] is bilingualism and biliteracy, the cognitive sciences play an important role because that's the process that children in those programs are engaged in.

At the curricular level, it's interesting to think about how specialist ELD teachers work with mainstream teachers to provide holistic literacy instruction. So even from that perspective, you need to think about how to bring those pieces together.

The other piece that is important to consider is the need to differentiate for simple things like different proficiency levels among EL students, the different home languages represented among these students in a classroom, and the different literacy experiences that students come with. A scripted, paced, one-size-fits all curriculum approach will not be responsive to this diversity.

When it comes to the current Science of Reading movement, there's a bit of an assumption that you can never have too much of a good thing, like phonics. There is this notion that it is good for everybody at all times, and getting extra doesn't matter. However, I’ve seen data that shows that it does matter and too much of it can actually take away from children's ability to excel. And I think that needs to be heard.

So, yes, the model is important, but we need to dig deeper there. Differentiation needs to happen in many different ways.

Leslie: During the webinar you focused your remarks on what second language acquisition (SLA) research says about the literacy needs of students identified as ELs. At the same time you stated that what really needs to be added to the conversation is the research-base on bilingual and biliteracy development. Can you elaborate on what that means? And why is the research base on bilingual and biliteracy development important for students identified as ELs when it comes to reading?

Ester: I think you need both. You need to understand how children learn another language.

Today we know that it’s important to know how children acquire English as an additional language and consider what we know about them developmentally. We also need to think about what the conditions for success are in the classroom to learn another language. But you can't have that conversation without also paying attention to the other languages and cultural experiences that they come with.

These things may be obvious in dual language contexts where two languages are actually being taught and there is real consideration about how to put those two pieces together in a meaningful way for the child. Many of these dual language programs have an English side and a Spanish side, and the teachers operate within their language. But we know that holistically the child does not keep those two languages separate. So there's a real point of connection where teachers need to know and understand how what is being taught in English is connected to what they're doing in Spanish and vice versa.

In the spirit of accelerating the learning process, rather than repeating content in one language and then the other, teachers really need to work together to think about the commonalities and differences.

So it’s about identifying what doesn’t need to be repeated and what's really language specific that we need to be paying attention to, and how do we make that a coherent curriculum so that a child is developing these skills in and through both languages.

In English medium settings, on the other hand, we kind of forget that the home/first language is still there. And it's not because the child doesn't use their home language anymore. These students go home and continue to use and develop that language in their community and then they end up bringing that oral language base and literacy experiences to the task of learning English.

This is where understanding student-specific information is key. For example, if a student speaks Japanese at home there might be certain sound patterns in English that may be more challenging or new for this particular student compared to a German speaker. And as a teacher, you need to know that because these differences are very relevant when it comes to phonics lessons.

And that brings us back to differentiation. Teachers cannot assume that all students can distinguish between sounds the same because that skill is influenced by their home language. So even in an English medium setting we cannot forget that this other language is part of who the student is and that it's a resource they will use to figure out what's going on in the classroom.