Q and A with Aída Walqui on How to Make the Science of Reading Work for Adolescent English Learners and Newcomers

Blog Post
June 3, 2024

Aída Walqui is a senior research scientist at WestEd where she directs the National Research & Development Center to Improve Education for Secondary English Learners at WestEd. Dr. Walqui has two bachelor’s degrees, the first one in Spanish literature and the second one in English literature, a master’s in sociolinguistics from Georgetown, and a PhD in from Stanford University Graduate School of Education. This blog post is part of a series exploring how to align Science of Reading (SoR) policies with the needs of students identified as English Learners (ELs). I spoke with Dr. Walqui to learn more about how the needs of adolescent ELs and older newcomers should be addressed within SoR policies and practices.

Leslie: I would like to start off by asking you to share a bit about yourself, your background, and your role in education. And how/why did you decide to focus on secondary English learners in particular? 

Aída: I am Peruvian. I was teaching English in Peru after my second degree and that’s when I got really interested in language, especially in my home country where millions of indigenous people speak other languages, and they need to learn Spanish as a second language. But I found the way Spanish was being taught was disconnected from their human experience. So, when I attended Georgetown, it was fascinating to no longer have language defined as just grammar and words, but to understand that language is a tool we all use to get things done in the world. Language is action. And how we use language has a lot to do with our identities, how we value ourselves, and how others perceive us. 

My role with secondary English learners didn’t start until much later when I became a high school teacher in Salinas, California where I taught for six years. It was a wonderful experience because I had not been privy to the belief and zeitgeist that these poor [English learner] 

students could not perform well in school because they did not know English. I had just come from Mexico where I had been exposed to the robust culture, arts, and abilities of Mexican people so I came in with a positive and asset-based mentality about what my [Mexican and Spanish]-speaking students could do.

I taught my students with the same rigor that I used with my university students in Mexico and the United Kingdom, and they were delighted. I proved that these “pobrecito” students could do it, so I taught my courses in ambitious and amplified ways. I taught history, social studies, language arts in English and in Spanish, and a Spanish class. That was when I realized that a major disservice was being done to students labeled at the time as “Limited English Proficient”. They had spoken Spanish all their lives and had a rich knowledge of life. However, their class time was being filled with grammar lessons that were diminishing and inconsequential. As a linguist I knew that was wrong. So instead, I brought relevant literature and had students engage in rigorous discussions. 

I became convinced that the problem was not just a matter of curriculum, or of pedagogy. It's a matter of the context in which you work, which at the time was rife with discrimination. And it became clear to me that education is a tool to challenge an oppressive status quo. And that the more we work on students developing both their ability to use their native language, in this case Spanish, as well as English, the better off they would be. 

Leslie: Much of the focus in the Science of Reading revolves around elementary-age students and how they are being prepared to read by 3rd grade. Less attention is being placed on adolescents' literacy development. From your perspective and professional experience, is there a place for SoR to support adolescent English learners? 

Aída: It really depends on the balance you give to the elements of the Science of Reading. In the best interpretation, there's a little bit of phonics coupled with a lot of meaning making. But as kids grow older and if you meet them in middle or high school, they have already learned to at least read and interpret the world. And if they read in their home language they already have the basic skills and there's no need to isolate phonics. For these students not only is there no need, but it can be demoralizing to go into a class and have to focus on sounding out sounds in isolation. Students need to be valued for what they have and it’s the teacher’s job to build what they don't have. 

The situation is different if a child comes with no literacy skills in 10th grade, or 8th or 9th grade. But the difference is that even when you're building basic literacy skills at that age, it still needs to be a meaning-making activity. So if you are developing literacy skills as a teenager in a second language, you need to know what you're saying. And you need to know what you're reading. At first their oral language development may be restricted, but this is usually for a short period of time as they learn to interact in English. 

Human beings are meaning-making animals, we interpret and try to make sense of things around us like body language, intonation, stress, rhythm, all of that. Sounds in isolation mean nothing and pulling out just phonics for students who are teenagers is insulting. If phonic work is needed, it needs to be embedded in meaning-making activities and lessons. 

The Science of Reading can be interpreted as being really appropriate for those contexts. But it can also be inappropriately narrowed on making students sound out words without context or meaning, so we have to be careful.  

Leslie: We held a webinar on how to align Science of Reading policies and practices to the needs of students identified as English learners and during that conversation it became clear that little attention has been placed on the literacy needs of adolescent newcomers. What should people know about how literacy development should be approached for adolescent newcomers?

Aída: Meaning-making of these students is at its prime and there are ways of preparing students to engage in rigorous, challenging activity that is well supported and honors their intelligence. You often see 14-year-olds reading books that have been written for seven-year-olds, that is insulting. And the moment the student leaves the classroom, they are an extremely intelligent human being, but inadequate classrooms take that intelligence away. 

Newcomers who have very little English can actually engage in meaning-making through the second language quite rapidly. In my work, we build lots of invitations and units of study for teenagers who don't speak any English, and by month four they're talking and discussing ideas that are meaningful and worthwhile for them. And they do make mistakes, but we all did, and these mistakes are a normal part of the learning process. 

With teenagers, literacy activities need to be real, have to be challenging, and well supported. They have to be absolutely relevant to students' lives, that is what motivates them into action and effort. My team creates lessons, for example, about Mexican muralists where students find themselves as possibilities and are excited about the topic and start reading about them in English, beyond what they can do. And that's what you want, you want students to stretch, but they can only stretch if the invitation is enticing. If the invitation is boring, and treats them like babies, they are not going to engage. 

Honoring the intelligence of our students in this way is especially important, teenagers are in the process of forming an identity. And that identity needs to be an identity of potential, strength, and pride. That can only be done if we honor their resources and possibilities. 

Leslie: Audience members at that webinar were also interested in hearing about effective practices for newcomer students. How are newcomers assessed to determine their reading proficiency in their home language? And how can those skills transfer to their acquisition of English? Can you speak to how content and ELD teachers can facilitate the ongoing literacy development of adolescent ELs and newcomers? 

Aída: In terms of practices, it starts with coherence. How can teachers facilitate the development of sophisticated literacy skills across the whole school and ensure staff follow the same practices and value the students equally? Because having one teacher that is really good but that is the outlier among the rest, will lead the student to drown.

And in terms of effective practices, at our center we have observed and worked with teachers a lot but only in English language arts. Not in math, science, or social studies. And we find that teachers working in isolation leads to students learning through disjointed forms of pedagogy which is not helpful. A child may feel intellectual and valued in one class, and then face a different reality in another class. One of the most effective practices is pedagogical coherence at the school level. 

For students who have not developed the ability to read written texts yet, we need to remember Freire’s affirmation that “before we learn to read the word, we learn to read the world.” They have learned to read their environment, people’s faces and actions, intonation and stress of voice. If this knowledge is used to help them read written texts they will succeed faster than if they are asked to read isolated words or sentences which do not amount to important ideas. The interpretive skills of students are there, their analytic thinking is also in place. These assets have to be used in the development of written literacy in English.

On assessment, ideally this is done one-on-one and literacy has to be assessed in the language students speak. Now I know that's an expensive endeavor, but if you really think about it, it can happen a month before school starts. For example, you can give a student a reading and discuss it with them and have them read a paragraph aloud to gauge their capabilities. And then teachers need to figure out how much that student can interpret from text. Then you can start to have a diagnosis of what needs to be done as they begin to learn English. 

Teachers can learn to build on the resources that students take to school. They need to be provided the opportunity to learn how to do so with the students they have. Situated professional learning that is rigorous and that involves lots of analytic interactions by teachers will help them develop students’ immense potential.