Q1: What challenges do you face when teaching English learners to read and write?
Rdng & wrtg aren’t just using letters; they’re ways to communicate. If you don’t know the language, rdng & wrtg seem meaningless.
I used to give all my students a decoding test that included nonsense words. “They might have memorized hop,” I was told, “So you have to test them on zop.” Now, I’m a firm believer in the value of direct instruction in and assessment of phonics skills, but as literacy educators, we can never lose sight of the fact that reading and writing as methods of communication, and meaningful communication must be at the center of all literacy instruction. As children learn to read, they should experience the joy of realizing that the letters on the page come together to make words they know and sentences they understand. Kids need that connection in order to check and self-correct: “The cat says moo. Oh, wait, no, that’s cow.”
We need to keep this in mind even more when teaching our ELLs to read and write. For a child with no English, hop is no more sensible than zop, and whether it’s cats or cows who moo is a mystery. We need to layer literacy on the language that children have. This means starting with home-language literacy instruction whenever possible. This is politically controversial, but the science is solid: L1 literacy has enormous benefits, including eventual stronger reading ability in English. Ask any second-grade bilingual teacher: the kids who are fluent readers in Spanish quickly become fluent readers in English, while the kids who struggle in the first language lack the foundation for the second.
When English reading and writing is introduced, the focus must again be on meaningful communication. Right now, I work with newcomers, recent immigrant students with very little English. When I teach new sound-spelling patterns, I stick exclusively to words that are already in their oral vocabulary, like sister and hand, but not sip or hop. Because they are already literate in Spanish, my students can handle two-syllable words (sis-ter) and final consonant blends (hand), which makes those easier to read than short but unfamiliar words.
Bottom line: layer ELLs’ initial literacy instruction on top of their oral language knowledge!