TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Are we setting up English learners for reading success?

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In my first year teaching 4th grade reading and language arts, I had a student, Tien,909 who had recently immigrated to the U.S. Tien was quiet and shy, though I soon discovered his good sense of humor—which he often used to deflect attention from the fact that he could not read. Despite my determination to help him become a strong reader, I did not have sufficient knowledge of how to teach reading, and I did not know how to support him as an English learner.910

Multilingual learners bring many assets to classrooms, including their experiences and linguistic skills in their home language. Unfortunately, aspiring teachers often are not trained in how to effectively capitalize on the strengths of English learners (ELs) to help them learn to read successfully. There's clear research findings rooted in neuroscience about how to support ELs in learning to read, including an explicit emphasis on oral language and vocabulary, language development, and building background knowledge for reading comprehension.911 It is up to states and teacher preparation programs to understand and act on it so every child, including those with native languages other than English, can learn to read–and every teacher is effectively prepared to teach them.912

Reading rates for English learners underscore improving instruction for ELs must be a priority: On the most recent NAEP 4th grade reading results, only 10% of ELs were reading at proficient levels, compared to 37% of their peers—because we are not effectively teaching them. English learners are also one of the fastest-growing populations of students in our schools, with over five million English language learners enrolled in public schools, an increase of 35% over the last two decades.
Despite this data—and the opportunity to make a huge positive impact on our nation's students—teacher preparation programs and states are not keeping pace with students' changing needs. In many cases, even in states that have passed reading laws to promote scientifically-based reading instruction, ELs have been overlooked in these policies.913

In a recent NCTQ analysis of 702 elementary teacher preparation programs, we found that very few programs provide sufficient instruction on the core components of scientifically-based reading instruction. Even more surprising, 69% of programs dedicate less than two instructional hours to teaching reading to English language learners, meaning most new teachers enter classrooms without knowledge and skills to teach ELs to read. Furthermore, 88% of programs in the sample do not require any reading instruction practice with this group of students, so most aspiring teachers may never have a chance to work with English learners before they enter the classroom. This lack of knowledge results in teachers who might ignore ELs' needs or may apply teaching methods that are ineffective or damaging to these students.

Recently, national experts on English learners and reading came together to release a joint statement that addresses, head-on, the misconception that the science of reading does not apply to ELs. This statement calls on the education community to be deliberate in promoting scientifically based reading instruction and research-based practices that specifically support ELs: "[E]ffectively translating the [scientific research] into practice among schools and Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs) poses a formidable challenge" that calls for a "transformative approach in EPPs" so teachers emerge with knowledge and understanding of both "how to instruct students in reading and writing, as well as the pivotal role of oral language and home language development, particularly for ELs/EBs."

Our analysis illuminated several teacher preparation programs doing this transformative work to prepare teachers to teach English learners well. Where we identified strong programs, we found:
  • Candidates leave with a strong background in the components of the science of reading and a strong understanding of the research-based methods specific to teaching ELs to read, such as oral language, academic language, building background knowledge, and translanguaging.914
  • All courses use high quality textbooks that include evidence-based information related to ELs.
  • The program includes at least one course dedicated to teaching ELs. These courses address high-leverage instructional methods specific to teaching ELs to read.
  • Candidates have a chance to practice teaching ELs to read using evidence-based practices in their student teaching and their coursework.
For example, the University of Northern Colorado requires teacher candidates to take a course, "Diverse Early Language and Literacy," which is grounded in the reading research and provides candidates with knowledge of how to teach the five core components in the context of teaching ELs to read. Middle Tennessee State University requires a course focused on teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students that includes many high leverage practices (e.g., oral language, background knowledge, academic language, translanguaging).915 At Appalachian State University, candidates take courses specific to ELs with an integrated practicum experience, such as "Learner Diversity—Teaching English Learners" that includes many of these same high leverage practices.

States also have a big role to play in including ELs in reading policies to impact practice. In a forthcoming NCTQ report on the states' implementation of policy aligned to the science of reading, we see promising examples of some states focusing more on supporting ELs. For example, 30 states set specific standards for teacher prep related to teaching ELs. Some states, like Rhode Island, are creating materials for pre-service teachers. Rhode Island is presently working with a vendor to modify training materials for pre-service teachers so they get information about how to teach reading specifically to English learners and to students in dual language programs. The rest of the nation should follow their example.

After all these years, I still feel a pang of sadness when I think of how I couldn't help Tien. I wasn't prepared. I hadn't been taught how to help him as an English learner. All my determination, hard work, and good intentions couldn't make up for that. Every year, countless students just like Tien pass through our education system without getting the help they need. And for each one, a teacher is left feeling frustrated, or confused, and may not even realize why.

We cannot leave aspiring teachers to fend for themselves in learning to teach English learners to read. States and teacher prep programs need to step up and ensure they learn the skills and methods to help these students succeed.

Join our webinar for more discussion of teaching reading to diverse learners, including English learners, students struggling to read, and students who are speakers of English language varieties other than mainstream English.
Webinar: Supporting All Learners to Read
Date/time: November 16th from 2:00-3:00pm EST
RegistrationLearn more or register now!