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Literacy Education for ESL Students

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TeachersTopic is a periodical feature about a subject of interest to the teaching community written by a prominent expert in the field. This month, Patricia M. Cooper, Ph.D answers questions about literacy education for children whose primary language is not English. Dr. Cooper is an Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, where she teaches courses in various aspects of literacy education. Cooper began her work in schools as a kindergarten teacher on the south side of Chicago. She founded the Trinity School for Young Children in Houston, TX. Next, she founded the School Literacy and Culture Project, a school-based teacher education project, located in Rice University’s Center for Education. She is currently writing a book on Vivian Paley’s impact on early childhood education. Other research interests include a focus on White teachers of Black children, race, and literacy education.


Many children in U.S. schools have one or more parents whose primary language is not English. What effect does this have on literacy education for those children?
Research in reading has established a link between children’s success in reading and writing and their literacy experiences at home prior to the kindergarten year. The value of these home experiences around reading and writing is naturally enhanced when the language of home and school are the same.


That said, it is extremely important to note that there is ample historical and longitudinal evidence that children can learn to speak, read, and write in a language different from the one they speak at home or when home literacy experiences do not meet school expectations. It is a mistake for educators to allow these differences to color their perceptions of their own role either in the literacy learning process, or children’s abilities to learn in and outside the home.


What challenges do educators face in reaching these students?
First, working with second language learners is most effective in a “dual language” environment in which native English speakers are learning a second language, while non-native English speakers are learning English. In practice, part of the instructional day employs English, and the other employs the targeted second language. In this way, both groups of children learn to move easily between the two languages, valuing both. For several reasons, however, this approach is not available to most teachers and children. First, America does not have enough teachers who speak a language other than English.


Second, often schools have classes in which multiple languages are represented. Third, in some cases, school districts are not committed to second language proficiency. A second type of approach is the more common bi-lingual classroom. In this, literacy instruction centers on one home language (e.g., Spanish). English is phased in over time. Most bi-lingual programs aim for children to be English proficient in reading and writing by third grade. The third approach is the English-as-second-language (ESL) classroom, where instruction is in English with special considerations given to the needs of the children’s home languages.


Challenges in all three settings include the need for teachers:


  • To be sensitive to the emotional, physical, and cognitive confusion children confront when they do not know the dominant language of the school. Children should never be seen as less able or intelligent because of a language barrier.
  • To make every effort to help second language learners build a two-way vocabulary (for example, labeling objects in the room in two or more languages, noting different words in different languages in conversation, providing books in two languages, allow children to write in two languages as necessary).
  • To see the parents as partners in establishing the legitimacy of the home language. Parents should be invited in to talk about their home or ethnic cultures. Every attempt should be made to work with translators, when necessary



Is it important for their parents to become literate in English?
Practically speaking, it always helps if a parent can read and write in the language children use in school. This synchronization allows the parent to help with homework, respond to school notices, and so on. At the same time, it is not an intellectual prerequisite as, again, evidence suggests that children can learn to read and write in the language of school even if their parents do not share it.


What methods of teaching reading are currently most popular? How has literacy education changed over the last several decades?

A very popular method of teaching reading at this point in time is what many refer to as ‘balanced literacy.’ This means instruction in key skills, including those related to word study (phonemic awareness, phonics, sight words, spelling, and more), reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, and also writing (creative and expository). Debate continues as to whether instruction should tip in favor of word study or reading comprehension. It must be remembered that whatever the method, comprehension and engagement is the goal. Furthermore, children, unlike research, do not come neatly packaged. The best educators will use whatever works best with individual children.


How have advancements in technology changed literacy education?
Literacy education at the primary level in regular education has not changed substantially with the advent of technology at critical levels, especially in the lower grades. Learning the sounds of the letters, for example, reading a story, or charting inferences can happen with or without technology. Teachers need to be especially wary of computer programs that promise to make learning easier, but are, in fact, nothing more than ‘computerized worksheets.’ At the same time, teachers should be aware that modern children are very comfortable with computer programs and are attracted to computer experiences. In this sense, learning is not so much changed as repackaged for a new generation. In addition, technology-assisted learning holds much promise for children whose learning would benefit from such factors as the elimination of handwriting, the chance to receive immediate feed back, experiment with options, and so on. Finally, teachers need to distinguish between learning to read and write and becoming technologically literate. There are many, many advantages to the second, the opportunity for which is definitely increased once the first is secured.


What can parents do at home to supplement their children’s in-school literacy education?
First and foremost, it is most helpful if parents engage with children in conversations that encourage children to think and evaluate situations that arise in the home. Everything from cooking to television programs is a possible focal point. In addition, parents should be encouraged to read to their children on a regular basis, not just in the pre-school and primary grades, but through the elementary years. It is also desirable that parents promote children’s interest in writing by having plenty of inexpensive writing materials around. Ideally, a child will have a writing space at home, but a clipboard and a pencil case will do.


How can teachers best respond to students who learn to read more slowly than others? How should they respond to students who are ahead of the curve?
Every classroom will have children who are reading and writing on different levels. It is obviously important that children have regular opportunities to work on their own levels. Teachers should avoid grouping children by ability all the time, however. The literacy curriculum should be structured around whole and small group experiences. Specific skills relative to children’s individual needs are usually taught in small groups. Whole groups are usually reserved for introductory activities and general comprehension activities.


It is often said that people are more capable of learning second and third languages in early childhood than at any other time. What are the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating foreign language study into the elementary school curriculum? How frequently is this done, and how intensive should study be?
There are no theoretical disadvantages to incorporating foreign language study into the elementary school curriculum. There are obvious advantages, however, as is evidenced by the fact that it is a worldwide common practice. At the same time, the typical American version of this rarely produces second language speakers for the simple reason that it occurs too infrequently to gain proficiency and is not incorporated into the general curriculum. It might even be argued that this failed attempt is worse than no attempt in that children in the elementary years all too soon grow bored of weekly Spanish or Chinese, possibly setting into motion negative lifelong attitudes about language learning.

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