Phonics for Second-Language Learners?

  • 17 November, 2018
  • 16 Comments

Teacher letter:

30% of our children are second-language learners—mainly from Mexico and Central America. The reason that I’m writing is that our school’s RtI program only provides tier 2 interventions that are aimed at teaching decoding. That means when our 1st and 2nd graders are having trouble in reading (and many of them are), they get more phonics teaching. What do you think of providing so much phonics to Spanish speakers? It makes no sense to me, but no one will listen. 

Shanahan response:

Great letter!

I, too, have seen this at many schools—and many of my colleagues who specialize in bilingual education tell me that this kind of over-referral of ELLs to phonics and fluency interventions is all-too-common.

But before getting to that, let me challenge your claim that second-language learners don’t need phonics.

That is not the case. English is an alphabetic language and learning to decode is essential—just as it is for native English speakers.

If your students are already literate in Spanish, then they likely don’t need a full-dose of phonics because of the overlaps and transference of these kind of skills from one language to another. Some tuition directed to the differences or to the spelling patterns of sound-symbol relations that aren’t like those in Spanish can be sufficient.

But most of the young ELLs that I observe tend not to already be literate in their home language when they enter school, so some attention to phonics in L1 or L2 or both is recommended.

Research shows that phonics instruction is beneficial for second-language learners (Shanahan & Beck, 2008). However, the effects for such instructional efforts are more modest than those for first-language learners. That means those Spanish speakers whom you are concerned about do benefit from phonics, but the payoffs are smaller than what will be obtained by their native English classmates.

Which brings us back to your question. The reason those effects are smaller is likely due to the fact that phonics helps readers to translate from print to oral language – which is great, unless you don’t yet know the language.

Sounding out words is essential in English but its payoff depends on whether you know the word menings that you have managed to pronounce. Usually young English speakers will know most of the language they are asked to read, so decoding allows them to go from print to pronunciation to meaning.

But for those who don’t know the meanings of those English words, decoding provides pronunciation, but not comprehension. In other words, phonics is a necessary but insufficient condition for reading comprehension.

This is definitely an issue for second language learners, like your students, but it can also be an issue for children whose language is limited by poverty or for the learning disabled whose problems may be linguistic rather than or in addition to orthographic-phonemic.

Recently, Richard Wagner published a series of valuable papers showing the prevalence of reading comprehension problems that were due to language deficiencies in various populations. The percentages of such children were considerable—particularly in the second-language population.

Our question highlights the problem that occurs with Tier 2 programs when they are only aimed at one kind of reading problem.

I certainly sympathize with the teacher or principal who wants to help little Jose who is struggling to read in Grade 2. His phonics skills may be adequate according to the screening and monitoring measures, but they feel like they have to do something for him. Since the phonics program is the only choice available, that’s where he ends up. Can’t hurt, right?

But, in fact, it can hurt—as phonics does nothing to build English. Schools need to provide more than phonics and fluency support, though those are essential, and children with needs there in the earlier years are likely to predominate. But boys and girls whose deficiency is more linguistic than phonemic-orthographic need help as well; and this is especially likely among children who are just learning English.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Rosie Condon
Nov 17, 2018 08:24 AM

Really interesting. We have the same issue in the UK and not enough teacher understanding about what different learners need. Often there is a lack of focus on the idea that print carries meaning and students need to be supported in this otherwise the ‘reward’ of reading becomes being able to decode rather than the meaning.

Hanada Taha Thomure
Nov 17, 2018 11:58 AM

Agreed. We are finding the same issues in Arabic for native learners, where many school systems in the Arab world are not working on phonics with the children. Phonics were introduced to 1st and 2nd graders in Morocco recently as part of a nation wide literacy reform. The initial results from the EGRA test reveal some incredible gains in reading. I hope that more Arab countries would adopt that coupled of course with a focus on literature as well.

Nancy Rose Steinbock, M.A., CCC-SLP
Nov 17, 2018 12:20 PM

I am a speech-language pathologist and have worked in literacy acquisition and disorders for nearly 4 decades. I spent 15 years in Italy teaching challenged and non-challenged learners in my language lab, Inglese Dinamico and now, back in America, work with challenged learners and EL adults and children in my private practice and through Martha's Vineyard Language & Literacy Project (www.mvllp.org). As an essential aspect of my work, I have utilized synthetic phonics. For my EL learners, whether challenged or non-challenged learners, it builds phonological/phonemic awareness of the language giving them access to accurate pronunciation, to understanding English orthography and how it relates symbolically to the 44 phonemes of English, access to morphology, syllables and importantly, vocabulary and speech/reading fluency. I use a simple set of books, Explode the Code, bolstered by informed intervention techniques, by evidence-based programs such as Lively Letters (Reading with TLC) and Spell Links (Learning by Design). First, EL learners, like their English language counterparts, enjoy the success of grasping foundational linguistic knowledge, of mastering active strategies for developing independent reading skills and importantly, for understanding how to execute and decode English orthography. Phonics is essential to all learners language and reading acquisition. If you have ever fought in the 'reading wars', you soon learn which is the winning side

Laura Lukens
Nov 17, 2018 04:59 PM

Thank you for this, Dr. Shanahan! I have been saying this for years to school teams who want to provide phonics-based Tier 2 interventions to ELs. The problem is that there are very few meaning-based interventions available for ELs. Our district uses RtI and tracks the success of Tiers 2 and 3 reading interventions for ELs who are experiencing difficulties with reading. The interventions available are phonics-based and scripted, allowing very little latitude for building background knowledge and explicit vocabulary development, which is what our ELs need to increase their reading comprehension. In addition, literacy instruction in general is sorely lacking in oral language development, which is the foundation for literacy in all learners, not just ELs.

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 18, 2018 12:04 AM

Thanks for all these comments. Indeed, in any alphabetic language (including Arabic) explicit phonics will give a benefit--and this is true for both first- and second-language learners. I'm in China at the moment, and am seeing lots of word memorization in English rather than teaching the students a system for reading.

However, no matter how important phonics (and fluency) are, once they have been mastered--more teaching of them is not indicated when a student is still struggling to make sense of text. Language development in the second language is more likely to be the culprit and language-based interventions for these students make the greatest sense.

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 18, 2018 12:05 AM

Thanks for all these comments. Indeed, in any alphabetic language (including Arabic) explicit phonics will give a benefit--and this is true for both first- and second-language learners. I'm in China at the moment, and am seeing lots of word memorization in English rather than teaching the students a system for reading.

However, no matter how important phonics (and fluency) are, once they have been mastered--more teaching of them is not indicated when a student is still struggling to make sense of text. Language development in the second language is more likely to be the culprit and language-based interventions for these students make the greatest sense.

A. Castine
Nov 18, 2018 12:55 AM

Why I am still confused as to what you are saying? I am a reading teacher with no ENL background. We have a student - new as of last school year - now in 3rd grade - who came speaking Spanish, no English, doesn't write or read in his native language and came to our small district. He received ESOL - we now say ENL - 2 times a day in 2nd grade, but no reading services. This year I feel the need to see him in addition to the ENL teacher who works with him once a day. I am using the Wilson materials in addition to books from the Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention (he's reading at level B-C). Our ENL teacher is working with him on vocabulary and also reading decodable books more at his grade level (too hard, but to expose to content). I am very unsure of how to progress with this young boy. I can't imagine not working in phonics with him. Yet, I am not leaving out reading books and discussing reading strategies and comprehension, either.

Dr. Shanahan, I would welcome your input as to how to proceed with this student. Thank you so much. I want very much to do the right thing by him.

Patrick Manyak
Nov 18, 2018 03:02 PM

My long-time reading of the research in this area leads me to the same conclusion as Tim; here is what I see in the research and in my frequent experience in classrooms with ELs:

1) ELs process English print just like native speakers. This means that key foundational skills like phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, etc... are equally important to ELs as they are to native speakers. Further, when ELs struggle with BEGINNING English reading, it is for the same reasons as native speakers - limited phonemic awareness, under-learning of basic phonics and phonics patterns etc.. So, interventions that are effective for native speakers are typically effective for ELs.

2) As ELs move up the grades, they are more prone than native speakers to fit the following profile: fluent word/text reading + limited English vocab knowledge ( Mancilla Martinez & Lesaux, 2011). Not all ELs fit this profile (some continue to struggle with reading fluency, etc...), but it is much more common among ELs than NES. And, of course, as texts get more complex, this limited Eng vocab knowledge severely impacts ELs' text comprehension. For example, the students in Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux (2010) scored at the 21.8% in English vocabulary knowledge and at the 24.4% on a test of comprehension of English reading passages. As I often say, students simply can't "out-comprehend their knowledge of individual words in a text."

Practically, I think that these general conclusions call for a "both/and" solution, which is what I hear Tim describing. ELs students need both 'code-based' beginning reading instruction, just like their native English peers, AND they need excellent, intensive, comprehensive vocabulary instruction from the minute that they hit our schools (like many native speakers, particularly those coming from low-income homes). In general, I see that schools are much better at providing the former than they are the later. And, although it is possible to sneak in a bit of vocab instruction in a reading intervention setting while also focusing on foundational skills (this is the approach used in the Linan-Thompson & Vaughn studies that produced positive results with young ELs), in general I believe that vocabulary instruction needs to be "all day every day" and thus is more properly the domain of general ed teachers.

Patrick Manyak
Nov 18, 2018 03:02 PM

My long-time reading of the research in this area leads me to the same conclusion as Tim; here is what I see in the research and in my frequent experience in classrooms with ELs:

1) ELs process English print just like native speakers. This means that key foundational skills like phonemic awareness, phonics knowledge, etc... are equally important to ELs as they are to native speakers. Further, when ELs struggle with BEGINNING English reading, it is for the same reasons as native speakers - limited phonemic awareness, under-learning of basic phonics and phonics patterns etc.. So, interventions that are effective for native speakers are typically effective for ELs.

2) As ELs move up the grades, they are more prone than native speakers to fit the following profile: fluent word/text reading + limited English vocab knowledge ( Mancilla Martinez & Lesaux, 2011). Not all ELs fit this profile (some continue to struggle with reading fluency, etc...), but it is much more common among ELs than NES. And, of course, as texts get more complex, this limited Eng vocab knowledge severely impacts ELs' text comprehension. For example, the students in Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux (2010) scored at the 21.8% in English vocabulary knowledge and at the 24.4% on a test of comprehension of English reading passages. As I often say, students simply can't "out-comprehend their knowledge of individual words in a text."

Practically, I think that these general conclusions call for a "both/and" solution, which is what I hear Tim describing. ELs students need both 'code-based' beginning reading instruction, just like their native English peers, AND they need excellent, intensive, comprehensive vocabulary instruction from the minute that they hit our schools (like many native speakers, particularly those coming from low-income homes). In general, I see that schools are much better at providing the former than they are the later. And, although it is possible to sneak in a bit of vocab instruction in a reading intervention setting while also focusing on foundational skills (this is the approach used in the Linan-Thompson & Vaughn studies that produced positive results with young ELs), in general I believe that vocabulary instruction needs to be "all day every day" and thus is more properly the domain of general ed teachers.

dave ray
Nov 18, 2018 05:17 PM

I wonder what areas of "phonics" would be essential for students who have L1 reading skills. English orthography is notably more complex than Spanish, which tends to have consistent spelling patterns. It may be that spelling instruction would be most valuable. Also, since English orthography is morpho-phonemic in nature, a focus on morphology (the most stable spelling unit in English) to aid word reading would be quite useful. Morphology also promotes vocabulary development.

Harriett Janetos
Nov 18, 2018 06:56 PM

When you teach phonics, you are also teaching spelling. I like David Kilpatrick's definition of phonics in Equipped for Reading Success. He says phonics is "a system for approaching reading that focuses on the relationship bewtween the printed forms and oral forms of words. Phonics provides assistance in sounding out words that are unfamiliar to the reader. Letter sounds, blends, digraphs, and vowel combinations are learned and then applied to reading."

Cat
Nov 18, 2018 08:48 PM

Structured literacy all the way! Balanced literacy is whole language, and we are doing our students a disservice by teaching words in context rather than the structure of English. We should look at this as not teaching reading, but teaching a language that is used to speak, read, write, and spell.

Lois Letchford
Nov 18, 2018 09:38 PM

Just love it! Often the gap between oral language & written language is taken for granted.

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 19, 2018 04:33 AM

A. Castine

Like you, working with a new reader who speaks Spanish and is trying to learn English, I would definitely teach phonics. And, yes, simultaneously building oral English language and vocabulary.

Tim

Timothy Shanahan
Nov 19, 2018 04:37 AM

For those of you questioning or commenting on the nature of the phonics to be taught to Students—indeed, since the late 1970s my research and writing has emphasized teaching both decoding and encoding in phonics (for native English speakers, too).

It’s an important point in this context so thanks.

Toni
Nov 20, 2018 04:15 AM

Very interesting. Reading your article & also the teachers, SLP's, etc. gives a non-teacher like me a much better understanding of how phonics works with different students. Phonics is very necessary for all of our young students. Knowing how to use them with different students is what is important in the classroom...

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Phonics for Second-Language Learners?

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