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Phonics instruction is not enough for English Learners, or anyone. But it’s still foundational for all.

The newest front in the never-ending wars and squabbles over how to teach reading involves English language learners (EL), students learning to read (and write) in English while simultaneously learning to speak and understand it.

In the wake of renewed prominence of research supporting an early focus on phonics and decoding (aka the “science of reading”), EL advocates around the country have been sounding alarms.

For example, a recent EdSource article led with the following: “As California launches a new literacy campaign, some advocates worry that for English learners, a focus on sounding out words will come at the expense of learning the meaning of words.”

In Colorado: “Colorado’s emphasis on phonics in reading could hurt English language learners, advocates say.”

The concern is understandable. Learning to decode words if you don’t understand what they mean seems pointless. In addition, solely focusing on phonics during reading instruction provides a meager literacy diet.

But the concern misses the larger point that learning to read requires integrating written language with oral language. This integration is impossible if you can’t recognize—read—the words on the page accurately and automatically followed by verifying the words’ accuracy and meaning.

Word recognition is foundational to reading. Knowing word meanings is important for confirmation. Among skilled readers, the process works automatically, effortlessly, and efficiently. Beginning and early readers need varying degrees of support, scaffolding, and direct teaching to acquire these skills. Some require very little and appear to “catch on” easily; others need a great deal of direct teaching; most are somewhere in between.

This larger point applies to readers in general, not just ELs. I’ll use a metaphor to try to illustrate.

Imagine two roads that begin separately and eventually converge at some desired destination. One road is, let’s say, the “road to the code,” where you learn how the sounds of a spoken language are represented in writing. Progress along this road is relatively straightforward, although it has its challenges. It involves developing phonological awareness, knowledge of letters, letter combinations, and corresponding sounds, and how to use that knowledge to identify written words, often referred to as “phonics” or “decoding.”

I’ll call the other road the “road to understanding.” Here’s where you learn how to make sense of the world as you experience it either directly or through someone’s oral retelling or through electronic media or in written texts. To proceed successfully along this road, you need to learn aspects of language that carry meaning (e.g., vocabulary, morphology, syntax), background knowledge and knowledge of the world, and comprehension and thinking skills and strategies.

Eventually, the roads must converge at their destination: full and competent literacy. The roads start out separately because they proceed in different parts of the brain. Metaphorically, they originate in different geographic locations and traverse distinct landscapes.

Successful travel through the code road in an alphabetic language essentially requires knowing and being able to apply the sound-symbol mapping system of the language’s orthography. Letters are human inventions developed to represent the sounds of speech. There is nothing inherently meaningful about letters, although since their names typically contain the sounds they represent, learning letter names helps connect them to those sounds. The whole idea of learning to read is to make those letters and sounds meaningful by connecting them to meaningful oral language.

Here’s a critical point: Research has shown that the best way to help learners master the road to the code is through direct and explicit instruction in what is sometimes called the “alphabetic principle,” that is, the basic understanding that printed letters represent speech sounds and using that understanding (aka phonics and decoding) to read words. (The issues are somewhat different in nonalphabetic writing systems.)

Mastering the code road is no guarantee of full literacy. Learners must also successfully travel along the path to understanding. This path can be complex and winding. It typically commences even before the road code appears. Explicit teaching contributes to progress along the path to understanding, but so do—perhaps even to a greater extent—direct experiences with the world, interactions with others, and planned and unplanned events and activities.

The path to understanding matters immensely if you are to get to the ultimate destination of literacy. If you can read accurately but without understanding, full literacy is impossible.

Similarly, if you don’t travel well and far on the code road—e.g., someone tells you to take a shortcut by guessing at words—your path to uniting with the road to understanding will be truncated. You won’t get to your destination of full literacy. Why? Because if you don’t successfully traverse the road to the code, your world will be limited to what doesn’t require accurate and fluent reading of written language.

The necessity of traveling along two distinct but ultimately converging paths is as true for English learners as it is for learners who already speak English. This has been amply demonstrated by neurocognitive and neurolinguistic studies involving many different first and second languages and learners around the world.

For English learners or, more generally, students learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand, there is an important qualification: Care must be taken that words (and text) they are being taught to read are meaningful to them.

We can typically assume that students learning to read in a language they already know already understand words used in beginning and early reading instruction, words such as run, dog, me, and can. We can’t make that assumption with second-language literacy learners. As we take them along the code road, we must also make sure they’re making corresponding progress on the road to understanding the words the code road is helping them learn to read.

This has been well documented in studies by Sharon Vaughn, Linnea Ehri, and their colleagues. These researchers have found that students learning to read in English while gaining English proficiency, but experiencing early reading difficulties, make greater progress when instruction is focused on helping them progress along both roads.

Children were taught the foundations of word recognition directly and explicitly. They were also taught the meaning of the words they were being taught to read and to use those meanings to cross-check what they read using their developing word reading skills.

Note that I’m referring here to English learners learning to read in English. If they are in a bilingual program and learning to read in their home language, learning to read while learning the language is not an issue. While learning to read in your home language might be preferable for any number of reasons, the fact is a large majority of English learners learn to read in English as they are learning English.

The implication is straightforward: English learners need to be helped—taught—to understand the words and text they are being taught to read. But they need to learn, explicitly and directly, the foundations of word recognition to accurately read the words. Both are essential if these students are to become fully, functionally, and successfully literate.

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