Literacy Research Findings

“Children bring skills and abilities from their first language, which must be seen as assets not setbacks” (Lenters, 2004). According to Lenters, one-fifth of American children speak a language other than English. Educators need to be equipped to teach these children literacy skills in order for them to be successful. Educators need to consider several factors in order to provide appropriate literacy instruction for bilingual students, such as age, literacy background/prior schooling, and unique needs.
Researchers have discovered over the past twenty years similar practices that serve as effective instruction for English Language Learners (ELLs). From the early findings of Krashen (1981) to the most recent research of Echavaria’s (2006) comprehensible input, activating and building background knowledge have been part of successful ELL instruction. Most recently, however, research has taken into account the need to go deeper into the child’s home life and shift the primary focus from comprehensible input to providing opportunities for students to demonstrate output through the use of authentic, meaningful activities (Swain, 2005). In fact, Swain’s (2005) research suggests that input alone is not sufficient enough for learning a second language.
Research has also stressed the importance of balancing explicit instruction in the areas of phonemic awareness and word recognition with rich instruction that fosters ELLs’ output in the way of oral development (Guiterrez, 2001; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003). For example, Lundberg et al. (1988) developed a program that places nursery rhymes and rhyming games at the core of its curriculum for preschoolers (as cited in Stewart, 2004). These activities provide children with meaningful learning experiences with language and literacy (Stewart, 2004). Rhyming exposes children to language and leads to segmenting sentences and words, clapping syllables, and phoneme identification (Stewart, 2004). Additionally, when educators create their own rhymes and stories based on their students’ culture, they are exhibiting culturally responsive practices (Stewart, 2004). Thus, it is important to acknowledge and utilize students’ valuable cultural and linguistic resources (Guiterrez, 2001; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003).
“Comprehension is at the heart of reading, be it first or second language. This must be a reminder to educators to give attention to this important area for the beginning of second language reading instruction.” (Lenters, 2004) Vocabulary is an essential part of learning a language and being able to comprehend a story. Readers need to be familiar with 95% of the vocabulary in order to fully develop meaning of the text. Droop and Verhoeven (2003) found that extensive vocabulary training is crucial for efficient second language reading comprehension: deep understanding of vocabulary must be fostered on the semantic level through multiple exposures to words in a variety of genres, subject areas, and contexts. There are several ways to help bilingual children develop vocabulary. One way is having meaningful conservations.
Collaborative conversations, meaningful discussions about text, semantic webbing, and repeated opportunities to engage in “robust vocabulary instruction” (Stahl & Nagy, 2006) are all part of a well-balanced program for ELLs. In addition, according to the research of Carlo et al. (2004), it is not the amount of words that students learn that is of utmost importance for ELLs’ success in their second language and reading comprehension. The strategy that is taught is the most important aspect of the program. Carol’s (2004) study concluded that fifth grade ELL students in mixed ELL-English Only (EO) classrooms experienced a higher rate of reading comprehension compared to the control group when “the meanings of academically useful words were taught together with strategies using information from context, from morphology, from knowledge about multiple meanings, and from cognates to infer word meaning” (p. 189).
Next, Graves et al. (2004) performed an observational study of first grade classroom teachers. The researchers found that teachers who were experienced and knowledgeable in the area of literacy and teaching ELLs had higher rates of success in the area of effective instruction for their ELL student population compared to teachers who did not hold these credentials (Graves et al., 2004). Gersten and Jimenez (1994) confirm this fact from their qualitative research and state, “With some refinement and restructuring, experienced reading teachers can enter classrooms of ESL students with a core of relevant professional knowledge” (p. 445). Instructional practices that explicitly disclose what is going on in the mind of the teacher through metalinguistic and metacognitive strategies are part of a reading teacher’s repertoire. Gersten and Jimenez (1994) state, “These approaches are widely advocated in the reading field and, if properly implemented, they seem to have great potential for ESL students” (p. 446).
Another pertinent part of effective ELL instruction is culturally responsive teaching (CRT). Teachers demonstrate CRT by respecting and valuing their students’ culture and language and view diversity as an asset, not a deficit (Meyer, 2000; Echavaria, Powers, & Short, 2006). Educators who exhibit CRT familiarize themselves with the language, values, and culture within their students’ community (Meyer, 2000; Klinger & Edwards, 2006). As a result, they utilize this knowledge to make home to school connections for students within the curriculum and the classroom environment (Meyer, 2000; Klinger & Edwards, 2006). For example, through the use of CRT, teachers are able to create meaningful connections during classroom discussion and lesson delivery. Therefore, teachers enhance students’ language development through collaborative conversations and engaging activities that interest the students. Encouraging students to share orally both in English and in their native language, accepting students’ responses, and taking their ideas seriously, while simultaneously scaffolding instruction, are all pertinent aspects of CRT (Echavaria, Powers, & Short, 2006; Meyer, 2001; Gersten & Jimenez, 1994). To meet students’ language developmental needs, teachers should display word walls with cognates in the students’ primary language and create a diverse environment that reflects the students culture (Echavaria, Powers, & Short, 2006; Meyer, 2001; Gersten & Jimenez, 1994).
Regarding CRT, early childhood educators have the opportunity to discover insights about their students’ values and beliefs as revealed through their sociodramatic play (Riojas-Cortez, 2001). Riojas-Cortez (2001) defines sociodramatic play as “a mediation tool that children use for learning and is also a vehicle that can assist teachers to learn about their students” (p. 35). During a study of twelve Mexican-American preschool children, Riojas-Cortez discovered that young children’s ethnic identity is shaped by cultural factors (2001). Sociodramatic play is integral in early childhood programs because through play, children demonstrate “the cultural behaviors transmitted by their families and use them as resources to enhance their play” (Riojas-Cortez, 2001, p. 36). Through teacher observation of students and interviews with parents, teachers increase their understanding of family’s culture, beliefs, and values (Riojas-Cortez, 2001). With this knowledge, an early childhood educator can construct curriculum that is culturally responsive and meaningful to both students and their parents (Riojas-Cortez, 2001).
In a three year study, Winsler et al. (1999) validated the effectiveness of alternate immersion programs (as cited in Stewart, 2004). Alternate immersion programs are those in which half of the day is spent instructing children solely in their first language and the remainder of the day is dedicated to instruction in their second language (Stewart, 2004). The researchers determined that preschoolers who enrolled in an alternate immersion program “developed superior English language skills” and simultaneously did not compromise their first language (Stewart, 2004, p. 33). Willig (1985) verified these findings through extensive research of 23 studies related to bilingual education and its effects (as cited in Stewart, 2004). Alternate immersion programs are effective for young children because the programs not only esteem both the children’s first language (L1) and second language (L2), they also provide children with ample opportunities to use both languages on a daily basis. In this way, children’s home language is not diminished and children are able to “transfer the knowledge and skills gained in L1 to L2” (Stewart, 2004, p. 34).
Selecting appropriate reading material is a crucial part of the literacy development of ELLs. Materials need to be authentic so that the students are able to comprehend and make connections to the text. Another way to introduce reading materials is through read-alouds, shared readings, and partner reading. It is also important that the text the ELLs are exposed to reflects natural speech. Opportunities to read and re-read help the students make enormous gains in their literacy progress.
Moreover, the seven-year research project of Echavaria et al. (2006) performed in the area of sheltered instruction for ELLs resulted in a successful tool for teachers to use during lesson planning and delivery. The tool is called the SIOP model, which stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (Echavaria, Powers, & Short, 2006). It includes all of the pieces of effective instruction: preparation, building background knowledge, comprehensible input, effective strategies, interaction, practice/application, lesson delivery, review, and assessment (Echavaria, Powers, & Short, 2006).
Through our critique of the research, we have found that culturally and linguistically diverse students are more often instructed with curriculum that has been approved to meet the needs of the mainstream student culture (Klinger & Edwards, 2006). While the SIOP model is a very effective planning tool, adding one more piece in the area of culturally responsive teaching would remind teachers of the importance of incorporating CRT as part of their daily routine (Echavaria, Short & Powers, 2006). Making connections to the student’s home life is the responsibility of the teacher. If the child is misunderstanding the content, it is the teacher’s responsibility to discover effective instructional practices instead of blaming the child for his lack of language or ability (Aukerman, 2007). We whole-heartedly agree with this claim. We are hoping to see a drop in the percentage of ELL students who receive special education services when in fact, they do not have a learning disability (Klinger & Edwards, 2006). It is not surprising that in addition to receiving “special education services as a considerably higher rate…than monolingual children,” bilingual students drop out of high school at a rate of 40% (Stewart, 2004, p. 31). However, this issue can be decreased if teachers provide their students with developmentally appropriate curriculum that embraces and esteems the children’s culture and values (Stewart, 2004).

It is time for society, which largely affects the school system from the top down, to acknowledge the fact that intervention programs used for one group of students will not necessarily work for another. A large factor for improving the odds of success for ELL students lies in the hands of teachers. As educators we have a moral responsibility to be advocates for all students, including ELLs. We must be culturally responsive and have a sincere drive to value and respect our students and their contributions to our classrooms. Neglecting this moral responsibility will cause our students to continue to be falsely labeled or neglected by a system which does not work with their interests in mind.
As educators, we have the opportunity to change individuals’ ways of thinking about bilingualism and its significance in society today. As the world continues to change, the educational system must change simultaneously in order to meet the demands of society. One avenue in which educators are better preparing children for the future is through the inclusion and emphasis on immersing and instructing foreign languages to children of young ages. As residents in “a global society,” “we (Americans) have got to learn languages if we want to negotiate with other countries and get along” (East, 2008). However, there is some opposition that must be combated in order to ensure that children are provided with appropriate educational experiences.
Souto-Manning (2006) demonstrates that individuals’ beliefs about bilingualism affect their interactions with others. During the course of six months, the researcher observed interactions between young children and their families in an urban playgroup (Souto-Manning, 2006). Souto-Manning (2006) highlights group mothers’ original unwillingness to recognize the benefits of bilingualism (Souto-Manning, 2006). However, Tse’s (2001) research opposes this way of thinking ( as cited in Souto-Manning, 2006). Tse (2001) revealed that “the areas of language acquisition and development…points to bilingualism and multilingualism as resources, rather than deficits” (as cited in Souto-Manning, 2006, p. 443). During the families’ involvement in the play group for three months, they witnessed the vocabulary and language development in their children through social interactions with bilingual children (Souto-Manning, 2006). In conclusion, children’s “repertoire in a second or foreign language has the potential to stretch their vocabularies and understandings of multilingualism and multiculturalism” (Souto-Manning, 2006, p. 445). As educators, we must explain the “existence and value of languages other than English” to parents and students alike in order to challenge their “attitudes towards other languages” (Souto-Manning, 2006, p. 445).

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