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Ensuring Equity in Reading Instruction


Early one summer, my parents moved our family into a 900-square-foot house in the central part of town that would become home for my siblings and me for the next 25 years. We didn’t have much, so it only took a few truckloads to get us from the old apartment building, only a few blocks from one of the area’s busiest US/Mexico border crossings, to our new palace. As a six-year-old boy, I was amazed I now had a yard and sidewalks that were safe for me to use to explore the rest of the block.

My mother, her mother, and several uncles had been teachers in Mexico, so it was almost expected to have conversations about the importance of getting a good education. This led to great anticipation as the first day of school was approaching. Later that summer, a neighbor accompanied my parents and me to school. Since my parents only spoke Spanish, she provided the language support they needed as I was registered for school. The following week, I walked into my first-grade classroom as an English learner, and my journey along this educational pathway began.

It continues today. I can list myriad missteps early in my educational experience, but I chalk it up to the system simply not knowing any better.

Now, we know better. We know the importance of identifying and supporting a student’s cultural, social, emotional, experiential, and linguistic assets. However, are we effectively getting this vital information to teachers and administrators? Better yet, how are we ensuring that future teachers enrolled in teacher preparation programs across the country understand how best to work with English learners when they enter their classrooms?

Before I continue, I also realize that myriad terms are used in districts nationwide to describe students who speak another language at home and are still not proficient in English.

These terms include English learners, multilingual learners, emergent bilinguals, dual language learners, and several others I have probably missed. However, to maintain a level of consistency, I will be using the term English learner to better reflect the definition that appears in the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. The act defines an English learner as any student whose primary language is not English, whose English skills are not sufficient to be successful in the classroom, and who has not yet tested proficient in English. No disrespect is meant to any local educational agency using any term other than English learner.

The Number of English Learners Continues to Grow
According to the latest IES Report on the Condition of Education, in the fall of 2020, approximately five million English learners were attending schools nationwide. This accounted for 10.3% of the total student population.1 Compared to the number of ELs when I began as a bilingual early childhood teacher, the number has more than doubled, from 2.1 million. The critical question is, how have our English learners fared compared to the rest of their peers?

The 2022 NAEP report showed discouraging numbers regarding reading-proficiency levels among our English learners. Only 10% read at or above a proficient level, compared to 37% of their peers.2 These numbers only get worse if one looks back at previous years. In 2002, only 5% reached a proficient level, and two years before that, only 3%. It wasn’t until 2019 that the field reached double-digit numbers, but it remained stagnant at 10% through 2022, as was reported previously. The bottom line is that despite the changes to reading laws promoting scientifically based reading instruction and the added attention to the psychology of reading, our ELs are nowhere near reaching reading proficiency.

Teacher Preparation Is Key
As a former school district administrator, I know the challenges, the expenses, and the amount of time it takes to provide teachers with the knowledge base needed to deliver effective reading instruction they may have missed from their initial teacher preparation experience. I was part of two large state reading initiatives that impacted reading-proficiency scores as teachers were trained in reading science. Several years after their initial rollout, teachers still receive professional development to ensure sustainability. The greatest challenge is that until recently, these states were moving forward with little support from teacher preparation programs. The point here is not to direct blame at one entity or another but to say, let’s continue moving forward.

More and more institutions of higher education have realized that adjustments or a complete retooling of their programs must be made. And for that, I applaud them. A reminder to all is that much work remains to be done to ensure ALL students are successful readers. Compared to where we were several years ago, the future looks much brighter, especially when it comes to the instruction being provided to English learners. A reflective and yet effective two-pronged approach must be taken. Let’s tackle this challenge through continued quality professional development provided by local education agencies, AND, most importantly, institutions of higher learning must continue evolving and ensuring what they are teaching and putting into field practice is reflective of the most current research findings and moves away from misconceived ideology. Let’s look at a couple of points.

First, I believe the field has turned the corner on embracing research and how best to teach our students to read. Educational pedagogy is changing, and the field is moving toward what we know produces proficient readers. Our in-service teachers must continue to receive the necessary professional development that underscores the attributes of language acquisition or oral language development and how it supports the teaching of literacy skills. This is true for all students. However, for English learners, educators must know that language acquisition and literacy development are different constructs that do not develop or evolve simultaneously. Still, they must be addressed explicitly, as they contribute directly to reading proficiency (see Council of the Great City Schools report3).

Second, and most importantly, educator preparation programs (EPPs) across the country are being called upon to step up their game. These programs face a formidable challenge, including retooling syllabi and instructional content. They must become the transformative tool that converts research into practice. Our EPPs must ensure that preservice teachers graduate from their programs knowing how to teach reading and writing and, as stated by the 2006 National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth, learn how to make the necessary “adjustments” that some English learners might need. Rather than calling them necessary adjustments, I see them as necessary scaffolds. In addition, as previously stated, preservice candidates must leave their learning experience knowing there is a difference between language acquisition and literacy development.

Unfortunately, the current situation regarding preparing future teachers of ELs looks dismal. The good news is there’s no other way to go than up. The most current NCTQ analysis states that 69% of the 702 elementary teacher preparation programs provided less than two instructional hours on teaching ELs to read. In addition, 88% of programs did not require any reading instruction practice or fieldwork prior to graduation.4

This lack of knowledge can result in teachers simply not knowing how to address the needs of our ELs or applying teaching methodologies that are ineffective or damaging to these students. However, it is also essential to call out states like Tennessee, Colorado, Alabama, Mississippi, New Mexico, and others that are significantly ahead of the game or are beginning the process.

I may have suffered from educational naivete when the National Literacy Panel published its report more than 20 years ago. About a year after the almost 500- page report was made available, the US Department of Education partnered with the National Institute for Literacy and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. They released a much shorter and friendlier version for classroom teachers titled Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read.5

I was a product of an EPP that leaned heavily toward the implicit teaching of reading. In fact, during the field experience phase of the preservice training, my field service professor warned us against teaching any foundational reading skill lesson. Doing so meant a failing grade for her class.

Because I had witnessed the teaching of foundational reading skills (including the teaching of explicit phonemic awareness skills) to federal prison inmates, I knew teaching reading was about more than just osmosis. It had to do with the explicit teaching of certain skills. Since I had not learned those skills through my EPP, the information published by the National Literacy Panel made sense. When I coupled it with the publication Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science, written by my mentor and teacher Dr. Louisa Moats, everything made sense.6 It’s been over 20 years that I have been on my journey of teaching literacy skills.

Because of my lack of teaching reading know-how, I clung to everything that had to do with teaching foundational reading skills through the support of oral language development. Unfortunately, the disputes began, and clearly, two opposing points of view emerged: those who did not feel that the psychology of reading applied to English learners and those who did. Regrettably, these polar opposites kept the attention away from teacher-training programs. All is not gloom and doom. I feel the field has also had an epiphany like the one I had 20 years ago. There has been a positive shift in our field of education, acknowledging and incorporating scientific insights into the teaching and learning of reading. This shift has included English learners, as was evident with the release of The Reading League’s Joint Statement.7

I was part of this historic convening of experts that occurred in early 2023 and once and for all brought all camps and viewpoints together to acknowledge that a comprehensive body of reading knowledge exists, and it is a body of knowledge that is also relevant to the instruction provided to our nation’s English learners. According to the Joint Statement, “this knowledge should be embraced and applied to inform instruction, complemented by understanding and addressing the social, linguistic, and cultural factors that impact students.”

Taking Action
Now that the field has agreed on the knowledge base needed by teachers working with English learners, The Reading League’s Joint Statement can serve as the necessary catalyst to reconfigure EPPs across the country. I propose the following:

1. Coursework that includes:
• The principles specific to the psychology of reading.
• High-quality textbooks that cover phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, fluency, oral language development, comprehension strategies, and the cognitive processes involved in reading that can also drive lesson scaffolding and differentiation.
• All elements that are specific to the teaching of ELs, including oral or spoken language acquisition and development (form, use, and content), and how, because of high variability factors among ELs, oral language must be the common fabric across all subject matter being learned.
• The targeted teaching of all language systems (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, oral and written discourse, and orthography) and how they, too, should be incorporated across all content and subject matter.
• How to align assessments with the specific goals and needs of English learners, considering factors such as age, language proficiency levels, and cultural background.
• Processes needed to either enhance or include parent and community engagement.

2. Field practice that includes working with English learners and skilled teachers delivering effective and scaffolded instruction.

3. An introductory course dedicated only to the teaching of English learners that covers key concepts, strategies, and methods that educators can use to support the language development and academic success of students who are learning to read and write in English and the considerable variability among all English learners.

Bureaucracies can never be eliminated, but the processes universities and colleges must undertake when making changes to course requirements to better reflect current research findings must be significantly expedited. The procedures needed for change should never be the reason not to pursue it.

We have a way to go, but the future does indeed look bright. The field, overall, has embraced a shift not based on the latest trend but one supported and driven by science. Do we have all the answers? Of course not, but the path to getting those answers continues to be paved by evidence of what works and the scaffolds that must be in place for all our students.

We must never lose sight of the fact that until reading instruction serves all students equally, we are shortchanging everyone and society. Most importantly, we must advocate for teacher preparation programs that send educators out into the world with the skills they need to ensure success for every child in every classroom, regardless of “the language they are loved in” (to quote my mentor, Dr. Moats).

1. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678, extracted March 31, 2021; and Common Core of Data (CCD), Local Education Agency Universe Survey, 2020–21. See Digest of Education Statistics 2022, table 204.20.

2. US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1992–2022 Reading Assessments.

3. Council of the Great City Schools (2023). A Framework for Foundational Literacy Skills Instruction for English Learners: Instructional Practice and Material Considerations.

4. Peske, H. (2023). “Are We Setting Up Our English Learners for Reading Success?” National Council for Teacher Quality.

5. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2001). Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. US Government Printing Office.

6. Moats, L. (1999) “Teacher Reading IS Rocket Science.” American Federation of Teachers.

7. The Reading League (2023). “The Reading League Summit Joint Statement.”

Antonio Fierro, EdD, is the VP of professional learning and academics at 95 Percent Group (www.95percentgroup.com).

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