|Holly's instruction ignored the fact that her students did not have the oral language foundation they needed to take advantage of phonics instruction in English. In fact, Holly appeared to understand very little about teaching reading to ELLs. Her own account of her instructional practices with these students reveals a general misconception among teachers who are inadequately prepared to teach ELLs-the belief that teaching reading (or teaching any of the other language arts or any content area) to ELLs is little more than "just good teaching." Below I provide several examples of how and why Holly's generic reading instruction was likely inappropriate and inadequate for her ELL students.
First, unless these middle school students were completely illiterate in their native language (Kreyol or French), there was probably very little need to "teach" them phonics. Those languages use basically the same alphabet as English and have few distinctive sound contrasts with English, so Haitian students who are already literate in their home language can transfer their phonemic awareness and knowledge of phonics to English. These prior literacy skills allow them to "read" (decode) English aloud without understanding any of the words, just as most readers of this blog can "read" the words in the following Kreyol sentence without understanding what they mean:
"M byen kontan pou m te eksplike w kòman fet la te ye pou mwen." ?[English translation: I'm very happy to have told you about my holiday.]
In order to read the Kreyol sentence above with understanding we have to know what the individual words mean and we have to know something about the sentence structure. For example, we have to recognize verb tense markers, contractions, and definite articles. Basically, we have to know a little Kreyol-not just be able to sound out the printed words. Phonics instruction must build on (not replace) oral language development, including vocabulary. That is my first point.
Second, Holly wrote that she found it "exciting" to hear these middle school students reading grade-level texts aloud. However, if the skill of decoding has already been established in the native language, reading aloud in a second (alphabetic) language is no great breakthrough and is of little real value for ESOL students without diagnosed language or learning disabilities. In fact, reading aloud can be counterproductive for ESOL readers because they tend to focus on the pronunciation of unfamiliar words rather than on their meaning. The main goal of reading at this grade and English proficiency level should be comprehension. That is my second point.
Third, Holly commented that these students would "probably never pass the FCAT reading test." In spite of the low expectations reflected in this statement, ESOL students at this grade level do in fact have time to catch up in learning the English language and academic content of school. But they have no time to spare. Focusing on phonics instruction and reading aloud are a waste of precious time for students who need intensive oral language development in English and in reading and writing in the academic register of school. If adolescent ELLs have any hope of passing the FCAT and eventually graduating, their teachers need to provide reading instruction that is appropriate for these students' age/grade level and targeted to their second language and literacy needs. They should not be delivering generic, remedial reading lessons that lead to barking at print and not much else. That is my third point.
Finally, Holly said that over time, as the students (somehow) learned English, their reading comprehension began to catch up with their phonetic reading skills. Of course! Naturally. What is surprising is that Holly credited herself for having played a key role in this process. It is a shame that she did not make more informed contributions to her students' progress in reading English. That could have been accomplished by building on their existing literacy skills, helping them to develop their vocabulary in English through meaning-based language and literacy techniques, and drawing their attention to bilingual strategies such as recognizing cognates and using the "key word" approach. Teaching reading to ELLs is NOT the same as teaching struggling readers who are already proficient in English. That is my fourth point.
A recent review of existing research in second language reading (August & Shanahan, 2006) supports the following conclusions: 1) phonics instruction for ELLs may be necessary, but is not sufficient, 2) oral language development in English (including vocabulary) should accompany decoding instruction, 3) phonics instruction for ELLs who are already literate should target contrastive differences between English and students' native languages, and 4) reading aloud is not a sound instructional technique for ELLs who have already learned to decode (especially those in the upper grades) nor is it a valid and reliable measure of their reading fluency or comprehension. Holly was either blissfully unaware of or purposefully negligent in providing reading instruction targeted to her ELL students' specific second language and literacy needs.
In sum, teaching (reading) to second language learners is NOT the same as teaching (reading) to native English speakers. All teachers of reading to ELLs (not just ESOL teachers) need to understand this complex issue and know how to provide instruction that meets their needs. If the Florida legislature approves the proposed reduction in ESOL professional development, the inappropriate and inadequate one-size-fits all reading instruction described by Holly will be the most we can expect from Florida teachers of ELLs.
[*Thanks to Mercedes Pichard for providing the Haitian Kreyol example.]