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    English Language Learners [ELL] at Risk; Florida State Bill [SB] 286

    by: Guest Author

    Fri Mar 14, 2008 at 21:00:00 PM EDT

    copyright © 2008 Candace Harper, Associate Professor [University of Florida, College of Education, School of Teaching and Learning]

    On Thursday, SB 286 passed with little opposition in the Florida Senate. Legislators who voted for the bill either don't understand the English language and literacy learning needs of the .25 million English language learners (ELLs) in Florida schools, or they simply don't care. In either case, if this bill passes in the House of Representatives and becomes law, it will result in our failure to prepare Florida teachers to meet ELLs' very real needs to learn to read in English and to succeed in school. Whether SB 286 has been motivated and propelled by ignorance or by negligence, it represents a giant step backwards for our students.

    The fact is that Florida teachers of reading to ELLs need more ELL-specific professional development than some apparently think. I use the case of "Holly" to illustrate. Soon after SB 286 was introduced in the Senate, a reading teacher named Holly wrote in to one of Florida's major newspapers to assert that, based on her experience, teachers do not need special preparation to teach reading to ELLs. Holly stated that she had not pursued the ESOL professional development required by the state because, she explained, "If I had wanted to become an ESOL teacher, I would have done so."

    Indeed, Holly claimed that she was "proud to be a reading teacher." Holly went on to report that last year she had been assigned to teach reading to two classes of Haitian students. In spite of the fact that these recent arrivals spoke "almost no English," Holly noted emphatically that she "was NOT teaching these students English. We focused on phonics."

    Guest Author :: English Language Learners [ELL] at Risk; Florida State Bill [SB] 286
    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.]

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , (All Tags)
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    ESOL Florida SB 286/HB 491 (11.00 / 1)
    I never realized how different it was to teach reading to ESOL students. I guess I never though it through.  How truly awful that inappropriate and inadequate one-size-fits all reading instruction would result from passage of this bill. How many children would be affected? Is there anything we can do at this point to keep this from happening? Anyone to call or write to?  

    Responding to bad legislation (11.00 / 1)
    There are over 240,000 English Language Learners (ELLs) in Florida. The proponents of the bill and their legislators come from Clay County where there are 414 ELLs identified. Orange County serves over 32,000, Osceola over 9,000, and Dade county over 52,000 ELLs.

    The Governor vetoed this bill last year and it has been brought back by the same individuals this year without change.

    There are two things at this point.

    (1) Write or call the the Governor. Thank him for his veto last year of SB2512 and ask him to veto it again SB0286/HB0491 if it comes before him again. It is a deeply flawed bill and will not help all of Florida's children.

    E-Mail Governor Crist - Charlie.Crist@myflorida.com
    Phone the Governor's Office - 850 488-5000
    Fax: (850) 487-0801
    By mail:
    Office of Florida Governor Charlie Crist
    PL-05 The Capitol
    Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001

    (2) Write or call your representative in the Florida House and tell that individual to vote against the HB0491. Why? Because it is flawed and does not provide for equal educational opportunity for all of Florida's students.

    This bill will appear next at the House Policy and Budget committee that has 35 members. It isn't too late to call them and ask them to vote no. For the list, follow the link:  


    [ Parent ]
    Betty, I thank you (0.00 / 0)
    Dear Betty . . .

    You are a treasure.  I thank you for the care you express with your every breath.  I appreciate the wealth of wisdom you bestow upon us.

    The information is invaluable.  Too often, we say we wish to help the children.  Yet, pocketbook pressures, our shortsighted concern for self and expediency often harm our little learners.

    It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. ~ Ian Anderson. Jethro Tull

    Betsy L. Angert


    [ Parent ]
    cbs; Welcome to BeThink (0.00 / 0)
    Dear cbs  . . .

    Welcome to BeThink.  

    I trust that Professor Harper or Betty will offer answers to your questions that are more comprehensive and real than I might.  I studied Language Acquisition as I worked toward my Professional Teachers Credential.  I am familiar with many of these dynamics.  Still, I believe  those who are more actively engaged in this forum than I can best provide the specifics you request.  

    I am grateful for your concern and willingness to assist the children and their mentors.

    It is only the giving that makes us what [who] we are. ~ Ian Anderson. Jethro Tull

    Betsy L. Angert


    [ Parent ]
    The End of SB286/HB0491 (0.00 / 0)
    Florida Sunshine State TESOL had its yearly conference in Daytona Beach this weekend and I spent a little bit of time there talking to classroom teachers from around the State.
    Concerns were expressed regarding instructional services to English Language Learners.
    Classroom teachers also expressed relief that SB0286 failed for a second year. The bill's co-sponsor, Representative Jennifer Carroll, submitted an amendment establishing two courses and a practicum for Reading teachers to complete in order to serve ELLs and the establishment of an ESOL/Reading Task Force.  The amended bill passed the Florida House unanimously. However, according to the Miami Herald, Senator Wise believed that the professional development hours in the amendment were still too many and announced he would let the bill die rather than bring the amended bill for Senate vote. That's what happened, the bill died.

    Florida Sunshine State TESOL Advocacy E-Group remains hopeful that the DOE will proceed with the establishment of an ESOL/Reading Task Force through which ESOL and Reading professionals, classroom teachers, and second language acquisition experts fully examine current training to determine the skills teachers need to serve ELLs and propose improvements that lead to quality training and quality outcomes.

    Through this two year process, it has been clarified that:

    • Teaching reading to ELLs is not the same as teaching reading to native speakers.
    • Second language acquisition experts and ESOL professionals have important contributions to policy and educational decision-making.
    • The 1990 META Consent Decree cannot be ignored.


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