The silhouette of a young boy reading a book as the sun sets with the words

The Overemphasis on Literacy in ESL

esl instruction esl teachers inclusive practices literacy multilingual learners sheltered instruction Mar 31, 2023

Scroll through any educational headlines and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid K-12’s top concern: literacy. Everything from strategies for fun phonics activities to overcoming the literacy gap crosses the page. 


And literacy matters. 

Deeply. After all, it is one of the top educational priorities and certainly a word you had better include in your grant application to legitimize that after-school club you’ve been wanting to get funded. So why am I taking on the Mother Theresa of educational outcomes? Because in this case Mother Theresa is a cart. And where ESL is the horse, we are all out of sorts.

OK, let’s back up. Students who are learning English in school while (often) going to school in English (also referred to as English learners, or ELs) typically lag behind their non-EL peers in measurement of English reading and literacy. For example, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in 2019, only 19% of fourth-grade ELs performed at or above the "proficient" level in reading, compared to 44% of non-ELs. Similarly, only 14% of eighth-grade ELs performed at or above the proficient level in reading, compared to 36% of non-ELs. Post-pandemic data will likely show even lower numbers.

It's evident that we need to deliver the literacy cart to them…and stat.  Access to literacy is tied to so many positive outcomes including social and civic participation, academic and career success, economic mobility and democratic participation. Plus, the book is always better than the movie, amiright? 

Cart, meet horse.


Are ESL students behind?

When multilingual learners (MLs) lag in grade level literacy skills in English (in comparison to their native English-speaking peers) educators become understandably concerned. Students get branded as “behind,” “not at grade level” or the dreaded “low”. However, let’s pause and ask ourselves: is this always a problem or could it be a natural byproduct of language acquisition? It would be expected that a student who is accurately identified as an English learner, would show signs of still learning English on literacy assessments, yes? And, if said student performed at or above level on such assessments, would they still be considered an English learner? 

When we treat English learning as a problem rather than a natural, additive process we (as K-12 systems) create a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. One common response is to give students increased ‘dosages’ of literacy instruction. Sometimes, we even look to ESL professionals to become that second dose provider for literacy interventions, placing the cart firmly in front of the horse.

But let us remind ourselves that literacy interventions were created for students who need deeper instruction in literacy itself. If students are still learning English and that is limiting their access to that good initial instruction, then yes we have some gaps to address but the biggest piece will be to remove the barrier - which is the fact that they are receiving (or are struggling to receive) instruction in a language that is not their primary and they’re being assessed in a language that is not going to reveal fully what they know.


“The problem is not the problem!”

I suggest we look at this ‘problem’ in two ways because, as my colleague and effective school culture coach, Claudisha Harriel likes to say, “The problem is not the problem!” And she’s so right. In this case, it’s our scramble to the solution that’s the problem. If we step back, take a long, deep inhalation, we can right the order of operations here.

Let’s look at this, ahem, problem from two sides: classroom instructional practices and ESL.

On the instructional side some important questions to ask are:
Is our tier 1 instruction and assessment universally accessible?
Are we sheltering deeply? 
Does our staff have a deep understanding of how that works and a trust in the process?

A recent poll (February 2023) by Education week asked teachers “Do you feel like you have enough training to teach English learners? Of the 1,248 responses, 39 percent said yes, and 61 percent said no." I hear this echoed in every school I visit. Tier 1 practices are the largest piece of the pie but teachers just don't feel prepared. Without support, our teachers flail and our MLs fail.

On the ESL side:
Are we viewing ESL as a content area (it is!) or an intervention (it is not!)?
Are we allowing the ESL teacher to move students through English proficiency by giving them the space, the time and resources to do so? 

ESL teachers need a mechanism for formative assessment so that they can take that information and move students along a linguistic continuum. ESL time needs to be upheld as sacrosanct, allowing time to build the students’ English capacity along a trajectory that is natural and logical for acquiring language.


Blame Aunt Sally…

Remember PEMDAS? Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication... It’s the order of operations that says, yes, you can do all of the operations right and still get the wrong answer, and, for some magical reason, order matters! Let's try:

4+8x3 = 36?

4+8x3 = 28?

Sometimes we overstep the natural trajectory of English development by reteaching or overweighting literacy instruction and calling it ESL. No one wants students to “get behind.” Yet it is this concept of behind sometimes actually keeps us Be-HIND!  When we view EL outcomes on common assessments (that were normed for native English speakers) as behind then we are moved to intervene. Those extra doses of literacy feel necessary and urgent. Instead of teaching the foundational skills of oral English, then, we go straight to teaching the end product, which is the literacy goal. One of the reasons literacy efforts may falter is that students may not yet have the language to access instruction or to anchor what they are attempting to read with meaning (vocabulary, textural references, etc). Kind of like getting 36 for the answer.

Oral domains of English (listening and speaking) need just as much attention and there’s a clear order of operations in SLA. In fact, a study conducted by Cummins (1979) found that English Language Learners (ELLs) who had strong first language (L1) oral language skills were better able to acquire English literacy skills. A meta-analysis conducted by Geva and Zadeh (2006) found that across multiple studies, the development of oral language skills consistently preceded the development of literacy skills in students learning a second language. In most cases, therefore, well developed oral language skills are foundational to the ‘stickiness’ of literacy instruction. Without ample time to develop proficiency in oral skills we rob our MLs of the opportunity to expand their phonemic awareness and their understanding of different sentence structures, idiomatic expressions, and turns of phrase so they can transfer that knowledge into literacy domains. If we skip this important step, it’s possible that we’ll inadvertently create deep learning gaps with our multilingual learners.

I’m reminded of my 9-year old son who wants to start a comic business. (@cringycomix on Instagram, coming soon!) He is so fixated on measuring sales when he barely has a plan for how to fill an order. Are sales THE goal of a business. Yes! Does he need foundational pieces in place to sell first. Absolutely. We can keep building the house but without a foundation, we are setting ourselves back.

As a system we need to uphold ESL as the essential content area that it is, and we need to uphold ESL teachers as the experts. The answer is 24.

PD just for ESL teachers is here. Here's what they're saying:

"The Aligned ESL Teacher Cohort modules provided great clarification for me in my role as an ESL teacher and have had a great impact on my ESL teaching, planning, and collaborating. Although I have experience with working with ELs for almost 10 years, I came away from each of the modules with new knowledge and a deeper understanding of my role as an ESL teacher and the ways that I can tailor my EL curriculum while also working to collaborate with colleagues that also work with my ELs so we can work together to ensure their language development and success."

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