Bridging the Science of Reading and Literacy Development for Multilingual Learners

Written by Katy Lichon, Sarah Butch and Kenna Arana

As schools work to bolster their fidelity to the science of reading and as the reading wars are rehashed, a different battle has been brewing: Tension around the science of reading accounting for the needs of multilingual learners (MLLs). Given the national push to adopt the science of reading strands (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension) and the growing number of MLLs, the question of how to bridge this research and the literacy development of emergent bilingual learners is timely. MLLs are the fastest-growing population in U.S. schools and account for roughly 10 percent of student populations. Add to this, many MLLs are developing literacy in their home language and in English. 

Here, and in our session at NCEA 2024, we want to make the case that the science of reading is a solid starting point for literacy development for emergent bilingual students, but if our goal is biliteracy and the celebration of a child’s full linguistic repertoire, intentional inroads need to be made to bridge current reading practices and the strengths and needs of multilingual learners. As Kari Kurto, National Science of Reading Project Director at The Reading League, put it, we hope that this conversation “helps move those who are working to build the knowledge in the science of reading to think of English learners or emergent bilinguals in Chapter 1 rather than Chapter 34.”

Bridging Aspirations, Challenges and Opportunities

MLLs represent a myriad of home languages, cultures, experiences and literacy practices, and each arrives in our classrooms with varying degrees of literacy in their home language and in English. For MLLs, it is vital that we place the development of biliteracy and bilingualism as a central goal, as well as the goal of using home language as a bridge to learn English and fully engage in the literary life of a classroom. 

One key to bridging the science of reading and literacy development for MLLs is to take into consideration factors of language development:

  • Language development is a process and educators must know where students fall in the stages of second language development.

  • Bilingualism and biliteracy are not the same skillset and educators must gather information about a child’s literacy practices at home to meet their developing needs in a second or new language.

  • When forming emergent bilingual readers, foundational skills are important, but educators must also account for the role of translanguaging and the development and interplay of the four domains of language (listening, speaking, reading and writing).

Bridging Phonics and Phonemic Awareness 

The science of reading emphasizes the explicit development of phonics and phonemic awareness, but to bridge these practices for MLLs, educators must keep several things in mind: 

  • MLLs will struggle with phonological awareness in English until they are familiar with the sounds and patterns of English, and thus, songs, chants and repetition are critical.

  • Educators must have knowledge of a child’s first language in order to emphasize sounds that do not exist in a student’s native language, as well as focus upon distinguishing between similar sounds (e.g. b / v). Additionally, some students need additional time and support if their first language is non-alphabetic.

  • As students begin to sound out words, MLLs need additional support connecting meaning to these basic words (e.g. sofa, run, bat) through visuals, realia and gestures. Additionally, students need explicit instruction in synonyms, as “run” possess several meanings.

Bridging Fluency

As MLLs are working to achieve fluency in English, their varied ability to decode words may prevent them from understanding the meaning of the sentences or even the words that they are reading. Here are the strategies we suggest educators use to help MLLs develop fluency:

  • MLLs are often diligently working to achieve fluency in speaking before they achieve fluency in reading. Therefore, when working on developing fluency, educators should be sure that students are reading familiar texts that they’ve had previous exposure to, with a strong emphasis on building background knowledge, frontloading and practicing vocabulary. One way to facilitate this is by using stories that students have heard read aloud several times and have discussed.

  • Consider that decoding skills, fluency in oral reading and reading comprehension are deeply connected. Educators should be on the lookout for multilingual readers who might be able to read with fluency, but who might lack the vocabulary and content knowledge to comprehend a text.

  • MLLs may often be self-conscious about accents, errors and reading speed. Rather than reading aloud in front of the entire class, have students read along with the teacher or read along with a group.

Bridging Vocabulary

Vocabulary instruction is essential for MLLs as it enhances language development, aids in decoding and serves as a direct line to comprehension. Knowing that all students enter the classroom with varied backgrounds, explicit vocabulary instruction is necessary for MLLs to be successful.

  • MLLs need multiple opportunities to engage with vocabulary through varied representations in meaningful contexts. Having students orally explain and apply the new vocabulary in context helps to reinforce their understanding of the vocabulary. Additionally, it is important for educators to remember the power of writing when it comes to vocabulary acquisition.

  • Unknown words that are essential for understanding need to be explicitly taught through multiple representations. This can include real-world objects (realia), gestures, images or visual representations, experiments, etc. Spotlighting word parts (prefixes, suffixes, root words, cognates, etc.) helps students to build their vocabulary beyond the original word.

  • Vocabulary instruction needs to include more than just the suggested or bold-faced words in a text, especially as many words in English have multiple meanings and MLLs may not have had exposure to vocabulary that would be common for other students.

Bridging Comprehension

Given our prior discussion of the challenges of bridging phonics and phonemic awareness, fluency and vocabulary, it is understandable that developing reading comprehension is also more challenging for MLLs than for native speakers. Here are a few ways to support MLLs as they build comprehension:

  • MLLs may need extra help in connecting to background knowledge. Educators need to identify the background knowledge that students will need to fully comprehend a text before giving it to students to read. Then, teachers must help students gain any background knowledge that they do not already have. One way to build background knowledge is by taking students on a virtual field trip, exposing them to unfamiliar concepts through images and videos that bring knowledge to life.

  • Texts that include complex sentence structures or figurative language such as metaphors pose additional challenges for MLLs to access meaning in a text. In addition to building background knowledge in terms of content, it is also important to provide explicit instruction on the different forms of language present in a text.

  • The difference between equality and equity has important implications for MLLs. Depending on where a student is in developing their literacy skills, it may be necessary to modify a text in order to meet a student where they are. The ultimate goal is, of course, for students to be able to read an unmodified text, but in the beginning, instructors may need to shorten a text or provide visual supports to help students access the material.

As you can understand or have likely experienced, providing reading instruction to MLLs comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. To learn more about how you can bridge the science of reading for your MLLs, attend our “Clarifying the Science of Reading for Multilingual Learners” session on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at NCEA 2024.