Hello Teachers of emergent bilinguals!
This week in our July series of profiles of diverse English Learners (ELs), I’m going to turn the spotlight on our youngest newcomers – those who were either born in the United States to immigrant parents, or arrived just before starting school, and are still developing their English.
What’s the problem, you might ask? If they arrive that young, they will quickly acquire English, learn to read and write just like everybody else, and won’t be classified as an EL for very long.
Well, yes – and no.
While it’s true that our youngest newcomers will typically develop fluent oral English very quickly (after approximately a year in school), their linguistic needs are often underestimated and overlooked precisely because of this reason.
Who are our youngest newcomers?
Yi-Sheng (*not an actual student) is almost six years old and arrived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn at the beginning of last summer from a small city in China. She lives with her mom and two older cousins; her mom has already been in the U.S. for two years working and sending money home, while Yi-Sheng’s grandparents raised her in China.
It’s uncertain when her grandparents can join them. Yi-Sheng is having a difficult transition because she barely knows her mother and cousins and misses her grandparents terribly. She speaks only Chinese at home but has learned a little English from TV and her cousins.
In September 2019 she entered kindergarten at her local elementary school, where over 60% of students are from Chinese families. While her school is very supportive of their population’s culture and makes an effort to include Chinese traditions in the classroom, they do not have a Dual Language program or many Chinese-speaking staff, so students don’t have much time or many resources before they need to quickly transition to academic English.
Yi-Sheng has acquired basic English oral proficiency by listening to her teacher, but her school has lumped all the Chinese-speaking students into one class for scheduling reasons, so she isn’t exposed to fluent language among her peers.
Her school uses the Fundations program, an evidence-based Structured Literacy curriculum to teach students decoding. Yi-Sheng has learned to read words with single consonants and short vowels like ‘cat’, however, she often doesn’t know how to pronounce words and if she can, doesn’t know a lot of the meanings.
Her teacher spends the first 20 minutes of the day on phonics instruction, but isn’t incorporating decodable readers into that lesson, so Yi-Sheng doesn’t have an opportunity to practice decoding graphemes (sound-letter combos) in text. In addition, Yi-Sheng holds the pencil in her fist and uses the wrong stroke sequence on many letters, something her teacher doesn’t have time to correct.
The rest of the day the students are divided up into Leveled Reading groups. Since Yi-Sheng isn’t one of the stronger readers in the class, she’s remained at the same level for half the year and keeps looking at the same books. She’s beginning to feel discouraged when she sees her other classmates being allowed to access more interesting-looking books.
At the end of the year, although Yi-Sheng can understand and communicate well in English, her productive vocabulary is not as large as some of the other students, something that will negatively impact her reading comprehension in the 3rd grade.
What we know: our Youngest Newcomers
Our young newcomers arriving in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade make up the largest percentage of English Learners throughout most of the country. They quickly become English speakers, and often end up losing proficiency in their Home Language as they transition more and more to English.
However, by the fourth grade, too many are falling behind their non-EL peers in reading and math. Let’s just qualify that by saying that very few students in the U.S. are reading well. The 2019 Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) shows that 65% of all 4th graders are reading below “proficient”. As if this weren’t bad enough, 90% of 4th Grade ELs scored below proficient, compared to 61% of non-ELs. This pernicious achievement gap just won’t go away; it is statistically significant and has presented itself since 1998.
If we think about the relationship between oral language and reading, we can understand what’s happening. We all begin to acquire language through listening and noticing sounds. An English-proficient child has about five years, from birth until he or she enters kindergarten, to acquire the sounds of English, along with vocabulary and sentence structure.
By the time that child arrives in kindergarten, he or she has a robust command of English, and approximately 5,000 words in his or her oral lexicon. When that child learns to read, he or she begins to apply that oral language – in particular, his or knowledge of the sounds of English – to the task of reading.
An emergent bilingual child also has robust oral proficiency, in the home language. However, this child has to learn to apply the sounds of a new language to reading, and then identify the meaning of words which he or she may not know.
Phonological awareness, specifically phonemic awareness – the ability to discriminate and manipulate individual sounds in words – has been shown by a large body of research to be a top predictor of reading comprehension in the later grades. Before you can begin to understand what a text is about, you first have to get the words off the page.
Once students can read words quickly and automatically, academic vocabulary emerges as the top predictor. You can’t understand what you’re reading if you don’t know the meanings of the words.
What can we do to help them become fluent readers?
Unfortunately we are not going to return to a time when Pre-K and Kindergarten meant story time, naps, outdoor play, art, and baking cookies.
In the era of the Common Core, our youngest newcomers have less and less time to spend on foundational skills like phonological awareness and vocabulary and are being expected to analyze texts and write sentences and paragraphs. It’s no wonder that our young ELs are having trouble: they haven’t been given enough time to develop the foundation of literacy: Oral Language. By the time they’re in the 3rd grade and texts become much longer and complex, they can’t keep up.
There are three broad principles a teacher can follow to help learners:
1. Always choose books that are above students’ independent reading level and that have rich story plots and complex language – young children need to hear rich texts and language to develop background knowledge and vocabulary and practice thinking critically around a text.
A rich story plot is one that captures young children’s attention and imagination –something exciting is happening! This is possibly the most important thing for fueling EL’s engagement in literacy – read Jim Cummins’ article here. Linguistically complex language means that sentences are longer and/or have high-level vocabulary. The idea is that we want our youngest newcomers to get excited and swept away by a story – and start asking questions.
Examples of high quality, complex texts are
If your curriculum has selected mediocre choices for stories, think about centering your lesson on the same skill but replacing the book. If your learners are brand new, focus on your Essential Questions (see #2), the vocabulary and what is happening in the pictures. Read the text and paraphrase for them or read select excerpts from the authentic text.
2. Ground your Close Read in Essential Questions, not a skill. Critical thinking around a “skill” can’t happen if students can’t connect the story to bigger questions – central themes on which all your questioning and prompting will be based. If your unit doesn’t provide you with those questions, or if they’re not good enough, look at your story and come up with your own. Watch me discuss the Essential Questions in Corduroy here.
3. Maximize your vocabulary instruction to emphasize phonological awareness, spelling, and building background knowledge and vocabulary. All English Learners but especially our youngest newcomers benefit enormously from pre-teaching not only vocabulary, but pre-activating their prior knowledge. Spend time teaching this using pictures, and have students practice listening to and repeating words, identifing syllables and initial sounds, and making connections to the context of the story.
One of my all-time favorite articles for teachers on oral language is The Magic of Words by Neuman and Wright (2014).
And, for those of you who teach our littlest ones, see my student’s fantastic four-week unit on Fall Food designed for Chinese-English bilingual preschoolers (thanks, Jessica!)
Teachers, let me know what you think! How can I help you with your students? Comment below or DM me @AEBLL_Children.
I wish you all a wonderful weekend! Stay tuned for next week’s blog on Long-Term English Language Learners!