Supporting our Most Vulnerable Leaners
Although we have an abundance of foundational research on how people learn to read, that research is often not implemented. As a result, classroom practice in the United States does not always align with evidence-based best practices in literacy education.
This brief seeks to provide a practical, accessible update on the latest literacy research to help translate the evidence to classroom practice. The brief summarizes recent developments in literacy research on supporting and motivating multilingual learners and students with dyslexia and discusses their implications for practitioners.
What’s New, and What Are the Implications?
The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners
Critics of the science of reading recently argued that current implementation limits early literacy instruction to a few foundational skills that do not serve English learners (Escamilla et al., 2022). Proponents contend that the science of reading has been misinterpreted and that many of its strategies are effective for both native English speakers and English learners (Goldenberg et al., 2022). The root of this disagreement may lie not in the science itself but rather in the translation of research into practice. For example, the science of reading highlights the importance of phonics instruction. However, in practice some teachers overemphasize phonics, giving less attention to other essential components, like comprehension or vocabulary, to the detriment of all students.
Research-based practices provide the foundation upon which teachers must build their instruction. Teachers may need to adapt instruction to meet the needs of their students and their unique contexts, but instruction should always remain grounded in the foundational practices. Successful literacy instruction focuses on the five components of reading identified in the National Reading Panel report, with additional support for developing English speaking skills (Vaughn et al., 2006). For multilingual learners, explicit instruction in vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension, and syntax is even more essential. Additionally, making instruction relevant (e.g., providing reading instruction in students’ native languages) boosts student achievement in reading (Mitchell, 2017).
In practice, this can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Pairing conversations with shared activities can allow students to build relationships while building content knowledge and oral language skills. Using tools and props related to lesson content, teachers can facilitate conversations tailored to children’s interests, thereby increasing motivation and authenticity (Yamauchi et al., 2012).
Identifying and Supporting Students With Dyslexia
In a 2020 article for the Journal of Learning Disabilities, Miciak and Fletcher address the challenges, changes, and best practices in early identification of dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Historically, the identification of dyslexia and other learning disabilities has relied on a subjective measure—the discrepancy between academic achievement and IQ—even though this approach has been debunked (Bradley et al., 2002). However, dyslexia occurs across a wide range of intelligence scores. Miciak and Fletcher (2020) assert that much of the conversation around identifying dyslexia ignores the most important attributes of dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities: documented difficulties with reading and spelling after formal reading instruction begins and an inadequate response to intervention. Concurrently, there is little evidence to support dyslexia-specific interventions, but children with and without proposed cognitive markers of dyslexia who struggle with reading and spelling respond similarly to evidence-based reading interventions.
Screening facilitates early intervention and identification of reading difficulties and dyslexia. We can screen students to determine a level of risk for dyslexia by quickly identifying the key attributes of dyslexia—that is, difficulty accurately and fluently reading text and difficulty with spelling. In practice, dyslexia identification and treatment processes should occur within “well-implemented multitier systems of support (MTSS) that include universal screening, evidence-based Tier I instruction, preventative intervention, ongoing progress monitoring for high-risk students, and mechanisms to intensify interventions for students who demonstrate inadequate response to quality instruction similar to those that occur with other [specific learning disabilities]” (Miciak & Fletcher, 2020, p. 5). Appropriate Tier 1 instruction should include systematic phonics and explicit instruction on the alphabetic principle (Vaughn et al., 2006). Teachers should regularly assess and monitor progress for all students to identify any potential signs of learning disabilities or dyslexia as early as possible.
Meanwhile, teachers should also spend time explicitly attending to phonemic awareness (such as identifying the beginning sound in various words) and teaching which letter represents that sound. One way to do this is with two-column sorts, in which children categorize items by their beginning sound. For example, with one column labeled B and the other labeled M, students would sort pictures of a bear, button, mask, mouse, bed, and monkey beneath the letter that represents their beginning sound. For added cultural responsiveness, use pictures of items that represent students’ cultures and communities.
Student Motivation to Read
Recent findings indicate that the amount of time students spend reading directly impacts their reading achievement. In other words, students who read more read better and, in turn, feel better about themselves as readers (Taylor et al., 1990; Tegmark et al., 2022). Unfortunately, children today read less than ever, especially in middle and high school. According to 2020 data from the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of fourth-graders read recreationally “almost every day” compared with only 17 percent of eighth-graders (Schaeffer, 2021). These numbers have dropped steadily over the last decade and are at their lowest level since the 1980s.
While autonomous reading habits continue to decline, Tegmark and colleagues (2022) contend that school-based and in-class reading are rife with opportunities to motivate students to read more. They argue that “[s]chools therefore have a huge potential in initiating reading practices that appeal both to students’ sense of duty and external expectations and their internal drive for more autonomy and personal interest concerning text choice in order to increase students’ reading amount and thereby strengthen their self-conceptions as readers” (Tegmark et al., 2022, p. 115). Modifying school-related reading practices can positively impact children’s motivations to read and time spent reading.
Tegmark and colleagues (2022) outline several recommendations for applying research related to motivation. First, regular, ample reading sessions should be scheduled across the curriculum to encourage autonomy and build students’ reading competence. Second, schools should offer choice in reading, allowing students to access a variety of materials on topics of personal interest and at varied reading levels. Finally, “educators need to design reading practices that fulfil students’ need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy in order for them to develop more self-determined behavior and a more positive perception of themselves as readers” (p. 101). In practice, this means giving students access to robust classroom libraries with a variety of types, topics, and genres of reading materials, including audiobooks. This also means providing dedicated time for independent choice reading during the school day. Get creative with reading challenges and celebrate student success.
Often, instruction for our most vulnerable learners is reduced to rote, disconnected, skill-and-drill activities that fail to motivate students who are already experiencing difficulties. Recent evidence further supports that all learners, including multilingual learners and students with dyslexia, can thrive in school when given tools and foundational skills appropriate to their needs.
Bradley, R., Danielson, L., & Hallahan, D. P. (Eds.). (2002). Identification of learning disabilities: Research to practice. Erlbaum. Escamilla, K., Olsen, L., & Slavick, J. (2022). Toward comprehensive effective literacy policy and instruction for English learner/emergent bilingual students.
Goldenberg, C., Duran, L., Diamond, L., & Cardenas-Hagan, E. (2022). A response to “Toward comprehensive effective literacy policy and instruction for English learner/emergent bilingual students” by The National Committee on Effective Literacy (NCEL) [White Paper].
Miciak, J., & Fletcher, J. M. (2020). The critical role of instructional response for identifying dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Advance online. Sage Publishing.
Mitchell, C. (2017). Dual-language programs boost student achievement in English, study finds. Education Week, 22.
Schaeffer, K. (2021). Among many US children, reading for fun has become less common, federal data shows. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/
Taylor, B. M., Frye, B. J., & Maruyama, G. M. (1990). Time spent reading and reading growth. American Educational Research Journal, 27(2), 351-362.
Tegmark, M., Alatalo, T., Vinterek, M., & Winberg, M. (2022). What motivates students to read at school? Student views on reading practices in middle and lower‐secondary school. Journal of Research in Reading, 45(1), 100–118.
Vaughn, S., Mathes, P., Linan-Thompson, S., Cirino, P., Carlson, C., Pollard-Durodola, S., Cardena-Hagen, E., & Francis, D. (2006). Effectiveness of an English intervention for first-grade English language learners at risk for reading problems. The Elementary School Journal, 107(2), 153–180.
Yamauchi, L.A., Im, S., & Schonleber, N. S. 2012. Adapting strategies of effective instruction for culturally diverse preschoolers.” Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 33(1), 54–72.