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Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth

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The purpose of this article is to respond to a review of the report Developing Literacy in Second-language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth, written by our respected colleague Kathy Escamilla, which appeared in a recent edition of the Journal of Literacy Research. This will also give us the opportunity to offer a brief update of the research on effective reading and writing instruction for English-language learners that has appeared since 2002, the cut-off year for the inclusion of studies in the original panel report.
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Journal of Literacy Research
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DOI: 10.1080/1086296X.2010.503745
2010 42: 341Journal of Literacy Research
Diane August and Timothy Shanahan
Language Minority Children and Youth
Second-language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on
Developing Literacy inResponse to a Review and Update on
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Journal of Literacy Research, 42:341–348, 2010
Copyright © Taylor & Francis G roup, LLC
ISSN: 1086-296X print/1554-8430 online
DOI: 10.1080/1086296X.2010.503745
Response to a Review and Update on
Developing Literacy in Second-language
Learners: Report of the National
Literacy Panel on Language Minority
Children and Youth
Diane August
Center for Appli ed Linguistics
Timothy Shanahan
University of Illinois
The purpose of this article is to respo nd to a review of the report Developing
Literacy in Second-language Lear ners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on
Language Minority Children and Youth, written by our respected colleague Kathy
Esc amilla, which appeared in a recent edition of the Journal of Literacy Research.
This will also give us the opportunity to offer a brief update of the research on
effective reading and writing instruction for English-language learners that has
app eared since 2002, the cut-off year for the inclusion of studies in the original
pan el report.
OVERVIEW
The U.S. Department of Education charged the National Literacy Panel on
Language-Minority Childr en and Youth with the task of identifying, assessing,
and synth esizing research on the education of language-minority child ren and
Correspondence should be addressed to Diane August, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, Center
for Applied Linguistics, 4500 Wetherill Roa d, Bethesda, M D 20816, USA. E-mail: daugust@
msn.com
341
342 AUGUST, SHANAHAN
youth ages 3–18 with respect to their attainment of second-language lit eracy and
to p roduce a comprehensive report evaluating and synthesizing this literature.
The increase in students in U.S. schools who come to English as a second
language is remarkable and represents a major challenge to American educa-
tion. The Department of Educati on rightly wanted to provide research-based
information fo r schools on how best to facilitate their English learning. It was
necessary for t he panel to limit its inclu sion to studies that were publi shed in
Engli sh ( no matter what languages may have been the focus in the studies); thus,
the majority of such studies were conducted i n the United States, followed by
those from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, with some studi es from
the Netherlands, Finland, and Israel. A pr imary purpose of the report was to
establish a foundation for current and future research and as such was intended
primarily for researchers. Within the selection criteria established, the p anel was
comprehensive in its rev iew of the research: It focused broadly on language-
minority students, and included a variety of study types addressing a wide array
of questions pertinent to the literacy education of language-minority children.
Among the many findings of the report was that some amount of teaching
of stu dents in their home language was beneficial to English literacy learning
(better than English immersion) and that instru ct ion that focused on enhanced
teaching of particular literacy components (e.g., decoding, spelling, writing,
comprehension, fluency) was generally beneficial with second-language learners
(as t hey are with native English speakers). The results also showed, with some
amount and q uality of teaching, that second-language learners often match first-
language learners in the learning of English word-level skills, such as phonologi-
cal awareness, spelling, and decoding, but that even with instruction, equivalency
in hig her l evel Engl ish skills, such as comprehension, is rare. However, the
amount and quality of literacy teaching studies was circumscribed, and findings
were somewhat tentative.
Given this, prior to responding to Kathy Escamilla’s review of the report,
it would be useful to provide an update to the instructional research that was
summarized in it. Although the synthesis was extensive, the literacy teaching
reviews have attracted the most attention, and so our update will focus on these
studies, and specifically those that employ experimental designs.
UPDATE
In 2002, there were only 17 experimental and quasi-experimental studies fo-
cused on explicit instruction in literacy components such as decodi ng or com-
prehension, and 22 studies focused on more complex approaches, including
6 studies on encouraging reading and writing, 3 on reading to children, 2 on
tutoring and remediation, and 11 studies that focused on addressing multiple
RESPONSE AND UPDATE ON DEVELOPING LITERACY 343
reading components simultaneously. All of these studies addressed the t eaching
of English or the teaching of the home language as preparation fo r English
instruction in the contex t of English as a societal language (some other portions
of the report considered the learning of other languages). The effectiveness of
approaches to literacy instruction had to be evaluated by using experimental,
quasi-experimental, or single-subject research designs that allowed the effects
of an instructional approach to be isolated. While we reviewed ethnographies and
case studies to address other questions, the “what work s” nature of th is question
required that studies use experimental designs. Furthermore, the studies could
not have design flaws or confounds so serious that it would be impossible to
determine their results with any degree of certainty.
The reason f or this updat e is that, si nce 2 002, approximately 20 additional ex-
perimental and quasi-experimental studies have been published in peer-reviewed
journals that measure outcomes for six component li teracy skills: phonological
awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and
writing. Most of these studies focused on phonological awareness and phonics
(Calhoon, Otaiba, Cihak, King, & Avalos, 2007; Denton, Wexler, Vaughn, &
Bryan, 2008; Ehri, Dreyer, Flugman, & Gross, 2007; Giambo & McKinney,
2004; Gunn, Smolkowski, Biglan, Black, & Blair, 2005; Kamps et al., 2007;
Lovett et al., 2008; McMaster, Kung, Han, & Cao, 2008; Roberts & Neal,
2004; Solari & Gerber, 2008; Swanson, Hodson, & Schommer-Aikins, 2005;
Troia, 2004). Finding s generally confirm those of the previous review: The
same pr inciples of syst ematic and explicit phonologi cally based interventions
that undergird instr uction f or English-proficient students also app ear to benefit
Engli sh language learners’ (ELLs) literacy development. These benefits were
demonstrated throug h a number of measures, including assessments of reading
comprehension, word reading, and word attack skills.
Six studies assessed reading fluency (Calhoon, Al Otaiba, Cihak, K ing, &
Avalos, 2007; Denton, Wexler, Vaughn, & Bryan, 2008; Gunn, Smol kowski,
Biglan, Black, & Blair, 2005; Kamps et al., 2007; McMaster, Kung, Han, & Cao,
2008; Sáenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005). Rather than focusing solely on fluency,
usually these studies examined fluency in the cont ext of more comprehensive
reading programs th at also focused on phonological awareness, phonics, and/or
comprehension. Although the specific approaches used in these studies varied,
most found a significant positive impact on English-language learners’ oral
reading fluency.
Five studies had vocabulary ou tcomes. One study focused primarily on de-
veloping phoni cs knowledge but also had significant effects on measures of
oral language or vocabulary development (Giambo & McKinney, 2004). The
remaining studies used a combination of approaches that have been successful
in building vocabulary in English proficient students (Graves, 2006), inclu ding
direct instruction of individual words, immersing students in language-rich envi -
344 AUGUST, SHANAHAN
ronments (e.g., interactive reading, educational televisions), and teaching word
learning strategies. The studies were conducted by Rob erts (2008), Roberts and
Neal (2004), Sil verman (2007), and Uchikoshi (2005).
Our review located 10 studies with reading comprehension outcomes (Denton
et al., 2008; Ehri, Dreyr, Flugman, & Gross, 2007; Fung, Wilkin son, & Moore,
2003; Kamps et al., 2007; Liang, Peterson, & Graves, 2005; Lovett et al., 2008;
Roberts & Neal, 2004; Sáenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs, 2005 ; Solari & Gerber, 2008;
Swanson, Hodson, & Schommer-Aikins, 2005). Most studies investig at ed the
effect of comprehensive and multi-faceted literacy programs on the comprehen-
sion of ELLs. Our review located one study with writing outcomes (Echevarria,
Short , & Powers, 200 6). Findings indicated that using the Sheltered Instruction
Observation Protocol (SIO P) model, which emphasizes strategies and techniques
to make new information comprehensible to ELLs, can improve t hese students’
writing.
We were disappointed at the paucity of experimental evidence on how to teach
literacy to English l ang uage learners and were quite tentative in our claims, based
upon so few studies. H owever, findings from studies conducted since 2 002 ap-
pear to corroborate those earlier findi ngs. The results taken together suggest that
the focus of effective literacy i nstruction is much the same for native speakers
and ELLs; h owever, some adjustments to t hese common inst ruction al routines
seem necessary and appropriate. While the nature of such adjustments needs to
be explored more directl y in future research, studies suggest the importance of
considerin g appropriate ways of using the native language within instructio nal
routines. They also point to the advisability of altering curriculum coverage,
depending on t he similarity between English and the native language and th e
student s’ levels of attainment of their native language (e.g., some letter–sound
correspondences do n ot need to be re-taught if already mastered in a native
language t hat shares these correspondences with English) and of fine-tu ning
instruction al routines. Several successful methods of fine-tuning appear in the
studies, including identifying and clarifying di fficult words and passages within
texts to facilitate comprehension, con solidating text knowledge through sum-
marization, and giving students extra practice in reading words, sentences, and
stories. Some studies also revealed the value of instructi onal routines that include
giving attention to vocabulary, checking comprehension, p resenting ideas clearly
both verbally and in writing, p araphrasing students’ remarks and encouragi ng
them to expand on those remarks, providing redu ndancy, and usi ng physical
gestures and visual cues to clarify meaning.
There still are not enough studies explorin g w hat works with English learners.
New research can confirm the general findings summarized here, but these
studies are needed to examine the effects of interventions over time, the effects
for students with di fferent levels of first and second language proficiency, and
from different first language backgrounds. Moreover, most research has targeted
RESPONSE AND UPDATE ON DEVELOPING LITERACY 345
one or two components of literacy. Interventions that are more comprehensive
are needed as are studies of how to accommodate the language learning and
literacy needs within the same classroom of students with diverse skills and
capaciti es.
Finally, with regard to method s used in the studies, althoug h logically the
experimental paradigm allows for a determinat ion of causal relationships, even
when these designs are used cauti on is needed in interpreting results. Such stud-
ies may vary in quality—how well a st udy controls for alternative explanation s
of effects, how well its conditions match those in an actual classroom, and how
well it describes the intervention and context in which the intervention occurs.
Furth ermore, the results of even the b est studies are probabilistic; we have
greater confidence in results t hat have been successfully replicated many times
in independent studies, wh ich is not the case with the studies usi ng experimental
designs given the few stud ies focused on any given outcome.
RESPONSE TO REVIEW
We now turn briefly to the review of our work conducted by Kathy Escamilla.
The panel report is comprehensive; it focuses on seven major topics—develop-
ment of literacy, cross-linguistic relationshi ps, socio-cultural contexts and li ter-
acy development, instructional approaches and professional development, and
student assessment. Each section is guided by specific research questions and
systematically reviews studies that address these questions using the most recent
research synthesis methodolo gy.
Many of the reviewers’ comments reflect a struggle to come to terms with
the stated purpose of the report and the parameters of the review. The reviewers
would have preferred that the report focus on the development of bilingualism
instead of the learning of English. However, the charge to the panel from
the U.S. Department of Education was to summarize existin g research on the
development of English literacy in language minority students. Whil e the panel
report explicitly notes the value of bilingualism and thoroughly reviews the eval-
uation research that compares English-only instru ction to bilingual in struction,
it al so provided a rigorous and thorough review on second-language learning,
particularly in English. We believe that studying the development of bilingualism
in children is a critically important endeavor and encourage Dr. Escamilla to
conduct a tho rough and systematic rev iew of the research in this area given
her evident commit ment to t he issue. Beyond the finding t hat pri mary language
reading instruction promotes reading achievement in English the research left
many unanswered questi ons that such a review might address. These include,
for example, whether primary language in struction is more or less beneficial for
some students, whether more p rimary language instruction is better than less,
346 AUGUST, SHANAHAN
what are t he most effective ways to combine the primary language and English
into a coherent instructional program, and the effective use of the p rimary
language to support instruct ion in English.
Most of the other issues raised by the reviewers reveal a limited familiarity
with the repor t and its methods, and as such her review reflects some unfortunate
misunderstandings. Thus, for example, chapter 9 of the study reviews studies
that examine cross-lang uage influences of literacy knowledge, processes, and
strategies in students who are learning a second language. The app roach taken
in such studies is to examine the relationsh ips of literacy components across
languages, and a study may consi der what connections exist between vocabulary
development and word recognition skills across the two languages. Given the
nature of this research, it would not make sense t o combi ne these stud ies
with those that compare bilingual instruction to Eng lish-only instruction, as the
reviewers propo se. Such st udies address a different constellation of questions
and employ different methods to answer those questions (in fact, those studies
are thorough ly reviewed in chapter 14).
The reviewers further comment that “it would have strengthened the overall
report to emphasize the role that federal/state/local policies p lay in both edu-
cational opportunities for children and y outh and in opportunities for financial
and other support to do research. The report is a review of research, not a
political statement; nevertheless, it does examine t he role of educati onal polici es
in creating learning opportunities for children in the background sections of
various chapters (see, e.g., chapter 19) . However, even though we sought studies
on the impact of various educational policies, th ere were few studies pu blished in
peer-reviewed journals that reported research on this top ic, l imiting what could
be st at ed in a research review. H er review also complains that we neglected
studies that link hi gher education achievement in second generation immigrant
student s to the maintenance of their languages and cultures. It is essential that
research syntheses establish clear and consistent study selection criteri a and thi s
review focused specifically on studies of students ages 3–18, which necessaril y
precludes the inclusion of th e studies Dr. Escamilla wanted included.
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August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report
of the national literacy panel on language minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates.
Calhoo n, M. B., Al Otaiba, S., Cihak, D., King, A., & Avalos, A. (2007). Effects of a peer-mediated
program on reading skill acquisition for two-way bilingual first-grade classrooms. Learning
Disability Quarterly, 30(2), 1 69–184.
Denton, C. A., Wexler, J., Vaughn, S., & Bryan, D. (2008 ). Intervention provided to linguistically
diverse middle school students with severe reading difficulties. Learning Disabilities Research
and Practice, 23(2), 79–89.
RESPONSE AND UPDATE ON DEVELOPING LITERACY 347
Echevarria, J., Short, D., & Powers, K. (2006). School reform and standards-based education: A
model for English language learners. The Journal of Educational Research, 99(4), 19 5–210.
Ehri, L. C., Dreyer, L. G., Flugman, B., & Gross, A. (2007). Reading rescue: An effective tutoring
intervention model for languag e-minority students who are struggling readers in first grade.
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improv e ESL students’ comprehension of En glish ex pository text. Learning and Instru ction, 13 ,
1–31.
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the oral English proficiency of Spanish-speak ing kindergarten children. TESOL Quarterly, 38(1),
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Graves, M. F. (2005). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College
Press.
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reading skill through supplemental instruction: Results for Hispanic and non-Hispanic students.
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grades: Secondary-tier intervention. Learning Disability Quarterly, 3 0(2), 153– 168.
Liang, L. A., Peterson, C. A., & Graves, M. F. (2005). Investiga ting two approaches to fostering
childrens compre hension of literature. Reading Psychology, 26, 387–400.
Lovett, M. W., De Palma, M., Frijters, J., Steinbach, K., Temple, M., Benson, N., et al. (2008).
Interventions for reading difficulties: A comparison of response to interve ntion by ELL and EFL
struggling readers. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41(4), 333–352.
McMaster, K. L., Kung, S., Han, I., & Cao, M. (2008). Peer-assisted learning s trategies: A “Tier 1
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Roberts, T. (2008). Home storybook re ading in primary or second language with preschool childre n:
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348 AUGUST, SHANAHAN
Diane August is currently a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Appli ed
Linguistics as well as a consultant lo cated in Washington, DC . Her recent work
has appeared in a variety of journals inclu ding Reading Research Qu arterly,
Journal of Educational Psychology, Journal of Research on Educati onal Effec-
tiveness, Applied Psycholinguistics, Scientific Studies of Reading, and Reading
and Writing. Her current research focuses on the development of literacy in
Engli sh-language learners. She can be reached at 4500 Wetherill Rd., Bethesda,
MD 20816. E-mail: daug ust@msn.com.
Timothy Shanahan is Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois at
Chicago, where he is director o f the UIC Center for Literacy. Professor Shanahan
was a member of the National Reading Panel, and chaired the National Early
Literacy Panel and the National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children
and Youth. He was director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools and had
a presidential appointment to the board of the National Institute for Literacy.
Shanahan has published more than 200 research articl es, chapters, and books on
the teaching of reading and writin g. His research focuses on the improvement
of reading achievement, reading-writing relationships, and disciplinary literacy.
He can be reached at 1040 W. Harrison (M /C 147), Chicago, IL 60606. E-mail:
shanahan@uic.edu. His Web site is www.shanahanonliteracy.com.
... The evidence to date suggests that L1 and L2 spelling draws on a similar set of cognitive and linguistic components (see Geva, 2006, for a review) and follows a comparable developmental trajectory irrespective of oral proficiency (see August & Shanahan 2006, for a review; Lesaux et al., 2006). What is different, however, is that many learners of L2 spelling have already cracked the alphabetic code and have developed phonemic and morphological awareness abilities in their L1. ...
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