How can we attune our instruction to support the reading development of multilingual students? This complex question has become even more tricky given the current thrust of media messages about the “best way” about how reading should be taught. The Science of Reading (SOR) movement has been highly successful in messaging teachers, administrators, and the public about the need for specific components of foundational reading and corresponding instructional moves to support early readers. But do all students, including multilingual students, need the same reading instructional techniques to become successful readers? If not, what kind of adjustments to foundational reading instruction need to be considered for multilingual students?
Let’s start by clarifying what I refer to reading in this short piece. I refer to reading as the complex orchestration of reading words, understanding their meanings, and understanding the meaning of words in relation to larger pieces of texts. This is a departure from how reading is commonly currently conveyed by SOR advocates. In the current discourse word reading or decoding is commonly the only portion of the entire reading puzzle being referenced. Decoding is the ability to use knowledge about letters and their sounds to read a word and is, undoubtedly, a foundational aspect of reading. However, for multilingual students decoding a word does not necessarily mean that they “read it.” In other words, while multilingual students may have the knowledge of sound-letter relationships to sound out a word, decoding does not mean that multilingual students can understand the word on its own or in relation to the words around it. Clarity about what educators mean when we refer to reading is always essential because it impacts what instructional practices educators design and how much time we dedicate to the instructional practices we choose to employ.
For multilingual students learning to read, phonemic awareness exercises can have an extra layer of complexity. Phonemic awareness is the ability to play with sounds of a word and to manipulate them. It is considered one of the cornerstones of early reading abilities. Ideally young readers should engage in short, intentional, and powerful instruction to support students’ acquisition of phonemic awareness. For young children who are asked, “if I say seat, change the s to a ch,” and who have ample experience with English, the exercise can target their phonemic awareness. But for multilingual students, it’s not that simple. Did the teacher say, “ch” or “sh?” And what do these words mean?
These layers of complexity are consistently present throughout a range of different foundational reading experiences for multilingual students. Take for instance the following anecdote: in a first grade classroom, teachers are working with multilingual students through foundational skills curriculum. Students are instructed to pick out the word that is different from the others. They are given the following three words: “pepper, letter, and perfect.” While for many students, it is clear that the word, “letter" is different from the others because it starts with the letter, “l,” for many multilingual students there are a range of confounding factors that may make this simple exercise much more than identifying an initial letter sound. For example, when the teacher says to identify something different about one word, what kind of difference is he/she referring to? Students may be confused if they should identify a difference in letters at the beginning or the end? They may think, should I look for which word means something different? Exercises like this are meant to be fast paced, yet, multilingual learners may still be processing what is exactly required of them, thus not actually engaged in the targeted skill that these exercises intend for students to practice.
In another instance, the teacher sends students to a table to work in a small group reading nonsense words like, “puk, jaf, kuf.” Before starting the activity, one of the students, a Latinx boy, asks the teacher, “can we use sounds in Spanish?” This example demonstrates that for many multilingual students, they may have knowledge of letter sounds across the languages that they use daily. In the case of nonsense words, it’s important for students to know if the teachers want them to employ all of their knowledge of sounds, even if it goes beyond English, or do they need to keep within the confines of English sounds?
As these types of foundational exercises have become increasingly popular and even mandated by law for students, it is important for educators who work with multilingual students to be reminded that their professional expertise is fundamental to “skillful implementation” (professional communication, Melissa Lambert, 2/1/23) of these foundational instructional techniques for multilingual readers. These proceeding anecdotes demonstrate that multilingual learners approach tasks that are meant to target foundational reading skills in a way that differs from monolingual students. Assuming that the same instructional tasks will activate the same type of learning for all students including multilingual students is reflective of the monolingual bias in activities such as these (Ascenzi-Moreno, unpublished manuscript).
The vast research on bilingualism and reading indicates that there are differences between monolingual and multilingual students as they develop to be readers (Reyes, 2012). It is critical that research on biliteracy sits alongside and on equal ground with research promoted by SOR advocates. While SOR advocates argue for universality or of the claim that all readers need the same instructional techniques regardless of their profiles, it is clear that multilingual students need something different in developing to be successful readers.
What exactly do we know about how multilingual students and monolingual students differ in how they learn to read? While there are many ways that multilingual students’ reading development differ from monolingual students, in this short piece, two ways in which they differ will be highlighted. First, language and literacy are intertwined (Razfar & Rumenapp, 2014). For multilingual students this means that while we may try to isolate reading skills from language, this only works for students who already are quite adept in knowing the meaning of words. For multilingual students, the danger when we engage in these types of practices is that we are missing an opportunity for language development. Secondly, multilingual students operate across named languages or use their translanguaging abilities - meaning that they have knowledge about different components of reading in two or more named languages. Therefore, they may know a variety of sounds associated with a given letter in more than one named language. They may also have knowledge of words and texts in languages in addition to English. Therefore, the need for students to understand their resources cross-linguistically becomes critically important (Cárdenas-Hagan, 2020). For example, multilingual students may benefit from discussing and practicing similarities and differences between sounds in the named languages that they use.
So what does a multilingual approach to teaching early reading looks like? Because language and reading are intertwined for multilingual students there are a couple of shifts that can take place for multilingual students to account for their rich linguistic and cultural resources. Reading is both cumulative and componential (Lesaux, 2015). For multilingual students, this means that not only do multiple experiences need to add up to continually develop a thoughtful and skillful reader, but also that the skills need to relate to each other. One of the first things that teachers can consider is how foundational exercises are related to meaning? For multilingual students when meaning is not integrated into learning, there is a lost opportunity for language development. When reading skills are compartmentalized, then multilingual students’ overall comprehension may be impacted in the long run, because the relationship between word reading and language is not made over time.
For example, before asking students if they know the sound the word starts with, it’s important that students know what the word means. This can be accomplished by asking students what the word means in the languages that they use or even by showing visuals, if applicable. A second way to support multilingual students’ acquisition of foundational skills is to integrate a space within foundational reading skills to explore the ways in which their named language works - the similarities and the differences - between the languages that they use. This means that students have the opportunity to hear how the “th” sounds in English and compare it, let’s say for a Spanish speaker, to how the medial “d” sounds, “media” (or sock), which has similarities. The vast body of biliteracy research emphasizes the importance of metalinguistic awareness in the development of biliteracy for multilingual students (Reyes, 2012).
Calls for universality in the teaching of foundational skills makes a complex instructional landscape for multilingual students invisible. When the actual learning of multilingual students is not perceived, then their needs cannot be attended to adequately, and in the end multilingual students will lose out on crucial reading instruction that is attuned to their profiles. An overemphasis on word work unconnected to meaning, in the long run may cumulatively lead to weaknesses in meaning-based reading abilities. Of course, multilingual students need foundational skills - all students do - however, the ways that word reading and meaning come together for multilingual students during foundational skills development deserves both dedicated attention and a different approach that matches the research base on multilingual students. Educators will need to advocate for multilingual students by exercising their professional expertise to adapt foundational skills based on what research says about how multilingual students learn.
Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (Unpublished Manuscript). Bilinguifying reading instruction through a translanguaging perspective on reading and readers.
Cárdenas-Hagan, E. (2020). Literacy foundations for English learners: A comprehensive guide to evidence-based instruction. Brookes.
Lesaux, N. (2015). Cultivating knowledge, building language: Literacy instruction for English learners in elementary school. Heinneman.
Razar, A. & Rumenapp, J. (2014). Applying linguistics in the classroom: A Sociocultural approach. Routledge.
Reyes, I. (2012). Biliteracy among children and youths. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(3), 307-327.
Dr. Laura Ascenzi-Moreno is a professor of bilingual education and bilingual program coordinator at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Brooklyn, NY, USA