Increasing the Reading Achievement of Elementary English Language Learners: The Critical Role of Oral language and Phonological Awareness in Learning to Read in a Second Language
Today, American public schools are facing a major demographic shift—the number of students from diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds has dramatically grown over the past two decades. These students, many of whom enter school without being able to speak English, are expected to perform at grade level while simultaneously learning to speak, read, and write in a new language. However, data reveal a widening gap between the reading achievement of native speakers and students who speak English as a second language. In short, ELLs (English Language Learners) are struggling to achieve grade-level reading proficiency. While researchers in first language (L1) reading acquisition have investigated extensively the mechanisms involved in how children learn to read in their first language, second language (L2) reading research has only recently become its own discipline. Investigations in L1 reading have provided much of the research for L2 reading. Identifying the necessary components and effective instruction for improving the reading achievement of L2 learners is no small feat. Reading is a multidimensional process for first language learners, but this process becomes even more complex when considering the myriad of factors involved in second language reading: linguistic differences, literacy background, language exposure, oral language proficiency, etc. Much research has targeted the components of reading—this research indicates that phonological awareness and oral language skills are especially critical during the early stages of reading and beyond. In this essay, I define reading and illustrate the processes involved in fluent reading. I also present leading models of L1 and L2 reading. I describe the dual nature of L2 reading and synthesize current findings on L2 reading development. Next, I investigate research on the effects of phonological awareness and oral language on L1 and L2 reading achievement. Lastly, I suggest appropriate instruction to support the growth of phonological awareness and oral language for ELLs in a K-3 classroom.