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With Proper Intervention, ESL Students Not at Learning Disadvantage

Study Finds ESL Students Attain Fundamental Reading Skills Similar to or Better than Native English Speaking Peers

Children who speak English as a second language (ESL) are not necessarily at a disadvantage in terms of reading development, according to a recent study published this month in Developmental Psychology and co-authored by Nonie Lesaux, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The study, which tracked nearly 1,000 native English- and ESL-speaking children immersed in mainstream English classrooms in Canada from kindergarten to second grade, found that by the end of second grade, the ESL children had attained reading skills that were similar to, and in some cases better than, their native English-speaking peers.

The study, the first longitudinal look at a large sample of ESL students from diverse linguistic and social backgrounds who entered mainstream kindergartens, included children who spoke 33 different languages. Research was conducted in a school system that screens all children for reading difficulties, where teachers are trained to focus on pre-literacy instruction with activities that explicitly emphasize the sound system of the English language and to work on phonological abilities such as rhyming and sounding out letters. In addition, the teachers were trained to provide intervention for those identified as at-risk for reading failure. Lesaux, along with co-author Linda Siegel, Dorothy C. Lam Chair of Education at the University of British Columbia and their team of research assistants, consistently monitored the development of students' reading skills at each stage of their learning.

"With good instruction and proper intervention, bilingualism need not be a hindrance in learning to read," says HGSE's Lesaux. "Our model was successful because it involved close monitoring through an entire school district, not simply one classroom."

Key Findings

  • All children — regardless of their native language — are likely to benefit from early interventions that include phonological awareness training such as rhyming and sounding out letters to identify the different sounds that make words;
  • Simultaneous achievement of English reading skills and language proficiency can be an effective process, but investment from the school district, staff resources and teachers are also necessary to achieve early literacy and vocabulary. "Educators must be committed to monitoring student progress and providing additional support for children identified as at-risk for reading difficulties, as early as kindergarten," says Lesaux;
  • Accordingly, there is a correlation between vocabulary development and effective literacy instruction in English Language Learners. As vocabulary knowledge is a significant determinate of reading comprehension ability, early lessons and activities that promote vocabulary knowledge and other reading skills are critical.

Early Identification Intervention is Key to Success

The study's findings provide support for a model of early identification and intervention for all children at-risk for reading failure; the classroom teachers and school resource teachers provided intervention three to four times a week for 20 minutes. The impact of intervention is evident when examining basic reading and spelling skills, as well as reading comprehension. Early identification and intervention for children at-risk for reading failure is effective for children who enter kindergarten with little or no experience with English. Intervention includes, but is not limited to, explicit phonological awareness instruction. In a school district committed to balanced early literacy instruction, bilingualism was clearly not an impediment to the acquisition of literacy skills in a second language.

Background on Study

The study included 978 children (469 female and 509 males), 790 of whom were native English-speaking children and 188 of whom were children who have a first language other than English. (The study began with 1,217 students, but due to attrition, that number decreased.) In the fall of kindergarten, participants were assigned standardized tasks of reading and memory as well as experimental tasks of phonological awareness, letter identification, rapid naming, and phonological memory. At the end of the second grade, children were assigned various tasks of reading, spelling, language, arithmetic, and memory. All children received phonological awareness instruction in kindergarten and systematic phonics instruction in the first grade in the context of a balanced early literacy program.

About the Researcher and Institution

The research of Nonie Lesaux, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guided by the goal of examining the reading development, and the developmental health, of children who are at-risk for learning difficulties. Lesaux was awarded a Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of British Columbia. She is also a research associate on the National Panel on the Development of Literacy in Language Minority Children and Youth, a panel funded by the Institute of Educational Sciences, U.S. Department of Education to conduct a comprehensive, evidence-based review of the research literature on the development of literacy among language minority children and youth. The Harvard Graduate School of Education seeks to improve education through the preparation of leading professionals, the design of model education programs, the identification of policies that have local, national, and global impact, and the advancement and dissemination of scientifically rigorous and relevant research.

For More Information

Contact Nonie Lesaux at 617-495-3523 or


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