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English Learners and Reading Challenges

Helping educators gain new tools to assess, intervene, and support struggling readers (and language learners)
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When English learners show signs of reading difficulties, educators often have a hard time figuring out what’s holding them back. Is a student struggling to read just because she is still learning English and hasn’t yet developed the academic language skills she needs? Or, might she have a learning disability in reading that has not yet been identified?

In either case, English learners who are struggling readers too often lack the instruction and supports they need, even as they are tasked with absorbing skills and content in English while they’re learning the language. They might be misdiagnosed with a disability, or a disability might go undiagnosed entirely.

Minding the Gap

Students who are learning English at school tend to be diagnosed with learning disabilities two to three years later than their native English-speaking peers, and they’re underrepresented in special education before the third grade — likely because their teachers assume their reading challenges are rooted in developing language rather than readiness to read. These delays are particularly worrisome, since it’s critical to identify reading challenges sooner, rather than later, to get the most out of appropriate reading interventions, and to minimize negative consequences, like low self-esteem.

On the flip side, older students are sometimes misdiagnosed with a disability because they score low on English proficiency tests, simply because they aren’t yet fluent in English or may need support in building their academic language abilities.

Both sets of experiences reveal a gap in our understanding of how best to identify and serve English learners with reading disabilities — a gap that researchers from the Harvard Brain. Experience. Education. Lab (B.E.E.) are trying to fill.

B.E.E. researchers, led by Gigi Luk, are figuring out how English learners typically learn to read English, using neuroimaging, or brain scans, so they can better understand whether research on learning disabilities in monolingual students applies to English learners as well. Through their collaboration with a research team led by Joanna Christodoulou at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, they’re also administering a questionnaire to find out how schools are currently identifying reading disabilities among English learners, as well as among English proficient students, to identify current practices and determine what additional knowledge educators need to fully serve their students.   

Best Practices for Now

Once researchers understand how educators are currently identifying reading disabilities among English learners, they can better understand the challenges educators face, and help craft solutions.

Until then, though, we know there are best practices for identifying reading disabilities in English learners, including the following:

  • If the child is able to read in a language besides English, assess language and literacy in the non-English language (if possible).
  • Use informal and dynamic assessments (for example, test, teach, re-test) that allow English learners to demonstrate what they know and how they learn.
  • Use multiple measures that cover oral and written language competencies. These can include measures of vocabulary, listening comprehension, phonological processing, rapid naming, phonics, timed and untimed word reading, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning — all of which can shed light on the source of the difficulty.
  • Consult the manuals of all standardized tests administered in your school to investigate how English learners are represented in the norming sample, as well as whether there are specifications for how to modify the test for English learners.

Embracing Bilingualism: What to Keep in Mind

  • Research shows that supporting a student’s first language will help the student learn to read in English. Educators can encourage family members to engage in language and literacy activities in their native languages.
  • Bilingual education models are not yet a practical reality in most American schools, which creates a need for innovative approaches to evaluate how to implement bilingual education for all students, not just English learners. 
  • One simple way that schools can promote English learners’ literacy and language development is to debunk the idea that parents should focus solely on English at home, says HGSE doctoral candidate Laura Mesite. “That’s the exact opposite of what most research suggests. Children need rich oral language exposure at home to promote literacy development. Oftentimes, when non-native English-speaking parents try to speak only in English with their children, they aren’t able to provide the rich linguistic environment necessary to foster language and literacy development in either language,” she says.

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