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The ESL Advantage

A Lift-Off to Literacy
Assistant Professor Nonie Lesaux (© 2003 Andrew Brilliant)
Long before children ever pick up their first books, before they read a sentence or hold their pens to paper, teachers are at work, developing their charges' literacy skills. In many schools across the country, kindergarten has become an important building block for literacy, a place to assess linguistic difficulties and to develop early language and "pre-reading" skills that put students in good stead for learning. Unless, of course, those children don't speak English. "Often, people have assumed that schools should wait to teach English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students English before working on their reading skills," says Nonie Lesaux, HGSE assistant professor of education and co-author of a new study on the reading development of ESL children. But Lesaux's study, the first longitudinal look at a large sample of ESL students from diverse linguistic and social backgrounds, shows that just the opposite can be true. Tracking nearly 1,000 native and ESL students from kindergarten to grade two in an English-only school system in Canada, Lesaux, who joined the HGSE faculty this year, and co-author Linda Siegel, a special education professor at the University of British Columbia, assessed the development of students' reading skills at each stage of their learning. What they found was that, by the end of grade two, the ESL children had attained reading skills that were similar to, and, in some cases, betterthan, those of their native English-speaking peers. The study was conducted in a unique school system that screens all children for reading difficulties. There, teachers are trained to focus on preliteracy instruction, a combination of activities that explicitly emphasize the sound system of the language, such as rhyming, and other phonological challenges (for example, "What is the word 'bus' without the 'b' sound?"), as well as storybook reading. According to Lesaux, previous research has found that, when young children develop phonological awareness, their skills in a second language may be vastly improved. In other words, all children—regardless of their native language—are likely to benefit from early interventions that include phonological awareness training.
About the Researcher (RealPlayer required) Asst. Prof. Nonie Lesaux recently spoke with us about her research. Some excerpts from that conversation are included here: An audio resource A brief overview of the focus of Nonie Lesaux's research on reading development in grade school (1 minute)listen An audio resource Lesaux on her findings that bilingualism can be an advantage (1 minute)listen An audio resource Lesaux discusses the implications of her research (1 minute) listen An audio resource Lesaux takes the perspective of a community health advocate (1 minute)listen
"Bilingualism need not be a liability," Lesaux says. "With effective instruction, it can actually be a distinct advantage. In fact, one of the most valuable assets these learners have, for subsequent literacy development, is their native language skill." Lesaux explains that ESL students are often held back from early literacy intervention programs. Instead, they are placed in classes that focus on developing their proficiency in a new language. The result, she says, is a delay at learning's starting gate. "There's a cumulative effect for all learners that results from not reading at an age-appropriate level," she says. "Early on, there's a tremendous loss in vocabulary and content-area knowledge that's very difficult to make up for, later on. This becomes a great source of low self-esteem for these children," says Lesaux, describing the decline in academic success that is common among people with literacy problems. Over the next few years, the tasks that require reading multiply, and the effects of a disability reach into every aspect of learning. To avoid creating such exponential gaps, many schools around the country have begun to adopt models of early identification and intervention for children at risk for reading difficulties. However, as Lesaux points out, there is great variability in how ESL learners are taught in their first years of school. Over the last few years, a controversial and politically charged movement in favor of English-only instruction programs in several states—including Massachusetts—has further complicated matters. Lesaux explains that this shift has taken place in the absence of both long-term plans for effective immersion instruction and an understanding of the benefits of bilingual education settings for learners. "If, in fact, the shift to English-only instruction is to be a lasting one, then let it be informed by what we now know," she says. "This not only would help ESL children's literacy development, but it would help promote achievement, both in school and outside as well." About the Article A version of this article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For More Information More information about Nonie Lesaux is available in her Faculty Profiles.