There has been much discussion of late about the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction in literacy. Decodable readers and phonics programs are popping up on book room shelves, nudging to the side the guided reading bins that have so long reigned supreme. These days, it seems acronyms such as UFLI are uttered more commonly than DRA or LLI. And yes, systematic phonics instruction is an essential component of reading, especially for students struggling with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (there has been more than one beloved learner in my family who needed such explicit and multisensory literacy instruction to learn to read). But what about multilingual learners? Is reading instruction different for them? Should teachers jump right into phonics instruction for a student just learning English, as they would for any other student?
Perhaps the following scenario will highlight some critical considerations in this question.
Imagine you are a multilingual leaner, about to learn a new language. And more than that, you are going to learn to read in that new language. Here is your first phonics lesson:
Just three sounds, and you blend them together. Got it? Now read this:
Could you decode it? Read it out loud? You blended all the letter sounds together? Great! Good for you! You are reading.
Just a couple more questions:
Did you get the joke in the first line? Were you moved by the revelation in the second sentence? Did you see the connection to your science curriculum at the end? Did you gain any ability to communicate in this new language you are trying to learn?
Ah. There is the difference. Native speakers of English already understand the vocabulary they are decoding. When we ask them to sound out c-a-t, they know what the word ‘cat’ means. They can use the word in a sentence for real communication. If they read a story about a cat, they can enjoy it, make connections to it, ask questions about the text. Not so for multilingual learners in the beginning stage of English acquisition.
So is phonics instruction just as important for multilingual learners as for native speakers of English? Yes. But it is not equitable to make a student decode something they cannot understand. That is where we come in as teachers, to front load and embed oral language and vocabulary development in phonics lessons, so that multilingual learners learn the meaning of the words they are about to decode and encode. So that they can use those words for real communication, in multiple authentic situations. So that they have the same access to rich texts, ideas, and learning experiences as native speakers of English. In this sense, teaching phonics in meaningful context, rather than only as an isolated skill, is an issue of both instructional practice and social justice.
There are far more considerations in teaching MLs to read than I have discussed here. For a deeper dive into the complexities and nuances of literacy instruction for multilingual learners, I have found Literacy Foundations for English Learners: A Comprehensive Guide by Cardenas-Hagan to be very helpful. And of course, for free insights and best practices in ML instruction, and mapping out the ways phonics and reading instruction need to be tweaked for multilingual learners, there is always https://www.colorincolorado.org/ which has an entire section devoted to literacy instruction for multilingual learners.
Speaking of which, the Spanish phrase “colorin colorado” might also be a good way to conclude to this blog entry — “happily ever after” is indeed the sentiment I wish for all readers.