English Learners / Emergent Bilinguals and the Science of Reading

English Learners / Emergent Bilinguals and the Science of Reading

Primary Considerations for Educators and Educational Leaders Supporting English Learners/Emergent Bilinguals (ELs/EBs)

According to the United States Census Bureau, English Learners/Emergent Bilinguals (ELs/EBs) are the fastest growing population of students entering our schools. The term English Learner is the official designation given to children who speak a language other than English at home and who enter schools with limited English proficiency as measured by designated English proficiency assessments. Emergent Bilingual is a more asset-based and aspirational term as students should continue to use and develop literacy in their home language in addition to their language of instruction, leading to biliteracy.

As of the most recent data available, the number of ELs/EBs in U.S. schools continues to demonstrate an upward trend. In the 2021-2022 academic year, there were approximately 5.6 million ELs/EBs enrolled in public schools across the country (U.S. Department of Education, 2022). This represents a significant portion of the student population, accounting for approximately 9.9% of all students in U.S. schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022). This data illustrates the ongoing increase in the number of ELs, highlighting the continued need for targeted support and evidence-based instructional practices to meet the unique needs of these students. As such, all schools need to understand what the research says about teaching English Learners/Emergent Bilinguals to read.

The understanding of reading development in students learning alphabetic and non-alphabetic languages is grounded in global research, contributing to the science of reading (leer en Español). Certain universally applicable findings have emerged from the work of scientists and researchers. For instance, it is well-known that in alphabetic languages, children must establish associations between speech sounds of their language and the corresponding letters in written form. It is also understood that all students must know the meanings of words to comprehend what they decode. These insights collectively contribute to our understanding of reading development across different linguistic systems.

The science of reading helps us understand the important role of explicit and systematic instruction to develop accurate and automatic word recognition as well as the importance of binding those words to language. Despite this clear understanding, there are many nuances and questions to be answered regarding the allotment of time that should be spent on foundational skills instruction while leaving adequate time to develop language comprehension skills to support understanding. It is, however, widely understood that skilled reading requires both word recognition and language comprehension for all students, with additional English language development to support comprehension for our EL/EB students.

Not sure where to begin?

The resources below point you in the right direction.

The “bilingual brain” and reading research: Questions about teaching English Learners to read in English

Literacy Research on English Learners: Past, Present, and Future

Brick by Brick: Landmark Studies on Reading Development, Assessment, and Instruction for Students Who Are English Learners

Transforming to alignment with the science of reading: Important considerations

History and Finding Alignment

Historically, there have been divergent viewpoints between experts in the science of reading field and some experts who support English Learner/Emergent Bilingual(EL/EB) students. However, it is important to recognize that the shared objective among all stakeholders is to facilitate positive literacy outcomes for all students, ultimately aiming for proficient reading and writing skills.

Despite a broad consensus on numerous topics, such as the importance of building language and knowledge, having high expectations for students, and the important role of foundational reading skills, there have been instances when presentations and papers have perpetuated a narrative of disconnection between these groups. For instance, in 2022, the National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) published a White Paper that extensively discredited practices associated with the “science of reading” approach. Interestingly, the frustrations expressed by the EL/EB community, which led to the development of this paper, often stemmed from practices that deviated from the scientifically supported evidence on how students acquire reading skills. These practices were implemented in schools where administrators mistakenly believed they were aligned with the science of reading. One notable example is the excessive emphasis on phonemic awareness or phonics instruction, with daily instruction lasting 90 minutes, at the expense of other critical literacy areas such as oral language development, vocabulary, and language comprehension. It is crucial to note that such practices are not congruent with the principles of the science of reading.

Overall, it will be important to draw upon our understanding of what the science of reading is, and what it is not, and proceed with a united message that evidence-aligned instruction must address all components of language comprehension, writing, word recognition, and for EL/EB students, English language development.

A response to the NCEL White Paper was drafted by Goldenberg et al. (2022) to find common ground. Following this response, The Reading League assembled a group of stakeholders to discuss some of the most critical points of contention in a series of meetings. The intent was to listen, learn, and build trust. This group knew that to truly unpack this disconnect, collaborative conversations had to occur that began from a place of mutual respect and understanding.

In March 2022 at the first virtual convening, the group of stakeholders agreed that proponents of the science of reading do not always place enough intentional emphasis on supporting the language needs of ELs/EBs. They also worked to dispel myths often perpetuated by many referring to the science of reading as a one-size fits all approach, a program of instruction, phonics-only, or any number of misinformed beliefs that describe anything other than what the science of reading is–a body of knowledge derived from decades of scientifically-based reading research.

The group convened multiple times from the spring to fall of 2022 with the objective of addressing significant topics, fostering clarity, and establishing trust. Through these discussions, several essential areas of agreement emerged, while other important questions surfaced that required further exploration. These shared alignments and questions served as the foundation for more in-depth discussions during the in-person gathering held in March, The Reading League Summit.

During these discussions, another group of EL/EB and science of reading experts had been meeting and discussing concrete alignments in California. This group developed an excellent resource that can serve as a foundation for conversations based on collaboration.

Pivot Learning published its final conclusions in this report:

The Reading League Summit, Joint Statement, and Report

Summit 2024

Summit 2023

In 2022-2023, efforts to bridge the disconnect between proponents of the science of reading and experts supporting the needs of EL/EBs led to the belief that the various stakeholder groups can move forward together. Continued conversations between The Reading League and friends and NCEL and friends led to an historic one-day Summit in Las Vegas on March 25, 2023.

The Summit featured four moderated panel discussions on a variety of topics. A video archive of the 2023 Summit is available here:

Joint Statement:

Following the Summit, panelists and moderators reconvened to address growing misconceptions about the science of reading. The following statement was drafted to continue the work of advancing literacy outcomes for all students, together.


Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall, director of P-12 Practice at The Education Trust, recounts the day’s events in the following report.


Is there scientifically-based research that helps us understand how to meet the literacy needs of ELs/EBs?

There is a claim made by certain individuals suggesting that all research conducted within the realm of the science of reading solely pertains to monolingual contexts. However, it is important to emphasize that all scientifically grounded research aimed at comprehending the process of reading acquisition—including studies explicitly addressing questions related to EL/EB students—falls within the scope of the science of reading. Although further research is warranted to gain a comprehensive understanding of effective support for EL/EB students, it is categorically incorrect to assert that no research exists regarding optimal strategies for assisting this particular student population.

There are multiple, reliable resources that have summarized research and lifted up best practices for EL/EB students including the following:

  • The Reading League has purchased the digital rights with a limited number of permitted downloads of the Developing Literacy in Second Language Learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth (Executive Summary). We welcome you to download the PDF of this resource for future use while it is available.

Additionally, because our nation’s classrooms have a growing number of EL/EB students, they have been participants in much of the research that is part of the body of knowledge known as the science of reading. For example, the initial 1990 study validating the Simple View of Reading was conducted on students along the Texas/Mexico border who spoke multiple languages.

There are also many scientifically-based research studies that help us understand how to meet the needs of ELs/EBs specifically. Unfortunately, many of them remain behind a paywall, but interested readers can contact the authors directly to request access. A sampling of just a handful of the studies that specifically address EL/EB students includes:

Curriculum and Instruction

Learning to read in a language you are learning is similar, but not identical, to learning to read in a language that is new to you. – Dr. Claude Goldenberg

One of the areas of continued discussion revolves around foundational skills.  These are skills such as phoneme awareness, letter knowledge, phonics, phonic decoding, and encoding, that must be developed to automaticity in order to support accurate and automatic word recognition and spelling.

An element of instruction that is a frequent point of contention is the use of context cues when teaching reading. Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story podcast explains the faulty logic and lack of research for relying on cues to decode words. An important distinction to understand is that cueing as a strategy to develop word recognition is not supported by research, but using cues to confirm the meaning of words once they have been read accurately can be beneficial for students, including ELs/EBs.

This article by Dr. Louise Spear-Swerling clarifies this distinction:

Dr. Linnea Ehri and Dr. Susan Brady discuss the role of meaning:

For readers, our brains have three separate kinds of representations for words in different areas of the brain that make up words’ lexical representations: 1) a phonological representation of how the word is pronounced; 2) a semantic representation that encompasses the word’s meaning attributes, including how the word is used in different contexts and connects to the meanings of other words that have related meanings; 3) and an orthographic map that specifies the spelling of the word. The orthographic map results from code-based grapheme-phoneme mapping when a reader encounters a word in print and decodes it, or when the reader spells the word. Once an orthographic map is well-established for a word, the reader no longer needs to decode that word but automatically accesses the map when reading or spelling, and even just when hearing the word. The different kinds of representations become more strongly neurologically connected as the learner has experience with the word in language and in print. Thus when reading a known word, the semantic and phonological representations are activated as well as the orthographic map. For words to fully exist in our ‘sight word’ memory, they must have these other forms of representation well connected with the orthographic map. Research also indicates that connections with the motor region of the brain that controls handwriting are also activated when a word is used. Educational practices that integrate all aspects of word knowledge strengthen the connections, supporting automaticity of word recognition and comprehension.

Research on both monolingual and bilingual students has documented that explicit and systematic instruction in phoneme awareness and decoding are essential for orthographic mapping, however these skills are not sufficient to develop skilled reading if the other forms of representation are not established as well. If students are taught to decode the words, but do not know the meanings of the words they are reading, comprehension will not occur. Thus, ensuring that students know the meanings of words they are decoding is necessary, too. In short, EL/EB students need rich instruction in English oral language to build their second language expertise, supporting both their oral language use and providing necessary phonological and semantic representations for English words they are seeing in print.

According to Dr. Linnea Ehri in an interview for The Reading League Compass:

To be fully mapped and exist as a sight word in memory, the meaning must be connected to the spelling and pronunciation. Also the syntactic identity of the word needs to become connected to the other identities, that is, its function in sentences—especially if its meaning is only activated in sentences (e.g., function words like was, from, if, and with, and irregular past tense verbs that sound like nonsense words when produced in isolation like held, took, gave, and wrote). This would be especially important for EL students. These words need to be read in meaningful contexts in order for the connection forming processes to become complete and to establish high quality lexical representations of sight words in memory. A word isn’t a word without meaning.

Thus, it is essential to undergird lessons whenever possible with meaningful vocabulary, language, and English language support is essential for EL/EB students.

Resources to further understanding

The Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines (CEGs) include “red flags” (instructional practices that do not align with the science of reading) as well as aligned practices that support both word recognition and language comprehension. The CEGs also include specific, evidence-aligned components to support EL/EB students. Many of the evidence-aligned language comprehension components of the CEGs align directly with the WIDA English Language Development Standards (2020). Developing understanding of grammar, cohesive devices, syntax, and text structure is supported by the science of reading and advocated by those supporting EL/EBs. Understanding these connections and emphasizing these similarities will help us all move forward together to support all learners. Additionally, New Mexico’s Structured Literacy and English Learners page provides helpful information on instruction and resources such as walkthrough tools and lesson templates.

The following excerpts from California’s ELD Standards Publication are also helpful in thinking through the evidence-aligned needs of ELs/EBs.

English learners benefit from Reading Foundational Skills instruction.

Research Findings: Instruction in the components of reading foundational skills—such as phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension (NICHD 2000)—benefits ELs.
Implications: Instruction in foundational literacy skills is essential for ELs. However, the instruction should be adjusted based on students’ spoken English proficiency (they may or may not be familiar with the English sound system) and native language or English literacy proficiency (they may or may not be familiar with any type of writing system or with the Latin alphabet writing system in particular). Note that some ELs at any age may not be literate in any language when they arrive in the U.S. school system; their native language may not have a written form, or they may not have had opportunities to develop literacy in their native language or in a local language of wider communication.

Oral English language proficiency is crucial for English literacy learning.

Research Findings: Oral proficiency in English (including oral vocabulary, grammar, and listening comprehension) is critical for ELs to develop proficiency in text-level English reading comprehension. Word-identification skills are necessary, but not sufficient. Students who have learning disabilities (as diagnosed separately from their EL designation)—or whose literacy skills in either their native language or English remain below grade level after intensive and extensive instruction—may need specialized literacy intervention services.
Implications: Instruction for ELs in oral language knowledge, skills, and abilities must be explicit, intensive, and extensive. In order to be successful in reading English, ELs must develop proficiency in listening and speaking skills in English—depth and breadth of vocabulary, as well as grammatical structures—at the same time that they are developing foundational skills in reading and writing English.

Native language literacy skills facilitate English literacy learning.

Research Findings: ELs’ native language literacy skills can help them learn English foundational literacy skills.
Implications: Instruction for ELs will need to vary based on variations among ELs’ native language writing systems, as well as ELs’ experiences with literacy in their native language. For example, students who are literate in a language that uses the Latin alphabet (such as Spanish) will be able to transfer decoding and writing skills more easily than a student who is literate in a language with a non-Latin alphabet (such as Arabic, Korean, or Russian) or a language with a symbol-based writing system (such as Chinese). Similarly, students who are literate in a language related to English (such as Spanish) will be able to use knowledge of cognates (words with similar meaning and spelling in both languages), whereas students who are literate in unrelated languages (such as Arabic, Chinese, or Korean) will not.

Multilingualism as an Asset

In our increasingly multilingual and multicultural society, it is important to consider the impact of bilingualism on the development of language, and how exposure to more than one language from a young age might shape an individual’s brain both structurally and functionally. In the recent past, bilingualism was thought to impede cognitive and linguistic development, effectively ‘confusing’ the child’s brain with multiple languages. We now know that this is NOT the case. (Arredondo et al, 2018)

A point that was universally agreed-upon at The Reading League Summit is that from a cultural, cognitive, and an academic perspective, multilingualism is an asset. For students, learning vocabulary and background knowledge in their home language can lead to positive transfer of this knowledge when learning the language of instruction, which supports comprehension. Dual language instruction is an optimal setting for this.

The reality, however, is that most EL/EB students are not afforded the opportunity to learn in a dual language setting that instructs, at least part time, in their home language. Thus, students must learn to read in a language they are learning to understand. Even in English-only settings, educators can still capitalize on the asset of a student’s home language by leveraging cognates, or words in different languages that have a similar phonological, orthographic, and semantic form. Educators can also use a student’s home language to highlight similar elements of phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, and grammar and lessen the cognitive load of new learning by engaging in contrastive analysis, or the comparing of two languages to determine the similarities and differences of specific elements of the language. Teachers can also support better comprehension skills when they are able to choose texts that relate to children’s previous experiences and world knowledge. In this way teachers can provide culturally relevant content that is more likely to be familiar to children and therefore more likely to be understood.

In this EdSource article (2023), Tim Shanahan states:

There are things that, depending on the language, might overlap with English and that the children might already know, in which case, those don’t necessarily need to be retaught or certainly not to the same extent as with a first language student. For example, a lot of the sound letter matches are identical across Spanish and English, so if the child already knows how to read in Spanish, the classroom instructor wouldn’t need to put a lot of time into teaching those things. On the other hand, there definitely are sounds that we have in English that don’t exist in Spanish. And studies have found that it’s useful to teach those quite explicitly and thoroughly.

These resources are useful in helping educators understand elements of language that may be similar or different across languages:


Dr. Lilian Duran of the University of Oregon offers the following advice for The Reading League Compass on assessment for ELs/EBs:

When planning assessment to learn more about the reading abilities of English Learners, it is important to understand their word recognition abilities, but one must also understand the role of language proficiency in both the child’s home language(s) and English. Assessing literacy development in multilingual children requires attention to the child’s level of proficiency in all of the languages that they have been regularly exposed to and how they will interact with the child’s performance on the assessments administered.

In the context of the United States, most reading assessments are conducted only in English. Many children enter US schools speaking languages other than English at home and in their communities and are in the process of acquiring English. It is mandated that all children whose parents identify that a language other than English is spoken in the home are administered an English proficiency test with the goal of more effectively providing appropriate support for learning in predominantly English instructional environments.

Language is the foundation of literacy, and for EL students, measuring language development is critical to understanding the foundation they are bringing to the task of learning to read in English.  Assessment in a child’s home language is also important to provide a window into their ability to learn in general. Most children in the U.S. will be exposed to English-only instruction, but prior to school entry all of their learning, their concept knowledge, and their communication abilities are simply stored in a different language. Measuring vocabulary, semantic, and morphosyntactic development provides the teacher with more awareness of the student’s strengths, abilities, and learning potential.

In addition to attending to the level of language development of students, it is also important to consider the language or languages of instruction. If children are only taught how to read in English, you cannot assume that the child will have reading skills in Spanish. However, if a child is in a dual language program that systematically teaches reading in both English and Spanish, then reading assessment in both languages is important and a better reflection of their overall ability level.

The main take-away for assessing reading skills for ELs is as follows: teachers must take a nuanced approach that strategically considers the quantity and quality of a child’s exposure to their home language(s) and English and how this interacts with the language of their reading instruction. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a decision-making process that should be undertaken to choose the appropriate assessments in the appropriate language that are most likely to capture the child’s overall language and reading ability.

For more information on this topic:

Students Who Use Black English Should Be Included in Conversations

Dr. Altheria Caldera, TRL’s DEIB consultant, offers the following advice for The Reading League Compass regarding speakers of Black English:

According to a 2021 infographic published by the Office of English Language Acquisition, only 2.9% of Black students are English Learners (ELs). Most of these non-native English speakers are foreign-born, with 8 of the top 10 countries being located in Africa. These Black English Learners are often “overlooked” in conversations around the needs of multilingual learners. This exclusion has significant implications for the reading education, with its recent focus on the importance of teaching foundational reading skills to beginning readers.

Black English, sometimes referred to as African American Vernacular English, is a dialect of English with syntactic and grammatical distinctions from Standard (also Dominant) American English. Important, too, is the differences in vocabulary, oral language, phonics, and phonemic awareness, all of which are integral components of structured literacy. As an example, a student who speaks Black English might read the word “flow” and understand it to be a surface on which one walks and may fail to recognize the word “floor” as the standard way the term is pronounced. The impact of dialectical differences such as this are examined in this 2012 article.

Questions surrounding implications for reading instruction for speakers of Black English have been pursued since at least the 1970s. Recent scholars like Ramona Pittman and Julie A. Washington, whose research and writing center students who speak Black English are urging the broader multilingual education community to include speakers of Black English, and other bi-dialectical students, in their efforts to advance the needs of multilingual learners.

Students who speak dialects other than English have needs similar to, though not identical to, needs as speakers of other languages. The former, sometimes referred to as Standard English Learners, deserve this nuanced classification along with corresponding support. California is one of the states leading the way in this language equity work. While it is arguable that speakers of Black English should be identified as ELs; unequivocally, students who speak Black English and other bi-dialectical students should be included in the literacy conversation, and their needs should be uplifted.


These additional resources are helpful to understand research as it relates to supporting English Learners and Emergent Bilinguals.

Stories From the Field: What Has Worked and What We Have Learned

The following experiences were shared by educators and leaders in schools who support a high population of ELs/EBs.

Fiesta Garden

View Case Study

Russellville Public Schools

View Case Study

A Tale of Two Languages: Literacy System Design for Multilingual Learners

View Case Study

Nuestro Mundo

View Case Study

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