Friday, November 21, 2008

What Does Research Say about Phonics for ESL/ELL/ESOL?

In another blog post entitled, "Why Phonics for ELLs/ESOL Students?", I shared quotes that provide an impetus for teaching phonics in ELL/ESOL contexts. But what does the research say about teaching phonics to ELLs/ESOL students?

We know that the National Reading Panel (NRP) asserts that instruction in explicit, systematic phonics assists native English-speaking students in the development of literacy skills.

The NRP states that "overwhelming evidence strongly supports the concept that explicitly and systematically teaching phonics in the classroom significantly improves students' reading and spelling skills."

The NRP also reports that "surveys conducted on early reading have repeatedly concluded that word recognition is best learned when it is taught according to three principles..." Word instruction should be: 1) explicitly taught by the teacher; 2) systematically planned and organized; and 3) sequenced in a fashion that moves from simple to complex. So what about phonics for ELLs?
Some may dispute that because these findings are specific to native English-speaking students, they do not apply to ESOL students.

I briefly reviewed some research that addresses the question regarding the applicability of the NRP’s recommendation of phonics for ESOL students. The fact is that there is a huge need for more research in the area of the effects of phonics for ESOL students. However, Timothy Shanahan and Isabel Beck attempt to explore whether the NRP’s conclusion that “teaching [native English-speaking] children how to use sound-letter relationships to decode words…confers a learning benefit on children who are learning English” (p. 419).

Shanahan and Beck searched for as many studies as they could find that explored the effects of explicit phonics and/or phonemic awareness (or a variation of such instruction) on ESOL students. They found only five studies they could use for this purpose. Each of these five studies had limitations, thus emphasizing the need for more research in this area, but they served the purpose of contributing to attempting to answer Shanahan’s and Beck’s question, “Does teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, or sight vocabulary confer similar advantages on English-language learners?” (p. 424). Though the studies had their limitations (as previously mentioned), and additional research is needed to replicate their studies and to generalize their findings, overall, this research is consistent with the NRP’s research findings of the effects of phonics and phonemic awareness training on native English speakers. Here is an excerpt from the chapter:

“Clearly, five small studies of phonological awareness and phonics are far from sufficient to allow a determination of the most useful instructional methods for meeting the early literacy needs of English-language learners. However, the findings of all five studies are consistent with the solid findings of first-language research. The National Reading Panel examined 52 studies of phonological awareness instruction and another 38 studies of phonics instruction. Both conferred clear benefits on children’s reading development, as determined by a wide range of measures, including beginning reading comprehension. The five studies of phonological awareness and phonics with English-language learners had similar results, although only one of these studies measured reading comprehension outcomes."

“Additional research is needed both to replicate these findings and to help determine whether special routines or emphases are needed in these areas in teaching English-language learners from various language backgrounds…” (p. 427).

In conclusion, the research results that are available, though limited, are consistent with the NRP’s recommendation of phonics and phonemic awareness training for native English speakers. In addition, additional research that explores the effects of explicit, systematic phonics instruction on ELLs is greatly needed.

See also the post on phonics research.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implication for reading instruction: Reports of the sub-groups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Shanahan, T. & Beck, I. (2006). Effective literacy teaching for English-language learners. In D. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing lIteracy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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