Adjusting the Recipe: Baking in research-backed literacy practices for Multilingual Learners

February 29, 2024

When I moved from the ocean to the mountains a couple of years ago, my dough rose alarmingly quickly the first time I made bread. My bread ended up misshapen, tough, and not edible. I tried a second loaf, to similarly confusing results. It turns out that the same simple ingredients (yeast, sugar, water) baked at different altitudes result in very different outcomes.

This is similar to the process of teaching reading to diverse students: the instructional ingredients that result in strong readers for some will need to be adjusted to accommodate different learners.  We can’t assume that the same practices applied uniformly will always result in the same outcomes. This is especially true for students who are learning to read in a language in which they do not yet have oral proficiency.  Multilingual learners (MLLs)--including bureaucratically designated English learners– need an adjustment to the literacy ingredients provided for non-MLL students.  

The ideological reading wars reported by the media make for good clickbait but don’t make for reading success for the fastest-growing student demographic. Approaches not informed by research do no good for any student, much less multilingual learners. We should seek out best practices and learn the research together for the good of all students, but particularly kids learning English while they learn to read. 

While we’ve learned a great deal about diverse learners and their varying learning needs, solid research on MLL reading doesn’t always get implemented well in literacy instructional materials or the classroom. There is no doubt that phonics instruction is foundational to learning to read, but it is a gross misreading of the research to claim that this should be the primary focus.   MLL literacy research demonstrates that reading instruction is more complex for those learning to read in a new language and they need specific kinds of instruction beyond what is laid out in some of the reading approaches for non-MLLs.  

The research-based five pillars of literacy are essential for MLLs and all students. These include phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  MLLs need to learn all of the discrete sounds that make up our language (phonemic awareness), and they need instruction and practice in letter-sound correspondences (phonics).  These decoding skills are crucial contributors to word identification and, subsequently, word recognition. Comprehension and vocabulary instruction help students derive meaning from words and sentences they are reading.

Educational linguist Lily Wong Fillmore suggested to me that a sixth pillar for children who are gaining English proficiency is having a “threshold”, or a base level of language competence before word decoding skills are taught in English. Acquiring the sounds of the English language and enough vocabulary and understanding of the structure of English (i.e. syntax) is essential to comprehend the words being read. 

Teachers must understand each student's language proficiency. They need to know where students are at so they can better support them in literacy development.  For example, if a student cannot speak or listen to English at all, it would be unproductive to teach them the sounds, word patterns, or mechanics of reading in a language they have no experience with. This is because different students will have different linguistic strengths (e.g. they might be able to comprehend more proficiently than they can communicate orally).  This information will help teachers gain a fuller picture of the child's language development strengths and needs so that they can respond to specific language strengths and needs. 

Saying that students should reach a language competence threshold does not imply that students should be completely segregated from core classrooms with English-fluent peers. Instead, they should experience exposure to fluent English speakers, and rich, varied, and intentionally designed oral interaction in core classrooms. There should be explicit instruction in phonology, grammar, word structure, social rules of communication, and vocabulary while supporting knowledge building around the kinds of academic content taught in schools. This instruction and practice will benefit all students, not only MLLs. 

In sum, to derive meaning from words and sentences, students need access to rich language instruction and opportunities to develop oral language with peers and teachers. Language and literacy are deeply intertwined, and literacy materials and instructional models must be redesigned to reflect that.  

What are those quality essential ingredients that should be baked into the curriculum for teachers to support literacy development for their MLLs?  These ingredients are:

  • Guidance to facilitate exposure to rich oral language and interaction with peers who speak English fluently,
  • Rich, knowledge-building activities that don’t assume all students have similar background knowledge,
  • Thematically focused literacy units that develop language and literacy about a specific subject or theme over time; MLL students need time with specific vocabulary and language forms to practice hearing, reading, using, and acquiring them,
  • Texts and activities that reflect and build on students’ home knowledge, experiences, identities, and languages,
  • Lots and lots of oral language development activities (including songs and games) that allow MLLs to hear, use, and become acclimated to the sounds and structure of the English language,
  • Ongoing academic language development and guidance for teachers to teach the forms and functions of English, including vocabulary and grammar in the context of meaningful content learning.  This includes guidance for assessing students’ English language and literacy skills,
  • Phonological awareness activities, including phonics instruction with concurrent attention to the meanings of words,
  • Guidance for teachers to point out and compare differences and similarities (e.g., phonemic, phonological, spelling-sound patterns, cognates, print systems) between students' home languages and English, 
  • Immersive, theme-based writing opportunities (Lesaux et al., 2014) that reinforce the language used in texts and that students need for strong literacy development, 
  • Designated ELD teacher guidance for supporting language and literacy needs, aligned with the content and skills being taught in the core classroom.

Early literacy materials must reflect the reading needs of all students, including the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., multilingual learners.  Designing and selecting high-quality literacy materials at the start provides teachers with a strong foundation and content that can be enhanced and adjusted for multilingual learners’ literacy assets and needs. These research-backed practices are essential for instructional equity. Without those, literacy instruction will fall flat like bread without yeast and will not be responsive to a great number of students who attend U.S. schools.  Fundamentally, literacy means access to educational and career opportunities. We cannot allow these inequities to persist.  


Castles, A., Rastle, K., & Nation, K. (2018). Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19(1), 5-51.

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Kelley, J. G., & Harris, J. R. (2014). Effects of academic vocabulary instruction for linguistically diverse adolescents: Evidence from a randomized field trial. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 1159–1194.

Further Reading:

Literacy researchers, including MLL literacy researchers, have compiled a lot of research and learning in reports and tools. We recommend reading the following: The National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth report and the Joint Statement developed as a result of consensus reached by The Reading League and the National Committee for Effective Literacy, NCELs Toward Comprehensive Effective Literacy Policy and Instruction for English Learner/Emergent Bilingual Students and The Council of Great City Schools’ A Framework for Foundational Literacy Skills Instruction for English Learners. We are learning more all the time about diverse learners and their varying learning assets and needs.

Renae Skarin has almost 30 years of experience working with English learner and minoritized populations through research, advocacy, and program development and implementation with educators nationwide and abroad. She currently serves as the Senior Advisor for Content at the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) where she leads its research efforts to identify strategies and develop resources for improving education policies and practices with regard to high quality instructional materials for multilingual learners. Before joining ELSF she served as an associate researcher at Understanding Language at Stanford University. She received her M.A. in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and did Doctoral studies in Educational Linguistics at Stanford University.


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