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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: ESL Instruction and Early Childhood Literacy: Combining Two Styles of Teaching and Learning

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Helping all students achieve higher standards

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ESL Instruction and Early Childhood Literacy: 
Combining Two Styles of Teaching and Learning

by Joseph Gottschalk June 2001

Research Questions:

  • What are the most effective ways for me as a K-5 English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher to support my elementary school's literacy block initiative? Where do I fit in? Where am I most effective?

  • Is the placement of the ESL teacher as English language learners' primary reading teacher in the early childhood grades an effective/efficient practice? If the program turns out to be a success, should it be replicated at other schools in the district?

The site of this action research study is a small elementary school in a suburb of New York City. My small groups of first and second grade English language learners received their ESL and reading instruction simultaneously this year as part of the school's new literacy block initiative. For five days out of each six day scheduling cycle (the sixth day was used for planning and assessment purposes), Grade One students met in ten small literacy block groups for 60 minutes. The three classroom teachers were responsible for two groups each and the four support teachers (2 reading, 1 special education, and 1 ESL) had one group apiece. 

Prior research in the combining of literacy and second language instruction emphasizes the following:

The Importance of Daily Conversations
Second language students have been found to need time to read and process texts and to talk about their meaning with others (Pinnell & Fountas, 1998; Freeman & Freeman, 2000). This enables them to continue checking that the text makes sense without having to rely solely on their decoding abilities, which in some cases may be considerable.

Comprehension and Meaning
Often, English language learners focus too much on details when they are learning how to read. Students who are still learning English don't have full control of any of the three cueing systems (graphophonic, syntactic, and semantic) and they may lack background knowledge for certain topics or types of stories. As a result, they often slow down and work hard to understand the details. Research has shown that it is especially important for teachers to keep English language learners focused on meaning, not pronouncing each word correctly (Freeman and Freeman, 2000).

Instructional Strategies/Rationale for Incorporating ESL Into the Literacy Block Model
Four strategies found to be effective for promoting second language acquisition and teaching reading at the same time are as follows:
  • Build students' background knowledge
  • Draw on students' personal experiences
  • Promote extended discourse through writing and discussion
  • Assist students in re-reading pivotal portions of the text (Saunders, O'Brien, et al, 1999)

The type of reading instruction that is taking place in many ESL programs is very passive. There is little modeling, demonstrating, cueing, or prompting and students are not given much opportunity to interact with one another or with the teacher. This situation was observed more often in schools where there was a large number of Hispanic and Limited English proficient (LEP) students than in schools where the population is more diverse and there are smaller number of LEP students (Padrón, 1994).

For this study, I used the following research tools: 

  • Pre-LAS-2000 English language proficiency test given in June or September 2000
  • Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) utilizing running records of oral reading and observation guides to find each student's appropriate reading level (Level A - Level 44)
  • Word lists of high frequency sight words (Pre-primer to Grade 6)
  • ESL Report Cards-These are narratives I wrote about each student for Parent/Teacher Conferences in November and April.
  • Audiotapes of a sample guided reading lesson and one-on-one reading conferences done by me
  • Audiotapes of one-on-one reading conferences done by another reading teacher in order to get an outsider's observation and analysis of my students' reading strategies and performance

I looked at the progress of four Grade One English language learners. Junior was a new student to our school this fall, having just moved here from Peru. He spoke no English in September. Ashley, from Paraguay, is repeating the first grade this year after a difficult time last year. She never attended Kindergarten in this country and last year was her first year of schooling. Santiago is in his second year in the school after moving here from Colombia. Veronica is from Ecuador and completing her second year at our school as well.

Data and Analysis:
2000-2001 Assessment History-Grade One ESL Group
Grade 1 Students Oral Lang. Total (Level) Pre-Literacy Total (Level) DRA Levels/High Freq. Sight Words Grade 2 '01-'02 ESL Status
DRA Words  DRA Words  DRA  Words
6/00 6/01 6/00 6/01 9/00 1/01 6/01
Veronica     78 (3)  93 (5) 59 (1) 100 (3)   Pre-A   Not tested 3 11/20 on Pre-primer list  12 13/20 on Grade 1 list  Eligible
Santiago  55 (1) 98 (5) 69 (2)  100 (3) Pre-A  Not tested 2 10/20 on Pre-primer list 14 16/20 on Grade 1 list Eligible
Junior       n/a 88 (4) n/a 96 (3) Pre-A  Not tested 1   5/20 on Pre-primer list  6 14/20 on Primer list  Eligible
Ashley  51 (1) 88 (5) 49 (1)  100 (3) Pre-A Not tested 10/20 on Pre-primer list 14/20 on Primer list Eligible

 All four students started the year as Emergent readers. They progressed through the Early reader levels and two of the four students are approaching the Transitional level (DRA levels 12-14). Their ability to read high frequency sight words has also improved, although in some cases not as much as I had anticipated. In looking at the DRA Observation Guides and running records for the June assessment, I made some important observations that will inform my reading instruction with these students next year.

According to the Pre-LAS 2000 English language proficiency test given in June 2001, all four students are now considered Fluent English speakers. However, they are all still reading below the suggested DRA level for first graders to exit the ESL program (DRA Level 16), so they will continue with me next year for more ESL/reading instruction.

In addition to the above language proficiency and reading assessments, a reading lesson and follow-up reading conferences were analyzed to see how effective and efficient our program of combining reading and ESL instruction was this year.

Policy Recommendations:

  • Using the ESL teacher as a reading teacher achieves the economy of making the best use of district and community resources and at the same time meets the linguistic, academic, and affective needs of English language learners.
  • Time during our common planning meetings should be set aside so that classroom and support teachers could pair off and discuss specific students. This was discussed, but never carried out this year.
  • Support teachers could give classroom teachers additional assistance by suggesting techniques they could use with Special Needs students and English language learners in their classes during other parts of the instructional day.
  • High need English language learners could use more speaking/listening practice for interpersonal communication and vocabulary in addition to the reading/writing instruction they are currently receiving during the sixty minute literacy block period.
  • Low need ESL students should have the opportunity to leave the ESL reading group and receive their mandated services at another time in the day.
  • Newcomer, non-English speaking students joining established literacy block groups late in the school year need to be provided with a school aide, parent volunteer, student teacher, or upper grade peer tutor either in the children's home classrooms or with the ESL teacher during the literacy block period for more efficient instruction.

What I Learned (Professional Development)
One of the biggest advantages of the Literacy Block program for me this year as a new teacher in the school has been the opportunity to work with such excellent, experienced reading teachers. The fact that my reading teacher colleague, Mrs. M. and I were able to "mix and match" our students as well as have the flexibility to put our groups together to work on common projects and themes has been a positive aspect of the program. Each of us has learned about the other's special area of expertise and the children have benefited as a result.
I also learned that I have to select guided reading books more carefully to reflect the needs of my students. By only looking at the DRA level and not the text of each book I selected for use from the school's extensive literature collection, I found myself using books that didn't feature the everyday, natural language my English language learners required. Instead of featuring basic vocabulary, some these books were rather esoteric with humor and wordplay sometimes aimed over the heads of my students, even though the reading level was technically low.

Based on this study it can generally be said that in my role as the Grade One ESL teacher I was able to support my school's literacy block initiative. I fit in with the other teachers and was effective in helping to raise my students' achievement in reading. I learned a lot about teaching young children how to read and realized how much more I need to learn. The placement of the ESL teacher as English language learners' primary reading teacher in the first grade was an effective and efficient practice.
The Literacy Block program itself turned out to be a success worth repeating (albeit with several slight alterations) next year at our school. Although there are differing populations of English language learners at the other schools in our district, I look forward to sharing what we have accomplished this year with the other elementary ESL teachers in the district and to extolling the virtues of combining ESL and literacy instruction.

Freeman, D. and Y. Freeman. (2000). Teaching Reading in Multilingual Classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Garcia, G. (2000). Lessons from research: What is the length of time it takes limited English proficient students to acquire English and succeed in an all-English classroom? Issue Brief, 5. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
Padrón, Y. (1994). Comparing reading instruction in Hispanic/limited-English-proficient schools and other inner-city schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 18: l&2.
Pinell, G., & I. Fountas. (1998). Word Matters: Teaching phonics and spelling in the reading/writing classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Rennie, J. (1993). ESL and bilingual program models. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
Saunders, W., G. O'Brien, D. Lennon, & J. McLean. (1999). Successful transition into mainstream English: Effective strategies for studying literature. Center For Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence. Educational Practice Report No. 2.


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