We asked students about what helps them learn to read. Here’s what we heard.
We asked students enrolled in English language development (ELD) and/or dual language programs about what helps them learn to read. Here’s what we heard.
Students are at the center of all of our work—yet the education field often seems to overlook their insights. As Instruction Partners began the next phase of developing an early literacy model that is responsive to multilingual learners’ (MLs’) unique needs, we wanted to be sure that we heard from students who are currently learning in multiple languages (i.e., students enrolled in English language development [ELD] and/or dual language programs) about what they think is effective about the instruction they receive. So, we put together a brief survey—just a handful of questions:
- What grade are you in?
- What helps you learn?
- What languages do you speak at home? Do you have a preference? Why?
- How do you feel when you are reading or learning to read? Why?
- What strategies do you use when you are having trouble reading something? What helps you to keep going when you are experiencing challenges?
These questions were developed by me and the Instruction Partners Advisory Council, which is a group of four teachers and bilingual program leaders from across the country who have deep experience educating multilingual learners.* The council is providing input on the next iteration of Instruction Partners’ ML-specific early literacy services. As part of their role, they worked with a handful of other dedicated educators to reach out to former students and gain insight into students’ experiences.
This survey was either completed at home via a Google Form (often with the help of a caregiver) or via interview.
Encouragingly, what we heard reflected the best of what we know from the research.
1) Leveraging what students already know about one language can help them learn another.
When asked what languages they speak at home and whether or not they had a preference, here’s how one 1st-grade student responded, “Spanish and English. No [I don’t have a preference]. Cause then I get to learn more from a different language.” The student continued, “[when I’m reading/learning to read, I feel] good. I just try my best. Because then I get to learn more from Spanish and English[.] I like reading.”
A 3rd-grade student answered, “English and Spanish. I don’t have a preference, I like them both. Being bilingual helps me read and learn in both languages and that means a lot to me.”
Research tells us that language skills are transferable—that leveraging skills students already have can help them learn new skills deeper, faster. What I found notable about these students’ responses was that—even in early elementary school—they understood that spending time with multiple languages wasn’t mutually exclusive; rather, studying and using multiple languages actually benefited their learning holistically (even if they didn’t put it in those exact terms!). These students’ responses reinforce what we know from translanguaging research, “students are able to think in multiple languages simultaneously and use their home language as a vehicle to learn academic English” or a new, target language within a bilingual program (see Najarro, 2023 for more).
We also know that students building speaking and listening skills in their languages supports accelerating reading and writing development (see de Botton, 2016 for more).
2) Families are important partners.
Research has long shown that familial involvement makes a significant difference in student outcomes, including academic achievement. We didn’t specifically ask students about their families in this survey, but students noted their importance on their own. For instance, when asked what helped them to learn, one 3rd-grader who speaks Spanish at home said, “Me ayuda a aprender cuando siento que estoy a lado de mi familia y escucho a las personas,” or, in English, “It helps me learn when I’m close to my family and I listen to others.”
This makes sense—families provide real-time support when students are not in the classroom.
Students also offered insights into the difference families make, not just in terms of strategic support, but in terms of motivation to learn new languages. Here’s what two kindergarten students had to say about how their families motivate them:
- “I speak Spanish to my mom and English to my dad. My dad speaks English to me and my mom speaks Spanish to me. I like Spanish more because when I was born I learned Spanish first. What I like is that when someone speaks English to my grandpa, I can tell him in Spanish.”
- “I show my mom how to speak Spanish, but most of the time [at home] I speak English because my parents do not speak Spanish. I’m teaching them.”
In the first example, the student is excited to use their English skills in order to provide interpretation services to their family—an example of the student recognizing that developing their new language skills benefits their family in a real, tangible way. In the second, the student is excited to be able to teach their parents something they don’t know—an example of a student being proud to share their learning of a new language.
3) Teacher modeling, explicit instruction, and practicing decoding strategies matters.
One kindergarten student (whose first language is Spanish and who speaks both Spanish and English at home) said, “I like when we do writing because I sound out the letters and I write.”
This student recognized the importance of sounding out words when learning to write. Research tells us that phonics instruction is crucial for all students, including MLs. Many students in this survey specifically cited sounding words out and related strategies as what they do when reading gets tough:
- “I read one letter at a time, then combine the sounds to read the word. I spell out the words” (1st grader who speaks English at home).
- “I sound out the words and put the sounds together. I use my hands to put the sounds together” (Kindergarten student who speaks English and Portuguese at home).
Student responses reflect what we know works from the research: when students receive explicit and systematic early literacy instruction, particularly in foundational skills (e.g., decoding and encoding skills) and opportunities to practice applying those skills and strategies, they build not only automaticity but also confidence in their abilities as readers and writers—no matter what their home language is. It is encouraging that students named research-based practices that support foundational skills development as strategies they find helpful.
4) Learning a language is collaborative.
We know that learning a language and learning to read aren’t skills that kids pick up in a vacuum. They need support in order to make connections between sounds, letters, and meaning. Many students noted the value of various kinds of support, citing their teachers and peers as integral features of their learning process:
- “I can ask somebody’s help to read the word” (1st-grade student who speaks English at home).
- “My friends help me and the teachers here always help” (Kindergarten student who speaks English and Portuguese at home).
- “I stop and breathe, then I ask my friends for help” (Kindergarten student who speaks English at home).
- “When something is difficult I just go to the next thing, then I come back and ask the teacher” (Kindergarten student who speaks Spanish at home).
- “My friends help me keep going because we help each other” (Kindergarten student who speaks English at home).
One 5th-grade student who speaks Spanish at home did note, “también me sirve trabajar solo” or “it also helps me to work alone.” Individual work time is important, especially for students who prefer individual processing or who may have social anxieties exacerbated by the affective impact of learning a new language. But the many aspects of language learning that are inherently collaborative make it an ideal setting for small-group work, and—with a knowledgeable and supportive teacher guiding the learning—a great opportunity to build interactive skills for students who may need support advancing them. Speaking in small groups is often less intimidating than speaking in front of the whole class, and these environments provide students opportunities to receive affirming, productive feedback from their teacher without fearing being “wrong” in front of all of their peers.
Additionally, small groups are great for students who share the same primary language but are at different proficiency levels in the language(s) they are learning in school because students can often provide linguistic examples and connections that a teacher may not know or think to make. For example, a student may offer that a name of a character in a popular children’s cartoon shares a specific sound the lesson is targeting—reinforcing to a newer speaker that they already have the skills the class is practicing.
In the meaningful context of collaborative work, students with higher proficiency in the language they are learning in school can model more complex and/or precise language features, which can help students who aren’t as far along in learning the target language extend their proficiency.
5) Students are excited to learn new languages and learn to read—and they notice their own progress.
My personal favorite trend we saw in the survey results was the joy students took in learning new languages and learning to read. This pattern made me breathe a sigh of relief in light of recent findings that indicate interest in reading for pleasure has declined among young teenagers.
The younger students we surveyed didn’t seem to share this sentiment, which fills me with hope that the downward trend among our middle school students isn’t inevitable. Here are just a few ways elementary students described how they feel when they’re reading/learning to read:
- “I feel happy when I am reading or learning to read because I can learn a lot of things” (rising 2nd-grade student who speaks English and Chinese at home).
- “Proud, reading is fun because you can keep learning more. I like to learn new stuff” (1st-grade student who speaks English at home).
- “Me impulsa seguir el pensar que muchos libros empiezan difíciles/(difícil de entender) pero luego te quedas absorto”; in English “It motivates me to know that many books start out difficult/(difficult to understand), but soon enough you get sucked in” (5th-grade student who speaks Spanish at home).
- “I feel so happy to learn new words in Spanish” (Kindergarten student who speaks English and Portuguese at home).
- “I feel like I’m in another world, I’m in the book because it’s like I’m Reading and then I just go! And that’s all! And when someone asks me something I’m like: ‘what?’” (3rd-grade student who speaks Spanish at home).
Not only did students enjoy reading, they tracked their progress in learning to read as well as contextualized that progress within their larger learning journey:
- “[When reading/learning to read, I feel g]ood because I didn’t know how to read and now I know how to read” (Kindergarten student who speaks English at home).
- “I feel so excited [when learning to read] because I can read better when I go to first grade” (Kindergarten student who speaks English at home).
“I feel good because I can read syllables now. I didn’t know before” (Kindergarten student who speaks Spanish at home). This quotation also shows that they are learning the discipline-specific vocabulary and that has helped them understand where they are in their reading journey.
Students were also cognizant that learning to read can be a frustrating experience, and they have to emotionally regulate in order to learn successfully:
- “I feel frustrated when I can’t read, but I calm down. I breath[e] in an[d] out.…I try harder when something is not easy” (Kindergarten student who speaks English at home).
- “I also take deep breaths to help me keep going when reading gets hard” (rising 2nd grader who speaks English and Chinese at home).
- “It’s hard for me because sometimes I don’t understand the words, but I never give up on my dreams” (3rd grade student who speaks English and Spanish at home).
These students tracked both that learning is valuable and can be fun AND that learning is difficult and can be frustrating, which has implications for how teachers can support students’ language learning.
Teachers can affirm that learning something new can be frustrating, but that students can persevere and be a stronger learner as a result of it. I have shared with my students the power of the bilingual brain and eventually heard my students say things such as “I am smarter because I can speak two languages” or “my multilingual brain helps me with tough questions.”
Teachers can also model and reinforce explicit and systematic strategies for the productive struggle of learning to decode—instead of disproven strategies such as looking at pictures or guessing a word based on the first letter—that will help students track their own progress.
More than anything else, I believe our survey confirmed this: when students feel supported, it can help them navigate the process of learning a new language while simultaneously learning to read. Based on the factors that students highlighted in their survey responses, there are some follow-up actions we’ll be taking in the next phase of our work to help them feel supported:
- We will continue to reinforce the value of multilingualism and multiliteracy through sample policies, collaborative protocols, and instructional supports (e.g., internalization protocols) that promote bridging strategies and student interactions.
- We will lean into strategies that promote family engagement based on what we heard from students about how their families 1) provide helpful supports for them and 2) motivate them to learn another language.
- We will include strategies that students indicated were helpful.
- We will attend to making learning to read as a multilingual learner a joyful experience by finding ways to incorporate strategies that alleviate anxiety and frustration.
Interested in partnering with us to dig into effective literacy practices for multilingual learners? Learn more about our early literacy pilot work here.
*Instruction Partners would like to thank the members of the advisory council for their contributions to our work with multilingual learners:
- Sylvia Ibarra, regional bilingual education leader
- Raissa Lee, dual language teacher educator
- Sandra Prades-Bertran, district early literacy coach
- Frances Takemoto, K–2 multilingual teacher