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The 'Bilingual Brain' and Reading Research

Questions About Teaching English Learners to Read in English

building background with EL students

Controversies over how best to teach children to read go back many years. Most recently, two questions have emerged that leave teachers of English Learners puzzled:

  • First, does research on reading, sometimes referred to as "the science of reading," include English Learners, or is it based solely on English-speaking monolinguals?
  • Second, do English Learners, also known as Emergent Bilinguals, have a "bilingual brain" that requires a fundamentally different sort of reading instruction than what monolingual students require?

I will try to clarify.

1. Does reading research apply to English Learners?

Yes, it does. Although not as voluminous, research includes and addresses English learners. There is a world-wide literature on second-language literacy acquisition. An informative source is a 2019 issue of the Journal of Neurolinguistics. Closer to home is the National Literacy Panel report (August & Shanahan, 2003) and studies by Vaughn et al., Ehri et al., and others, all of which I reviewed in recent issues of Reading Research Quarterly and The Reading League Journal.

Another helpful overview is Dr. Eric Tridas' summary in Chapter 3 of Literacy Foundations for English Learners, which you can see him present in this free video book study presented by the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. 

This research supports the idea that what is true about teaching reading to monolinguals is also true for students learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand. One difference is that students learning to read in a new language need additional oral language support so that they will understand the words and text being used to teach them to read.

Brain studies and classroom studies reveal that in order to learn to read, a person must connect (or "bind" is the term used in the neurolinguistic literature) the oral sounds in words to the letters that represent those sounds, then connect that connection to the words' meanings. If students are learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand, they do not necessarily know the meanings of the words nor recognize all of the sounds in the words. It is much more difficult to learn to read under these circumstances. As a result, oral language instruction directly connected to the words and text being used to teach reading is essential.

Another difference for language learners is that the student's home language can serve as a resource for learning to read in another language, as discussed below. 

2. Is the "bilingual brain" different in a way that requires a fundamentally different approach to teaching reading?

No, it does not. I contacted Dr. Kenneth Pugh (Yale University and Haskins Lab), an internationally-recognized cognitive neuroscientist specializing in the neuroscience of reading in first and second languages and who chaired a recent conference session on this very topic. With his permission, I'm sharing his perspective:

In my view, there is presently no evidence that how we teach reading should be in any way different based on brain differences between bilingual and monolingual learners. Obviously, bilingual individuals have two language systems that must interact and so it is not surprising that we can see measured differences at the level of brain circuits, and this is of real scientific value of course.

However, cross-language brain research confirms that learning to read is based on cognitive universals, specifically, that phonological development makes possible binding letters and sounds to meaning, which is foundational for learning to read in any language. Our understanding might change as the research evolves, but at the moment, in my opinion, there is nothing about 'bilingual brain' differences that suggests distinct or alternative pathways to literacy learning and best practice.

These disputes are part of a larger and longer story about reading education: We are locked in a sort of literacy Groundhog Day, where the details vary but the main idea repeats with deadening regularity: one approach to teaching reading is right, and another is wrong. Whether it's whole language vs. phonics, balanced literacy vs. science of reading, or bilingual brain vs. monolingual brain, with too few exceptions, lines get drawn and cleavages remain deep. Mixing in and perpetuating misinformation complicate things further — and needlessly.

To be clear, students who are not in the mainstream of the school-age population have not always been well-served in our schools. There is understandable frustration among parents and advocates for these students. But we can't improve the situation if we don't pay attention to what we have learned from research. Although many questions remain, there are some things evidence supports and some that evidence does not. We ignore this at our children's peril.

For example, the evidence is clear that there's more to learning to read than phonics. Without vocabulary and background knowledge, to name just two factors, phonics has little, if any, utility. The corollary is that the evidence does not support teaching reading by simply teaching phonics. That's fundamentally misinformed. But the evidence is also clear that children need to learn the sound-symbol spelling system in order to be successful readers, "binding letters and sounds to meaning," as Pugh says. (In the world of reading instruction, this is known as "orthographic mapping.") But the evidence does not support stopping there. As students learn the sound-symbol spelling system, they must also have oral and experiential exposure to develop their language much further — particularly, but not exclusively, vocabulary — and knowledge. As literacy skills develop, that exposure will include reading (and writing).

Same with what goes on in the brain of children known as English Learners. Research supports using what children know in their first language to support, or "bootstrap," their learning in a second language. It also supports the long-term benefits of maintaining and building on the first language, adding a second, and aiming for bilingualism and biliteracy. But it does not support teaching reading based on an assumption that the bilingual brain is structurally different from the monolingual brain and therefore requires a fundamentally different pedagogical approach. Research does, however, support providing additional second language support to students if they are learning to read in a language they are simultaneously learning to speak and understand.

There are many challenges in the reading education field. Chief among them is that we have yet to devise adequate and replicable programs that provide needed instruction for all children. We must continue to work toward this goal, utilizing the best knowledge we have at any given moment and end the endless and fruitless reading wars. A good first step would be for all participants to be adequately informed about relevant research and to discuss or even argue from informed positions. Otherwise, we'll continue seeing this movie play out over and over and over. It's time to do better — because our children deserve better.

Author's note: Special thanks to Jana Echevarria, Magaly Lavadenz, Yolie Flores, Todd Collins, Malia Ramler, Kenneth Pugh, and Smita Patel for their comments and suggestions. No endorsements are implied, nor should be inferred.

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