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4 Ways to Improve Literacy Instruction for ELs

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While educators recognize the importance of literacy instruction for ELs, many reading tests and programs are overly focused on foundational skills while under prioritizing students’ comprehension skills. Effective literacy instruction for English learners must emphasize the importance of both.

We recently had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Kathy Escamilla and Dr. Sue Hopewell, professors in the Division of Equity, Bilingualism and Biliteracy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Our conversation centered around current practices in reading and literacy instruction for multilingual learners and what improvements we could be making, both at the policy and classroom level. 

Listen to the full episode on Spotify and find a few main points and episode resources below.

4 Ways to Improve Literacy Instruction for ELs

1. Go beyond foundational skills: emphasize decoding and comprehension

Kathy and Sue explain that they are not against teaching foundational reading and literacy skills to children - but they are also clear that those are not enough. Multilingual learners need a robust literacy program with ample opportunities for comprehension. 

“We have to teach English while we're teaching kids to read in English. We have to be sure that they can understand and interact with text and I worry that the foundational skills make comprehension sort of a lesser priority.” - Kathy Escamilla

They also explain that there has never been a causal factor between decoding and comprehending a text, and caution educators against misinterpreting ELs’ ability to decode in English as understanding what they are reading.

“I can take a German text and actually decode relatively well with the one semester of German I had. Doesn't mean I understand anything, right? So the ultimate goal is that we get kids to comprehend what they're reading and be able to talk about it and to use it and to apply it in new contexts.” - Sue Hopewell

Many content teachers who took foreign language classes might recall learning to conjugate verbs, but never being able to conjugate in conversations. This comparison provides a good entry point into a discussion around the difference between basic decoding and more robust comprehension skills.

2. Prioritize teacher preparation programs and provide opportunities for ongoing professional development 

Effective instruction begins long before the first day of school; teacher preparation is instrumental in improving educational outcomes for multilingual students. Programs that train teachers to support ELs should be a standard across the board. As Sue notes, “If you stay in teaching long enough, you're going to have bilingual learners in your classroom. So how are we making sure that we help teachers to have the skill set that they need?” 

While teacher preparation programs provide a solid foundation, Kathy notes that no educator is a “finished product” once they begin their first year of teaching. They are ready to start their career and need ongoing resources and support to continue learning and refining their skills. This becomes even more important when demographics and student needs change over time. 

“I always use the comparison to physicians. I wouldn't want to go to a physician who graduated medical school 34 years ago and hadn't read an article since then and was practicing medicine like the first day they walked out the door.” - Kathy Escamilla

Ongoing opportunities for professional development on a variety of topics surrounding multilingual learners is a key way schools and districts can continue supporting educators throughout their teaching careers.

3. Focus on diversifying content and broadening curriculum

Sue and Kathy encourage educators to resist the push to narrow or hide parts of their curriculum, because broad, diverse learning content will ultimately benefit all students the most. Diverse curriculum is not only needed for diverse students; it is incredibly valuable and necessary for white, native English speaking students to be equally exposed to content that features stories and characters that don’t always look and sound like themselves. Tapping into media specialists or librarians is a great way for educators to access more representative literature than may be available in their classroom libraries.

“How do I make sure that everyone is seen in the curriculum, but that they also see others in the curriculum?...If I'm a teacher, I'm trying to think about pushing back on the system, not just with the small reading group I have in front of me, but in my larger curriculum, in my classroom writ large.”- Sue Hopewell

4. Productively include languages and cultures even in English-only classrooms

Although research shows that bilingual education is best for student learning, Kathy and Sue acknowledge that most children right now are not in bilingual settings. However that doesn’t mean that all languages and cultures can’t be included in every school, whether the teacher is familiar with that language or not.

“We know that there is a value to including children's native languages and cultures in the classroom, no matter what those native languages are…We know a lot better how to do Spanish English bilingual education than we do in the other language, because that's where 85% of the kids are Spanish speakers, but we can use that knowledge and that research to figure out how to include productively other languages and cultures.” - Kathy Escamilla

When students’ own language and culture is reflected in their learning environment, there are proven positive effects:

  • Students attend school more regularly
  • They may develop a stronger sense of identity 
  • Their engagement increases
  • They are more likely to be successful readers and writers

What are you doing to improve literacy instruction for ELs in your school? What strategies will you incorporate moving forward. We’d love to hear from you. 

Find the full episode transcript here.

Episode Resources:

Dr. Kathy Escamilla is a Professor Emerita of Education in the Division of Equity, Bilingualism and Biliteracy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She held the Bob and Judy Charles endowed chair in this division. Dr. Escamilla’s research focuses on issues related to the development of bilingualism and biliteracy for Spanish-speaking emerging bilingual children in US schools. Her research has also examined assessment practices for emerging bilingual learners. She has authored three books and over 50 research articles on topics related to (bi)literacy for Spanish-speaking children in the U.S. Her most recent research project titled, “Literacy Squared: Lecto-escritura al cuadrado” has been implemented in 6 states with over 5,000 students and 400 teachers. She served two terms as the President of the National Association for Bilingual Education, and one term as the Chair of the Bilingual Special interest group at AERA.


Sue Hopewell is the Director and Co-Founder of Literacy Squared® and an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the division Equity, Bilingualism and Biliteracy in the School of Education. Her research focuses on issues of language, culture, equity, and identity especially as they impact, or are affected by, bilingualism and the related literacy practices at the elementary school level. She has held leadership positions in national and state level bilingual organizations including serving as the Chair of the Bilingual Education Research Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association and the Secretary/Program Chair on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. Her K-12 teaching experience includes eight years as a classroom teacher in a dual-language elementary school and four years as the literacy coach in a maintenance bilingual program.