Reading for ELLs Interview with Jennifer Raponi

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Reading for ELLs Interview with Jennifer Raponi

Jennifer Raponi is a Resource Specialist and the senior member of the Mid-West RBERN team. She was a preschool speech therapist before deciding to get her Masters in TESOL at the University of Rochester. Jennifer holds certifications in B-12 Speech and Language Disabilities, TESOL, and B-12 Literacy. She worked as a K-12 ESOL Teacher in Geneseo and started the original GV ESOL Teacher Cohort to support ELL education in rural districts. Jennifer also has the honor of teaching preservice teachers at Nazareth College and the State University College at Brockport. She is passionate about the equitable education of English Language Learners. Jennifer’s particular areas of interest and expertise are Students with Interrupted Formal Education, Literacy Development for English Language Learners, and collaborating with Districts to create effective and responsive programming for ELLs.  


Shawnna Sweet is the Assistant Director for World Languages for the Greece Central School District. She is formerly an ESOL teacher and a professional development specialist with the Mid-West RBERN. Shawnna has also taught graduate courses in TESOL at Nazareth College and is the 2024 President Elect for NYS TESOL.

The following is a transcript of an interview done with Jennifer Raponi, conducted by Shawnna Sweet, in March, 2023.


We have a lot of questions about reading from ESOL teachers across New York State. And we are hoping that with your background in reading for ELLs that you can provide us with some useful and credible answers. The first question that we have is: What is the science of reading and what is the significance for ELLs?

So that's a really great question. It has a big long answer, so bear with me. The science of reading is essentially what we call a body of clinical and brain research looking at how people learn to read and you can think of that research as pieces of a puzzle all fit together. There is educational research around how we teach students to read. So pedagogically, how do we teach students how to read in the classroom? There's psychological research that would include things like, how we think, what are our processes for thinking, how we store things in long-term versus short-term memory, and how we problem solve.

And then there's another body of research around reading. It has to do with linguistics. So how does the English language develop, what does semantics, syntax, morphology, phonology and phonetics look like in English? Finally, I think this is usually what people think of when they think of the science of reading, is the neuroscience research around reading. This is the research we've done on the human brain about how the brain processes learning to read the printed word. 

There are a couple of different theories of reading that are generally agreed upon: all of those areas of science that we draw upon when we're thinking about how we apply the science of reading to classroom pedagogy. The first one is called the simple view of reading. Simple view of reading is a theory that was proposed by Goff and Tumner in 1986. The simple view of reading looks like a mathematical equation. It is essentially decoding, plus language comprehension or linguistic comprehension equals reading comprehension (Farrell et al., 2019). What that means practically is that we are always reading in service of understanding. You need both decoding skills and linguistic comprehension skills to really fully comprehend text. If you are missing any of those skills: decoding, or linguistic, or language comprehension, you're not a fluent reader. So really, our ability to comprehend is never better than our ability to decode or to process language.

That's one big theory. Another big theory that is generally agreed upon is Hollis Scarborough's Reading Rope (Staake, 2021). She proposed this in 2001; it's a really lovely graphic. Each of the skills are strands of a rope that braid together to create a fluent reader and those strands are separated into two categories. One is word recognition, and under the word recognition idea, you would have phonological awareness, decoding, and sight word recognition. All those skills we want to become automatic, so that you're decoding and reading words very quickly, and then you can use your cognitive energy to focus on the other half of these sets of skills, which is based on language comprehension. Language comprehension skills cover background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Fluent readers have a set of tools in their toolbox that they apply to reading. In Scarborough's Rope all of these skills learned and practiced over time come together to create a fluent reader.

Now we need to think about how this research applies to English Language Learners (ELLs); the answer to that is complicated for several reasons. When we're thinking about the neurological understanding of how the brain reads the printed word that's really considered settled science at this point. We know the neural pathways that the brain needs in order to read the printed word. It's really important to say that the English language is an alphabetic language: we have letters that are tied to sounds. Those sounds are put together to create words and those words then have meaning. So that's important to understand. The neural pathway of reading is essentially a pathway from oral language to print. Our brains are hardwired to learn oral language. It's not hardwired to learn print. There is no one special area of the brain that is for reading. Learning to read has to be done through explicit instruction and repetitive pattern learning. 

As a fluent English reader, your brain sees the letters in a word, rapidly decodes those letters, understands that that word carries meaning, and then that meaning is attached to your understanding of oral language. What the brain really does with fluent readers, is you look at words and very, very quickly, your fluent reading brain is processing all of those individual sounds tying that word to meaning. 

What that means for (ELLs), is that they are doing the dual work of creating an oral language system in English and reading the printed English word, whereas native English speakers learn oral English first, and then printed English later.

So is there a different set of reading skills to focus on for ELLs?

Foundational Skills, no there aren’t. The foundational skills for learning English are the same foundational skills, regardless, if you're a native English speaker or or a non-native English speaker, so you need to develop an understanding of English,

phonological awareness, letter sound mapping, phonics and decoding in order to begin to read the printed word. What that looks like for English language learners is different pedagogically.

Maybe we want to back up just a step. The neurological processes of the brain learning to read the printed word in ‘the science of reading’ is not in dispute. What we haven't decided yet is how we implement those understandings pedagogically. We don't have a common understanding of that yet, which is why what the science of reading curriculum and instruction looks like in one school district is not the same as it looks in another school district.

For ELLs, it's really important to understand that the foundation for all of those printed word, reading skills has to be oral language. That's an additional component that we don't really talk about or think about when we're talking about reading instruction, whether it's balanced literacy or science of reading or whatever pedagogical implementation you're using, we don't think about the importance of oral language for ELLs. I think it's important to mention that the dearth of pedagogical understandings around reading, and the research around reading in general, is done on native English speakers. So there's a huge gap in what we know about how native English speakers learn to read versus how ELLs learn. We do know that how quickly ELLs acquire those foundational skills is often dependent on how literate and fluent they are in their home


That leads us to the next question: How does this apply to Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) with developing literacy?

I love that question. New York State defines a SIFE as a student who is two or more years below grade level and literacy and or math in their home language due to interrupted or inconsistent education. We have a mandated process for identifying SIFE students. SIFE with developing literacy are those students who have a third grade level or below in literacy in their home language, which means they have not yet acquired all of those foundational literacy skills needed to build additional literacy in their home language (SIFE Resources, 2016). So they don't yet have a full system of, maybe  phonological awareness or a letter sound mapping, or the ability to decode fully in their home language. The pedagogical implications of being a SIFE with developing literacy mean that it will take more time for those students to acquire English literacy. It also means that more than any other ELL, they need repeated explicit, direct instruction of those foundational skills. Foundational skills that we would traditionally teach in kindergarten through second grade need to be explicitly taught to many SIFE but particularly SIFE with developing literacy because they're full foundational literacy repertoire will come from English, not from their home language. They may have pockets of skills in their home language but that full foundational set of skills will need to come from English. So they will have to be taught those skills in school, which we don't traditionally do in middle and high school, so it's definitely a shift and thinking about where literacy belongs and our K-12 continuum. 
That's a good segue into thinking about the K-12 continuum. So as we think about our younger students who are entering and emerging students, how do you help entering and emerging ELLs get up to grade level so they can move from learning to read to reading to learn for the curriculum in grade three and above?

Just a point of clarification in terms of the K-12 continuum, we traditionally think of the literacy or ELA continuum in kindergarten through second grade as the “learning to read” phase of school. By the time students get to American third grade schooling, they have enough foundational literacy skills in order to take new texts and learn new things from them. We call that phase of schooling the “reading to learn” phase. So they are being handed a text and the expectation is generally that they're independently pulling out new information from these texts and they're no longer needing the “learn to read” skills. We know that's not true for every student. It's definitely not true for ELLs at that grade level and it's not true for many native English speakers as well, but that's what it looks like.

So, the question was, how do you help young entering and emerging ELLs get up to grade level? The answer is that I would ask myself as a teacher a few questions first, before I decide what direction to go in. I would like to know what my student’s home language or languages are and what the distance between that language and English is? Is the home language an alphabetic language or is it a logographic language? Logographic languages are character based, like Chinese. For example, English and French would be closer in linguistic distance (having more common characteristics) than English and Japanese. Then, I would have a general sense of where I need to go in terms in terms of teaching the alphabetic principle with those students.

The next question I would ask myself as their teacher is, how literate is this child in their home language? That's a huge question. It's hard to find the answer too. Right now in practice, we often get this information from collecting student work samples, or interviewing parents, which is a great way to gather information, but it's not always enough information. There are, especially if a student's home language is Spanish, literacy assessments that you can give students in their home language that could help gather that information. I very much believe the next frontier in publishing is producing language and literacy assessments in a variety of home languages for schools to use. New York State is lucky enough to have the Multiliteracy SIFE Screener, which is a home language literacy assessment if you suspect a child is SIFE. Other than that, school districts are really kind of piecemealing things together, and hoping that they're giving a student a student a piece of text that they can gather some information about home language literacy skills. I would ask myself those two questions. So, what's the distance between their home language in English? And then how literate is the student in the first language?

Then I would assess those ELLs in the foundational skills of English. I’d want to know: Do they have phonological awareness?  Can they hear onset rime? Can they do regular rhyming? Do they know how to manipulate phonemes aurally (by hearing sounds)? What's their sight word knowledge? Do they have sound symbol correspondence with some or any English letters and sounds? So I would gather that information about any of my ELL students really and then I would start to make some pedagogical decisions around that. The reality for ELLs is there needs to be explicit, direct instruction of the skills that there are gaps in and that needs to be owned by both ESOL teachers and classroom teachers. It can't just belong to one person and I think that's really important to be mindful of and plan for.

So, what would you do if your students are struggling to consistently read and write English letter sounds?

That's really interesting. I can give you an example of a SIFE student that I'm working with right now. He is currently enrolled in eighth grade. He is 14 and prior to coming to the United States, he'd never attended school. In his native language, which is Dari, he doesn't have any literacy foundational skills. So, he is learning foundational literacy for the first time in English. It has taken him a full school year to really gain orthographic mapping skills in English. Orthographic mapping is the formation of letter-sound connections to bond the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings of specific words in memory. So one year to develop the complex skills associated with knowing that letters have names, letters have sounds, those sounds come together to make words, and  those words have meaning. 


He has a developmental literacy class every day, actually for his stand-alone minutes. That's not always how it works out, but that's this particular context, and for the last year, the teacher has been working on those foundational skills explicitly. So what's the letter in English? What sound does it make? How does it apply to this word? It is context embedded repetitive explicit direct instruction. We know this child's background, which I think the importance of that cannot be understated. We know what his language background is, we know what his literacy background is, and then we were able to make programming decisions to help him fill in those gaps. The teacher does have some commercial materials to help guide her around practicing those skills. It has taken time and consistent instruction and practice. He is learning and growing in his literacy

When learning how to read we recommend books that kids can access, right? There are a couple things that are different about English language learners as readers that are different from native English-speaking students. We mentioned this before. They're doing the dual work of both acquiring a language and acquiring a literacy and so that language piece is often missing from classroom literacy instruction. It's why I like Scarborough's Reading Rope so much. So if we go back to that whole language comprehension piece; background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structure, and verbal reasoning that is often the work of the ESOL teacher. How often do you see teachers teaching an explicit language structure to students when they're reading? Not often in traditional instruction but it's something that ELLs need. When we're thinking about choosing books, it's really important to think about what sort of word recognition skills these kids are going to need to work on, what language comprehension skills that they're going to need to understand in order to comprehend this book. There are many of those commercially available things out there. It just depends on what your school district uses, what's available to you and then helping apply those things to the context of your students.

Thinking about books, do you recommend decodable books or level readers for newcomers or ELLs in general?

When learning how to read we recommend books that kids can access, right? There are a couple things that are different about English language learners as readers that are different from native English-speaking students. We mentioned this before. They're doing the dual work of both acquiring a language and acquiring a literacy and so that language piece is often missing from classroom literacy instruction. It's why I like Scarborough's Reading Rope so much. So if we go back to that whole language comprehension piece. Background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structure, and verbal reasoning that is often the work of the ESOL teacher. How often do you see teachers teaching an explicit language structure to students when they're reading? Not often in traditional instruction, but it's something that ELLs need. When we're thinking about choosing books, it's really important to think about what sort of word recognition skills these kids are going to need to work on, what language comprehension skills that they're going to need to understand in order to comprehend this book.

It's also really important to mention that language is best acquired in a context. Teaching random vocabulary words without context, a theme, or an understanding of where those words fit, those kids are less likely to acquire those words. For example, you might teach “all of these words we are talking about today are going to be around the biome- the tundra, and the book that we're going to read is about the tundra.” We recommend using authentic texts for English language learners that provide that context for language acquisition as well as literacy learning. 

And thinking about that, there are a lot of different programs out there for developing literacy for teaching kids how to read and there's a lot of teachers who want to know “What's the best program for my ELL students to use?”  What advice would you give an ESOL teacher who is asking about any specific program to purchase or anything that might need to be requested or developed? 

That's a good question. When thinking about specific programs, there are tons of commercially available things out there that already say that they're connected to the science of reading and that is only going to continue to grow over the next few years. Basically, in the future every commercially available thing will say it is connected to the science of reading. So, my first question when I'm thinking about whether I want to purchase something is: Were ELLs thought about in the research and/or the creation of this material? And if so, how?

I’d like to see if there's a specific language around English language learners or if they're thinking about English language learners in some way. Then I'm going to go back to Scarborough's Reading Rope. In order for ELLs to learn how to read, we really need to make sure that they have both those word recognition skills and those language comprehension skills explicitly directly instructed. we also have to include improving oracy, or the importance of ELLs learning to effectively orally communicate in English, whether you want to call that accountable talk or not, it can't be understated. If you do not, there will be a gap in their oral language skills that could impact both decoding and meaning making skills. Although we don't have tons of research around how the science of reading is implemented for English language learners, we do know, two things for certain: the oracy or the addition of oracy is a key component and the students that acquire literacy the fastest are also the students that have high quality ENL programs in addition to any literacy programs (Goldenberg, 2020). So if I were an ESOL teacher, I think my focus would be on what quality is my ENL program, right? That's what you can control. You can and should certainly advocate for thinking about the science of reading with a lens of English language learners, but I think that would be my focus: How are we ensuring the program that I am teaching is effectively helping students acquire all four domains of the English language?

Is there anything we left out? Do you want to talk about any of the resources? 

Yes. So I will share the resources and some additional resources if you're interested in learning more about the simple view of reading or Scarborough's Reading Rope. There's some additional videos and information there and also a link to an interview with Ed Week that's based on a podcast that was done on the history and understanding of the science of reading. And then we also linked a really great article that was written by Claude Goldenberg in 2020 called “Reading Wars: Reading Science and English about the science of reading pedagogy, how it's implemented in the classroom with ELLs. So if you want to know more about any of these things, feel free to access those sources.

Thank you, Jennifer, for sharing these insights with NYS TESOL!


Education Week. (2019). What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading. In YouTube.

Farrell, L., Hunter, M., Davidson, M., & Osenga, T. (2019, June 6). The Simple View of Reading. Reading Rockets.

Goldenberg, C. (2020). Reading Wars, Reading Science, and English Learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1). 

SIFE Resources. (2016). New York State Education Department.

Staake, J. (2021, December 14). What is Scarborough’s Rope and How Does It Explain Teaching Reading? We Are Teachers. 








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