At Heggerty, we get a lot of questions about how to best use our curriculum with students learning English. This isn’t a surprise given that the number of students who are labeled English Learners (ELs) has been steadily increasing for decades. This label is applied to “students who do not speak English as their native language” (Cárdneas, 2020). In 2019, 10.4% of students in the United States (5.4 million) were labeled English Learners (Institute of Educational Sciences).
💻 Free Webinars: To learn more about phonemic awareness with English language learners, check out our recent webinars Phonemic Awareness with English Language Learners.
What is the purpose of the EL label?
In education, one purpose of giving students a label is to provide information to teachers and administrators. As educators, we use many labels such as: students with an IEP, students with a 504 plan, Special Education student, and many others. However, as with any label, the information it communicates is incredibly limited, narrow, and not that helpful.
Essentially, the EL label communicates that:
- The student’s parents indicated a different language is spoken at home.
- The day of the English language proficiency assessment – the child did not demonstrate proficiency in English in the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
While this information is informative – it is not nearly as actionable as one would hope. It also can lead to a deficit mindset when it comes to our EL students. These students arrive at our schools with language and experiences that can and will impact their learning and English acquisition. As educators, it is our job to provide students with opportunities to reach their full potential, and for some, that means utilizing their bilingualism to become biliterate.
📚 Blog Post: You can read more about phonemic awareness in a dual language classroom in this blog post: From the Field: My Experience with Phonemic Awareness in a Dual Language Classroom.
Thinking outside the label – profiles of students with the EL label
The profiles of English language learners vary immensely. In the United States, ELs may arrive from abroad or may be born here. About 70% of students with the EL label were born in the United States and the majority of these students speak Spanish as their home language.
We can broadly categorize ELs into two main categories – simultaneous bilinguals and sequential bilinguals.
Simultaneous bilinguals are exposed to two (or more languages) from a very young age. Their brains have had the opportunity to develop sensitivity to the phonologies of each language. The rate of exposure to any of these languages can vary drastically. Some ELs may come from fully bilingual homes. Others may have parents who speak a language other than English, but older siblings who are bilingual. Some may speak only one language at home, but be exposed to English at daycare, at the grocery store, and in other environments. The profiles and experiences of these students vary widely – but their brains have been naturally processing and subconsciously acquiring two languages since they were young.
💡 Tip: To watch a Heggerty lesson in action, take a look at our YouTube channel
In contrast, sequential bilinguals acquire one language before beginning the process of acquiring another. These learners will lean on their native language to make sense of English phonology, vocabulary, syntax, etc. It will require a conscious metalinguistic effort to acquire the second language Some sequential bilinguals are literate in their native language – this will also influence their literacy development in English.
The English Learner label doesn’t specify whether or a student is a simultaneous bilingual or sequential bilingual. It doesn’t describe the students’ proficiency in their other language(s) – some ELs are very fluent and proficient in their other language(s), while others may have a true mix of proficiency between their other language(s) and English. Depending on the topic and setting, ELs may prefer one language over the other.
What is language anyway?
Across the US, English language proficiency is measured in two categories of language and four language domains:
- Oral Language: Listening, Speaking
- Written Language (literacy): Reading, Writing
For the vast majority of human history, there was only oral language and the domains of listening and speaking. This is why oral language is the foundation for written language. Our brains are naturally wired to learn the oral language domains. In fact, many people are bilingual – can understand and speak two languages – but they may not necessarily be biliterate.
Generally, ELs are faced with the daunting task of acquiring English oral language while simultaneously working towards English literacy and learning all content in English. Simultaneous bilinguals with the EL label will have an advantage in that they have acquired some English oral language skills. Sequential bilinguals have oral language skills too – initially, those skills are not in English and these students will lean on their first language to make sense of English.
📥 Free Download: Heggerty Lesson Plan Samples in English & Spanish – Each sample phonemic awareness lesson plan previews a complete Heggerty weekly lesson plan. The full curriculum manuals include between 12 to 35 weeks of daily lessons, teaching 7-8 phonemic awareness skills and 2 early literacy skills. A lesson takes 8-12 minutes to complete, and the lessons are oral and auditory.
How do I teach phonemic awareness to English Learners?
Simultaneous and sequential bilinguals, just like their monolingual English-speaking peers, require phonemic awareness instruction. Learning to read and write in any alphabetic language requires phonemic awareness – a metalinguistic skill. With that being said, students in your classrooms, just like in English only speaking classrooms, are all entering at different stages or levels of phonological awareness development; however, explicit and systematic instruction in all areas of phonological awareness will ensure that students are constructing the necessary foundation in oral language to transfer over to their written language learning.
At Heggerty, we recommend that all students receive explicit and systematic instruction in their Tier 1 classroom. This means that all students would go through the 10-minute Heggerty lesson, regardless of their ‘level’ of English. In addition to this, it is ideal for ELs to receive additional instruction in specific areas that align with their written language level, and this instruction is connected to phonics instruction. This can be done in small groups with the classroom teacher, or with the ELL teacher in a push-in or pull-out setting. During this small group time, it would be ideal for teachers to utilize vocabulary that is integrated with the content students are learning in their classrooms. For example, if the class is doing an integrated unit on the season of fall and is learning vocabulary such as: leaves, pumpkins, apples, color, changing, trees, etc, the activities can work with these words. However, we do not want vocabulary knowledge to be the gatekeeper of working with phonemic awareness activities. You can find the sample lesson plan templates linked within our blog and on our website.
📥 Free Download: ELL Lesson Templates for Foundational Skills – These ELL Lesson Templates for Foundational Skills allow teachers to create tailored lesson plans to support ELLs in the Tier 1 classroom or small group setting.
|Tier 1 Literacy Block||Who?||Additional Information|
|10 min Heggerty Lesson||All students, including ELLs||Small group differentiation depending on individual student needs|
Target ELs through reinforcement of skills with targeted vocabulary
|Phonics Lesson/Activities||All students, including ELLs||Differentiate in small groups to support all students and target similar needs|
|Reading/Writing Core||All students, including ELLs (differentiation support as needed)||Small group instruction as outlined by the curriculum program|
Throughout phonological awareness lessons in a Tier 1 setting and within the Heggerty curriculum, your students will work with the skills of rhyming, phoneme isolation, blending, segmenting and manipulating. Each of these tasks progress and become more complex. Some students in your Tier 1 classroom may do really well with these activities as a whole group, and others may sit quietly and just take in the language. Just because students are not participating, it does not mean that they are not acquiring the language. Students, especially ELs who are hearing English for the first time, are in the process of developing phonological sensitivity. The students are trying to make sense of the sounds, syllables and word structures in the world around them, and the phonological awareness lesson is a great way for them to be exposed to those different structures.
Remember, the goal of PA activities is for students to develop phonological sensitivity and in turn, strengthen their phonological awareness, letter naming, and memory skills. Oftentimes, this gets overlooked and it is important to remember that reading and writing are content areas as well. We need to build background knowledge with our students on how sounds work, and what letters represent those sounds and give students opportunities to explicitly apply those skills in a contextualized, systematic way. Incorporating Heggerty and additional small group phonemic awareness instruction into your classroom each day will help English learners build upon and solidify their foundational skills.