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Lesson 6.3

Ensuring All Kids Learn to Read, Write and Speak English

School is harder for 40% of California students because…

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Reading doesn’t come naturally. It’s a sophisticated skill that has to be taught and learned. It requires guidance and a lot of practice.

It's also a fundamental skill. Every student has to make the jump to reading. As discussed in Lesson 2.7, some kids struggle more than others. Ensuring that all kids can read — including those that struggle — is a fundamental responsibility of the education system. Kids learn to read so that they can read to learn.

Beyond the act of reading, it is increasingly vital for students to develop media literacy, the capacity to apply critical thinking when reading or watching material.

What are reading standards?

Each state defines educational standards to describe what schools should teach and what students should learn at each grade level. Many states, including California, use the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy to define these expectations. The standards are organized into four broad areas of English language readiness: reading, writing, "speaking and listening," and the use of language.

English literacy in education

The Common Core standards establish expectations that are broader than English class: they set requirements for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

From about 6th grade on, teachers in history, science, and other subjects help students develop literacy skills through practice. Students develop English skills in many classes — not just in English class. For example, the standards don’t say a student has to take physics. But if a student does take physics, then the teacher needs to supplement content information with instruction on how to read the textbook, write about the subject, and so on.

The Common Core defines a set of capacities that students need to exhibit with increasing "fullness and regularity" (Yes, it's education jargon, but read on. We explain.)

The Common Core English Language Arts Capacities

They demonstrate independence.
They build strong content knowledge.
They respond to the varying demands of audience,
task, purpose, and discipline.
They comprehend as well as critique.
They value evidence.
They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.

To provide guidance to school districts and curriculum developers, in 2014 the state officially adopted a curriculum framework that sets out expectations for textbooks and other instructional materials. The framework is aligned with the standards.

School districts approve their own materials.

School districts have the authority to certify that the materials they select are aligned with the standards. This was a big change; prior to 2013, materials had to be reviewed and approved by the State Board of Education.

In the Ed100 Blog:
Too many kids can't read

California has a weak record when it comes to literacy. In 2019, California placed 41st in the nation on 4th grade reading and 39th in the nation on 8th grade reading. In late 2022, EdSource ran a special report about the crisis. Effective change will require coordinated action throughout the system, including better learning materials, seriousness about the science of reading, and attention to results.

English Learners

In California, more than 40% of public school children speak a language other than English as their first language. In education-speak, these students are called English Learners (EL) or English Language Learners (ELL).

In California, more than 40% of public school children are "English Learners" who speak a language other than English as their first language.

Schools gauge students' progress toward fluency using a relatively new set of tests, the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC, pronounced ELL-pack). After an initial assessment, students are tested annually to evaluate their progress. When a student scores high enough, teachers and parents may reclassify them as fluent.

Schools and districts must support literacy development

If your school has more than twenty English Learners, according to California law it must set up an English Language Advisory Committee (ELAC, pronounced "EE-lack"). This committee's purpose is to advise your school's leadership, particularly when it comes to determining the goals expressed in the School Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA, usually pronounced "SIPsuh").

Your school district is also required to have a similar district-level committee (DELAC, pronounced "DEE-lack") to advise the district's school board on programs and services for English Learners. This advice is meant to include input on the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP — see Lesson 7.10). The ELAC and DELAC may be particularly important if your district is expanding programs for bilingual education based on the 2017 passage of Proposition 58.

Research about English Learning in California has been difficult because of the limitations of California's education data systems. In 2018, the Getting Down to Facts II studies suggested that English Learners are probably more likely than other California students to be taught by early career teachers. In their conclusion, the authors argue for more clarity:

"The state should be concerned if new teachers, who are already struggling with so much, are particularly underprepared to teach ELs. Ensuring that novice teachers are adequately prepared with the specialized skills, knowledge and dispositions to teach ELs is of paramount importance to a state that concentrates one-quarter of all ELs in the nation — an extremely vulnerable and at-risk population by any measure."

If your school district has a pattern of assigning inexperienced teachers to schools with high concentrations of English Learners, your Site Council, ELAC and DLAC should be talking about it. School districts are obligated to provide cost-free training to members of ELACs and DELACs. (Ahem... May we point out that Ed100 is available in English and Spanish? If your ELAC members aren't aware of Ed100, please drop them a note!)

Bilingual education

In November 2012, the State Board of Education adopted a set of English Language Development standards to help guide instruction for English learners.

California's English Learner Roadmap, created in 2017, sets out a path for improving instruction for English language learners. In 2018, research conducted for the Getting Down to Facts II project suggested a to-do list that includes stronger investment in programs to prepare bilingual teachers and improved access to preschool for English learners.

The changing politics of multilingual education

Bilingual education used to be controversial in California. In 1998, voters passed an initiative (Proposition 227) that required nearly all California public school instruction to be conducted in English. Times change. In 2016, voters reversed course and overwhelmingly repealed the ban. Schools now may choose how to teach English learners, whether in English–only, bilingually, or in other types of programs.

Educators in California are not limited to teaching in English

The California State Department of Education embraced the policy change with a plan titled Global California 2030. In describing the goals of the program, the CDE declared that "By 2030, we want half of all K–12 students to participate in programs leading to proficiency in two or more languages, either through a class, a program, or an experience."

(Ed100 Lesson 6.16 provides research on the importance of biliteracy skills, and on the California State Seal of Biliteracy).

Phonics and the reading wars

In the Ed100 blog
2024 legislation failed, again, to close California’s early reading gap

English teachers lack nothing when it comes to passion for their work. Prolonged disagreement about how best to teach elementary English has been dubbed the reading wars.

The debate has been widely simplified as a question of approach: should all students be taught to sound out words phonetically (the phonics camp) or it is enough for students to recognize words in context (the whole language camp).

Researchers have concluded that the phonics advocates are basically right. California's weak results in language arts are partly the result of a long embrace of a reading strategy that doesn't work for all kids. Whole language teaching methods on their own don't tend to work well for struggling readers or students with reading issues. In order to read, students need to be able to decode words and comprehend language. Meanwhile, publishers have attempted to skirt the conflict by developing materials that include elements of both approaches.

For much more about the Reading Wars, listen to the podcast series Sold a Story from American Public Media.

Does reading matter anymore?

The digital era has brought new thinking: what constitutes “reading” and how does that play into how we define literacy? Now, you might be thinking the answer is pretty simple. Students with reading literacy skills can look at words on a page and answer questions about the content, right? But what about content from videos, audio, or other digital sources? Surely comprehension of non-written sources has some role in students’ overall literacy. Teachers, education policymakers and test designers are currently grappling with how large a role that will be.

For now, at least, reading remains the primary skill that matters for test scores and progress in school. As time goes on, the debate might be settled in the same way the reading wars weren't: Elements of both reading skills and digital skills will be included, probably without clear guidance. So, how can you best support the literacy development of your child right now?

Media Literacy

It's dangerously easy to assume that things you read or see are true. Schools play an important and growing role in teaching students how to see through biases and discern truth from untruth. In 2023, as generative artificial intelligence tools (A.I.) began to become widely available, the California legislature wrestled with policy options to quickly insert media literacy into curriculum frameworks.

Next steps for developing English language skills

Literacy starts at home. The earlier the better. There is some evidence that children from high-income families are exposed to more words than children from families on welfare — the gap was once reckoned to be as large as 30 million words. Research now indicates that reading to children builds richer language skills than talking with them. It makes sense: The language in books is usually more enriching than everyday speech.

How is your school supporting English Learners? This advocacy guide from EdTrust-West helps parents and communities know their rights.

Schools and parent groups can do a lot to support literacy at home. For example, Reading Rockets provides downloadable fliers in many languages. The California State PTA provides grade level guides to help parents understand Common Core literacy standards and see if their children are on track.

Next we’ll look at fluency of a different sort: science, technology, engineering, and math, known in edu-lingo as the "STEM" subjects.

Updated April 2024


Which of the following is TRUE?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 27, 2024 at 1:30 pm
California Dyslexia Initiative Online Resources
On-Demand Dyslexia Online Course Bundle: This free three-part online course covers the topics of understanding dyslexia and dysgraphia, intensifying instruction for struggling readers, and serving students with dyslexia for school psychologists. Participants have until October 1, 2024, to complete the coursework.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar January 31, 2023 at 3:30 pm
We dig deeper in our blog "Too Many Students Can't Read."Check out the seven suggestions to improve reading in California
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:42 pm
Accelerated Reading Support—The 2022-23 state budget provides an increase of $15 million one-time funds over three years to support 6,000 teachers in completing the coursework necessary to receive a supplementary state certification in reading and literacy.
user avatar
Myesha Mebane September 8, 2022 at 12:45 pm
Where can I find out more about adding a reading and literacy certification?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 21, 2022 at 7:45 am
The CTC provides more details about the supplementary certification in this leaflet.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 3, 2022 at 9:27 pm
To increase grade-level reading proficiency among young readers, and to provide access to effective literacy supports to California children, the 2022-23 state Budget provides $250 million one-time for grants to high-needs schools to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists to guide productive classroom instruction and to offer one-on-one and small group intervention for struggling readers.

The Budget also provides $10 million for the Department of Public Health to partner with First 5 California on the Books for Children Program.

user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 5, 2022 at 3:13 pm
When Language Prevents Kids From Succeeding At Math
"If you can’t read a math problem, you can’t solve it. And even if you can read it—or listen to someone else read it—if you don’t have the vocabulary you need to understand it, you’re also out of luck."
Natalie Wexler
user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 14, 2022 at 3:03 pm
Schools throughout the country are going through a literacy crisis. New research shows part of the problem is the science of how students learn to read has not been taught to most teachers and curriculum does not provide the content students need. Ed1oo blog on California’s literacy crisis explains.
user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:29 pm
These information links should be prominent in PTA literature given to schools.
user avatar
Frida November 4, 2019 at 10:32 am
It is actually not true that the “reading wars” are over. There is overwhelming evidence that all children learn to read when exposed to explicit phonics. There is no scientific support for the “cueing” method. I suggest you read the article below or listen to the podcast. I would also suggest that anyone interested in why only 37% of American kids read at grade level, reads “Reading in the Brain” by French cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 11:10 am
I have heard anecdotally only that there are disincentives to recategorizing ELL students from being less proficient to proficient because the school (or district?) loses money that comes to support ELL students. If you are successful and the students "graduate," then the school suffers. Is there some truth to this?
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 2, 2019 at 1:04 pm
The short answer is yes. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF, explained in Ed100 Lesson 8.5) directs additional funds to school districts (not schools) based on the need to provide additional instruction for English learners. When students are reclassified English Proficient, the additional funds are not provided... but reclassification practices vary widely by school district. Reclassification was a major source of study in the Getting Down to Facts II study, which concludes that the policies in this area are "in flux."
user avatar
nkbird August 12, 2018 at 4:21 pm
There is a typo in that pie chart -- the numbers don't add up.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 13, 2018 at 4:38 pm
The chart might need clearer wording but the numbers are correct. The pie reflects the fraction of all English learners. The percentages are of all California public school enrollment (of which English Learners are a subset.)
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 11:16 am
The California Department of Education has practice tests for English lanugauge learners.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:05 pm
"The Word Gap and 1 City's Plan" outlines a promising strategy for communities to look at
user avatar
Carol Kocivar February 12, 2017 at 9:54 am
From San Francisco Public Press: "How San Francisco Paved the Way for California to Embrace Bilingual Education" outlines the growth and success of programs and implications for Prop. 58.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 12, 2016 at 1:43 pm
The future of Proposition 227 is on the ballot in California in November 2016.
The California Multilingual Education Act (Senate Bill 1174) repeals the requirement that all children be taught English by being taught in English and instead allows school districts and county offices of education, in consultation with language experts in the field and parents, to determine the best language instruction methods and language acquisition programs to implement.
Find out more...
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 9, 2015 at 10:51 am
Here is the link to the California English Language Standards Electronic edition.
A little easier reading presentation:
user avatar
g4joer6 April 15, 2015 at 9:39 pm
The English Language Development Standards doc in the link above is a bit overwhelming. I like the idea of recognizing "emerging" skills. Thanks for all this good info. Will review it a second time.
user avatar
dnplank May 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm
We persist in thinking of English learners as if they are somehow marginal to California's education system, but in fact more than half of the students entering California public schools speak a language other than English--Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Arabic and dozens of others--at home. Many other students in urban and rural areas speak non-standard dialects of English and have little or no familiarity with the linguistic conventions on which academic success depends when they enter school. And yet both our policy and our practice too often remain bound to the comfortable but mistaken idea that teachers and students speak the same language.

If we want our students to master the conventions of standard English we have to TEACH them those conventions, not just in ESL class but across the curriculum. Doing this would require us to think very differently about how schools work, though, so instead we shift the main burden of responsibility to the students themselves.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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