How to Teach Teaching English Learners Based on the Science of Reading (2023)

An Interview with Dr. Jana Echevarria

How to Teach Teaching English Learners Based on the Science of Reading (1)

The following conversation was adapted from an interview on the Science of Reading and English Learners between Dr. Jana Echevarria and Brandon Harvey, Senior Curriculum Specialist at McGraw Hill.

Brandon: Within that body of evidence that is the Science of Reading, what kind of research exists specifically on English Learners?

Dr. Echevarria: Although a significant amount of research exists about reading, not enough focuses specifically on multilingual learners. What we do know is that multilingual learners need the same foundational skills that all readers need. However, they need adjustments in instruction. While the Science of Reading helps us understand how students learn to read, it’s of course important to remember that English Learners are learning to read in a new language. Before we even discuss the adjustments that multilingual learners require, I want to emphasize the importance of understanding how social language and academic language differ. Multilingual learners often come to school with some social, or conversational, English. As they navigate the classroom, they’re introduced to academic language, which is more challenging because it tends to be more complex and abstract. So, some multilingual learners may be speaking English well in the classroom, but haven’t yet acquired academic language, and so they struggle to read in class. It’s those sorts of nuances that make supporting multilingual learners very complex, but essential.

Brandon: I noticed you’re using the term “multilingual learners.”

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Dr. Echevarria: Yes! There’s a shift happening in terminology — while legislation will still use “English Learners,” you’ll increasingly see “multilingual learners” used to describe these students. The shift reflects an effort to frame students’ language abilities as an asset to them as individuals — many of these students speak many different languages! The shift also helps us avoid privileging English over the other languages students speak, and, in turn, culture, because in many ways language is an extension of culture. It’s something to keep in mind as you read about English Learners in Science of Reading literature.

Brandon: The Science of Reading, too, is not just for learning English! It’s just what we know about how the human brain learns.

Dr. Echevarria: That’s right, it applies to dual language programs — if you have an English-speaking student learning Portuguese, all of the principles of the Science of Reading apply.

Brandon: So, if you had a new teacher, who had English Learners in their classroom, and they’re grounded in the Science of Reading, what practices would you say are really critical to support English Learners?

Dr. Echevarria: Multilingual learners or English Learners learn how to read in many of the same ways as English-speaking students, but adjustments must be made for them. Educators should bring in students’ background, make connections, use repetition, and include opportunities to practice not just the new language but new concepts.

Explicit instruction and structured practice in oral language development is also particularly important. Teachers shouldn’t assume that students will pick up the language just by being in a predominantly English-speaking school — truly, that’s just “English noise” for many of those students!

When we think specifically about the models associated with the Science of Reading, such as Scarborough’s rope, it’s important to note that word recognition is the part of the rope that is nearly universal, in terms of learning to read. But the upper part of the rope, including background and vocabulary, is more complex for multilingual learners — this part of the rope is where adjustments need to be made and additional attention needs to be paid. Of course, that’s not to say that the bottom part of the rope won’t present challenges for multilingual learners. Phonics varies in different languages. But all of these elements of the rope weave together and are dependent on one another. For an English-speaking student, when they finally decode “dog”, they know what a dog is! This word represents this concept. For an English Learner, they can decode the word, they can say it, but if they don’t know that “dog” means “perro”, that decoding work hasn’t done anything for their comprehension. Adjustments such as visuals are critical.

Brandon: How do you respond to the idea that anything that benefits an English Learner benefits all learners?

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Dr. Echevarria: We have to be very careful with this statement. It’s technically true, but English Learners are learning everything through a new language. Instead, I like to frame it this way: Teaching strategies that work very well for English Learners don’t disadvantage English-speaking students. Differentiation is always important. For example, practice in academic language is important for all students. But even Tier 1 words are often new for English Learners. They need more instruction in academic language. The same goes for background knowledge and context — all students benefit from time spent in those areas, but it’s essential for our multilingual students.

Brandon: How can educators support English Learners through both oral language and reading?

Dr. Echevarria: Oral language and reading are inextricably linked. Students have to develop their oral language skills in order to read with comprehension. Word knowledge is critical and improving oral language will improve reading and writing as well. As multilingual learners read, teachers should work in a lot of chunking of text: pausing, discussing a portion of text, making connections with the student, and getting them to talk about the text. A reading lesson might look like this: Start with discussion about the text, highlight key vocabulary, read the text, talk about it, write about it, maybe have students talk about what they wrote with a partner — incorporate oral language throughout instruction.

Brandon: This doesn’t mean that teachers are doing a lot of talking! All of this takes some good classroom management, right? The classroom will be noisy, and student-driven.

Dr. Echevarria: Right. Routines can help, such as setting expectations for when students read and when they talk and using timers to mark discussion time. Students pick up on routines quickly! Additionally, for multilingual learners, routines provide structure so they don’t have to try to figure out directions given orally, they know the expectations and routines and they can focus on learning. We often talk about translating research into practice, when it comes to the Science of Reading, and instructional routines are a great example of what that looks like!

Brandon: What about examples of vocabulary strategies for English Learners?

Dr. Echevarria: It’s important for multilingual learners to be taught that words comprise units of meaning. Word parts can be manipulated, so multilingual learners can exponentially learn more words, or become more “word conscious”. One activity we suggest is word generation: Start with a word part and its definition (“port” means to carry) then review words that have that root. Visuals are also critical for multilingual learners, and teachers can use images to provide context and meaning. Finally, cognates should be explicitly taught. For example, geography in Spanish is geografía. Students might not recognize that these are words they already know, especially since the pronunciation is different. Post a cognate chart and point them out as you come across them — including false cognates!

Brandon: What’s the difference between Tier 2 Interventions for English Learners and English Language Development (ELD)?

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Dr. Echevarria: ELD, also called ESL, is a specific, dedicated time, usually 30 minutes a day, where multilingual learners are learning about English, especially oral language practice. The time is spent learning how English works, about syntax, building vocabulary and getting comfortable with unfamiliar words. On the other hand, Tier 2 Intervention is a literacy intervention, where students are grouped according to the component of reading that they need additional support to develop. The key is that literacy is language-dependent, but ELD is all about language, using text as a vehicle for discussion. With Response to Intervention, or RTI (Tier 2), literacy is in the foreground.

For example, some multilingual learners may not need help decoding, or with other literacy skills — they could be an excellent reader in their first language. These students just might need opportunities to learn and practice English. They don’t need Tier 2 intervention but do need ELD. While there could of course be students who receive both ELD and Tier 2, it shouldn’t be assumed that all multilingual learners need Tier 2.

Brandon: It sounds like, through all of this, the bottom line is truly to be intentional?

Dr. Echevarria: Yes! With everything we do. Explicit instruction is truly student-friendly instruction, because it lets students know what they need to do. Intentional instruction is particularly important for language development — create opportunities to point words out for students and encourage them to identify words they recognize, let them practice using language with peers. That’s what helps students internalize language. Another way to think about this is intentional redundancy, which can sometimes have a negative connotation, but actually means providing multiple exposures to words and their meanings. We want to make sure that we continually reinforce touchpoints with language, establishing routines.

Brandon: Where would you like to see the Science of Reading conversation lead practitioners?

Dr. Echevarria: Look at multilingual learners not as having a deficit but as an opportunity to build language and literacy, to add to the asset of language they already possess. Also, think about the context in which Science of Reading research is applied. Do educators understand their needs, interests, backgrounds, and something as basic as how to pronounce their names? Do multilingual learners feel welcome and a part of their classroom? All of these elements go hand in hand with the Science of Reading: It doesn’t matter how well a teacher is implementing phonics instruction if the student is so shut down because they don’t feel like anyone cares about them.

Brandon: On that note, how do the Science of Reading and equity intersect here?

Dr. Echevarria: Sometimes people have a mistaken notion that you are either very culturally responsive OR you’re a Science of Reading practitioner. They aren’t mutually exclusive at all! Students need the environment and opportunity to be strong readers and speakers. Black and Brown students are the ones that most suffer when we don’t have a good understanding of the Science of Reading, and when the research isn’t translated to practice. What’s more equitable than teaching students to read, to be confident, literate individuals, empowered to be influential members in their communities and have their voices heard?

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Jana Echevarria, Professor Emerita at California State University, Long Beach, has published widely on effective instruction for English Learners, including those with learning disabilities. She has presented her research in the U.S. and internationally, including at Oxford University (England), Wits University (South Africa), Harvard University (U.S.), Stanford University (U.S.), University of Barcelona (Spain), and South East Europe University (Macedonia) where she was a Fulbright Senior Specialist.

Prior to receiving her Ph.D. from UCLA, she taught in elementary, middle, and high school in general education, special education, ESL, and bilingual programs.

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Dr. Echevarria is co-developer of the SIOP Model (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) and co-author on the SIOP Model book series. The SIOP model of instruction is used widely in all 50 states and numerous countries.

Dr. Echevarria’s proudest contributions to the Science of Reading are thirty years of helping multilingual learners access texts through SIOP and popularizing the practice of having a language objective in every lesson so that language learning is transparent.


1. Five Reading Activities to Increase Engagement and Rigor | The Lettered Classroom
(The Lettered Classroom)
2. How to Teach Punctuation Multisensory Lesson for K-3 Reading Teachers | Science of Reading | SOR |
(Reclaiming Jen)
3. The Science of Teaching, Effective Education, and Great Schools
4. Inquiry-Based Learning: Developing Student-Driven Questions
5. Best Practice for Teaching Reading to Young Learners
(National Geographic Learning Asia)
6. Learning Tuesdays | Advancing the Science of Reading as the "New Normal"


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