Printer Friendly

Early reading development in adult ELLs.


ESL programs that work with older English language learners (ELLs) are experiencing an influx of students who lack basic literacy skills in either their native language or English. One area of research that has not been fully explored is the cognitive process of beginning reading for older ELLs. This paper reports on a one-year study that followed a group of adult ELLs as they were learning to read for the first time in English and discusses pedagogical implications.


Having spent many years in secondary and adult level ESL classrooms and working with preservice and in-service ESL teachers, I found that a large number of educators whom I encountered in the TESOL field were experiencing a similar challenge: Older ELLs who lacked the ability to read either in their native language or English were entering programs that were not structured to specifically teach beginning reading in a second language. While it is well established that cognitive and academic skills in the first language facilitate second language acquisition (Bialystock, 1991; Collier, 1992; Garcia, 1994), and word level skills such as phonological awareness transfer from the first language to the second language for bilingual children learning to read (Cisero & Royce, 1995; Durgunoglu, Nagy & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993; Durgunoglu & Oney, 1999) there is little known about what skills and knowledge beginning older readers have or use when learning to read for the first time in English. The answer to how older ELLs who are pre-readers develop skills is important since currently there is increased focus on building literacy skills across all age groups, and specifically for adults who lack such skills by the U.S. Federal Government (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). In addition, educators who work with older ELLs who are pre-readers experience frustration due to the lack of available data on how these students approach the task of learning to read and what types of classroom practices are most effective for them.

Phonological Awareness and Adult Reading

The ability to decode print is a critical step in alphabetic reading. In order to be successful at decoding learners must be aware of the alphabetic principle. In other words, learners must be able to make an association between sounds and letters and use those sounds to form words. This ability leads to successful word decoding. Decoding is dependant on phonological awareness (PA), or the understanding that spoken words are made up of smaller units of sound (for a comprehensive review see Adams, 1990). In addition, PA is the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words. For example, learners who have PA understand that the word cat consists of three sounds or phonemes:/k/ /a/ /t/. In addition, learners with PA can detect and create rhyme, delete phonemes from words and say the resulting word (i.e. say the word [bus] without the /b/. You are left with [us]) and substitute phonemes (say the word [cab] take away the /b/ and add /p/; what is the new word? [cap]). Learners can manipulate phonemes and recognize rhyme in both real and nonsense words.

Research on young learners from a variety of languages that use alphabetic writing systems indicate that (l) PA is a critical component of alphabetic reading, (2) learners with PA deficits often experience difficulty in learning to read, and (3) explicit PA instruction, or training, leads to gains in decoding and spelling (Adams, 1990; Ball & Blachman. 1991; Liberman, Shankweiler & Liberman 1989; Spector, 1995; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1988; Wagner, 1988). Another more recent area of investigation has been the cross-linguistic transfer of PA skills from a child's first language (L1) to the second language (L2) (Cisero & Royce 1995; Durgunoglu, Nagy & HancinBhatt, 1993; Lopez & Greenfield, 2005). These investigations found that children who possess PA skills in their first language are able to transfer these skills into English and have greater success on PA measures and decoding measures in English.

Finally, there is a small but growing body of research on monolingual adults who are learning to read for the first time. These studies suggest that the role of PA in beginning reading development is similar for adults and children. Cross-linguistic research (Portuguese, SerboCroatian, Turkish, English) suggests that older learners who cannot read an alphabetic system have difficulty manipulating phonemes. Non-literate adult learners perform very poorly on traditional PA tasks such as phoneme deletion or substitution (Liberman, Rubin, Duques, & Carlisle, 1985; Lukatela, Carello, Shankweiler & Liberman, 1995; Morias, Bertelson, Cary & Alegria, 1986). In addition, recent work (Durgunoglu & Oney, 2002) provides evidence for the fact that beginning reading processes of adults are very similar to those of children acquiring skills. The important question that research in this framework addresses, according to Durgunoglu and Oney is:
 How does such limited phonological awareness affect literacy
 acquisition in adults? Are those processes crucial for effective
 literacy acquisition in adults as is the case in children, or can
 the adults with more developed linguistic and world knowledge
 follow a different path of literacy acquisition?

These prior studies with adults have looked at L1 related decoding and PA issues, but not the role of PA or what if any development occurs in the presence of literacy instruction for adult ELLs acquiring initial literacy skills. The questions that will be addressed here are: what is the role of PA in adult ELLs who are learning to read for the first time, does ability develop over time, and what are the implications for classroom practice?

Method of Study

This work represents part of a larger study on initial reading and literacy development for pre-literate and semi-literate adult ELLs. Twenty-six adult ELLs who were enrolled in community based adult education courses were followed for one year and assessed on English decoding ability and English PA ability. Participants were all native speakers of Spanish who had self-reported levels of formal education between zero and 4 years. Based on intake and ongoing interviews, those who initially reported higher levels of prior schooling discussed the fact that even these years had been interrupted, so the actual level of formal education among the group was very low. The average educational level for the participants in the study was two and one third years of formal education completed with a standard deviation of 1.5.

Participants were individually assessed four times during the school year on their PA ability using a variety of PA assessment tasks. Sessions were audio recorded and scored both during the assessment and a second time using the audio recording. These tasks are as follows:

* Rhyme detection: 19 test tokens.

* Segmentation: participants were required to segment words into their constituent phonemes (for example, [cat] /k/ /a/ /t/). 15 test tokens

* Blending: required participants to blend words (for example, Q: what does /b/ /a/ /t/ say? A: [bat]). 15 test tokens.

* Phoneme isolation: participants were required to isolate initial phonemes (Q: what sound does [bus] begin with A: /b/). 15 test tokens.

* Substitution and deletion tasks: This assesses participants' ability to substitute and delete phonemes, as described earlier. Substitution task: 15 test tokens; Deletion task, 10 test tokens

* In addition, real and invented word decoding tasks were administered to see what role PA played in decoding ability. These tasks were from the Basic Skills cluster of the Woodcock Reading Mastery tests (Woodcock-Johnson & Woodcock-Munoz). Each section had 30 test tokens.

Data Analysis

All participants performed very poorly on both PA tasks and decoding ability during the initial assessment. Participants' scores were very low at the onset of the study. The following list reveals average raw scores and percentage correct on each assessment at the first assessment interval. See issue website AEQweb/sum2006.htm This poor performance and limited ability to detect and manipulate individual phonemes in words is a finding that is consistent with the studies that have looked at (1) children with reading difficulties and (2) monolingual adults who are pre-readers. This finding is significant in that traditional TESOL methodology for adult learners frequently focuses on life skills, workplace literacy and oral language "development, but rarely on word level reading skills and phonological processing skills. As participants continued in their adult ESL classes their PA ability and decoding ability improved. The following list illustrates raw scores at the final assessment interval. See issue website http://rapidintellect.corn/AEQweb/sum2006.htm

These improvements are significant. While enrolled in adult ESL literacy classes participants improved in both English PA ability and English decoding ability. Moreover, participants who had higher levels of English PA were better at decoding in English at all points of time. In fact, correlations between total PA scores and decoding ability were all highly statistically significant ranging from a low of .79 to a high of .90 (with ps < .005). This data is similar to results obtained with monolingual and bilingual children acquiring alphabetic literacy, as well as with pre-literate monolingual adults acquiring literacy skills in their native language (in an alphabetic system).


The development of skills over time provides evidence for the fact that PA is developmental in nature. If this were not the case we would expect to see no difference for these learners. In addition, participants were enrolled in one of three different adult education sites, so, regardless of the classroom teacher or method, the results were common across the population. Finally, and most importantly, PA ability for adult ELLs is significantly and highly correlated with decoding ability, the critical first step in becoming a proficient reader in English and other alphabetic systems.

This work has implications for research and practice. In terms of research, the results of this study contribute information about early cognitive reading processes for adult ELLs. It extends the universality of the PA/reading connection to yet another population (monolingual children, bilingual children, monolingual pre-literate adults and now bilingual pre-literate adults). This is important since now we have parallels over a variety of different populations and this allows researchers to develop a comprehensive theory of early literacy development. There are two possible answers to the question of adult ESL initial reading acquisition. The first is that adult ESL learners are different from children in that their vocabulary, life experiences, cognitive developmental level and motivations are different and therefore learning to read for the first time as an adult is different than learning to read at a more traditional age. If evidence were provided for this then teaching methodology would take a specific form to account for those differences. If, on the other hand, the beginning reading process is similar in adult ELLs and children, and the same factors are important, teaching methodology would certainly have to take that into account as well. As mentioned earlier, there is a lack of research that rigorously and systematically investigates these beginning stages of reading for pre-literate adult ELLs. The results from the present study provide evidence for the fact that the beginning process of reading in an alphabetic system is similar regardless of age and that word level skills, in this case PA, are as important for older learners who are learning to read for the first time in their second language as they are to children learning to read for the first time.

Since PA is predictive of initial decoding ability in this population, continued research to investigate the outcome of explicit instruction of PA skills in literacy level adult ESL classes is needed. In a 2002 study, Durgunoglu and Oney worked with adult pre-literate Turkish students and found that learners who participated in a program that included explicit instruction in PA skills (letter, sound, and syllable instruction) made more significant gains in word recognition and spelling development than learners who received traditional adult reading instruction. Similar findings with adult ELLs would enable educators and program coordinators to create programs that enable adult ELLs to develop skills more effectively and quicker, often an important motivator for adult learners who have very different time constraints placed on their learning than children enrolled in PreK-12 grade educational programs.

Successful decoding is a critical step in learning to read, and if explicit instruction in PA skills can facilitate initial decoding, adult ELLs will experience early success as beginning readers and build self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to a person's beliefs in their capabilities. "Efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, motivate themselves, and act." (Bandura, 1994). A person's beliefs about their ability to decode and comprehend written language will affect how they approach the task of reading and learning to read. Learners who believe they will succeed approach a task differently than learners who believe they will be unable to succeed. Many older struggling readers blame themselves for their inability to read or read effectively, and this creates a cycle of avoidance, refusal to engage in the reading process, and their seeing any future attempts at reading as hopeless (Wallace, 1995). Students who hold the belief that they are ineffective as readers and avoid reading are challenging to educators who are trying to build skills in these older ELLs. If we can create contexts where older ELLS become efficient decoders, then we can move on to comprehension and interaction with text that follows the successful decoding stage of reading.


Older ELLs who lack literacy skills experience stages in initial reading development similar to children acquiring these skills. PA in English is a predictor of English decoding ability and participants in this study who had greater ability experienced greater success on decoding tasks. In addition, PA for these participants is developmental: learners improve with time. This finding may cause educators, researchers and adult education program managers to re-evaluate how literacy level classes are structured. In addition, from a teacher education and professional development (PD) standpoint, the kinds of coursework and PD opportunities for teacher candidates and educators who will work and are working with literacy level adult ELLs should reflect the issues important to the population of students being served. Currently, mainstream TESOL methodology texts provide little information on the initial early reading acquisition of older ELLs.

Older learners who lack reading ability in their first or second language often experience frustration in adult education classes, but effective pedagogy that evolves from research based practices will increase learners' success and therefore their selfefficacy as readers, a critical step in becoming fluent readers.


Adams, M.J (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Bialystock, E. (1991). Language Processing in Bilingual Children. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

Ball, E. & Blachman, B. (1991). Does Phoneme awareness training in kindergarten make a difference in early word recognition and developmental spelling? Reading Research Quarterly, 26, 49-66

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. V 4, 71-81. San Diego, CA: Academic Press

Cisero, C. & Royer, J. (1995). The Development of Cross Language Transfer of Phonological Awareness. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20. 275-303

Collier, V. (1992) A synthesis of studies examining long-term language minority student data on achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, 16. 187-212

Durgunoglu, A. Nagy, W. & Hancin-Bhatt, B. (1993). Cross Language Transfer of Phonological Awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85 (3), 453-465

Durgunoglu, A. & Oney, B. (2002). Phonological awareness in literacy acquisition: It's not only for children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6 (3), 245-256

Durgunoglu, A. & Oney, B. (1999). A cross-linguistic comparison of phonological awareness and word recognition. Reading & Writing, 11,281-299

Garcia, E. (1994). Understanding and meeting the challenge of student cultural diversity. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Garcia, G.E. (1994) Assessing literacy development of second language students: A focus on authentic assessment. In K. Spangenbergk-Urbschat & R. Pritchard (Eds.), Kids come in all languages: Reading instruction for ESL students (180-205). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Genesee, F. (1987). Learning through two languages: Studies of immersion and bilingual education. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House.

Liberman, I. Y., Rubin, H., Duques, S., & Carlisle, J. (1985): Linguistic abilities and spelling proficiency in kindergartners and adult poor spellers. In D. B. Gray & J. F. Kavanagh (eds.), Biobehavioral measures of dyslexia 163-176. Parkton, MD: New York Press

Liberman, I., Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, A. (1989). The alphabetic principle and learning to read. In D. Shankweiler & I. Y. Liberman (Eds.), Phonology and reading disability: Solving the reading puzzle (pp. 1-33). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lopez, L. & Greenfield, D. (2005). The Cross-Language Transfer of Phonological Skills of Hispanic Head Start Children. Bilingual Research Journal, 28, 1, 1-18

Lukatela, K., Carello, C., Shankweiler, D., & Liberman, I.Y. (1995). Phonological awareness in illiterates: Observations from Serbo-Croatian. Applied Psycholinguistics, 16, 463-487.

Morias, J., Bertelson, P., Cary, L. & Alegria, J. (1986): Literacy training and speech segmentation. Cognition, 24, pp. 45-64.

Spector, J. (1995). Phonemic awareness training: Application of principles of direct instruction. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 11, 37-51. United States Department of Education (2002): U.S. Department of Education Annual Plan. Washington D.C. Contract number ED-01-CO-0187

Vellutino, F. & Scanlon, D. (1987): Phonological Coding, Phonological Awareness, and Reading Ability: Evidence from a Longitudinal and Experimental Study. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33 (3) 321-363

Wagner, R. K. (1988). Causal relations between the development of phonological processing abilities and the acquisition of reading skills: A meta-analysis. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 34 (3), 261-279.

Wallace, J. (1995). Improving the Reading Skills of Poor Achieving Students. Reading Improvement, 32(2), 102-04.

Margo DelliCarpini, Lehman College, The City University of New York

M. DelliCarpini, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of TESOL at Lehman College where she researches TESOL teacher education and second language literacy.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:English language learners
Author:DelliCarpini, Margo
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Previous Article:The curriculum: confronting neglect and abuse.
Next Article:Service learning's impact on civic engagement.

Related Articles
Effective practices and principles to support English language learners in the early childhood classroom.
Assessment of English language learners.
ELLs: children left behind in science class.
Holistic writing: integrated patterns.
Opening up to the issues: preparing preservice teachers to work effectively with English Language Learners.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters