Focus on Higher-Order Literacy Skills

After years of attention from educators but little measurable achievement growth, something more has to be done to address the instructional needs of Hispanic students. The opportunity gap between Hispanics and their more-advantaged peers is still too wide, and high-school graduation rates are still too low. What’s more, demographic trends indicate that there is no time to waste: the Hispanic population is not only the nation’s largest immigrant group, but has accounted for 56 percent of U.S. population growth in the past two decades. As a result, linguistic diversity is increasingly characteristic of today’s classrooms. Unless educators design instruction to match the demographics of today’s students, as the Hispanic population continues to grow and to grow up, so too will the number of students experiencing difficulties. With this knowledge, policymakers and practitioners alike are eager to determine how to bolster English-language literacy among the Hispanic population at scale.

Hispanic Students in Context

Focusing education reform plans more effectively requires an understanding of context, in this case, key characteristics of the Hispanic population and the schools they attend. For example, the majority of Hispanic students in today’s classrooms are not “newcomers,” enrolling as older children and adolescents, but instead are U.S.-born children of immigrants. These families often associate the U.S. with better opportunities and a better life for the next generation, based on education and schooling. They enroll their young children in early education and care settings and kindergarten classrooms and think favorably about the U.S. public education system (see “Reform Agenda Gains Strength,” features, Winter 2013).

Yet, whether Hispanic children receive English-as-a-second-language support or not, many of them are performing well below average by middle-school entry. At the same time, Hispanic students in the U.S. are overwhelmingly growing up in poverty and attending high-minority schools, in which many of their peers are also at-risk for school failure. The 2011 8th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that only 18 percent of Hispanic students and 14 percent of black students read at or above proficiency levels. These populations also post higher rates of grade retention and lower rates of high-school graduation than their majority-culture peers. In the U.S., Hispanic and black students are attending increasingly segregated and underresourced schools. According to a 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project, 80 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of black students are enrolled in economically and racially segregated schools. Classrooms in these schools provide them with fewer opportunities to learn than their peers from higher-income backgrounds enjoy.

How does this inform my perspective on educating Hispanic and black students? On the one hand, it’s inappropriate to assume that similar performance patterns mean similar needs. There is no question that Spanish-speaking Hispanic students’ language-learning needs are somewhat different than their monolingual peers, particularly in the early years. For example, while many black children begin developing English oral-language skills years before formal schooling, many Hispanic children must develop English language proficiency as they are simultaneously learning academic content. Thus, although both groups may post lower rates of school readiness, Hispanic children from Spanish-speaking homes face the additional challenge of learning the language of the classroom, making them especially vulnerable to poor academic outcomes. To be competitive in this global economy, this population requires reform efforts that reflect their complex language-learning needs and builds on their strengths. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the approach to bolstering students’ advanced literacy skills, and academic language skills in particular, need not be entirely different for different groups, particularly with increasing grade levels. This is especially the case when they are enrolled in the same schools in low-income neighborhoods, irrespective of language background or identification with a particular racial group. For example, a recent study conducted in urban middle schools found that there were more similarities than differences in the reading profiles of struggling students from non-English-speaking and English-speaking households, and that low academic vocabulary knowledge, a major component of advanced literacy skills, was a shared source of difficulty.

Seeking Advanced Literacy Skills

If we take seriously the ways in which literacy skills drive academic success, focusing immediate reform plans on bolstering these skills makes good sense, and that tack has been widespread. In this regard, current challenges to educating Hispanic students reflect a need we have recognized in public education for decades—not just to develop students’ literacy skills, but to develop their advanced literacy skills. Recent research, however, has shifted our thinking: It’s not reading per se that impedes Hispanic students’ advanced literacy skill development; it’s actually the language of print—in the newspaper, the textbook, the magazine article—that proves difficult and demands instructional emphasis. Our task, then, is to redesign our model for teaching literacy. We’ve gone about much literacy reform guided by the assumption that if we focus on the act of reading—putting the letters and sounds together to read words—then students will engage in deep comprehension. The flaws in this approach have proven particularly problematic for academically vulnerable populations, including many of our Hispanic students.

Why make this distinction between the act of reading and the language of print? Well, simply knowing how to read individual words is not enough to comprehend text. Students also need to understand the vocabulary used and the concepts the words describe. Otherwise, “reading” the printed page will not result in comprehension or learning. Schools have done a good job teaching most students the basic skills necessary to be proficient readers in the early grades, decoding and comprehending the conversational language that conveys ideas and topics in beginner books. Among those reaching this level of mastery are many Hispanic students and others who come from homes where the primary language is not English: they acquire early reading skills on par with their peers. Many of them surpass the “survival English” stage—they are conversant and comfortable speaking English—especially after many years in American schools. Still, with increasing grade levels, the language of print is beyond their reach; it is much less conversational and much more academic, making the texts far more difficult to comprehend.

The academic language of print is, at once, a gatekeeper and a gateway. When academic language is largely inaccessible, so too is the school curriculum; accessing the language, however, means having the opportunity to learn academic concepts and generate ideas and questions that contribute to academic conversations, and ultimately leads to school achievement. Beyond the language of the middle-school or high-school text, academic language is the language of the SAT, the college classroom, and the skilled labor force. It is a powerful tool for personal and professional success.

And yet we have never designed literacy instruction to support this language learning at scale. Instead, we’ve devoted most of our instructional resources and energy toward early literacy initiatives and supplemental interventions that have focused on reading print. In fact, without high-quality academic language learning and instruction, individual students’ literacy growth is impossible.

Implications for Education Policy and Practice

The school leader’s challenge, then, is to ensure that teachers have acquired the knowledge and the tools to create appropriate learning environments for student language development. This is especially the case in high-poverty settings with large numbers of Hispanic students. Today’s teachers report feeling underprepared to meet students’ language-learning needs effectively and typically have little to no training in how a student develops language. Professional development should outline strategies for integrating sophisticated, abstract vocabulary and language instruction into formal daily lessons, but also present ways to build language during informal interactions and thereby elevate overall language use in the classroom. In the end, unless a school, from the earliest grades to the latest, organizes around strengthening language and literacy for Hispanic students and all their classmates, we simply are never going to catch all of the students who may be struggling.

A larger challenge for policymakers and education leaders is to rethink the specialist model as the panacea for augmenting instruction for English language learners in today’s linguistically diverse schools, many with large concentrations of Hispanic students. It is neither feasible nor effective to rely solely on a model that serves only those learners who qualify because they have the lowest levels of English proficiency and who receive supports often only for a brief period of time, either in a classroom designed expressly for them or in a small group setting at particular times during the week. Instead, the academic growth of the entire population depends upon strong and supportive language- and content-rich classrooms day after day and year after year. It is only with this kind of time-intensive, high-quality effort in all classrooms that we will be able to support all Hispanic students—whether designated as “English proficient” or not—to develop the advanced literacy skills needed for high-school graduation and well beyond.

For academically at-risk students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten and who have experienced educational opportunities that are basically similar in design and practice, research suggests that a classroom-wide, universal approach focused on building up academic vocabulary and conceptual knowledge would be appropriate. The past decade has seen a relative surge in research conducted in urban, underperforming schools focused on doing exactly this— providing students with deep, language- and content-based instruction, with a focus on teaching both specialized vocabulary and the specialized structures of language in academic speech and text. Besides testing effective approaches to meeting student needs, this research helps keep pace with the standards-based accountability movement. Indeed, today’s Common Core standards mandate that instruction attend to the inherently complex challenge of building students’ background knowledge and academic language.

What, exactly, does effective, quality academic language instruction look like? Most often, it is text—the medium that is challenging for these learners—that is the best platform, anchoring the work in rich content. The instruction also maintains a sustained focus on producing oral and written language, such as generating extended research projects or essays, and engaging in academic discussion. Such practices are largely absent from elementary and secondary classrooms. In these purposeful language-rich environments, students have access not only to texts, but also to collaborative experiences, such as labs, demonstrations, and debates, which promote academic conversation and knowledge building. And although such an approach is promising, as with any instructional reform strategy designed to bolster at-risk students’ skills, the key in implementation will be accommodating differences, not only between linguistic and racial groups but also within them, while maintaining relentless attention to quality.

This article is part of a forum on how to best educate Hispanic students. For another take, please see “Emphasize Civic Responsibility and Good Citizenship,” by Juan Rangel.

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Lesaux, N., and Rangel, J. (2013). How Can Schools Best Educate Hispanic Students? Education Next, 13(2), 50-56.

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