Early Identification and Intervention to Prevent Reading Difficulties
This study presents a longitudinal examination of the development of reading and reading-related skills of native English (L1) and non-native English speakers. Reading and related cognitive abilities were examined in children kindergarten and in Grade 5. The analyses were conducted to investigate the influence of the balanced literacy program that was implemented in kindergarten and Grade 1 for the English as a Second Language (ESL) and L1 students in Grade 5. Another aim of the study was to investigate the reading patterns of ESL children in kindergarten and in grade 5 compared to those of their native English-speaking classmates from kindergarten to Grade 5. Finally, we examined how children at risk for reading disabilities (RD) could be identified.
The findings provided support for a model of early identification and intervention for all children at risk for reading failure. Furthermore, the results showed that learning English as a second language is not an impediment to successful decoding. In addition, there is a constant need to assess the reading skills of students in the classroom over the elementary years in order to detect difficulties that may emerge when the reading demands change over the years, and different reading strategies are required. Finally, the results demonstrate the heterogeneity of the RD group and call for further longitudinal examination of different RD subgroups.
KeywordsReading Comprehension Phonological Awareness Lexical Access Phonological Processing Rapid Automatize Naming
Early Identification and Intervention to Prevent Reading Difficulties
Much progress has been made over the past several decades with regard to understanding and treating students with reading disability (RD). Students with RD suffer mostly from deficits in phonological processing and decoding, and many respond to some form of literacy intervention (such as phonological awareness training). It is crucial to identify children with reading difficulties as early as possible (e.g., Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) because reading failure has a negative impact on achievement in all academic areas as well as in extracurricular activities and peer relations (e.g., Stanovich, 1986). In addition to academic problems, such as grade retention (e.g., McLeskey & Grizzle, 1992) and dropout (e.g., Lichtenstein & Zantol-Wiener, 1988), Adolescents with RD are at an increased risk of developing social problems (e.g., Sabornie, 1994), and emotional difficulties, such as depression (e.g., Gregg, Hoy, King, Moreland, & Jagota, 1992). Also, this population is at risk for problems with self-concept (e.g., Boetsch, Green, & Pennington, 1996), juvenile delinquency, and substance use and abuse (Beitchman, Wilson, Douglas, Young, & Adlaf, 2001). A high prevalence of RD has been identified among adolescent homeless youth and adolescents who have committed suicide (Barwick & Siegel, 1996; McBride & Siegel, 1997). Therefore, providing early identification and intervention is crucial.
As a result of the increasing number of immigrants to Canada, there are many children who speak ESL. Specifically, the 2001 Canadian Census data showed that the proportion of Canada’s population born outside the country had reached its highest level in 70 years (Statistics Canada, 2001). ESL students are defined as those whose first language learned and spoken at home with their parents, siblings, and grandparents was not English. The result is an increase in students entering the Canadian school system with limited English-language skills.
A number of the component skills necessary for reading and spelling acquisition, both in children with ESL and native English speakers, were investigated in the present study. Specifically, this study focused on phonological processing, syntactic awareness, and working memory – skills that have been demonstrated to increase significantly during the acquisition of reading (e.g., Siegel, 1993).
Phonological awareness has been found to be one of the critical skills for learning to read and for fluent reading for native English speaking students from early preschool to university (e.g., Calfee, Lindamood, & Lindamood, 1973). Furthermore, phonological awareness tests have also been reported as good predictors of reading abilities for L1 students (e.g., Gilbertson & Bramlett, 1998; Gottardo, Stanovich, & Siegel, 1996). Phonological awareness skills are essential for ESL students from different native language backgrounds to reach an adequate reading level (e.g., Durgunoglu, Nagy, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993).
In addition to phonological awareness, two other processes, working memory and syntactic awareness, have been linked to the development of reading skills in the English language, and these are disrupted in children with RD (for a review, see Siegel, 1993). Working memory involves the retention of information in short-term storage, while processing involves incoming information and retrieving information from long-term storage (Baddeley, 1983). Working memory is relevant to reading because the reader must decode and/or recognize words while remembering what has already been read and concurrently retrieving information, such as grapheme–phoneme conversion rules (e.g., Baddeley, 1983; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Siegel, 1993, 1994; Siegel & Ryan, 1988). In addition, the working memory has a limited capacity, so when there is a greater demand on the executive system, there is less processing space and cognitive energy available for subsidiary systems. The literature on learning disabilities provides evidence for the significant role of working memory in reading processes (e.g., Siegel & Ryan, 1989). Very few studies have investigated the working memory of children with ESL. Gholamain and Geva (1999) found that working memory in first and second languages contributed significantly to single-word recognition and pseudoword reading skills in L1 and second language (Gholamain & Geva, 1999). Similar results were found by Da Fontoura and Siegel (1995). In this study, they administered English and Portuguese tasks to Portuguese children who were learning ESL. They found that the working memory task discriminated between readers with RD and typical readers.
Syntactic awareness refers to the ability to understand the basic grammatical structure of a language. This skill is critical for fluent and efficient reading of text, which requires word prediction for understanding and is defined as the ability to understand the grammatical structure of a language. A number of studies have found significant difficulties with this skill in poor readers, such as, Siegel and Ryan (1988), who found that students with reading disabilities performed significantly more poorly on a syntactic awareness measure than typical readers. Waltzman and Cairns (2000) demonstrated that poor readers in the third-grade had more trouble with the interpretation of pronouns in some sentence contexts when compared to children with normal reading abilities. Joanisse, Manis, Keating, and Seidenberg (2000) found that dyslexic children of around 8 years old made more errors in inflecting verbs for the past tense than control subjects.
Syntactic awareness skill differentiates between language groups. For example, Da Fontoura and Siegel (1995) compared the reading development of Portuguese–Canadian ESL children to L1 students, and no differences were found except on a syntactic awareness task. The Portuguese–Canadian ESL group had significantly lower scores on the English Oral Cloze task than the monolingual L1 students (Da Fontoura & Siegel, 1995). In this task, the examiner read sentences to the students with a missing word in it, and the students were asked to provide the missing word in each sentence. The target words were part of syntactic categories such as past tense, comparative and superlative, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, and past participles.
Overall, there are few longitudinal studies that have examined reading development among ESL students. There is a special importance in using a longitudinal design for research with ESL students to develop a model that will provide developmental benchmarks (McCardle, Mele-McCarthy, & Leos, 2005). Therefore, the overall goal of this study was to examine the trajectories of reading development of children in Grade 5 who had been followed since kindergarten. The children had different linguistic backgrounds (L1 and ESL), but they were all part of a balanced literacy program that was implemented in their school district in kindergarten and in Grade 1. Specifically, this study was guided by the following three research questions: (1)What is the influence of the balanced literacy program that was implemented in kindergarten and Grade 1 on the ESL and L1 students in Grade 5? (2) How are the reading patterns of ESL children different from those of their native English speaking classmates from kindergarten to Grade 5? (3) How can children at risk for reading difficulties be identified?
All the children in this study were tested in the fall of their kindergarten year (when they were 5 years old) and in spring of Grade 5 (when they were 10). Overall, there were 756 children: 635 L1 and 121 ESL Children. Within the ESL group, the mean age in kindergarten was 63.82 months (SD = 3.35 months), and the standard deviation was 3.35. The mean age in Grade 5 was 130.23 months (SD = 3.29 months) and the standard deviation was 3.29 months. Within the L1 group, the mean age in kindergarten was 64.28 months (SD = 3.42 months) and the standard deviation was 3.42, and in Grade 5 the mean age was 130.66 months (SD = 3.70 months) with a standard deviation of 3.70 months.
There were 32 languages spoken by the children in this study, and the largest linguistic subgroups were Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin) and Farsi, followed by Slavic (Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Polish, Croatian), Japanese and Korean, and Pilipino and Tagalog. Other languages were Spanish, Hindi, Gujarati, Turkish, Finnish, Afrikaans, Tamil, Italian, French, Dutch, German, Greek, Kurdish, Norwegian, Punjabi, Romanian, and Swedish.
The sample included all the schools from one school district in Canada and represented a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds in the province of British Columbia. Therefore, having a diverse socioeconomic status (SES) group reduced the possibility that the performance of the ESL children as a group was related to a specific SES status. In addition, the correlation of reading skills and SES declined significantly from kindergarten to Grade 3, indicating a positive influence of good schooling in this sample (for further discussion about the SES and reading ability in this district, see D’Angiulli & Siegel, 2004; D’Angiulli, Siegel, & Maggi, 2005).
Kindergarten and Grade 5 Measures
We administered a battery of tasks to assess early literacy, phonological processing, spelling, grammatical sensitivity, lexical access, and memory skills to the children in kindergarten. In Grade 5, students were retested on the WRAT Reading subtest, and additional measures were incorporated into the battery to assess cognitive and reading processes.
On the WRAT Reading subtest (blue form: Wilkinson, 1993) each child was asked to name capital letters and to read some simple words. This task was assessed in kindergarten and in Grade 5.
Letter identification. Each child was presented with 26 written lowercase letters in a random order and was asked to name the letter. This task has a maximum score of 26 and was assessed only in kindergarten.
On the Word Identification subtest (Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised; Woodcock, 1987, W-J word identification, each child in Grade 5 was asked to read aloud a list of words of increasing difficulty.
On the Word Attack subtest ((Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised; Woodcock, 1987), children in Grade 5 were required to decode as many pseudowords as possible from the list. The task administration was discontinued when all items in a given level were failed.
On the One-Minute Word Reading test each child in Grade five was presented was presented with a list of words of increasing difficulty and was asked to read as many words as possible within a 1-minute time period. The tan form of the WRAT-3: Reading subtest was used to develop the word list.
On the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test (SDRT: Karlsen & Gardner, 1994), each child in Grade 5 was required to read the short passages within a booklet and to provide responses to multiple-choice questions within a prescribed time limit. The test measured students’ reading skills in the areas of vocabulary, comprehension, and scanning for information. This test was group administered.
In the spelling task in Kindergarten, the children were asked to print their names and five words: mom, no, I, dad, cat.
On the WRAT3 Spelling subtest (Wilkinson, 1993), the children in Grade 5 were presented orally with words of increasing difficulty and were required to generate the correct spelling. This subtest was group administered.
On the Sound Mimicry (Goldman, Fristoe, & Woodcock, 1974), each child in kindergarten was asked to repeat pseudowords of increasing difficulty that had been read to him/her by the examiner. Pseudowords ranged in difficulty from vowel-consonant syllables to polysyllabic pseudowords.
On the Rhyme Detection task (Muter, Hulme, & Snowling, 1997) each child in kindergarten was shown four pictures. A picture of the target word appeared above three pictures. Each child was asked which of the words rhymed with the target word. For example, “What rhymes with boat? Foot, bike, or coat?” There were three demonstration items and ten test items.
On the Syllable Identification and Phoneme Identification tasks (Muter et al., 1997) each child in kindergarten was required to complete words. In the syllable identification section, the examiner presented a picture (i.e., table) to the child. The examiner said the first part of the word (i.e., “ta”) and asked the child to complete the word (i.e., “ble”). In the phoneme identification task, the examiner presented a picture (e.g., fish) and said the first part of the word (i.e., “fi”) and asked the child to complete the word (i.e., “sh”). The task consisted of eight syllable identification items, eight phoneme identification items, and two demonstration items for each section.
In the Phoneme Deletion task (Muter et al., 1997) the examiner presented the child in kindergarten with a picture of a word, and the child was asked to delete a phoneme (initial or final) from the word. The task consisted of eight initial phoneme deletion items, eight final phoneme deletion items, and four demonstration items for each section.
On the Phonological Awareness task, the child in Grade 5 was asked to say a pseudoword and then to say the pseudoword again either without one of its phonemes (e.g., “Say sisp,” “Now say sisp without the /p/ sound”), or without one of its syllables (e.g., “Say conpadly,” “Now say conpadly without the /pad/”). Phonemes and syllables were deleted from the initial, middle, and final positions of pseudowords. There were 30 items arranged in order of difficulty. Administration was discontinued when five consecutive errors were made.
Phonological Decoding Fluency in Grade 5 was assessed by the one-minute pseudoword reading test. Each child was presented with a list of pseudowords from the Word Attack subtest of the WRMT-R (Form H; Woodcock, 1987) and was asked to read as many words as possible within a 1-minute time period.
The Rapid Automatized Naming test was used to assess phonological recoding in lexical access or word retrieval in kindergarten children (RAN: Denckla & Rudel, 1976). Each child was asked to name 40 items on a page consisting of line drawings of five different items (i.e., tree, chair, bird, pear, car) repeated in random order eight times. A practice trial of the five items was presented before the presentation of the 40 items to ensure the child knew the target words. The score was the time taken (in seconds) to name the 40 items.
The Rapid Automatozed Naming (RAN) test was used in the Grade 5 to assess efficiency in lexical retrieval. The children were requested to name individual numbers (1–9) presented in a random order in a 5 × 5 array. Each child’s performance was timed in seconds.
The Oral Cloze task was used to assess syntactic awareness skills (Siegel & Ryan, 1988; Willows & Ryan, 1981). In the Kindergarten year, each child was required to listen to the examiner read 12 sentences, each with a missing word, and then to provide a word that created a semantically and syntactically well-formed sentence. The class of the missing word varied as nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs. An example of a sentence was the following: “Dad ________ Bobby a letter several weeks ago.” In Grade 5, 20 sentences were read to the child and the child was asked to provide the missing word in each sentence. Sample sentences include: “Betty ___ a hole with her shovel.”
On the Stanford-Binet Working Memory for Sentences Test (Thorndike, Hagen, & Sattler, 1986) each child in kindergarten was asked to repeat sentences ranging from simple two-word sentences to complex sentences. The task was discontinued when the child failed at least three out of four items in two consecutive levels.
Verbal working memory in Grade 5 was measured with the Working Memory for Words task by Siegel and Ryan (1989). The child was orally presented with a set of sentences missing the final words and was asked to provide the missing word for each sentence. The children were then asked to repeat the word that they had provided for the end of each sentence. The number of sentences in each set increased and the total score was 12. Sample sentences include: “Running is fast, walking is ___. At the library people read ___. An apple is red, a banana is ___.” Administration was discontinued when all items on a given level were failed.
District Reading Program
In the North Vancouver school district, all children received phonological awareness instruction in kindergarten. The phonological awareness program, “Firm Foundations” (North Vancouver School District No. 44, 2001), was a classroom-based program for both L1 and ESL students. The students that were identified as being at risk for reading problems received additional phonological awareness training provided by the classroom and resource teachers in small groups and on an individual basis. This phonological awareness training was based on the prototype of the program, Launch into Reading Success (Bennett & Ottley, 2000). In addition, the “Firm Foundations” program consisted of early literacy skills development, letter–sound relationship, and language development. For instance, small groups and individuals were provided with different activities in a play format such as rhymes, sound–symbol, early writing activity (journals), and letter identification activities (baking letter-shaped cookies). Overall, the intervention was provided three to four times a week for 20 minutes. The intervention occurred in the context of developing a language and literacy-rich environment with story reading and retelling, journals, and reading children’s books of different levels. In Grades 2–5 the district implemented the Reading 44 program (North Vancouver School District No. 44, 2001), a classroom program that was written by the teachers of North Vancouver. The program included the “Daily Dozen” or 12 reading strategies and instructional activities and graphic organizers for classroom use to encourage students to learn these strategies.
In order to investigate the influence of the balanced literacy program that was implemented in kindergarten and Grade 1 on the ESL and L1 students in Grade 5, we conducted several analyses. First, we examined the proportions of ESL and L1 students that were classified as at risk in kindergarten and in Grade 5, then we compared the performance of the two language groups by a series of analysis of variance in kindergarten and in Grade 5.
The definition of RD or below-average reading achievement varies across studies; some researchers have used the 20th percentile as a cutoff (e.g., Lovett, Steinbach, & Frijters, 2000), whereas others used the 25th percentile (e.g., Fletcher et al., 1998; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003). Stanovich (1999) suggested a more stringent criterion, such as the 15th percentile, or even the 10th, on nationally standardized measures of reading. We have determined a child to be at risk in kindergarten if their standard score on the WRAT Reading subtest was equal to or less than 85. Scores in the borderline range were standard WRAT Reading subtest between 86 to 94. Children whose score of the WRAT Reading subtest was above 94 were identified as not at risk for reading difficulties. In Grade 5, children were classified as having poor reading skills if their standard score was equal to or less than 85 on either the W–J Word Attack subtest or the WRAT Reading subtest. Students with typical reading skills were defined as students who obtained standard scores equal to or greater than 95 on both measures. Students classified as borderline obtained standard scores between 86 to 94 on either the W–J Word Attack subtest or the WRAT Reading subtest.
In kindergarten, within the L1 group, 16.37% of the children were classified as at risk for reading failure, 12.59% were classified as borderline, and 68.64% were classified as not at risk. Similar frequencies were within the ESL group: 20.6% were classified as at risk for reading failure, 7.43% were classified as borderline, and 71.9% were classified as not at risk for reading failure. In Grade 5, 2.99% of the L1 children were identified as reading disabled, 10.70% were classified as borderline, and 86.29% of the L1 children were identified as typical readers. Of the ESL children in Grade 5, 1.65% were identified as reading disabled, 7.43% were identified as borderline, and 90.9% were identified as typical readers. In both groups, there were low levels of students with poor reading skills, probably due to the balanced intervention program.
Next, we examined the differences between the two language groups: ESL and L1 students in kindergarten by reading status. A series of analysis of variance (ANOVA) for the not at risk children were conducted, with language status (ESL, L1) as a fixed factor and all the kindergarten tasks as dependent measures. In kindergarten, not at risk children with ESL had significantly lower scores than the not at risk L1 children on measures of literacy, phonological processing, syntactic awareness, and memory. The ESL group had significantly lower scores than the L1 group on the Letter Identification task, F(1, 519) = 8.93, p < .01, η 2 = .008 and simple spelling measure, F(1, 519) = 5.96, p < .05, η 2 = .01, on two of the phonological processing tasks, the Sound Mimicry measure, F(1, 519) = 6.55, p < .05, η 2 = .01, and the Rhyme Detection task: F(1, 519) = 13.28, p < .001, η 2 = .01, on the Oral Cloze task: F(1, 519) = 10.30, p < .02, η 2 = .017, and on the Memory for Sentences task, F(1, 519) = 37.89, p < .001, η 2 = .06.
We examined the differences between the at risk groups in Kindergarten. A series of ANOVA were conducted, with language status (ESL, L1) as fixed factors and all the kindergarten tasks as dependent measures. The at risk children in kindergarten from both language groups showed very similar performance on the literacy, phonological processing, lexical access, syntactic awareness, and memory measures.
In Grade 5 we examined the reading and cognitive skills of the L1 and ESL children. Since there were only 21 RD students (2 ESL and 19 L1), separate analyses were not conducted for the poor readers, and only the typical readers were included in the analysis.
The ESL typical readers group in Grade 5 performed in a similar manner to the L1 English typical readers group on most of the measures such as reading, phonological processing, verbal working memory, and lexical access. Specifically, the L1 and the ESL groups did not have significantly different scores on the WRAT Reading subtest, F(1, 657)=.40, ns, η 2 = .00, the W–J Word Identification subtest, F(1, 657) = .17, ns, η 2 = .00, the W–J Word Attack subtest, F(1, 657) = .02, ns, η 2 = .00, and the Word Reading Fluency test, F(1, 657) = .01, ns, η 2 = .00.
Also on the phonological processing tasks there were no differences between the L1 and the ESL typical achieving readers on the pseudoword deletion tasks, F(1, 657) = 3.08, ns, η 2 = .00 and on the Phonological Decoding Fluency task, F(1, 657) = .01, ns, η 2 = .00. In addition, there were no statistically significant differences between the groups on the Rapid Automatized Naming task, F(1, 657) = .71, ns, η2 = .00, and on the Working Memory for Words task, F(1,657) = .1.46, ns, η 2 = .00.
There were main differences between the groups on three measures. The ESL group had significantly lower scores than the L1 English group on two tasks, the Oral Cloze task, F(1, 657) = 9.28, p < .01, η 2 = .01 and on the SDRT reading comprehension task, F(1, 657) = 7.03, p < .001, η 2 = .01. However, the ESL group had significantly higher scores than the L1 group on the WRAT Spelling subtest, F(1, 657) = 4.64, p < .05, η 2 = .00.
In order to investigate how children at risk for reading difficulties can be identified, we examined the various trajectories (i.e., children who began at risk and remained at risk, children whose risk status had fluctuated over the years) of word reading development within the RD group in Grade 5. We found that there were three distinct subgroups within the Grade 5 RD group. The first subgroup consisted of 12 students who demonstrated poor performance (i.e., below the standard score of 85) in kindergarten on the WRAT Reading subtest as well as poor performance either on the WRAT Reading subtest or the W–J Word Attack in Grade 5; we refer to this subgroup as poor readers (PR). The second group consisted of three students who were borderline on the WRAT Reading subtest in kindergarten or the W–J Word Attack subtest. We referred red to this group as borderline RD. The third subgroup consisted of six students who started as not at risk on the WRAT Reading subtest in kindergarten; but in Grade 5, were classified as RD on either the WRAT Reading subtest or the W–J Word Attack subtest. We refer to this subgroup as not at risk RD.
In order to examine the profiles of the three RD subgroups, we examined their mean scores in kindergarten and in Grade 5. These profiles were of particular interest, since these students unlike their peers, did not benefit from the balanced literacy program as the other students in the district did, and probably needed more support in other areas. For this analysis, scores that were at least one below 1 standard deviation (SD) below the not at risk group were described as marked difference. In kindergarten, the poor reader group performed 2 SD below the typical L1 group on three measures: percentile, the WRAT Reading, and letter identification. This group performed more than 1 SD below the typical L1 group in the memory for sentences test. The Borderline group performed more than 1 SD below the typical L1 group on 4 measures: WRAT Reading, Letter Identification, percentile, and RAN time. The not at risk RD group performed more than 1 SD below the typical L1 group on two measures in kindergarten: percentile and memory for words, demonstrating average word reading and letter identification skills in kindergarten.
In Grade 5, the poor readers group performed more than 3 SD below the typical L1 group on WRAT Reading, and pseudoword reading fluency. This group performed more than 2.5 SD below the typical L1 group on W–J Word Identification and Word Attack, and on the reading comprehension test. They performed more than 2 SD below the typical L1 group on the word reading fluency, and spelling, and more than 1 SD below the typical group on the RAN, pseudoword deletion, working memory and the syntactic awareness tasks. The profile of this group demonstrated severe difficulty with most of the reading and cognitive skills in Grade 5. The borderline-RD group performed more than 3 SD below the typical L1 group on the WRAT Reading, and below 2.5 SD on W–J Word Identification, spelling, and word reading fluency. This group performed more than 2 SD below the typical L1 group on W–J Word Attack, word reading fluency, lexical access, and reading comprehension. They performed more than 1 SD below the typical L1 group on oral cloze and 1.5 SD below the typical L1 group on pseudoword deletion. The not at risk RD group has scores that were 2.5 SD below the typical L1 group on the WRAT Reading, W–J Word Attack, and the pseudoword fluency. They performed more than 2 SD below the typical L1 group on the W–J Word Identification and word reading fluency. The not at risk RD performed 1.5 SD below the typical L1 group on the WRAT Spelling and more than 1 SD on lexical access, syntactic awareness, and reading comprehension. This group performed within the average range on the working memory measure.
The first goal of the study was to examine the influence of the balanced literacy program that was implemented in kindergarten and Grade 1 on the performance of ESL and L1 students now in Grade 5. There was a significant decrease in the number of children with reading difficulties from kindergarten to Grade 5. For the majority of children who experienced early reading difficulties in kindergarten, their difficulties were likely remediated through a balanced early reading program that included small group phonological awareness instruction for all children, as well as phonics instruction in Grade 1 and reading comprehension strategies. Many of the at risk children received targeted, direct phonological awareness instruction in small groups in Grade 1 as well. This model provided considerable support for the benefits of small group instruction in kindergarten, and a balanced approach to literacy activities in order to reduce the incidence of reading failure, for both native English speakers and students with ESL.
Another objective of this study was to investigate the reading patterns of ESL children compared to their native English-speaking classmates from kindergarten to Grade 5. Not surprisingly, in kindergarten, the children with ESL did not perform as well as L1 speakers on most of the measures. Specifically, the children with ESL performed more poorly than the L1 English children on some of the phonological processing measures and in the areas of, syntactic awareness, memory for sentences and spelling. Since all these tasks involved language proficiency. These tasks required the children to manipulate and remember English, and proved difficult for all ESL-speaking children as compared to their native English-speaking peers. By Grade 5, however, the students with ESL were performing at similar levels to their L1 English-speaking peers. In spite of their later exposure to the phonological structures of the English language, ESL speakers were as successful as the L1 speakers at manipulating the sounds of the English language (i.e., phonological awareness) and at applying grapheme–phoneme mapping rules to read unfamiliar words with ease and speed (i.e., phonological decoding fluency). However, the ESL speakers still lagged behind L1 speakers in understanding the grammatical structures of oral language, even at the upper-elementary grades. Furthermore, the L1 speakers responded correctly to a greater number of questions than the ESL speakers on the SDRT reading comprehension test. This finding is consistent with Verhoeven’s (1990) study of bilingual Turkish-Dutch children. Even after 20 months of literacy instruction, the reading comprehension performance of the Turkish-Dutch children was lower than the native Dutch-speaking children despite similar word reading skills. The author suggested that the finding was likely due to syntactic ability and oral language proficiency. Similarly with the present study, the ESL speakers showed comparable performance on word reading, lower performance on SDRT reading comprehension, and lower performance on the Oral Cloze task. It is important to note that the SDRT mean scores for both groups were well within the average range, suggesting that ESL speakers were not at a disadvantage according to the normative criterion of the test.
The children with ESL performed better than L1 English children on the WRAT Spelling subtest that required accurate spelling of real words. The spelling process for real words refers to words that have usually been seen in print in the past and thus have an orthographic representation in a sight word vocabulary. A suggested explanation is that children with ESL have metalinguistic abilities due to their exposure to different language systems, and this metalinguistic ability assisted them when learning to spell new language units.
Overall, we found that ESL students can perform in a similar way to L1 students on measures of reading and cognitive abilities after 6 years in English schooling, utilizing a balanced literacy program. We also found that ESL students had an advantage in spelling; future research can examine in more details whether ESL students in general or only specific ESL samples have this advantage. ESL students in Grade 5 performed poorly on syntactic awareness skills, and reading comprehension skills as compared to their peers, although their reading comprehension ability on average fell within the normal range. Future studies should examine the reading comprehension skills of ESL students in upper grades in relation to different comprehension abilities, as well as different types of texts.
Another aim of this study was to examine the different trajectories of the students that were identified as RD in Grade 5. We found three different profiles of students with RD: Poor readers, Borderline RD, and not at risk RD. In kindergarten, five measures differed between the RD groups: The phonological awareness measure, the word/letter reading measure: WRAT Reading and letter identification, the memory for sentence measure, and the lexical access measure, RAN. The poor reader group performed more poorly than the not at risk readers on the phonological awareness, word reading, memory for sentence and letter identification. The borderline group performed more poorly than the not at risk readers on word reading, memory for sentences and letter identification measures, phonological awareness, and lexical access. The third group that was not identified as being at risk in kindergarten based on the WRAT Reading, but ended up as RD in Grade 5, performed more poorly than the not at risk children in kindergarten on two measures: phonological awareness and memory for words measure. These results indicate that there is a need to assess students in kindergarten with these measures and to take into consideration the students that perform at least 1 SD below the typical L1 on at least two measures. In Grade 5, the three RD groups performed more poorly than the typical readers on most of the measures, indicating the ability of the measures to identify students with difficulties, but also the severity of the RD. The poor reader group had the poorer performances, on most of the measures, followed by the borderline RD group and the not at risk RD group.
It is of note that in our sample, we had two ESL students who were classified as RD in Grade 5. The percentage of the students with ESL in the overall RD group did not allow us to examine different trajectories or RD between language groups.
One implication of our study concerns early intervention programs. The school district was committed to a balanced literacy program, again demonstrating the critical role that phonological processing plays in reading acquisition for both native and non-native speakers. The findings indicate the importance of phonological skills to facilitate reading development. The phoneme awareness-training program in kindergarten and Grade 1 seems to have had a benefit as it helped to bridge the gap in the reading skills of children with ESL entering kindergarten with limited English or no English exposure. If detection and remediation are available for children with ESL during the early years of school, their reading development can be similar to their native English-speaking peers in later grades. However, it is necessary to provide direct instruction for reading comprehension and of syntactic skills for the ESL children.
These results indicate several issues that pertain to early identification and reading development: First, there is a constant need to assess the reading skills of students in the classroom over the elementary years in order to detect difficulties that may emerge over the years when the reading demands change and different reading strategies are required. Second, early identification and monitoring should include measures that assess phonological processing, word reading, lexical access, and memory. And finally, the results demonstrate the heterogeneity of the RD group, and call for further longitudinal examination of different RD subgroups.
Future research on the development of English language skills in ESL students from different language backgrounds should include a focus on transfer between the first and second languages, the special characteristics of each language system, and the interplay between them. In addition, future research should consider such variables as the age of first exposure to English, literacy instructional methods, the proportion of ESL students in the classroom in which the child is being educated, and the specific characteristics of the first language of the student. Whenever possible, it is important to consider language and reading skills in the first language.
This research was supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network to Linda S. Siegel. The authors wish to thank the students, principals, teachers, parents, and administrators in the North Vancouver school district for their invaluable contributions and support.
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