CATESOL Position Statement on Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners, Grades K-12


(Approved January, 1998)

California educators, political leaders and the public agree that students must meet high standards in reading and writing. Students from homes in which languages other than English are spoken comprise an increasingly large proportion of the California public school population. Their needs should inform the planning process in both designing instruction and developing standards.

Students-Not All Alike

Although each child is unique, most English language learners belong to one of the following subpopulations:

  • Young learners [K-3] whose beginning literacy instruction is in their primary language
  • Young learners [K-3] acquiring initial literacy in English because they do not have access to primary-language reading instruction
  • Older learners with grade-level primary-language literacy, who are beginning to develop literacy in English
  • Older learners with limited formal schooling in their home country
  • Older learners with inconsistent school history, with limited development of either the primary language or English.


English language learners share goals with all students-to be able to read in a variety of genres, access information, make meaningful connections, and synthesize ideas and express them in writing. However, second language learners may demonstrate achievement in ways slightly different from their native-speaking peers.

Students instructed in their primary language should be able to reach grade-level standards demonstrated by assessment in that primary language. In contrast, young learners in an all-English program, as well as students transitioning from primary language to English, usually take several years to reach grade-level standards in English. Older students with little or no formal schooling in their primary language need even more time to develop literacy skills in order to later reach grade-level standards.

Language of Instruction

Research has demonstrated that it is desirable to develop literacy in the language used at home first, while beginning to build fluency in English. A good foundation in primary language literacy facilitates the later transfer of literacy skills to English. Where primary language reading instruction is not provided, students should have language-rich, developmentally appropriate programs of English language development which include exposure to print.

Initial and Ongoing Assessment

Ongoing assessment of literacy development is essential to ensure student success. Before beginning literacy instruction for English learners, there should be a thorough diagnosis by trained professionals, which includes oral proficiency and literacy in both English and the primary language. This diagnosis, along with parent consultation and a study of the student's school history, should determine initial placement in a literacy program.

Next, an ongoing monitoring system is needed. Students should be assessed periodically for development of oral English, literacy in their primary language and English, and success in the mainstream curriculum. This assessment may be used to help teachers plan effective instruction and to assist in the allocation of school and district resources.

Finally, assessment of literacy should be matched to the language of instruction-students acquiring literacy in Spanish should be assessed in Spanish, for example. Any standardized testing in English should be interpreted by teachers well prepared to understand second language literacy development.


English language literacy instruction for English learners should be balanced, meaning-centered and contextualized. Instruction should include reading and responding to literature, writing, and the development of skills, including instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary. Beginning literacy instruction in students' primary language should also be balanced and meaning-centered. Knowledge and understanding derived from primary language literacy should be linked explicitly to English.

Younger students' initial English reading experiences should be integrated with continuing oral language development, which includes many opportunities to hear, read, develop and use new vocabulary and language patterns.

Programs for older students should build on their prior knowledge and experiences. In addition to incorporating appropriate literature, instruction should help students read academic texts, read for recreation and survival and develop independent reading strategies.

All English learners should have reading instruction tailored to the student's level of English proficiency, knowledge of English syntax and primary language literacy. Students should be helped to develop structure, clarity, spelling and mechanics in writing. Differences and similarities between the primary language and English will affect the content of writing, phonics and spelling instruction.


English language learners in primary language literacy instruction should have access to parallel early intervention programs such as Reading Recovery (Descubriendo la Lectura) and Success for All, provided in the primary language.

Young learners at beginning levels of English language proficiency are not appropriately served by reading intervention in English. Students with higher levels of English language proficiency may be served by early intervention programs if knowledgeable ESL professionals concur in the judgment of the appropriateness of such a program for the child.

Older English language learners with limited or interrupted formal schooling should have access to primary language arts and literacy instruction when available, and/or early literacy intervention instruction in English which applies emergent literacy strategies in age-appropriate ways.

Credentialing and Staff Development

Classroom teachers should hold appropriate credentials-CLAD or BCLAD or equivalent. Teachers providing reading intervention to English language learners should have the Reading Certificate, and when possible a Reading Specialist credential along with CLAD certification or training. Staff development should incorporate information about second language acquisition and literacy development of second language learners.


English language learners should have access to adequate materials to develop and support literacy skills both in their primary language and in English. Availability of materials should be comparable to the amount and quality of materials available to English-only peers.


Appropriate instructional practices, well-prepared and credentialed staff, adequate materials and support will facilitate the ultimate achievement of grade-level standards by all English learners.