A second-grader in Dae Selcer's multilingual learner class pencils small parts of a word, or morphemes, into her packet. It's part of an approach to literacy known as the science of reading. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Dae Selcer started her second-grade English language class with an energetic song: “The Sentence Chant,” sung to the tune of “Meet the Flintstones.”

“Oh what is a sentence?

A sentence is a complete thought. With a capital letter!”

The children sang the words and performed the hand motions they knew by heart, snapping their fingers and hitting the table in rhythm. It was late May, and this class—a mix of East African and Latino students—would soon be advancing to third grade at Prodeo Academy, a charter school in Columbia Heights. 

What I’d come to see in the Prodeo Academy classroom was a glimpse of the future: how Minnesota’s new literacy law might affect English learners.

The law requires teachers to receive new literacy training and for districts to use evidence-based reading curricula, in line with practices known as the science of reading. But some schools have adopted these practices already—including Prodeo Academy. 

These kids started the year confusing their Bs and Ds. Now, they were learning to build complex vocabulary words by combining small parts of a word—a concept known in linguistics as a morpheme.

“Looking at a small part of a word helps us figure out the meaning,” Selcer reminded her class. She then mapped out a series of morphemes on the board: un, in, habit, able, at, ing.

“‘Habit’ means to live,” she said, adding that it came from a Latin root. And when “at” comes at the end of the word, it means place, she told them. She showed them how to combine the word parts into habitat. The students penciled the meanings in their packets.

“What’s a habitat?” Selcer asked them.

“Place to live,” the children chorused.

“A what?” Selcer asked, putting her hand to her ear.

“Place to live!” her students shouted.

She then showed the students how to construct another word with similar roots: inhabit—to live in.

“I inhabit this classroom,” she said, gesturing around the room.

“This is your habitat?” one student asked.

Piecing together Latin roots and using linguistics terminology may seem like high-level concepts for eight-year-old multilingual learners, but the kids approached them with enthusiasm. These methods may become more common in Minnesota classrooms as the state’s new reading law takes effect. And at Prodeo Academy, they seemed to be working.

In recent years, a reading revolution has come to classrooms across the country, applying insights about the most and least effective methods for teaching kids to read. Advocates for students with dyslexia have been particularly vocal in the movement for the science of reading, or structured literacy. But the reading needs of English learners—that is, students who speak another language at home and have not reached English fluency—have received less focus in the public debate. 

So at the request of a few Sahan Journal readers, I set out to learn about how this new law will affect Minnesota’s multilingual learners. To find out, I spoke with two Minnesota school communities that have adopted structured literacy. Both reported encouraging early results for their English learners—a possible example of how this legislation could play out statewide.

Here’s the problem Minnesota’s new law aims to address: Teaching materials in some schools rely on encouraging children to guess the meaning of a word based on context clues, rather than sounding it out. But, researchers have concluded, in order to learn to read, most kids must be explicitly taught two essential processes: to sound out and decode words; and to understand what those words mean. That is, kids need to learn a combination of phonics and language comprehension. 

Like many issues in education, questions about teaching children to read have become politically polarized. Historically, phonics instruction has been a priority issue for Republicans, which has caused some on the political left to view it with suspicion.

But this year, the revolution in reading instruction made its way to Minnesota when the DFL–controlled Legislature passed the Read to Ensure Academic Development Act (or READ Act). This law, which the governor signed days after my visit to Prodeo Academy, will overhaul Minnesota’s reading instruction by providing structured literacy training for teachers already in classrooms and still in training; helping districts switch to evidence-based, culturally responsive reading curriculum; and screening young kids twice a year to check their reading progress and identify any problems.

Mary Frances Clardy (DFL–Inver Grove Heights), a House co-author of the READ Act who also works as a reading teacher, described noticeable growth in her students since St. Paul Public Schools adopted a structured literacy curriculum. She said the bill would provide more equitable access to curriculum that works. “This is the base that every student is entitled to,” she said.

Erin Maye Quade (DFL–Apple Valley), the chief Senate author of the READ Act, told Sahan Journal the legislation would put best reading practices in place for all students. “Especially as you learn a new language, that’s going to provide the service even more so,” she said.

Back at Prodeo Academy, Dae Selcer wears many hats. She coordinates Prodeo Academy’s multilingual learner program. She also teaches full-time, working with 12 different groups of multilingual learners. And she’s a doctoral student in education at Mount. St. Joseph University, in Ohio, specializing in the science of reading. 

The program Selcer leads is seeing results. Statewide, less than 30 percent of English learners met their yearly language proficiency goals last year. But more than 70 percent of the elementary English learners at Prodeo Academy’s Columbia Heights campus did.

This group started the year as very low-level readers, Selcer explained after class. Now, they’ve moved on from phonics instruction. But to get to grade level, they need help understanding and decoding multisyllabic words. That’s where piecing together words like habitat and inhabit comes in.

The science of reading is often portrayed as only phonics, Selcer said. But it’s actually just teaching the rules of the written and spoken language.

“For many of our native speakers, they may have already had good language comprehension because they grew up speaking English,” she said. “But for our English learners, we must explicitly teach word recognition and language comprehension. And so they need this knowledge even more.”

Dae Selcer leads her class in “The Fragments Chant,” to the tune of the Indiana Jones theme song. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

What the reading research shows

How do multilingual kids learn to read?

“Like many learners, they learn to read through a process that is multifaceted,” said Kendall King, a professor of multilingual education at the University of Minnesota. That process “involves learning phonics, of course, but also growing their vocabulary, learning content, learning context.”

That’s exactly what science-of-reading advocates hope Minnesota’s READ Act will do. The law requires evidence-based instruction that includes phonics as well as reading comprehension, vocabulary, spelling, and oral language development.

The Albert Shanker Institute, an education nonprofit affiliated with the union American Federation of Teachers, released a study this summer that examines science-of-reading legislation across the country between 2019 and 2022. The study, which does not include Minnesota’s READ Act, evaluated literacy legislation on many factors, including specific attention to English learners. 

The research shows that structured literacy “is even more important for English learners,” said Esther Quintero, a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute and co-author of the study.

Mary Cathryn Ricker, a former Minnesota education commissioner and the current executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, praised Minnesota’s law for its comprehensive approach and for singling out multilingual learners as a group with specific reading needs. 

Ricker and Quintero also said they would like to see more emphasis on background knowledge—an area they say is missing from literacy laws across the country. For all kids, Quintero said, it’s better to learn vocabulary words in context—say, learning vocabulary about marine mammals in a unit about those animals—rather than just as words to memorize off a list. Building background knowledge is a particularly important approach for multilingual kids, who are developing their English vocabularies.

Second-graders in Dae Selcer’s class write out long words they can form with the morpheme “habit.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Multilingual Northfield kids show ‘huge gains very quickly’

In Northfield, a southern Minnesota college town of 20,000 residents, the school district has embraced both structured literacy and family engagement for English learners. And like Prodeo Academy, Northfield is seeing results.

When the Minnesota Department of Education offered an intensive teacher-training course in structured literacy, Northfield Public Schools jumped on it. About 60 teachers signed up for the LETRS training (that is, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) in 2022, said Hope Langston, the director of instructional services in Northfield Public Schools. The district paid teachers a stipend to participate.

Each unit in the training included instructions on how to elevate lessons to meet the needs of English learners and other students who may not have an expansive English vocabulary, Langston said.

Northfield saw immediate results. Statewide, the percentage of third-graders passing their reading test has dropped 7 percentage points since 2019. But Northfield’s trends went in the opposite direction. In March 2023, 68 percent of Northfield third-graders earned a proficient score on their statewide reading test, up from 59 percent the year before and nearly matching pre-pandemic levels.

“We attribute that, we believe, to this new focus on the science of reading,” Langston said.

That new focus goes beyond the LETRS training. During the last school year, Northfield Public Schools also offered all teachers professional development on best practices for teaching vocabulary. And the English-language teachers screened their students in third, fourth, and fifth grades to see which kids lacked foundational skills in phonemic awareness—that is, the understanding of how sounds work together to make words. Those kids then received additional help in this focus area.

“The older kids actually made huge gains very quickly with this explicit teaching,” Langston said.

The results for English learners may not show up immediately in a statewide assessment, because English language acquisition takes years, Langston said. Still, she said, this year Northfield saw an increase in elementary students exiting English language services—that is, reaching English fluency.

Langston said that regardless of the research, teachers need to be attuned in real time to what is and is not working for students.

“The most important thing is to monitor the progress of the students in front of you and be willing to switch it up if they are not making progress,” she said.

An eager multilingual learner raises her hand to share the answer in Dae Selcer’s class at Prodeo Academy. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Bringing parents into the process

Northfield has also taken a proactive approach to multilingual family engagement. That’s another key element for supporting students’ education, Quintero said—which can be especially important if there are cultural and language differences between home and school. 

Cindy Santa is a family engagement navigator for Growing Up Healthy, a nonprofit that supports families with kids in the Northfield and Faribault school districts. She’s also a Northfield Public Schools parent. She said family engagement has been central to Northfield’s success.

“I feel like it’s important for parents to make sure that their kids feel special and they feel smart, so they want to keep doing it,” Santa said. “They want to keep trying and they want to keep bettering themselves.”

Santa, who was born in Belize to Guatemalan parents and grew up in Minneapolis, always felt a gulf between her home and school lives. She hopes to bridge that gap for kids in Northfield. In her current role, she has noticed that Latino kids are finding it difficult to learn to read. 

Santa described the LETRS training as a “great way to start.” But part of the issue is cultural barriers: people coming from other countries may not be accustomed to teaching kids at a young age, she said.

“That’s information that parents don’t have coming from a third-world country,” Santa said. “Once they figure it out, they’re willing to help.”

Santa has noticed this effect with her own children: She was less engaged with her first daughter’s early education, but she helped teach her second daughter more at home. Santa believes that’s why her younger daughter is now doing better in school.

Increasingly, Northfield teachers have helped parents learn how to help their kids—partly by allotting longer time slots for parent conferences that need interpreters, Santa said.

“I think Northfield’s headed toward a great direction,” she said. “I’m very, very happy that my girls are attending this school district, and that they do take into consideration what the community wants and needs.”

Better reading instruction: Room to grow

Advocates are optimistic that the results at Prodeo Academy and Northfield Public Schools will translate into success statewide. But they also point to some areas where the law could be improved to better help English learners—and other areas where the law’s possible impacts are still not clear.

Ricker said she was encouraged to see that the law included a literacy research partner—the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)—which may help Minnesota adjust its tools based on the latest evidence. That could mean, for example, including more emphasis on background knowledge—that is, learning vocabulary in a focused unit using those words, rather than memorizing words off a list. But the curriculum choices have not been approved yet. The law requires the state to work in partnership with CAREI to approve curriculum options for schools by January 1, 2024. 

King, the multilingual education professor, said that English learners appear to have been an “afterthought” in this legislation. She worries the law will result in an overemphasis of phonics, at the expense of other skills like vocabulary. She would also like to see more emphasis on learning to read in multiple languages.

“​​It sounds kind of obvious, but people learn to read best in a language that they already understand,” King said. “So multilingual instruction, instruction that takes place in a student’s first language, is optimal.”

She also noted that the screening tools the Minnesota Department of Education approved are only in English and Spanish—which she said will not adequately test the skills of students whose first language is Somali, Hmong, Amharic, or Khmer.

Maye Quade, the READ Act’s chief Senate author, said that the legislature would continue to tweak the law based on test results and community feedback. But she said the literacy overhaul will ultimately result in kids learning sooner to read at grade level.

“We will see tremendous gains for our students in schools. It’s not going to start right away. But it is starting,” she said. “If there are concerns that we didn’t do enough to address multilingual learners in this bill, that is something that we would continue to work on with districts, with educators, with scientists, and with researchers.”

Heather Edelson (DFL–Edina), the chief House author, agreed that the law might need tweaks in the future. Seeing results from kids’ biannual reading screenings would help inform what changes the law might need, she said.

“I think we’ll need a lot more work in years to come,” she said. “But I think this is huge progress.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...