The most recent US Census numbers show that currently about one in five public school students live in a home where English is not the primary language spoken. B​y 2030, experts predict that a full forty percent of students in public schools will be non­-native English­-speakers.

This means that public school teachers are having to adapt their methods and techniques for students who are both learning to read and are also in the process of learning English.

Grace Biener has been a teacher and reading specialist with the Passaic Public Schools in New Jersey for more than twenty years. “We’re finding that many students who are moving through third and fourth grades are still struggling with English fluency, which impacts their ability to read and to effectively handle standardized testing down the line,” Grace says. “I tell my colleagues, there is no such thing as a monolingual teacher or classroom anymore.”

Like many towns and cities across the country, Passaic has seen big changes in the ethnic makeup of its residents in recent years. According to data collected by city officials, more than seventy-­one percent of Passaic’s 70,000 residents are Hispanic. And most of those residents hail from Mexico. In fact, Passaic accounts for most of New Jersey’s Mexican population — which saw its numbers rise by 115,000 people since 2000.

Dr. Gloria Arce­-Vargas, director of bilingual/ESL education for Passaic Public Schools, says that many ELL students don’t get the same foundation in English phonics that native speakers do. “ELL students in Kindergarten and the early grades receive language lessons in Spanish. So, by the time they get to third grade, they’ve not had the benefit of English phonics lessons. By then, most lessons are more focused on reading content and comprehension versus teaching the mechanics of the language.”

B​y 2030, experts predict that a full forty percent of students in public schools will be non­-native English­-speakers.

About four years ago, while working as a reading interventionist with 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students, Grace trained in the Orton-Gillingham method with the Institute for Multi­ Sensory Education. “And what I realized over time was that by focusing in on phonics in English, I could actually also help my kids who were native­ Spanish speakers.”

Dr. Vargas agrees, “O​rton­-Gillingham techniques w​ork well for ELL [students] because they fill in the gaps that they may have missed out on. They are given a pre­test to document what they know and what they need to work on.” Orton­-Gillingham methods have been used in Passaic Public Schools since the early 90s, Dr. Vargas notes, but it is not a requirement. “Two years ago, special education and basic skills Instructors in the district received training in OG. So far, teachers are free to use it with their students any time they are able to fit it into the schedule.”

“I tell my colleagues, there is no such thing as a monolingual teacher or classroom anymore.” –Grace Biener, Passaic Public Schools

Teachers find that Orton­-Gillingham’s focus on phonemes and making connections for students between the bases of words is a powerful tool for working in classrooms with students at different levels of English fluency. Unlike English and all its many exceptions in pronunciation and spelling, Spanish, Italian and many of the Romance languages are highly phonetic.

Grace BienerJean Rishel, a trainer with IMSE, agrees. “Spanish is a purely phonetic language. Spanish doesn’t have ‘red words’ like ‘enough,’ in English. In Spanish, you’re pronouncing every syllable. So, OG is a great tool to use for teachers trying to make those connections.”

Every year, Jean and other IMSE trainers have noted a sharp uptick in requests from teachers in training for sessions that cover techniques to better work with ELL students. “And what teachers often find with ELL kids, if they’ve been in the US for a couple of years, their Spanish reading isn’t great. So, if they already don’t read well in Spanish, it’s like teachers need to do remediation in both languages.”

One tried and true OG method that has helped Grace Biener’s students in their fluency is pounding out words in sentence dictation and echoing. “To really be a fluent speaker in any language, you have to have a feel for the rhythm of the language, in addition to how the words are pronounced. I found that with my ELL students, their fluency got better the more we practiced saying the words aloud, pounding them out and ultimately having them repeat and pound out sentences with their proper flow.”

Another OG technique—building on familiar concepts and words before new information is introduced—is also helpful when ELL students are working to make connections in their own minds between their native language and English.

Dr. Vargas points to another benefit of using Orton-­Gillingham in multi­lingual classrooms: “OG techniques work so well because of the use of impactful visuals including letter cards and red words, which ELL students need.”

“There are a number of Spanish cognates, so I can point out to my students that ‘curious’ in English, is very much like, ‘curioso’ in Spanish,” Grace says. “It’s all about breaking everything down and systematizing things for students. And we’ve found if we practice these Orton-Gillingham techniques with fidelity, our ELL students will have a much better shot at succeeding as they move up through each grade.”

Making accommodations for ELL students in mainstream classrooms does not mean watering down the complexity of lessons, Dr. Vargas emphasizes. “English language learners can read the same content­ area material as their peers, but they may need special help. Teachers can also make difficult reading comprehensible by building vocabulary, decoding difficult syntax, and teaching background knowledge.”

“…S​panish, because it’s so phonetic, is a great match with Orton- Gillingham.” –Grace Biener, Passaic Public Schools

For Jean Rishel, the effectiveness of Orton-­Gillingham with ELL students demonstrates yet another powerful way these techniques can be used. “Of course, Orton­-Gillingham started out as a technique to help dyslexic readers. It was practiced individually or in small groups, with struggling readers. Now, as student populations are evolving, we’re seeing how OG methods can be adapted and expanded to all kinds of classroom settings, including general education and multilingual classrooms.”