Developing Tools for Assessing Spanish Language Literacy

What's New

The number of U.S. public school students classified as English Learners has grown significantly over the past two decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 5 million English Learners in 2015 compared to 3.8 million in 2000, and 77 percent of all English Learners in the U.S. are Spanish speaking. In light of this, education leaders are developing new ways to build and assess students’ literacy skills in both English and Spanish. UChicago Impact, a nonprofit organization within the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, is working to develop STEP Español, a formative assessment system designed to identify students’ abilities and areas of need in reading and communicating about their comprehension of text in Spanish. While there are similarities in best practices for English and Spanish instruction, there are specific Spanish literacy milestones that do not have parallels in English literacy instruction. For example, decoding, developmental spelling, and phonemic awareness—all critical reading milestones—progress more rapidly and earlier on in the reading trajectory for Spanish. Also, in Spanish, segmenting words into syllables is the most important skill in emergent literacy and the strongest predictor of long-term reading success. In English, the role of syllabication does not carry the same predictive weight and is emphasized later in the developmental trajectory.

Why It Matters

Compared to many other developed nations around the world, the United States falls short when it comes to supporting multilingualism and biliteracy in students. Historically, students whose first language was anything other than English were taught to adopt English as their primary language through transitional education programs rather than receive the support and learning needed to foster proficiency in both their home language and English through dual language education programs. Decades of research suggest this approach is insufficient and illuminate more effective ways to educate English Learners. Specifically, research has shown us that students who receive bilingual instruction have outperformed students in English-only instruction on several measures. They score higher in English Language Arts and on measures of proficiency, and students who maintain bilteracy through high school are less likely to drop out and more likely to attend college.