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Home Blogs Speech-to-print, print-to-speech: Using students’ home language knowledge in equitable early literacy instruction

Speech-to-print, print-to-speech: Using students’ home language knowledge in equitable early literacy instruction

Midwest | February 27, 2024

A White female teacher sitting at the head of a table in a classroom holds a book open to five young children sitting around the table; the teacher smiles at a Black girl next to her who is speaking to her

Through the Strategies to Improve Reading (STIR) partnership, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest works with Michigan educators and school leaders to advance K–2 literacy instruction and improve students' reading skills by integrating evidence-based strategies and culturally and linguistically responsive practices.

In this two-part blog series, STIR Literacy Coach Christina Grayson speaks with Dr. Ryan Lee-James, chief academic officer at the Atlanta Speech School and director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy. Dr. Lee-James is a speech–language pathologist and researcher with expertise in language development, language disorders, and reading disabilities in the context of dialect differences and equity. Part 1 of the conversation focused on the role of teacher mindset, particularly the practice of cultural humility. In Part 2, the discussion turns to practical ways for teachers to provide evidence-based instruction that leverages students' cultural and linguistic knowledge in phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary learning.

Cultural humility is the use of self-reflection and self-humility to recognize the role of one's own and others' culture in power dynamics and imbalances in society. In education, the focus is on improving teaching, learning, and interactions with students.1

Christina Grayson: Starting a cultural humility journey is an important first step for teachers who are instructing multilingual and multidialectal students in literacy. How can educators start to shift their everyday classroom practices as they start to shift their mindsets?

Dr. Ryan Lee-James: Kids come to us with a wealth of phonological knowledge and overall language knowledge. When children enter kindergarten at around 5 years old, they have a well-formed phonological system. They have learned all they know about language at home and in their communities from adult and peer models. Just by watching, listening to, and speaking to others, they have valuable knowledge about how sounds can be combined to create words. And of course, these words have meaning. Kids also understand, implicitly, that a change in a sound can signal a change in word and meaning.

With that in mind, teachers can think ahead of time about the language and dialect students use in their community. Is it Spanish? Is it English? Is it African American English? And where can we expect there to be some significant differences between their oral system and the written system?

Phonological awareness: The ability to recognize and manipulate segments of sound in speech.

Phonemic awareness: A type of phonological awareness that includes the ability to notice, think about, and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words.

Phonics: Knowledge of sounds in speech and how they link to letters.2

As teachers, if we know the core phonological differences in for example, the dialect African American English—such as final consonant sound deletion, the way vowel sounds are pronounced, and other differences that will impact phonemic awareness and phonics and potentially even comprehension—we can have a plan for how to address these aspects during instruction. The goal is not to change the student's oral system, because we want them to preserve that language. However, we do need to consider, for a topic like phonemes, where in the lesson will we provide more time and slow the pacing? When do we need to pull out mirrors for a quick review of articulation? Where do we need to provide more explicit models, and so on? This is equitable instruction. But if you don't know about the dialects/languages of your students, you're not going to be able to provide this level of precision in instruction, which inevitably means children will not get what they need. A lot of this comes down to explicit and systematic instructional practices.

Grayson: Providing students with small mirrors as they learn to hear and articulate sounds is a great way to support phonemic awareness. That support can be especially useful for multilingual learners navigating sounds that aren't in their home language or might have different letter-sound correspondence in English that they need to remember, such as the /h/ sound represented by the letter j in Spanish but by the letter h in English. The more we know about a student's home language or dialect, the better we can proactively teach students to anticipate how sounds will show up in printed English most of the time. We need to think about and plan with our students' language knowledge in mind. In that way, systematic and explicit instruction is about equity. When we are precise and intentional in using data to shape learning opportunities, our instruction gives students access to new communities and knowledge while celebrating and reinforcing their own. When we are mindful and deliberate with explicit instruction, students can use language in new ways.

Dr. Lee-James: I also want to emphasize that kids get better at using language by practicing. As teachers, we want to give kids as many opportunities as we can throughout the day—whether it's during morning meeting, read-alouds, turn and talk, transitions, brain breaks—to be able to practice their oral language skills. Those should not be times where we're hyper-regulating students around verb morphology and grammar. We should be letting them express themselves. Because when it comes down to it, writing, reading, speaking, listening are all about making meaning.

Grayson: The "science of reading" is an increasingly popular topic of conversation and legislation. Oral language, making meaning, and human connection are sometimes left out of that conversation. Knowing that oral language is the foundation for literacy development, how can educators implement the science of reading for multilingual and multidialectal learners more equitably?

Dr. Lee-James: Teachers should focus on making meaning as often as they can in their explicit and systematic instruction around phonemic awareness, phonics, encoding, and decoding. Vocabulary is a part of meaning-making. Depending on the dialect a student speaks, vocabulary pronunciation can vary, with certain sounds within the word articulated differently. For instance, we can compare gold and goal, an example from a paper I co-authored with Julie Washington and Carla Burrell Sanford. In General American English, those words sound differently when you say them; you hear and pronounce that final /d/ sound. But in African American English, these two words have the same pronunciation, and the final /d/ sound is not featured. When working with words like those, we should take that opportunity to talk about the meanings of those words and what makes them different, because that's also going to help our child who speaks African American English. "Are you talking about the pot of gold? Or are you talking about the goal in the soccer field? The words look different, and they also have different meanings." Washington and Mark Seidenberg have another great example of this in their 2021 AFT article.

Grayson: Science of reading practices include the use of vocabulary, background knowledge, and oral language as much as word reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness. What could this look like in instruction for a student learning more than one dialect?

For more on literacy strategies for supporting multilingual learners, see the STIR video Blending Evidence-Based Literacy Practices with Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Practices.

Dr. Lee-James: Around preK or kindergarten, we start asking kids to do unnatural things with language, like attend to, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in words. This is really kids' first exposure to explicitly thinking about or playing with language, and we see for some kids, regardless of language background, that this can be challenging in the beginning. But for kids whose language system differs from the typical print form of General American and Academic English, performing phonemic awareness tasks can take more effort because they're navigating two language systems. Teachers need to be aware of those different phonological features for instructional and assessment purposes.

For example, final consonant deletion is common in African American English. So when asked to identify and segment the sounds in the word gold, the African American English speaker may identify and segment three sounds, resulting in what sounds identical to goal. This is because their stored phonological representation has g-o-l for the shiny yellow metal called gold. The rule in African American English allows the final consonant sound to be deleted when the final and preceding consonants share voicing and where the sounds are produced in the mouth, as with /l/ and /d/. The rule also allows deletion of the word's final consonant when it creates a consonant cluster: two consonant letters together (gold). It's clear to see how phonological differences like this can also impact spelling. A speech-to-print and print-to-speech approach for multidialectal learners can be beneficial.

What's most important for teachers to know is twofold: This is rule-governed and not haphazard. Not all final consonant sounds are deleted in African American English, so we need to know which ones are. If an African American English–speaking child deleted the /t/ in the word cat, such a pronunciation would be cause for concern and likely be indicative of a speech or language disorder—not a dialect. Second, teachers need to have specific scaffolds and corrective feedback to provide students as part of their explicit phonemic awareness lessons. Mirrors are specific scaffolds so children can visualize how their mouths look and feel when they make those sounds.

Grayson: We also can think about multilingual learners whose home language doesn't feature some sounds that are in English. For instance, the /j/ sound will be new for students whose home language is Mandarin, for instance. And just like scaffolding on a building, we remove the scaffold as soon as it's no longer necessary. When we teach intentionally, systematically, and directly, we can expect that teaching will lead to the flexibility and self-assurance that proficient readers have. What else can teachers do to put asset- and evidence-based early literacy practices into action?

Dr. Lee-James: Teachers, as part of your lesson planning, add a section for leveraging language. Decades of research show that children come to school with vastly different experiences and opportunities resulting in vastly different background knowledge. Plan ahead so that you can think intentionally and do research, if necessary, to include practical ways for leveraging students' existing background knowledge, phonological knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, and so on. I reject the widely held assertion that certain groups don't have "enough" background knowledge. Instead, we know that the school environment often privileges the background knowledge of some groups, and we see this in our state and national learning standards and in the content of our assessments. A simple way to leverage students' background knowledge to build listening and reading comprehension skills is to select read-aloud texts that reflect students' experiences, culture, and background.  

Instead of criticizing children's language and using harmful, false dichotomies like formal and informal when talking about language, teachers should consider how they will provide affirming feedback to students and avoid language that could have an adverse impact. Keep top of mind that language is closely tied to identity and from an assets-based lens, children are competent and sophisticated language users in their speech communities.

Practical strategies for teachers

  • Learn about the languages and dialects that your students speak at home and think about how those oral systems may differ from the written system that students are learning in school.

  • Plan to address differences in students' oral language knowledge and General American English during instruction. Such instruction could mean adding more explicit modeling or building extra opportunities to practice concepts with multiple examples.

  • Talk about meaning often as you provide explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, encoding, and decoding practice. This process can be as simple as direct instruction with a brief, student-friendly definition for a word that students have read or written.

  • Prepare specific scaffolds and corrective feedback for students as part of their explicit phonemic awareness lessons. For example, use Elkonin boxes to help students practice hearing, remembering, and articulating sounds in words that might have different pronunciations in their home language or dialect.

  • Use students' existing background knowledge, phonological knowledge, and vocabulary knowledge during instruction. Consider selecting read-aloud texts that reflect students' experiences, cultures, and backgrounds.

  • Provide both corrective and affirming feedback to students.

Related resources

To read the first part of this conversation, see Part 1. Browse the following resources to learn more about the use of culturally responsive practices to strengthen literacy instruction and how REL Midwest is supporting their use through the STIR partnership.

REL resources:

Other resources:


1 Hughes-Hassell, S., Rawson, C. H., & Hirsh, K. (2019). Module 8: Cultural competence and cultural humility. In S. Hughes-Hassell, C. H. Rawson, & K. Hirsh (Eds.), Project READY: Reimagining equity and access to diverse youth [Online curriculum].

2 Foorman, B., Coyne, M., Denton, C. A., Dimino, J., Hayes, L., Justice, L., Lewis, W., Wagner, R., Beyler, N., Borradaile, K., Furgeson, J., Henke, J., Keating, B., Sattar, S., Streke, A., & Wissel, S. (2016). Foundational skills to support reading for understanding in kindergarten through 3rd grade (NCEE 2016-4008). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.


Christina Grayson

Christina Grayson

Mia Mamone

Mia Mamone

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