Guidance on Administering EarlyBird to English Learners

Using the Massachusetts Literacy Guide and the Massachusetts Dyslexia Guidelines as a resource, EarlyBird has developed the following guidance for districts and schools using EarlyBird with their English learner students.

Assessing English Learners with EarlyBird 

Bilingualism and bidialectalism (proficiency in two dialects of the same language) calls for an asset-based and culturally responsive approach to screening for dyslexia. It can be challenging to determine whether the student’s reading difficulty is the result of less exposure to English or due to a neurological disability such as dyslexia. As a consequence, English learners are often diagnosed with specific learning disabilities and dyslexia much later as compared to their native English-speaking peers.

With EarlyBird you can screen and identify challenges much earlier, in grades pre-Kindergarten through grade two, when interventions for reading challenges are most effective, even when English may not be a student’s native language.

Who to Assess?

EarlyBird recommends administering all or some of the subtests to English learners who:

  • Know enough English to understand the oral instructions for each subtest and can reasonably know how to play each game, and/or
  • Have a teacher who can pause the game for each subtest and provide the instructions in the students’ native language

As students develop English proficiency, subtests can be administered or re-administered at any time in unlocked mode.

Which Subtests Are Appropriate for English Learners?

Because EarlyBird is designed for pre-readers, most subtests can be used with English learners. Lower scores in the oral language comprehension subtests (vocabulary, word matching, oral sentence comprehension, follow directions) should be expected based on a student’s background knowledge and English proficiency.

Fortunately, English learner scores in phonemic and phonological awareness subtests (rhyming, first sound matching, blending, deletion, nonword repetition) not only offer a baseline for phonemic proficiency but can also reveal potential weaknesses in phonological processing and phonological memory based on the ability to hear, repeat, and manipulate phonemes regardless of language. Since these subtests have no alignment with word meaning, they allow for the identification of skill deficit regardless of a student’s native language , as long as the native language has similar phonology. English is part of the Germanic family, but it has been influenced by Latin and subsequent Romance languages and so exhibits many phonological similarities with languages like Spanish. Phonological proficiency has little association with oral language proficiency but is highly correlated with word reading. By noting ELL status and additional data in our student dashboard, such as family history, we can begin to distinguish characteristics associated with new language acquisition from true reading disability.

Rapid Automatized Naming is also a valuable subtest for English learners, if the student has mastered the English words for the five objects presented in the subtest or uses native language words that are monosyllabic. This naming speed score provides a baseline reflective of a student’s neurological processing speed, which is relative to reading fluency later on and yet requires no word reading. Teachers are then able to form instructional strategies for skills deficits that align with a student’s naming speed.

These subtests, along with qualitative data and monitoring for persistent difficulty in pronouncing new English sounds that are different from native languages, can help educators better discern whether the source of a student’s difficulty is language learning or a reading disability.

Questions to Ask When Interpreting the Scores for English Learners

Research indicates that English learners benefit from early screening and effective, early instruction, especially in the grades of pre-Kindergarten through grade two. EarlyBird will help assess whether English learners may be at risk for reading problems by looking at decoding and phonemic skills. We encourage teachers and administrators to also consider other factors that may help them understand whether reading difficulty stems from a lack of proficiency in the new language or a possible reading disability:

  • How long has the student been speaking their native language, and what is their performance?
  • How long has the student been speaking/exposed to English (in addition to their native language)?
  • Are difficulties present in both the native language and English?
  • Is there a family history of reading difficulties? Since dyslexia has a genetic component, knowing whether an immediate family member had a reading difficulty can be helpful in determining the risk factor related to a disability.
  • Is the student’s first language one that promotes transfer to learning English (cross linguistic transfer)?
  • What do the scores in cognitive functions such as rapid automatized naming (RAN) suggest, in addition to phonemic awareness and phonological memory?
  • Did the student experience a delay in learning to talk or have interruptions in their education?
  • Have structured reading instruction and interventions been provided?

What is Cross-linguistic transfer?

Cross-linguistic transfer occurs when a child is able to use knowledge of one language to assist the learning of a second language.  Some languages have an easier cross-linguistic transfer, for example Spanish to English. Many consonant sounds that exist in Spanish are also in English, such as /k/, /m/, /p/, and /t/. This also applies to cognates, words that are spelled similarly and sound similar in both languages, such as “important”/“importante” and “organization”/“organización.” A positive cross-linguistic transfer is more likely to occur when languages are phonologically similar, making it easier to learn to speak and read the new language. Children who struggle with learning language in light of a positive cross-linguistic transfer may be at risk for reading difficulties often associated with dyslexia.


How do I Plan Instruction and Intervention for English Learners?

Research shows that English learners benefit from instruction in all tiers that is: 1) explicit and systematic, 2) well-structured, 3) evidence-based, and 4) aligned to the five essential components of reading as outlined by the National Reading Panel. There is no need to wait until students’ oral language proficiency is fully developed to assess English learners who are struggling in reading. Provide them with evidence-based interventions to address their foundational skills needs.

EarlyBird recommends creating homogeneous intervention groups for English learners who have challenges in phonemic and phonological awareness. Students who score lower than their peers but do not have a neurobiological risk for dyslexia should make gains faster than their peers who do have a neurobiological risk.

For students whose scores in phonemic and phonological awareness are as expected, focus on language acquisition. EarlyBird recommends differentiated instruction aligned with Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) guidelines. Making the following changes in classroom instruction and routines can change the trajectory for an English learner:

  • Use pictures and visual cues as frequent as possible
  • Scaffold instruction appropriate to student needs
  • Preferred seating during read-alouds and whole group instruction
  • Pair the child with a strong English speaker to act as a language model and give chances to practice new language skills in a low-stress setting
  • Plan whole group and small group activities that promote literal and inferential comprehension, as well as language development (see EarlyBird Next Steps resources for oral language activities)