Perspectives on Whole Child Literacy

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Evidence-Based Best Practices Build Language Acquisition and Reading Development in Bilingual Learners

Categories: Education & Teaching, Educators, English Language Learners, Reading Strategies for K-12, Student Centric Learning, Teacher Best Practices

Learning Ally’s mission is to ensure all students have equal opportunities to receive supplemental reading resources to become successful readers, and to support educators with opportunities to become literacy leaders. We do this by offering professional learning events to cultivate a deep understanding of “how” we learn, with an emphasis on whole child literacy. This philosophy combines the application of evidence-based reading instruction (think Scarborough’s Reading Rope), layered with brain-based learning, and social and emotional well-being. This includes a child’s cognitive abilities, their school-home environments, and how they perceive themselves as learners. 

Teaching Bilingual Learners Dr. Doris Luft Baker

In this blog, we’re recapping an edWebinar with Doris Baker, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education and Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas-Austin. 

Dr. Baker’s research focuses on developing and testing interventions and assessments designed to improve academic outcomes for bilingual students, particularly Latino/bilingual students. As part of this work, she has focused on Latino/family engagement, and the use of technology to reduce academic inequities among underserved populations. 

Dr. Baker's edWebinar, delves deep into building language acquisition and reading development support for bilingual learners. If you teach, you will want to listen to the entire presentation to earn an education certificate. It is a ‘must view’ to learn new instructional approaches, and to check your assumptions about how bilingual students learn. 

Emphasize Language Development and Phonemic Awareness

Born in Brazil, Dr. Baker lived in Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. She speaks multiple languages -- Spanish, German, English, and Portuguese. She understands what it’s like to learn in environments where English is not your native language. 

“Language development is all important in everything we want to do,” she says. Dr. Baker strongly emphasizes evidence-based best practices to facilitate learning success, and wants to eliminate misunderstandings about how bilingual students learn and flourish. Here are some of her recommendations:

  • Learn who your  bilingual students are as people. 

  • Analyze the language demands in your lesson. 

  • Connect what students are learning with previous experiences.

  • Provide explicit instruction. 

  • Use their native language to support conceptual understanding if possible.

  • Provide opportunities to practice reading and vocabulary every day.

  • Encourage students to engage in peer discussions.

  • Extend instructional time on learning explicit vocabulary.

  • Use visual aids to scaffold instruction.

  • Integrate listening, speaking, reading, and writing in every class. 

  • Use formative assessments to follow progress and enhance instruction. 

Teach, Pre-Teach, ReTeach

Dr. Baker’s approach to teaching bilingual students is to pre-teach and reteach vocabulary, especially text-based vocabulary that provides background knowledge to help students make sense of the words. Give students time to get comfortable in class and opportunities for small group discussions. Scaffold your frameworks and lessons to break down information. Ensure grade-level instruction supports whole class instruction. Give students various ways to express themselves, and to demonstrate knowledge on assessments. Show them you are interested in them, and appreciate their culture. Celebrate them! 


Dr. Baker has heard many misconceptions about bilingual learners, including that vocabulary and listening comprehension in early childhood may not be a good approach. This is not true. Learn why in her edwebinar. Some educators may also believe that academic language should come after social language has been acquired, but Dr. Baker recommends being flexible in different approaches to teaching content.

At times, we may think that our bilingual students are confused, but confusion may also come from the educator, the environment, or peers. One common source of confusion is pronunciation of student’s names, or words that have dual meanings like “duck” (bird) and “duck” (under the table).    

Others believe that code switching is not good for developing a second language. Dr. Baker disagrees. When a bilingual student is thinking, they may use code switching as a natural thought progression to express themselves.  

Teachers Make All the Difference

Dr. Baker encourages the use of “bilingual” rather than “ESL.” She says, “The definition is better suited for students who think in two languages, and process in dual time. “Bilingual students bring various assets to any learning environment like cultural traditions, social norms, and diversity that we should appreciate and celebrate. Educators who teach bilingual students have multiple challenges, and enormous opportunities to influence, impact, and impart knowledge and wisdom to children who are eager to learn. You can make all the difference!”

More About Dr. Doris Baker

Doris Luft Baker is an affiliate of the Texas Center for Equity Promotion and a board member of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. She is a literacy thought leader, the author of many books and research papers, and senior author of the Indicadores Dinámicos del Exito en la Lectura, a formative assessment to screen and monitor students at risk for reading difficulties in grades K-3. Dr. Baker has been a principal investigator or co-principal investigator on grants funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), and the National Science Foundation, among others.

Learning Ally Professional Learning 

Learning Ally’s Professional Learning Services are designed to strengthen educator’s instructional capacity, so they can deliver a deeper, richer learning experience and promote better academic outcomes. Our nonprofit partners with families, schools, and districts to share research, encourage new pathways to leadership, and expand instructional and teaching knowledge.

Valerie Chernek writes about educational best practices through the use of technology and the science of reading in support of teachers, children, and adolescents who struggle with learning differences. 

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