Research Highlight 3: The Reading Profiles of English Learners

a boy struggling to read a book

A few months ago, a study crossed my radar that caused me to stop, print it out, mark it up, and then begin digging into related studies, which is what I do when a study grabs my attention.

Getting into research is akin to getting into Miles Davis—if you like a given song or album, you may start checking out the other musicians he plays with, and they'll lead you into a new and ever expanding fractal universe, because Davis had a knack for collaborating with musicians who were geniuses in their own right. A few examples: John Coltrane, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, the list goes on and on.

Maybe I'm stretching this analogy a bit, but similarly, when I come across a study that brings me deeper into something, I then find myself drawn into the other studies cited therein, and my world begins to expand. . .

Anyway, the study I'm referring to here was Investigating the Reading Profiles of Middle School Emergent Bilinguals with Significant Reading Comprehension Difficulties, by Philip Capin, Sharon Vaughn, Joseph E. Miller, Jeremy Miciak, Anna-Mari Fall, Greg Roberts, Eunsoo Cho, Amy E. Barth, Paul K. Steinle & Jack M. Fletcher.

The reason this study struck me is that my general understanding of English learner (EL) reading profiles was as follows: ELs—most particularly those born in the U.S. (which are the majority of ELLs, contrary to assumptions)—acquire code-based skills commensurate to that of their English proficient peers, and the focus for them needs to be primarily on morphology, vocabulary, oral language, semantics, pragmatics, and comprehension. In other words, the rich language side of the Simple View of Reading.

The Expanded Simple View of Reading

Yet while this may remain accurate in aggregate, this study of students identified as English language learners (ELLs) in 6 and 7th grades challenges the assumption that ELs who have received many years of ELL service will necessarily gain requisite code-based skills without systematic and explicit instruction alongside of those meaning-based skills, and, potentially, greater dosage of both code and meaning-based instruction as needed.

So let's spend a minute unpacking this particular study, and then look a little further afield into related studies on the reading profiles of ELs, and put it all together. It took me some time to read the related studies and process all of it.


In aggregate, as stated before, EL reading profiles are most distinct from non-EL reading profiles in that they will require more attention to language comprehension at large: plentiful opportunities for social interaction and engagement with shared texts to gain the English language. Makes sense, right, since they are learning English by definition? But for ELs who also have difficulty reading, greater attention must be paid to BOTH code-based and meaning-based skills, with greater intensity/dosage according to need.

The Longer Version

In this study of 6th and 7th grade ELs in the Southwestern US with a home language of Spanish and of Mexican or central American descent, the sample excludes students at beginning stages of English language proficiency (ELP) and is focused on those who have intermediate to advanced ELP.

While time in the U.S. is not noted, we can make the inference that most likely the majority of these students have either been born in the U.S. or have received a number of years of instruction in English (due to their levels of ELP). It should also be stressed, as the authors of the study do, that in contrast to other studies showing different results, the students in this sample are below the 16 percentile (on reading screening), meaning that the sample does not include a wider distribution of students at different ability levels.

One of the first concepts that emerged from this study and other related literature on reading profiles is that of severity vs. specificity of reading skill needs.

Severity refers to the degree of reading difficulty a student experiences across all component skills. Specificity refers to the specific component skills in which a student has difficulty.

My previous understanding was that we need to primarily distinguish, a la the Simple View of Reading above, between decoding and language comprehension skill needs. Yet this study and some of the others below suggest that reading profiles for both ELs and non-ELs are typically marked by severity, not specificity. This means that students with reading difficulties tend to have difficulty across all component skills, rather than just one or two specific skills, or on solely code or solely meaning-based skills.

In this study, they found the following four profiles:

The consistency of “low vocabulary” is unsurprising in an ELL profile, given that they are learning English. What was somewhat more surprising was that 72% of the sample, or 225 out of 340 students, fell into profile 2, which means they struggled with both word-level reading and language skills.

The finding that reading profiles are typically marked by severity, not specificity, has several instructional implications.

As the authors of the study put it in the final paragraph:

“The high percentage of EBs with reading comprehension difficulties who have difficulty decoding words that are in their oral vocabulary in our study also suggests that educators may want to err on the side of providing code-based instruction and use students’ response to this instruction to determine whether additional word reading instruction is necessary.”

More Research on EL Reading Profiles

I went further afield exploring EL reading profiles, trying to better understand the severity vs. specificity concept, as well as to see how EL profiles showed up in different studies and grade-levels. Here's a brief summary and quotes from a few more:

Key quotes:

“Our results revealed that the differences between ELs with typical reading skills and reading difficulties were most apparent, based on effect size differences, on measures of word reading. “

“It is their performance in both of these areas that differentiates students with reading difficulties from those who are typically developing. These findings underscore the importance of providing ELs with evidence-based word reading instruction in the primary grades to prevent word reading difficulties and risk for dyslexia. They also highlight the need for long-term, multi-component reading interventions that simultaneously address word reading, fluency, and linguistic processes among students with reading difficulties. As opposed to working on these skills in isolation, optimal interventions may integrate word reading and fluency instruction within reading interventions that target building vocabulary, comprehension, and content knowledge.”

Key quotes:

“Our person-centered approach identified specific patterns of performance that would not have been revealed had this study only utilized composite mean scores, highlighting important differences between EL and non-EL students. In addition, had the analysis only used composite scores without examining the relations between the variables, it would have relied on unjustified assumptions about the characteristics of the variables in the profile analysis.”

“The heterogeneity in early literacy profiles suggests that grouping EL and designing literacy instruction solely based on their EL status and English language proficiency is inappropriate. To improve students’ foundational literacy skill development and learning outcomes, educators should design instruction that is aligned with EL instructional needs.”

“Because the profiles differ in severity, interventions can be adjusted to meet the instructional needs of students in different reading profiles by adjusting dosage, rather than instructional foci, where students with more severe deficits receive greater dosage while maintaining the same instructional focus (Capin et al., 2021).”

Key quote:

“The relative unique contributions of these two cognitive components in our sample suggest that linguistic comprehension explains much more of the variation in reading comprehension than code-related skills for the learners studied. At the same time, the interaction indicates that weaknesses in code-related skills, when found in combination with limited linguistic comprehension, may lead to more severe difficulties than weaknesses in linguistic comprehension alone, a hypothesis further supported by the categorical analyses. Our second major finding was that the most prevalent cognitive component profile in these schools, by far, was that of underdeveloped linguistic comprehension skills combined with adequate code-related skills.”

What surfaces from all of these studies is that while it is accurate that the majority of ELs require a focus on language comprehension and meaning-based skills (not surprising), for ELs who also struggle to learn to read, a commensurate amount of attention must also be paid to code-based skills at the same time. The more that an EL may struggle to learn to read, the greater the amount of comprehensive and simultaneous code and meaning-based instruction they need to receive.

Another way to reframe this is that the key identifier that we can use to distinguish an EL who may struggle to learn to read from an EL who will not are word-level measures.

The other thing that surfaces is that while severity of need across all components identifies those who will need the most support, those with more mild difficulties may show more specific component weaknesses. We need to continue to look at both composite and component assessment measures to identify and target needs accordingly.

Implications for Schools

Don't make assumptions about students identified as ELLs. Assess the literacy they bring in home language. Don't assume they have no literacy. But also, don't assume they only need to focus on meaning-based skills. Monitor both code and meaning-based skills for ELs, especially in the transition into upper elementary grades. Provide both code and meaning-based instruction as needed.

Don't group ELLs solely based on their ELL status nor their ELP. Group alongside their English proficient peers based on their literacy needs.

At the same time, distinguish between those ELLs who are newly developing English (1st year) from those who have had a good dosage of high quality instruction in English. For those who are newly arrived, they may initially benefit from targeted language supports and instruction in small groups, as well as grouping that allows them to draw upon their home language. However, any separation or grouping based solely on ELP should be temporary, as heterogenous grouping ultimately benefits language and literacy development for ELLs.

I hope some of this is useful. I still feel like I'm trying to clearly understand the severity vs. specificity thing. If you have any insights, please share!

#multilingualism #literacy #language #multilinguals #reading #assessment #intervention