Early Literacy Instruction in Dual Language Preschools (Spanish/English)

Over the years, many policy makers, educators, and parents have supported English-only preschool programs for English language learners (ELLs), based on the supposition that greater exposure to the English language would result in faster and more complete mastery (Genesee, 2008).

Recent research (Barnett, Yarosz, Thomas, Jung, & Blanco, 2007), however, has shown that:

  1. ELLs in Spanish/English dual language programs can make gains in English comparable to those of children in English-only programs
  2. Both ELLs and native English speakers tend to demonstrate significant growth in Spanish as a result of dual language instruction, resulting in children who are truly bilingual
  3. Children in dual language programs can experience academic gains, including gains in early literacy skills, comparable to those of children in English-only programs.

This article will discuss strategies for optimizing literacy instruction in Spanish/English dual language preschools.

Effective Early Literacy Instruction

To maximize both English and Spanish literacy growth in dual language programs, instruction must be:

  • Research-based

    Research (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008) on literacy development in children from birth to age five and suggests that instruction based on teaching the alphabetic principle (i.e., the relationship between letters and the sounds of the language) is most effective in developing early literacy skills.
  • Developmentally appropriate

    Children in preschool benefit from activities that develop vocabulary, comprehension skills, phonological awareness (sensitivity to the sounds of language), alphabet knowledge (knowledge about letter names and letter sounds), and print concepts (knowledge about the parts of a book, directionality of print, etc.). For descriptions of classroom activities appropriate for preschool learners, see 8 Strategies for Preschool ELLs' Language and Literacy Development.
  • Explicit and systematic

    A well-designed curriculum provides a necessary foundation for an effective preschool program. Classroom instruction should include clear explanations and teacher modeling, with lots of time for students to practice (and have fun with!) the skills they are learning.
  • Differentiated to meet individual needs

    ELLs arrive at preschool with varying levels of language and literacy skills, largely due to the language environment at home (Ballantyne, Sanderman, & McLaughlin, 2008). Some children may come from homes where either Spanish or English is spoken exclusively; others may speak both languages to some extent at home. The result is a wide spectrum of language proficiency, both in Spanish and in English. Literacy needs can also vary greatly, depending on children's previous experiences. Good instruction is planned so as to meet each child where s/he is along the developmental continuum.
  • Culturally responsive

    Teachers can set the stage for learning by demonstrating that they value each child's home language and culture. Classroom materials and activities that represent children's own backgrounds and ways of interacting can help students connect what they are learning in the classroom to their own experiences (Gay, 2000).

Language Skills and Early Literacy Development

Strong oral language skills support early literacy development, both in a child's native language (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999) and in his/her second language (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Yesil-Dagli, 2011). It is important to remember that preschool-age children in dual language programs are not just learning a second language; they are still learning their first language as well (Ballantyne, 2008). Attention must be given to ensuring that children receive systematic, explicit instruction in both L1 and L2. This can be achieved through focusing on the following:

  • Planning

    Dual language preschools should have a clear plan for when and in what contexts each of the languages will be used, as well as how school personnel will use the languages (e.g., Will individual personnel use both languages or one language exclusively?) (Genesee, 2008). Such a plan will ensure that children have optimal exposure to both languages.
  • Curriculum

    The preschool curriculum should include specific, measureable goals for language development, and explicit instruction in vocabulary should be part of each day's activities (Tabors, 2008).
  • Practice

    Teachers can support language learning by providing a language-rich environment with lots of opportunities for children to hear and practice both languages with peers and adults (Ford, 2010). Calling children's attention to such features as cognates and sounds that are the same in both languages helps children make the connection between English and Spanish.
  • Families

    Parents are also instrumental in supporting early language development. They should be encouraged to read to and talk with their children in their home language. Learning songs and rhymes, playing with language through tongue twisters, etc., and participating in shared book reading all contribute both to language development and to early literacy development.

Developing Foundational Reading Skills in English and Spanish

With good instruction, preschoolers can develop many of the foundational skills they will need for learning to read, and children in dual language programs are no exception.

Bilingual children may actually be at an advantage in developing some early literacy skills:

  • Cognition

    Many bilingual children have highly developed metalinguistic skills (Bialystok, 1997; García, 2000). Moving between languages is thought to make them especially adept at paying attention to sounds and patterns in language, a necessary precursor to reading.
  • Preparation for learning a second language

    Foundational literacy skills developed in one language often transfer to a second language (Durgunoglu, Nagy, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). As children continue to develop language and literacy skills in their first language (L1), those skills provide a scaffold for developing those same skills in their second language (L2).

Similiarities: English and Spanish

In Spanish/English dual language programs, teachers can take advantage of the similarities between the languages to support children's early literacy development:

  • Letters

    With the exception of three additional letters used in Spanish (ch, ñ, ll), English and Spanish alphabet letters are the same.
  • Consonants

    Thirteen consonants (B, C, D, F, K, L, M, N, P, S, T, W, Y) make the same sounds in English and in Spanish. By beginning letter sound work with the more commonly occurring letters from this list (e.g., B, C, D, F, L, M, N, P, S, T), teachers can give children a head start in both languages.
  • Syntax

    English and Spanish syntax are very similar, except for a few notable exceptions (e.g., placement of object pronouns and negatives).
  • Cognates

    Between 30% and 40% of all English words have Spanish cognates. Helping children make the connection between these words that are similar in both languages boosts vocabulary development, which in turn supports early literacy development.

Differences: English and Spanish

There are, however, some clear distinctions between the languages, and those are what often cause problems for second-language learners. There are some sounds and patterns that occur in one language but are not present at all in the other, and recognizing and manipulating these sounds/patterns often poses particular problems for young children.

For example, native English speakers may find the "trilled" Spanish r difficult to produce, and native Spanish speakers may have difficulty with the following English sounds and patterns that do not occur in Spanish:

  • The consonant sounds /j/, /r/, /v/, /z/
  • The digraph /sh/
  • The "schwa" sound /ə/
  • Initial consonant blends that begin with s (e.g., ship)
  • Final consonant blends and digraphs (e.g., best, with)
  • The lax, or "short," sounds of the vowels a, i, and u

The absence of the lax sounds of the vowels a, i, and u can cause particular difficulty for young children because beginning reading instruction in English focuses on words that follow the Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) spelling pattern, and those words always have short vowels. Thus, a typical preschool activity, such as matching CVC words that rhyme, sometimes requires additional support for Spanish speaking preschoolers, who may initially find it difficult to distinguish between vowel sounds that they're not used to hearing in their own language.

The Role of Assessment in Preschool Literacy Instruction

Research-based assessment that is developmentally appropriate for preschool-age children is essential to designing instruction that meets children's individual needs. Both formal assessments and informal, teacher-created assessments can play an important role in effective preschool instruction.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE) recommend "ethical, appropriate, valid, and reliable assessment" as a vital component of all preschool programs (NAEYC & NAECS/SDE, 2003, p. 2). They further suggest that assessment be tied to specific goals in these areas: (a) informing instructional decisions, (b) identifying concerns that may call for modifications to instruction for individual children, and (c) providing programs with information to help them improve their instruction.

In the preschool classroom, literacy assessment is most effective when it is broad-based (i.e., it covers all domains of early literacy development: phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print concepts), it is easy to use and interpret, and it is capable of differentiating children's individual needs (Justice, Invernizzi, & Meier, 2002).

Assessment should also be instructionally transparent, meaning that assessment tasks are similar to the instructional activities that teachers normally use with their students (Invernizzi, Landrum, Howell, & Warley, 2005). Using instructionally transparent assessments allows teachers to easily apply information gathered through testing to their daily classroom activities. It also ensures that assessment tasks are developmentally appropriate for preschool children, who are not ready for the types of standardized, paper-and-pencil assessments used with older children (IRA/NAEYC, 1998; NEGP, 1998).

Language of assessment

In the dual language preschool, language of assessment is also an important consideration. Teachers have the very complex task of deciding which language will yield the most accurate results, while at the same time being sensitive to children's individual strengths and weaknesses. Multiple, ongoing assessments designed to meet the specific instructional and linguistic needs of individual children have generally proven most successful. It is important to keep in mind as well that in some areas, such as early literacy skills, it may be necessary to assess in both languages in order to get a complete picture of what children know.


August, D., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., & Snow, C. E. (2005). The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20, 50-57.

Ballantyne, K. G., Sanderman, A. R., & McLaughlin, N. (2008). Dual language learners in the early years: Getting ready to succeed in school. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.

Barnett, W. S., Yarosz, D. J., Thomas, J., Jung, K., & Blanco, D. (2007). Two-way and monolingual English immersion in preschool education: An experimental comparison. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22, 277-293.

Bialystok, E. (1997). Effects of bilingualism and biliteracy on children's emerging concepts of print. Developmental Psychology, 33, 429-440.

Catts, H. W., Fey, M. E., Zhang, X., & Tomblin, J. B. (1999). Language basis of reading and reading disabilities: Evidence from a longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 3, 331-361.

Durgunoglu, A. Y., Nagy, W. E., & Hancin-Bhatt, B. J. (1993). Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 453-465.

Ford, K. (2010). Language and literacy development for English language learners in preschool. In M. C. McKenna, S. Walpole & K. Conradi (Eds.), Promoting Early Reading: Research, Resources, and Best Practices. New York: Guilford.

García, G. E. (2000). Bilingual children's reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. III, pp. 813-834). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive instruction: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press. Genesee, F. (2008). Early dual language learning. Zero to Three, 29(1), 17-21.

International Reading Association. (1999). High-stakes assessment in reading: A position statement of the International Reading Association. Retrieved from http://www.reading.org/Libraries/Position_Statements_and_Resolutions/ps1035_high_stakes.sflb.ashx

Invernizzi, M., Landrum, T. J., Howell, J. L., & Warley, H. P. (2005). Toward the peaceful coexistence of test developers, policymakers, and teachers in an era of accountability. The Reading Teacher, 58, 610-618.

Justice, L., Invernizzi, M., & Meier, J. (2002). Designing and implementing an early literacy screening protocol: Suggestions for the speech-language pathologist. Journal of Language, Hearing and Speech Service, 33(2), 84-101.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) & National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). (2003). Early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation. Washington D.C.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: A scientific synthesis of early literacy development and implications for intervention. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

National Education Goals Panel. (1998). National education goals panel recommendations regarding the implementation of standards. Retrieved from http://www.negp.gov/page1-13-9.htm

Tabors, P. O. (2008). One child, two languages: A guide for early childhood educators of children learning English as a second language (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Yesil-Dagli, U. (2011). Predicting ELL students' beginning first grade English oral reading fluency from initial kindergarten vocabulary, letter naming, and phonological awareness skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26, 15-29.


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I love your information---looking for more classroom ideas for middle school and high school students.
Thanks, DD
[Modified by: Lydia Breiseth on mayo 05, 2011 03:44 PM]

I am an ESL teacher who has a new student (3rd grade) who came from a dual language school in another state. We do not have such a program in our small rural school district. What should we do?

I am an Elementary Bilingual teacher and I have taught kinder bilingual and dual. I love better dual,either one or two way offer a lot benefit to students. I am thinking in to open a dual language preschool in my community. I want to know how different will be to teach dual language to 3 years old from 5 years old? Just to get ready on how to teach 3 years old because I already know about 5 years old. I remembered see my students very happy when after read a book in their native language they read a book in their second language. Of course this does not happen immediately, Students at any level need to be proficiency in their native language first to be able process a second language faster. when I was listening then talking in both language with their peers using a great transition between languages, make me feel so happy. I could see the satisfaction on their faces feeling proud of themselves. All this memories are motivating to open a dual language preschool.

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