Early Literacy Instruction in Spanish: Teaching the Beginning Reader

A boy and a smilling girl.

This article shares some ways that early Spanish and English literacy instruction are similar and different. It also explains the order in which reading skills are typically taught in Spanish and suggests activities in the classroom and at home that complement instruction.

Throughout the U.S., many children are receiving some or all of their literacy instruction in Spanish. Typically, these children are in one of three types of instructional programs:

  • Transitional bilingual programs - Native speakers of Spanish are instructed entirely in Spanish for a period of time before transitioning into English instruction.
  • Dual language programs - Approximately half of the students are native Spanish speakers, and the rest are native English speakers. Students receive instruction in both languages, with the goal of all students becoming fully bilingual.
  • Spanish Immersion programs - Students who are not native Spanish speakers receive all of their instruction is in Spanish so that they can become fluent in the language.

Regardless of the type of program, all of these students have one thing in common. They are learning to read in a language that is in some ways very similar to English, but in other ways is very different.

Stages of Literacy Development

Whether learning to read in Spanish or in English, children pass through three broad stages of literacy development:

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  • In the Emergent stage, children who cannot yet read, write, or spell are just beginning to explore the world of print. They may pretend to read books as they turn the pages, but they are not yet able to match speech to print. Their writing is also "pretend writing," made up first of scribbles and later including some symbols and even letters. Children in the emergent stage may know that writing represents ideas, but it is not until the very end of this stage that they start to understand that letters represent the sounds they hear in words. (For more information on the emergent stage, see 8 Strategies for Preschool ELLs' Language and Literacy Development.)
  • Children in the Beginning stage of literacy development have a solid knowledge of the alphabet and are learning to decode, or "sound out" words. They still need a lot of support when they are reading, and their reading is slow and laborious. Beginning readers read out loud, and they guide their reading by fingerpointing. Texts for beginning readers have controlled vocabulary so that children only encounter familiar words as they read. At this stage, children attempt to represent the sounds they hear in words in their writing, but their spelling is often incomplete, representing only the most salient or prominent sounds in the words they write.
  • In the Instructional stage, children are able to read independently, and they can read silently. They can also read for the purpose of learning new information and new vocabulary. By this stage, children have become efficient at decoding, so the focus of instruction shifts to comprehension. During the instructional stage, children no longer spell words based on sound alone. They begin to learn about spelling patterns in which multiple letters combine to form one sound.

Spanish and English: What's the Same, and What's Different?

Spanish and English are both alphabetic languages, and therefore the process of learning to read is essentially the same in the two languages:

  • First, children develop the essential skills in the areas of alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and print knowledge that provide a foundation for learning to read.
  • Next, they begin to apply those skills as they learn to decode text. During this time, they gradually build their repertoire of sight words (i.e., words that they can recognize right away "by sight" without having to sound them out), which allows them to become more fluent in their reading.
  • Once decoding becomes automatic and children no longer have to devote so much attention to "getting the words off the page," they can read more complex texts that place greater demands for comprehension.

The primary difference between Spanish and English reading development and instruction occurs during the period in which children are learning to decode text. This is because of differences in the two languages' orthographies, or spelling systems.

  • English has what is often referred to as an opaque orthography, meaning that English sound-symbol correspondences are not always predictable. Think, for example, of the pronunciation of "ough" in the words though, ought, through, plough, cough, and rough. Because of such inconsistencies, children typically spend three to four years learning to decode text fluently.
  • Spanish, on the other hand, has a very predictable orthography, sometimes referred to as a transparent orthography. Once children learn the basic sound-symbol correspondences, they can easily decode most Spanish words. Thus, by the end of first grade, children can read most Spanish text with a high level of accuracy, regardless of the familiarity of the word patterns.

There is one caveat, however. In Spanish, unlike in English, reading accuracy is not a strong predictor of reading comprehension (Escribano, Elosúa, Gómez-Veiga, & García-Madruga, 2013). Children can often decode text far beyond the level at which they have good comprehension of what they are reading, and this drop in comprehension is usually accompanied by a drop in reading rate. The challenge for teachers is to place students in texts that they can not only read accurately but can also read at a good rate and with good comprehension.

Instruction for the Beginning Reader in Spanish

Much of early reading instruction in English is devoted to teaching children the English vowel sounds. Like Spanish, English has five vowel letters (a, e, i, o, and u), but those five letters can make 12 different vowel sounds, depending on the spelling patterns of the words in which they occur. For example, the letter a represents three different sounds in the words cat, car, and came. In Spanish, however, each vowel letter makes just one sound, no matter what spelling pattern it appears in, and this greatly simplifies early reading instruction.

In fact, children begin learning to read in Spanish by first learning the five vowel sounds. They then learn to combine the vowels with consonants to form open syllables (e.g., ma, me, mi, mo, mu). Open syllables, or syllables that follow a consonant-vowel (CV) pattern, represent the most frequently occurring syllable pattern in Spanish. Reading instruction begins with the consonants that are easiest for children to distinguish the sounds of and to blend with vowels (i.e., m, n, b, p, s, l, d, t, and f). Consonants are introduced one at a time and practiced with consonants that have been learned previously. For example, children who have learned m, n, t, and p syllables might practice reading words like tapa, Papi, and mano.

As children start to become adept at reading words made up of simple open syllables, they can begin examining words that include closed syllables following the VC or CVC pattern (e.g., alto and pan), as well as words with consonant blends (e.g., clase, grande, etc.) and diphthongs (e.g., baile, auto, etc.).

Although Spanish has a highly predictable orthography, there are a few silent letters (h is always silent, u is silent after g or q), as well as letters that can make different sounds, depending on the letters that follow them. For example, the letters c and g make one sound when followed by a, o, or u and a different sound when followed by e or i. For that reason, syllables with these letters are taught somewhat later in the progression. The same is true of syllables with infrequently occurring consonants, such as z, k, x and w.

Working with Syllables and Phonemes

It is important to recognize that as children learn to create new syllables by substituting for the initial consonant (i.e., changing ma, me, mi, mo, mu into ta, te, ti, to, tu), they are actually manipulating language at the phoneme, or single sound, level (Pollard-Durodola & Simmons, 2009). To make those changes, children have to be able to 1) segment the consonant sound from the vowel sound in each pair and 2) blend a new consonant sound with each vowel sound to create a new syllable.

This ability to segment speech at the individual phoneme level has been shown to differentiate good readers from average to poor readers in Spanish (Carillo, 1994). In fact, research has demonstrated that the ability to blend and segment individual phonemes is a strong predictor of overall reading achievement in Spanish, both for monolingual Spanish-speaking children (Bravo, 2006) and for Spanish/English bilingual children (Branum-Martin, 2006).

Calling children's attention to individual phonemes in Spanish words may serve a dual function for children learning to read in U.S. schools. Whether in transitional bilingual, dual language, or Spanish immersion settings, children attending school in the U.S. will at some point be expected to learn to read in English as well as in Spanish. Having experience working with language at the phoneme level in Spanish may make it easier for them to apply what they have learned about reading in Spanish as they take on the task of learning to read in English. As Pollard-Durodola and Simmons (2009) point out, "If phoneme blending and segmentation have been taught and mastered in Spanish, then it is conceivable that the linguistic readiness primed by instruction and practice in Spanish will facilitate transfer to English, therefore allowing English phonemic awareness instruction on high-priority skills to be abbreviated" (p. 147).

Effective Literacy Activities for the Beginning Reader

Beginning readers need to have lots of opportunities to practice reading and writing throughout the school day. Oral language development, both at home and at school, is also important so that children can attach meaning to the words they read. Below are some examples of language and literacy activities for teachers and parents. While these activities can be used in any language, we've provided some examples in Spanish.

Classroom Strategies

  • Create labels of words so that children can begin to make connections between the spoken word and the written word. With the children's help, write the labels and place them where children can see and read them.
  • Develop word walls with children as words are encountered. Word walls can be arranged alphabetically or by themes.
  • Engage children in interactive read-alouds to help them build comprehension skills and expand their vocabularies.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for children to write, and allow them to use phonetic or invented spelling as they are sorting out the sound-symbol correspondences in Spanish. Attempting to write the sounds they hear in words "as best they can" strengthens children's understanding of the phonetic structure of the language and helps them gradually learn conventional spelling.
  • Use visual or graphic organizers to help children see the connection between ideas and text. For example, on a theme about the farm, use a picture of a barn and draw lines around it with words that the children will learn (e.g., horse/caballo, cow/vaca, duck/pato) in Spanish.
  • Engage students in repeated reading of familiar text to help them improve both accuracy and fluency. Repeated reading also helps reinforce new vocabulary by giving children multiple exposures to words.
  • Create classroom books with words that the children have read, understand and can illustrate (e.g., Yo voy a comer. A mi me gusta comer ____.)
  • Have children help create lists of associated words (e.g., animals, family, workers, friends, transportation, play). Display the words on charts, along with illustrations.
  • Recognize that strategies will differ for different children based on their learning styles. Use multiple paths to learning by including different genres of books, music, drawing and designs and hands-on activities to support oral language development and use of words in context to aid comprehension.
  • Write language experience stories in small groups to maximize participation and to help connect speaking with writing and reading.
  • Involve children in creating syllables that can be manipulated to form not only words, but also nonsense words for practice by using cards or sentence strips.
  • Provide practice creating new words by substituting individual phonemes at the beginning, end, and middle of words (e.g., substituting a for o to change sol to sal).
  • Use picture cards of words with the syllables mixed up. Have children re-sort syllable cards to form the correct word (e.g., picture of a house: sa ca; picture of a bird: ro, pá, ja). Then try the same activity using individual letters instead of syllables.
  • Discuss the way that verbs may end in -ar, -er, or -ir.  Provide examples of verbs that children can begin to conjugate (e.g., comer: como, come, comes, comió, comí).
  • Include cultural aspects of the Spanish language, which are important to impart to children who are learning a new language or developing in their native language.
  • Collaborate with families on children's needs and progress.  Involve parents in the Spanish language development process, providing resources that allow non-Spanish speaking parents to learn words that will support their child at home. Invite Spanish-speaking parents to read to the children or be a guest speaker in your classroom, modeling the language.
  • Invite community role models to read to the children in Spanish and discuss the importance of learning Spanish.

Learning at Home: Tips for Parents

  • Create small places at home where your child can study, read and play. Areas set aside for learning and play are important for your child's development.
  • Stock the study area with books, pencils, pens, and paper. Encourage your child to read and then write stories using Spanish.
  • Have a play area where there are opportunities to play with materials. Provide labels for the materials (e.g., plastelina [clay], bloques [blocks], computadora [computer], rompecabezas [puzzles]).
  • Read aloud to your child in Spanish to help build vocabulary and comprehension skills. To learn more about why that can help kids become strong readers in English and Spanish, see Why Reading to Your Kids in Spanish Will Help Them Become Better Readers.
  • Provide opportunities to talk to your child about the world around him. Talk about things at the supermarket, during walks, or things you are doing as you cook or clean.  Use the Spanish to find cognates of words in English (e.g., electricidad-electricity; plantas-plants; rocas-rocks).
  • Tune in to Spanish radio or Spanish TV stations to help him hear the language and pick up vocabulary, or internet sites with children's Spanish songs that children can learn.
  • When there is homework in Spanish, have your child read it aloud as you are cooking or during one-to-one time with your child. Support language development and let your child know how much you value his/her learning.

Concluding Remarks

As many kindergarten and first-grade teachers will attest, working with beginning readers can be one of the most rewarding jobs in teaching. It's always exciting to watch young children gradually "crack the code" to figure out how written language works. Today, many children across the U.S. have the advantage of receiving early literacy instruction in Spanish, which fosters Spanish language as well as literacy development, both for native Spanish speakers and for children who are learning Spanish for the first time in dual language or Spanish immersion settings. Because many literacy skills tend to transfer across languages (August, Calderón, & Carlo, 2002; Durgunoglu, 2002), early literacy instruction in Spanish can also give children a head start on learning to read in English, putting them on track to becoming not only bilingual, but also biliterate.




August, D., Calderón, M., & Carlo, M. S. (2002). Transfer of skills from Spanish to English: A study of young learners (pp. 1-26). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Branum-Martin, L., Mehta, P. D., Fletcher, J. M., Carlson, C. D., Ortiz, A. A., Carlo, M. S., & Francis, D. J. (2006). Bilingual phonological awareness: Multilevel construct validation among Spanish-speaking kindergarteners in transitional bilingual education classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 170–181.

Bravo, L., Villalón, M., & Orellana, E. (2006). Diferencias en la predictividad de la lectura entre primer año y cuarto año básicos. Psykhe, 15, 3–11.

Carrillo, M. (1994). Development of phonological awareness and reading acquisition. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 6, 279–298.

Durgunoglu, A. Y. (2002). Cross-linguistic transfer in literacy development and implications for language learners. Annals of Dyslexia, 52, 189-204.

Escribano, C. L., Elosúa, M. R., Gómez-Veiga, I., & García Madruga, J. A. (2013). A predictive study of reading comprehension in third-grade Spanish students. Psicothema, 25, 199-205.

Pollard-Durodola, S. D., & Simmons, D. C. (2009). The role of explicit instruction and instructional design in promoting phonemic awareness development and transfer from Spanish to English. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 25, 139-161.


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