Fostering Literacy Development in English Language Learners

Research has shown that alphabet knowledge and phonological awareness are strong predictors of successful literacy development in children (for a review see Adams, 1990; Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000; Wagner et al., 1997).

In processing both spoken and written language, the human brain employs a phonological code to represent linguistic information. This code is unique for each individual language, as each language has its own distinct set of sounds, with very specific rules that govern how those sounds can be combined into syllables and words (for discussion see Cohn, 2003). Phonological awareness is the ability to manipulate language at the phonological level, that is, to "reflect on the component sounds of spoken words, rather than on their meanings" (Goswami, 2000, p. 251).

Performance on measures of phonological awareness in kindergarten has been shown to predict success in reading, even in the later elementary school years (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Juel, 1988; Kirby, Parrila, & Pfeiffer, 2003; O'Connor & Jenkins, 1999; Schatschneider, Fletcher, Francis, Carlson, & Foorman, 2004; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987). We know that children with specific reading disability, or dyslexia, have deficits in phonological awareness, possibly related to difficulties both with processing phonological information and with coding phonological representations of words in the mental lexicon (Goswami, 2002; Mann & Brady, 1988; Marshall, Snowling, & Bailey, 2001; Swan & Goswami, 1997; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987). Although phonological processing ability appears to remain relatively stable over time (Wagner et al., 1997), research has shown that phonological awareness skills can be taught and that gains in phonological awareness are associated with corresponding gains in reading achievement (Lie, 1991; Torgesen, Morgan, & Davis, 1992; Vellutino & Scanlon, 1987).

It is particularly important to recognize the role that phonological awareness plays as children with limited English proficiency (LEP) learn to read, both in their native language (L1) and in their second language (L2). Characteristically, these children exhibit both unique strengths and unique deficiencies in this area.

Recent research has shown that, for English language learners, phonological awareness in the native language (L1) predicts successful literacy acquisition in both L1 and a second language (L2) (August & Hakuta, 1997; Durgunoglu, Nagy, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993; Gottardo, 2002; Quiroga, Lemos-Britton, Mostafapour, Abbott, & Berninger, 2001). In other words, phonological awareness skills developed in L1 transfer to L2 and facilitate L2 literacy development.

Phonological awareness skills are known to develop in a predictable pattern, which is the same from one language to another (i.e., from larger to smaller units of sound - from word to syllable to onset-rime to phoneme). Phonological awareness skills developed in one language can transfer to another language, even while those skills are still in the process of being developed (Cisero & Royer, 1995).

Gottardo explored this connection between native language phonological skills and second language reading in a 2002 study with 92 Spanish-speaking first graders. She found that the strongest predictors of English word reading ability were L1 and L2 phonological processing, L1 reading, and L2 vocabulary (Gottardo, 2002).

The ability of phonological awareness skills to transfer from one language to another presents advantages that are readily apparent; however, transfer can also bring disadvantages. Sometimes L2 learners inappropriately generalize their first language's rules of syntax, spelling, phonology, or pragmatics to their second language. This tendency, commonly referred to as negative transfer, or interference, can have an adverse effect on L2 literacy acquisition (Bialystok, 2002; Brice & Roseberry-McKibbin, 2001; Francis, 1998).

In terms of phonological awareness, the closer the phonologies of L1 and L2, the greater the likelihood that transfer of skills will be positive rather than negative because children are more adept at manipulating the sounds and patterns that exist in their native language (Bialystok, 2002). For example, if both L1 and L2 are alphabetic languages, transfer will be facilitated, although positive transfer has also been documented between languages with very different orthographies, such as Cantonese and English (Gottardo, Yan, Siegel, & Wade-Woolley, 2001). An important factor here may be the type of phonological skill in question. As Durgunoglu (2002) notes, "there are certain literacy concepts and strategies that can be universal and operate across languages. These insights and skills need to be acquired only once and apply in all languages of LLs. However, there are also language-specific concepts and knowledge; for example, orthographic patterns that are specific to a language" (p. 192).

Implications for Instruction:

Discussions of literacy instruction for English language learners frequently focus on language of instruction. There is not enough evidence to recommend definitively that overall literacy instruction should be confined to either L1 or L2. Nevertheless, the strong link between L1 phonological awareness and L2 reading success suggests that efforts to develop literacy skills in L1 will translate into facility with L2 literacy development and that children will benefit from native language scaffolding as they learn to read in a second language.

Teachers can play an important role in encouraging families of students with LEP to provide L1 literacy experiences at home. Many English language learners come from homes or cultures where literacy activities such as storybook reading are not common practice (Meier, 2003; Vernon-Feagans, Hammer, Miccio, & Manlove, 2002). Parents may not know that literacy experiences in the child's first language will contribute to literacy development in English. In addition, families often cannot find or afford children's books in their language.

Assessment is an important part of any literacy program, and special attention should be given to assessing the language and literacy skills of English language learners. In order to have an accurate picture of a bilingual child's development, it is important to assess the child in both languages (August & Hakuta, 1997; Peña, Bedore, & Rappazzo, 2003; Tabors & Snow, 2002). Even then, one must keep in mind that the balance between languages is constantly changing, and language dominance can quickly shift. As the child becomes more proficient in English, he or she may actually lose ground in his or her first language, resulting in a situation in which testing would reveal relative weakness in both languages. Educators must be allowed to be creative and flexible in choosing and interpreting assessments for children with limited English proficiency. This includes being able to use informal assessments, including such tools as portfolios, observations, interviews, and other methods designed to document growth (McLaughlin, Gesi Blanchard, & Osanai, 1995).

Assessment in both languages is particularly important in reading. If a bilingual child is having difficulty with reading in English, it is sometimes difficult to know whether the problem is the result of a reading disability or simply reflects a deficit in English language proficiency. Since literacy skills are known to transfer across languages, if these skills are present in the child's L1 but not in his or her L2, this indicates a deficit in L2 language proficiency and not a reading disability. This type of assessment would distinguish between students with special needs and students who simply need to improve their English language proficiency.

Much of the research on phonological awareness and phonological transfer suggests that overall, bilingual children may have more highly developed metalinguistic skills than monolingual children (Bialystok, 2002; G. E. García, 2000; Lundberg, 2002; Vernon-Feagans et al., 2002). As Lundberg (2002) notes, "the early confrontation with a new language seems to stimulate a metalinguistic attitude; the child starts to think about linguistic form rather than content" (p. 173). Effective literacy programs take advantage of the English language learner's increased ability to attend to form in language by making use of explicit instruction in phonological awareness and phonics (August, 2002; August & Hakuta, 1997; G. G. García & Beltrán, 2003; Lundberg, 2002; Muter & Diethelm, 2001; Quiroga et al., 2001; Slavin & Cheung, 2003, 2004).

Gersten and Geva (2003) spent two years observing 34 first grade classrooms in which at least three fourths of the students were English learners. Their goal was to link specific instructional strategies to reading growth among English language learners. The researchers identified six facets of instruction that predicted student growth in reading: explicit teaching; English learning; phonemic awareness and decoding; vocabulary development; interactive teaching; and instruction geared toward low performers. The effective teachers in this study systematically taught phonological awareness skills and decoding and then reinforced these skills through reading and writing.

Teachers can also use knowledge of the primary language to understand their students' development. If teachers can familiarize themselves with the basics of phonology and spelling in their students' first language, this will help them to better understand their students' literacy development in English, and they will be better prepared to help students develop both English literacy skills and oral language proficiency (Helman, 2004).

As children acquire literacy, they progress through definable, predictable stages of development that reflect their ever growing understanding of how written language works (Henderson & Templeton, 1986). Developmental spelling assessments are a valuable tool for assessing students' progress along the literacy continuum (Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2000). Teachers of students with LEP can also use developmental spelling assessments to identify areas in which interference, or negative transfer, from L1 is causing problems. Beginning spellers, for example, use letter names to represent sounds. For example, an English speaker who is a beginning speller might spell "make" as "mak." A Spanish-dominant English language learner using the same strategy might spell the same word as "mek." The teacher who knows something about Spanish phonetics will understand why the child has used this spelling.

Helman (2004) recommends beginning instruction for bilingual children with what she terms the commonalities, that is, the sounds and patterns that the two languages share (p. 456). Teachers can then move on to sounds and patterns that are different in the two languages. In this way, teachers can build upon the natural transfer of phonological abilities from L1 to English while using the confusion that may result from negative transfer as a springboard for discussion.

It is also important to balance phonics instruction with reading of connected text. Students with limited English proficiency often continue to experience difficulties with reading, even after mastering the basic skills needed for decoding English text. Limited vocabulary and lack of background knowledge contribute to difficulties with reading comprehension, which often persist into the high school years.

Among English language learners, both L1 vocabulary and L2 vocabulary contribute to achievement in English reading comprehension (Carlisle, Beeman, Davis, & Spharim, 1999; Proctor, Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005). Although bilingual children may have larger vocabularies overall, they typically have smaller vocabularies in each of their individual languages than do monolingual children (Droop & Verhoeven, 2003). They also tend to have fewer associations between words in their lexicons, reflecting a lack of depth in their vocabulary development (Droop & Verhoeven, 2003). Developing vocabulary and background knowledge will contribute to success in reading comprehension.

English language learners benefit from explicit instruction in vocabulary. Organizing vocabulary around a theme facilitates learning. Multiple exposures to a word are needed in order for that word to become part of the lexicon (Nagy & Herman, 1987; Zahar, Cobb, & Spada, 2001).

English language learners need opportunities to build background knowledge. Pre-reading activities can be used to identify gaps in students' knowledge and to introduce new concepts and vocabulary.

Students should be given lots of opportunities to read narrative and expository text that they can read with at least 90% accuracy. Below 90% is considered frustrational level, or the level at which a student is not able to read with adequate word identification or comprehension.


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Presented at the American Federation of Teacher's QuEST Conference (July 2005).

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Very informative!
Yet, I am still wondering: what can be done to help phonemic awareness skills in English language learners who have a non alphbetic language? Where would you begin? Thanks.

I don't think there's any research to cover your specific question. And - it certainly is an interesting question! I would suggest the place to begin would be practicing listening skills - games where ordinary sounds can be associated with pictures or actions. I also suggest doing lots of music and movement activities - especially ones with repetitive patterns that will help the newcomer to listen for what's next and copy the song and the movements. Then move to activities around stories and identifying pictures as symbols for the real thing. These are all stepping stones on the path toward understanding that a visual symbol can represent a sound and a thought. I wonder if posting this comment now will encourage other readers to share their stories!

I am having difficulty teaching onset-rime to children whose native language is Spanish. Do you have any suggestions?

I have a student who has very good expressive skills, he has no anxiety speaking and does so with substantial detail. My problem is that his receptive skills are weak as he does not answer questions that are asked. He finds a word or phrase that he understands and tells as much as he can about it.
What would be the best strategy for addressing this issue?

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