June 22, 2004 Features

Biliteracy and Second-Language Learners

There were over 3.4 million children with limited English proficiency in elementary and secondary schools in the United States in 1997-2000 (Census, 2000). Schools across the nation are faced with the formidable responsibility of educating culturally and linguistically diverse children. Hispanics, the largest group, now represent over 13% of the nation's population and are projected to comprise a larger percentage in all regions by 2025. Children who are second language learners face the challenges of learning to speak, read, and write in English and learn the content of academic subjects while adjusting to the cultural and linguistic environments of American schools.

As the number of children from homes where a language other than English is spoken increases, speech-language pathologists are becoming more concerned about how intervention should be provided to this growing population. There was a time when the major argument was whether children with language impairments could learn two languages and whether we should attempt to facilitate bilingualism in this population. Thoughtful clinicians may have posed the question, but practicality was that treatment had to be in English. We're finding that this solution isn't as effective for children as practicality prescribed.

As our field's scope of practice expanded to include literacy, the questions that now confront clinicians are: "Should we facilitate young children's experiences in two literacy environments, English and the home language? Can children with language impairments become biliterate?"

I believe that we're again asking the wrong questions. What we should be asking is "What are the best strategies for language and literacy development in young children who are learning English as a second language?" Since we know that children are individuals and have their own language-learning strategies, there has to be more than one way to develop literacy abilities in second-language learners.

Realities and Assumptions

Unfortunately, the reality for many second-language learners is a high dropout rate, (Cuban have the lowest while Mexican children have the highest drop out rates), poverty in the majority of homes, lack of school resources, and inner city schools that may have environmental hazards not conducive to learning (Census, 2000; Paratore, Melzi, & Krol-Sinclair, 2003; Pew Report, 2002).

In addition, teacher attitudes may exist that do not promote parents' contributions to the education of children. Teachers may believe that the absence of parent-child storybook reading is evidence that a child has been reared in a low-literate home and is thus at risk for reading difficulty. Teachers may think that parents who have low literacy and low English proficiency are uninterested in supporting their children's school success or that parents who are uneducated or have low English literacy lack effective parenting skills. Finally, teachers may believe that children "come with nothing" and teachers are doing "the best they can" with children who enter as "empty slates" (Paratore, Melzi, & Krol-Sinclair, 2003).

Too often we focus on the negative and don't consider what the family brings in the native language to the literacy development of their own children (Dickinson & Tabors, 2002). Families vary in their backgrounds and their expectations for their children. Parents may have been educated in their native language but do not have the same social cultural practices of book reading that is assumed for mainstream American families. But literacy may be in the home in other forms (see the sidebar at right). 

Thomas & Collier (1998) stated that research conducted with children suggests that first-language literacy development is strongly related to successful second-language learning and academic achievement, and that literacy skills developed in the native language transfer to the second language. The outcome for these children will be biliteracy.

At the opposite end of the continuum, Fitzgerald and Noblit (1999) suggest that young, typically developing ESL children are capable of making sense of written input while they are working on becoming fluent speakers of English. These authors suggest that the earliest stages of reading and writing development may outpace children's oral development in the second language and that native language reading development is not a prerequisite for learning to read in a new language. The outcome here is literacy in English but not necessarily in the home language. We can assume that this probably is the course of action for most school systems, and we know that there is a high dropout rate using this method of instruction (Census, 2000).

Snow, Burns, and Griffin (1998) reported that the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children recommends that whenever possible, bilingualism and biliteracy should be promoted as it provides intellectual, economic, and social benefits. The use of the native language aids in the meaning-making process by allowing learners to read words they know and sentences they understand, use content effectively, and self-correct efficiently.

According to the International Reading Association's position statement, "The accumulated wisdom of research in the field of bilingualism suggests that while initial literacy learning in a second language (i.e., English) can be successful, it is riskier than starting with the child's home language-especially for those children affected by poverty, low levels of parental education, or poor schooling." Learning two languages is possible and feasible for many children, just as learning two literacy systems is possible and feasible for many children. The hurdle is convincing professionals and educators that developing children's native language and literacy does promote the learning of the English language and literacy.  

What Can We Do?

The successful education of young English Language Learners (ELLs) depends on the successful cooperation and interactions of parents with their children in oral language and literacy activities. Parents are an important component of successful academic learning in all children. Research suggests that parents who speak a language different from that of the school environment must promote native language use in young children so that these children may develop cognitive and linguistic skills necessary for literacy. Effective practice would be to provide materials in the native language to parents so that they may assist their children in oral language and literacy development at home. This native language academic preparation will transfer to English as the child develops English competency in school.

The advantage that English-speaking children have can be an advantage that second-language-learning children may have if parents are provided the tools to develop their child's foundations for school achievements. Thomas and Collier state that there are two ways to empower language minority students in an English-dominant classroom: provide age-appropriate books written in the native language in both the school and home environments, and encourage parents to participate in the learning process. We must learn about children's lives beyond the school walls. Expect the most from children and avoid the deficit model. Implement a curriculum that is meaningful to the children and recognize their knowledge of two languages and cultures (MacGilivray & Rueda, 2003).

Hancock reported that providing Hispanic children with Spanish books that are then read to them at home resulted in children who learned English literacy at a higher level than children who received English-only books. These children were achieving at the same level as children who spoke only English.

In many cases, however, sending native language books home isn't enough. Often parents themselves need training in literacy.  In a project discussed by Paratore, Melzi, and Krol-Sinclair, parents became partners with teachers in developing their children's literacy only when they were provided adult literacy classes and explanation of the classroom expectations. These parents developed their own literacy skills while they learned to communicate more effectively with teachers and learned how to be partners in the education of their children. There were several components of this program that accounted for its success:

  • monthly newsletter shared details of classroom themes and activities elicited from parents information about how these connected to children's experiences
  • home literacy portfolio engaged parents and teachers in reciprocal learning; parents shared samples and explained home literacy practices with teachers and vice versa
  • parents as classroom storybook readers helped these parents enter the classroom with what they were learning about storybook reading in the adult literacy class; parents learned about book selection, read-aloud techniques, modeled and discussed strategies, and learned how to invite children's comments and predictions.

Snow, Burns, and Griffin developed a framework for predicting success and failure for reading difficulties in young children that encompasses child-based, school-based, and family-based factors. These include a value placed on literacy, emphasis on achievement, availability and use of reading materials, and parent-child book reading. We cannot assume that all children who are ELLs come from homes that do not value literacy, have parents who do not want their children to achieve academically, do not have reading materials, and do not share book reading in the home. We can assume that families will be different, children will have different experiences with literacy, and that their experiences can be a strength to learning in school. Children who are second-language learners need our support and our belief in them that they can become bilingual and biliterate. We, as clinicians, can support these children by working not only with teachers, but also with parents.

Hortencia Kayser, is professor of communication sciences and disorders and associate dean of the Graduate School at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO. Contact her at Kayserhr@slu.edu.

cite as: Kayser, H. (2004, June 22). Biliteracy and Second-Language Learners. The ASHA Leader.

Second-Language Learners Background

  • Children enter the schools with diverse language backgrounds and experiences.
  • The roles and expectations for children in their own cultures have determined the extent of their language development and literacy experiences.
  • Sometimes children have some schooling in their native language.
  • Parents of these children may not have been born in the United States and may have the literacy expectation of their native country.
  • English may be the school language and the native language may be used at home and in the community.
  • Households may receive written materials in the form of native language newspapers and books.
  • Children may be expected to comprehend vocabulary and language structures that are totally alien to them.

Adapted from Kayser, H. (1998). Assessment and intervention resource for Hispanic children. Delmar-Thompson: New York.


Journal Article
Home Literacy Experiences and Their Relationship to Bilingual Preschoolers' Developing English Literacy Abilities: An Initial Investigation, by Carol Scheffner Hammer, Adele W. Miccio, and David A. Wagstaff

ASHA Leader Article
AAC, Literacy, and Bilingualism

"Learning Two Languages"Order from ASHA Product Sales (888-498-6699; ask for #0112544 [English] or #0112545 [Spanish])

The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instructional Educational Programs

National Center for Family Literacy

International Literacy Explorer
Has an application that allows you to view statistics on literacy across the globe. Very interesting site.

Development of Literacy in Spanish Speakers
-an excellent resource from the Center for Applied Linguistics. They had to create their own products and are providing them for free- http://www.cal.org/delss/index.html#OVERVIEW


Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (2002). Fostering language and literacy in classrooms and homes. Young Children, 57, 10-18.

Fitzgerald & Noblit (1999). About hopes, aspirations, and uncertainty: First-grade English-language learners' emergent reading. Journal of Literacy Research, 33,133-182.

Hancock, D. R. (Fall, 2002). The effects of native language books on the pre-literacy skill development of language minority kindergartners. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 17(1), 62-68.

International Reading Association (2001). Second-language literacy instruction: A position statement of the International Reading Association. International Reading Association: Newark, DE. http://www.reading.org

MacGillivray, L., & Rueda, R. (2003). Listening to inner city teachers of English language learners: Differentiating literacy instruction. http://www.ciera.org/library/archive/2001-05/0105McRued.htm

Montague, N. S., Marroquin, C., & Lucido, F. (2002). A dual language curriculum for young children. In J. Cassidy & S. D. Garrett (Eds.), Early childhood literacy: programs & strategies to develop cultural, linguistic, scientific and healthcare literacy for very young dhildren & their families, 2001 Yearbook. Corpus Christi, TX: CEDER.

Paratore, J. R., Melzi, G., & Krol-Sinclair, B. (2003).  Learning about the literate lives of Latino families. In D. M. Barone & L. M. Morrow (Eds.) Literacy and Young Children (pp. 101-120). New York: The Guilford Press.

Pew Hispanic Center (2002). 2002 National survey of Latinos. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Snow, E. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Tabors, P. O., & Snow, C. E. (2002). Young bilingual children and early literacy development. In S. B. Neuman &  D. K. Dickinson (Eds), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 159-178). New York: The Gilford Press.

Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. (1998). Two languages are better than one. Educational  Leadership, 55(4), 23-27.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2000). Census 2000 [Data file]. Available from the U.S. Census Bureau Web site, http://www.census.gov


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