September 23, 2008 Feature

Addressing Emergent Literacy Skills in English-Language Learners

Children who are learning English as a second language and live in homes where languages other than English are spoken are known as English-language learners (ELLs). As these children enter kindergarten, they often lag behind their language-majority peers in the skills necessary to start reading, with the gap remaining throughout their school years. A 2007 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on reading indicates that 70% of fourth-grade ELLs and 71% of eighth-grade ELLs scored below basic reading ability. Although the statistics are discouraging, research indicates that these children can achieve grade-level literacy skills if they receive effective literacy instruction (Waits, Campbell, Gau, Jacobs, Rex, & Hess, 2006).

Preschool programs can have a direct impact on the academic skills of ELLs, potentially closing the gap with quality education. Therefore, it is imperative that preschool personnel be trained to support the emergent literacy skills that prepare preschoolers to enter kindergarten ready to learn to read (Garcia & Gonzalez, 2006).

Emergent literacy skills are believed to develop during preschool years for most children, when they are "in the process of becoming literate" (e.g., Teale & Sulzby, 1986, p. xix; Justice, 2006; Yaden, Rowe & MacGillivray, 2000). The National Early Literacy Panel (2004) identified alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, writing/writing name, oral language skills, and concepts about print in preschool children as predictors of later reading and writing success in elementary school children. Justice (2006) organized these skills into four domains:

  • Print knowledge—alphabet knowledge and concepts about print
  • Phonological awareness—sound awareness
  • Writing—name writing, invented spelling
  • Oral language—grammar, vocabulary, narrative

These same skills predict the reading performance of ELLs; however, they are not sufficient predictors because native-language performance also predicts English literacy skills (e.g., Dickinson, McCabe, Clark-Chiarelli, & Wolf, 2004).

We propose a model to address emergent literacy in this population that involves native and second-language instruction through these four domains. To achieve success, ELLs must be in environments in which:

  • The first language and literacy are not only valued, but enriched in a planned and systematic manner
  • Instruction in English as a second language (ESL) is targeted to the child's English-language developmental level while also being challenging
  • Teachers are knowledgeable about the normal processes of ESL development and literacy development in bilinguals
  • The program has a strong home-school connection that provides parent training and views parents as resources

Print Knowledge

Print knowledge refers to a child's growing understanding of the relationship between the form and purpose of print (e.g., Adams, 1990; Justice & Ezell, 2004). Elements of print awareness include understanding print conventions, recognizing words and letters as distinct units of meaning, and having alphabet knowledge (Justice & Ezell, 2002; Lomax & McGee, 1987). Print knowledge has been associated with reading ability in English as a second language in ELLs (Klingner, Artiles, & Barletta, 2006).

Depending on the orthography of the native language, this knowledge can transfer to English as a second language and may be used to support emerging literacy. Exposure to different print in different languages and orthographies helps the child connect writing to his or her native language and culture and also raises the awareness of the symbolic and arbitrary nature of written language.

Phonological Awareness

Phonological awareness is the understanding that oral language can be broken up into individual words, words into syllables, and syllables into individual sounds, or phonemes (Bradley & Bryant, 1983; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Skills included in phonological awareness include rhyme, syllable-awareness, and phonemic awareness.

Although there is variability among children, phonological awareness skills develop gradually during preschool. Some children learn by exposure to sound patterns through book activities, word play, or nursery rhymes; other children may require more explicit instruction. Children who do well on sound-awareness tasks are better readers than their peers who struggle with those tasks (Adams, 1990; Wagner & Torgeson, 1987).

Children who are ELLs and who live in poverty or with limited literacy experiences often do not develop phonemic awareness in preschools. With adequate preschool instruction and exposure to literate environments, however, ELLs can readily learn phonemic awareness skills (Barnett et al., 2007).

ELLs with strong phonological awareness skills in English demonstrated a higher potential for reading achievement in later years (e.g., Genesee, et al., 2005; Klingner, et al., 2004). Further, these skills readily transfer from the native language to second language and from the second language to the native language (e.g., Dickinson et al., 2004; Cardenas-Hagan et al., 2007). The orthography of the native language also will influence the transfer to the second language. Syllabic languages, for example, will transfer at the syllable level, but not at the phonemic level (Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005).


Emergent writing is considered a child's first experience with writing. This early writing appears during the preschool years and follows a sequence that progresses from drawings to scribbles, invented spelling, and eventually conventional writing; this progression continues during the school-age years and beyond (Teale & Sulzby, 1986). Children's early experiences in experimenting with different forms of writing support later reading and writing success (Adams, 1990; Richgels, 1995). Bialystock (1997) found that bilingual preschoolers are as proficient in emergent writing skills in their two languages as their monolingual peers.

Oral Language

Oral language provides the building blocks for literacy. According to a report by the National Reading Panel (2000, p. 15), "Oral vocabulary is a key to learning to make the transition from oral to written forms, whereas reading vocabulary is crucial to the comprehension processes of a skilled reader." Children who do not develop these core language skills lack some of the most fundamental skills essential for reading (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999; National Early Literacy Panel, 2004).

Preschool ELLs present with several challenges in emergent literacy development. They must develop these skills in a language they do not speak while still acquiring emergent literacy skills and oral language skills in their native language. Further, if they come from an impoverished environment, they will likely be playing catch-up in native and second-language vocabulary development. Therefore, one of the most critical emergent literacy skills for ELLs to develop is oral language in the native and second languages. Strong native language skills predict oral language, reading, and writing skills in the second language (e.g., August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Carlo et al., 2004).

Strategies for Improvement

Improving emergent literacy in preschool ELLs requires the use of planned instruction or activities that address the prerequisite skills in the two languages, develop strong oral language skills, and connect home with school. The following strategies can develop these skills.

Print Knowledge and Phonemic Awareness

Several evidence-based techniques promote emergent literacy skills in preschoolers. Print-referencing during shared book reading is an effective means for teaching print awareness (e.g., Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Justice & Ezell, 2002). Phonological awareness is most effectively taught by progressing through a hierarchy of early learned skills in a systemic fashion in the native and the second languages (e.g., Adams, 1990; Cisero & Royer, 1995; Carrillo, 1994), beginning with a child's awareness of common environmental sounds, then progressing to the later skills of phonemic awareness.

The native language is always a resource for phonemic awareness. For example, for Spanish-speaking ELLs the language is transparent; that is, there is a high correspondence between sound and symbols in Spanish and English. This similarity can provide a fairly consistent match for children in the early stages of letter knowledge and initial sound identification (Bialystok et al., 2005). Building letter and sound knowledge in Spanish, for example, would allow the child to learn these skills more quickly while learning English as a second language. Inclusion of bilingual print awareness and writing activities in preschool also will allow ELLs to develop skills in both languages and to increase awareness of different writing systems. These concepts promote understanding that writing serves a purpose and is a means of expressing ideas.

To address English emergent literacy skills in this population, Gersten and Geva (2003) stressed the importance of modifying instruction when teaching specific graphemes or phonemes. If a letter or sound does not exist in the child's native language, explicit instruction and repetition may be required. Frequent comprehension monitoring will be needed to ensure that children are following instructions and learning target skills. For example Spanish-speakers may need to learn to discriminate English vowels, because there are only five vowels in Spanish. ELLs also need to build language proficiency in order to connect phonemic awareness, writing, and letter knowledge to language that they understand.

Oral Language Skills

To improve oral-language skills and facilitate emergent literacy skill development, ELLs need to build vocabulary, oral language comprehension, and production. The role of vocabulary has been documented as a predictor of later reading development within and across languages (August et al., 2005; Carlo et al., 2004; Proctor et al., 2006). Often there is no bilingual or native-language instruction in preschool programs. This context presents a problem for ELLs because they often do not continue to develop their native language unless those skills are stimulated in their home environment and used for instruction in school (Barnett, Yarosz, Thomas, Jung, & Blanco, 2007).

ELLs entering preschool require language-rich environments that focus on overall language development. For example an ELL who comes from a family with few adult-child interactions will have limited experience with oral language in the native language (c.f., Hart & Risely, 1994). If the school focuses on English acquisition of colors and shapes, the child is missing critical development of literate language like stories and vocabulary in the native language and may not have strong foundations for second language acquisition.

To build vocabulary skills, explicit and implicit instruction is necessary (Schwanenflugel et al., 2004). Explicit instruction using Tier 2 vocabulary (or vocabulary that is not prototypical) (Beck et al., 1987) is required. ELLs benefit from Tier 2 explicit vocabulary instruction in the native language. At the same time, this vocabulary can be provided in English if it is presented through concrete, hands-on experiences and in thematic unit that allow for repetition throughout the day. Implicit vocabulary instruction is done primarily through thematic units that build the selected or target vocabulary, as well as vocabulary associated with the target vocabulary and theme through incidental teaching (Schwanenflugel et al., 2004). Through a bilingual approach to vocabulary instruction, ELLs continue growth in the native language, while they develop concepts in English as a second language.

Other techniques shown to improve vocabulary include dialogic and repeated reading (see Johnson & Yeates, 2006, for a review of research). Dialogic reading uses open-ended questioning, "wh-" questioning, and active listening during shared book reading to encourage the child to tell the story. The reader can point to "new words" and discuss them. The use of books has several advantages: books build background knowledge, supplement and enhance a thematic unit, combine native culture and access to U.S. culture, and expose children to different genres (stories, expository texts, poems, etc.).

We believe that exposure to a variety of texts is optimal. We combine Latino culture books, such as Carlos and the Squash Plant, with classic American stories that are available in the two languages, such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. Bilingual expository or information books tend to be of high interest to boys; again, these books build not only vocabulary but also text structure knowledge and background that prepare children for academic success.

Dialogic reading can also be used to help ELLs build abstract language, especially in the native language, and to acquire the second language. Skills such as inferencing, prediction, and identifying main ideas build comprehension skills. ELLs can learn these skills before they become fluent in English and then transfer them to English. In a recent project, for example, we found that kindergarten ELLs trained bilingually to summarize a story performed better in English than those trained to summarize only in English (Smyk, Restrepo, Gray, & Morgan, 2008). This finding demonstrates that while they acquire English, ELLs can continue to develop valuable skills in the native language, which will subsequently transfer to and facilitate English acquisition. ELL children can learn to interact with texts with higher language levels. They will learn to predict what can happen next; they learn to answer "why" questions or to connect what they read with their lives through these techniques, if used in preschool, rather than waiting until they can speak English.

English as a Second Language

August and Hakuta (1997) identified several useful strategies for facilitating English acquisition. They suggested using clear, explicit skill instruction, while modifying the language level according to the children's level of proficiency in English. For example an ELL child who has been unsuccessful in communicating with peers and teachers may lapse into a silent or nonverbal period. In these cases there is a need for input that is repetitive and concrete in order to acquire a second language; a child who is at a more fluent stage still needs repetition and routines but also needs multiple opportunities to use the target skill and higher-level questioning. ELLs need to practice new skills with children and adults who have higher-level language proficiency. Pairing children with more proficient students, scaffolding their conversations, and expanding on what they say with correct structure or wording are appropriate techniques to build sentence length and complexity.

Home-School Connection

Parents are an excellent resource for preschool programs. They can share native language books, rhyming songs, stories, skills, and cultural artifacts. In addition parents play a role in developing their child's native language, which is particularly important when there are no bilingual personnel in a child's preschool program. It is important to provide parents with training to help them understand the role of native language in overall academic, language, and biliteracy development, for cultural identity, and in English acquisition.

Training can help parents understand aspects of the school culture in the United States, such as expectations related to homework and achievement, school involvement, and grade-level performance. Many parents may be satisfied with their child's development but may not know that their child is behind in emergent literacy skills in the native or second language. For example parents may think that at the end of preschool their child is doing well because the child can communicate basic needs in English, but they may not know that the kindergarten teacher expects the child to know some letters, colors, and shapes. Explaining these expectations helps parents understand the system better and helps ensure that the child is better prepared.

Families with limited resources may need training on how to stimulate language, but the training should be provided so they can do it in a culturally appropriate manner. Retelling a story from a book, for example, may not be a culturally appropriate task for some families, although parents should be aware that this skill is important. Additionally, asking parents to label objects may feel unnatural to them. Finding alternative ways to build vocabulary through conversations and discussions may be more appropriate.

In some cultures, it is disrespectful to involve oneself in the classroom or to offer support to the teacher out of the belief that the best way to help is to allow the school to be fully responsible for educating children. For other families, their best effort is to get the child to school. Beyond that, they may not have time to go over homework, or they may not have the language or literacy skills to read an unfamiliar book in English. Professionals working with ELL families should consider the economic, environmental, cultural, educational, and language barriers of each child and family that preclude a parent from being involved. Conversely, often parents are not asked to be involved because of these barriers when they would gladly participate in the school because they want to learn and be with their child.

Building language and emergent literacy in ELLs requires a planned and systematic approach to address the native and second languages and to provide parents with needed resources and support. Systematic and planned bilingual language and literacy instruction promotes growth in the two languages and does not impede or slow English-language acquisition.

The speech-language pathologist in the preschool can have a preventive role in addressing these skills bilingually or through parent and teacher training. Working with preschool teachers on using ESL techniques and native language skills will have a strong impact on preparing children for kindergarten. Working with parents will have a significant impact when they know the expectations, when the tasks given are culturally appropriate, and when their needs are considered.

Maria Adelaida Restrepo, PhD, CCC-SLP, is an associate professor at Arizona State University. She has two research projects on oral language and emergent literacy intervention in ELLs to improve academic readiness. Contact her at

Mary Towle-Harmon, MS, CCC-SLP, is a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. Towle-Harmon's research has focused on intervention strategies to enhance the emergent literacy skills of preschoolers. Contact her at

cite as: Restrepo, M. A.  & Towle-Harmon, M. (2008, September 23). Addressing Emergent Literacy Skills in English-Language Learners. The ASHA Leader.



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