Cross-linguistic Transfer in Biliteracy Instruction

Cross-linguistic Transfer in Biliteracy Instruction

The merits of the approach to Spanish reading selected in a dual language program can be viewed in terms of each one’s effectiveness for teaching a student to read in his/her native language, as well as for laying the foundation for the transition into English reading. This dual purpose of primary-language literacy instruction is the reason why many literacy experts and researchers support a phonics approach that capitalizes on the high degree of similarity and orthographic equivalencies between English and Spanish. In designing biliteracy instruction, the teaching sequence and focus for developing pre-literacy and early literacy competencies is different. Phonetic analysis activities such as segmentation and blending of words in synthetic and analytic approaches to phonics instruction use different types of activities in Spanish and in English. In biliteracy classrooms, a cross-linguistic transfer sequence is appropriate, with priority given to language universals and Spanish language-specific metalinguistic knowledge, such as the grade-by-grade Spanish language arts standards articulated in the Common Core en Español Standards.

The Common Core State Standards reforms in California and the publication of the Common Core en Español Standards have opened a window of opportunity for dual language educators to apply effective Spanish language pedagogy in biliteracy instruction that honors Spanish in its own right while promoting cross-linguistic transfer to enhance literacy learning in Spanish and in English. Biliteracy teachers are engaged in constructive dialogue with our colleagues about the controversies surrounding different methods and approaches to Spanish literacy instruction based on historical and current research into how students learn to read and write in Spanish and how Spanish literacy is taught in Spanish-speaking countries. By recognizing the commonalities of teaching reading and writing across languages, as well as the way reading methods and approaches respond to the language-specific features of Spanish and English, we have the potential for achieving greater success in biliteracy programs and classrooms in both languages.

A Biliteracy Curriculum Framework

In a sequential approach to biliteracy instruction, once primary-language literacy competencies are firmly established and the teacher determines that formal English reading for the bilingual child is appropriate, instructional strategies for teaching reading in the second language should be chosen based on linguistic and instructional techniques which meet the needs of the bilingual reader. This program for developing second-language reading is based on strategies that maximize cross-linguistic transfer. The curriculum framework for 90:10 dual immersion programs is based on a synthesis of language acquisition research and research on effective literacy teaching practices.

The objective of concurrent and parallel ESL or ELD instruction in a 90:10 or 50:50 dual immersion program is to familiarize the student with the language to be encountered in English reading with a focus on areas of points of cross-linguistic transfer in the phonological and orthographic systems of the second language. It is necessary to assess the child’s English language vocabulary and grammatical competence. This can be done using concepts and language patterns that may be familiar to the Spanish speaking child. The student whose first language is Spanish should be assisted through appropriate instruction to discriminate and articulate English sounds that do not exist in Spanish. It is also advisable to introduce and practice in oral language development activities the language students will encounter in text. This will enhance the child’s confidence and ability to comprehend new language forms and concepts without being hindered by unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts. A metalinguistic awareness of contrasts between Spanish and English should also serve to maximize the transfer of skills and concepts acquired in Spanish reading.

Click here for a Biliteracy Curriculum Scope and Sequence.

Alphabetic Principle Spanish-English Transfer

The alphabetic principle is the understanding that there are systematic and predictable relationships between written letters and spoken sounds. Phonics instruction helps children learn the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. Written text is a representation of language. In alphabetic languages, letters represent sounds in the language. These sounds (phonemes) are sometimes represented by a single letter, sometimes by more than one letter, and sometimes by clusters of letters. We can break words up into isolated sounds in order to “map” these sounds into print and/or decode text into language.

Spanish is a transparent and orthographically regular written language. Spanish has 24 phonemes that are represented by 29 letters. All of the information the reader needs to pronounce a word correctly is present in its written form. The function of the written accent is to indicate the difference between words that are spelled the same but are stressed on different syllables, such as ánimo, animo, animó, each with a different meaning. The precision in Spanish spelling achieved through the rules for written accents contrasts with the difficulty in reading English words such as read, where context clues and meaning determine the word’s pronunciation when the reader cannot rely on the written word along. Spanish has only seven phonemes that are represented by multiple letters such as the /s/ spelled with c, s, or z, the /k/ sound spelled with c, k, or qu, and /h/ sound spelling with g or j. Letter-sound relationships of letters that represent more than one phoneme, such as the c and the g, are predictable in Spanish because regular spelling patterns signal the phoneme-grapheme relationships in these cases. These language-specific features of Spanish are made explicit through direct and systematically-planned instruction, which in turn facilitates bilingual learners’ repertoire of metalinguistic competencies as they learn to read and write in English.

There are a number of reasons why L1 Spanish literacy supports and enhances acquisition of literacy skills in English. When students learn to read in their L1 Spanish when they enter school, they immediately have access to their linguistic repertoire and knowledge in their native language equivalent to that of their age and grade level peers for all forms of learning in school. Therefore, reading instruction explicitly develops students’ knowledge of how language is represented symbolically through the alphabetic system. Students acquire concepts about print and learn the relationships between language sounds and letters. They do not need to learn to read twice simply because they are learning in two languages since many reading skills transfer across languages.

Click here for a summary of the transfer of the alphabetic principle across Spanish and English.

What Transfers in Spanish-English Biliteracy?

The academic discipline of contrastive linguistics studies the similarities and differences between languages to arrive at a scale of language distance between two linguistic systems. There are mental constructs or abstractions that DL learners acquire as their metalinguistic awareness and knowledge grow across the grade levels. Students develop an awareness and knowledge that language is rule-governed. For example, in the course of making sense of ordinary language, Spanish speakers become aware that nouns have number and gender and the articles and adjectives that are used to modify them must agree according to certain fixed rules. They learn to use agreement correctly in their speech. However, as they begin to develop metalinguistic knowledge, this concept is articulated as a grammatical rule or generalization and this understanding of this linguistic construct is reinforced throughout the grades.

In planning explicit transfer instruction or in conducting an analysis of a text, teachers identify the language universals that are features or functions of the linguistic subsystem that are the objective of instruction.  In this document, find examples of the contrasting language-specific Spanish and English constructs for each subsystem to illustrate the components of metalinguistic knowledge. For example, we can state a language universal about phonology and then from this universal construct, identify information about contrasts between the two languages’ systems as points for explicit teaching. A theoretical construct called metalinguistic awareness (MA) is important for understanding the benefits of Spanish reading instruction in Spanish/English biliteracy programs. Metalinguistic knowledge is a construct that explains the core linguistic knowledge that students must control to understand how oral language is represented or mapped unto written text. MA is defined as awareness or bringing into explicit consciousness of linguistic forms and structure in order to consider how they relate to and produce the underlying meaning in language use.

Click here for a chart of Spanish-English literacy knowledge and skills.

What Doesn’t Transfer in Spanish-English Biliteracy?

In general, features of Spanish or English that are specific to each language and have no equivalent form or function are considered non-transferable. These linguistic features or applied literacy skills are referred to as language-specific. Biliteracy research identifies a set of literacy universals that all students must know and control in order to learn to read in any language and certain language-specific mappings that vary according to the orthographic or sound-symbol relationships of a particular language. Phonemic awareness is a component of more global metalinguistic knowledge that readers must acquire to learn the relationships between spoken language and its written representations. In beginning Spanish reading and writing, awareness of syllables and syllable stress patterns are important metalinguistic competencies. MA develops when students’ implicit knowledge of how language works to communicate meaning is made explicit through formal instruction and structured learning experiences.

Biliteracy learners approach Spanish and English text differently based on phonological differences between the languages of the texts  Spanish is predominantly a syllabic phonological system. The granular unit of Spanish reading is the syllable. This is unlike English where there are many one-syllable words where the vowel sound is the salient element that signals meaning (cat, mat, sat, pat, etc.). This feature of English phonology makes phoneme-level distinctions take on a greater importance in learning to pronounce and in reading and writing instruction, to be able to discriminate phonemic units in words. This is what is meant by onset and rime. The onset is the initial phonological unit of any word (e.g. c in cat) and the term rime refers to the string of sounds that follow, usually a vowel and final consonants or consonant blend (e.g. at in cat).  Spanish also does not have a “short vowel” and “long vowel” distinction, since there are only five vowel sounds in Spanish. The important auditory discrimination skill that learners of Spanish need to acquire, especially as a literacy skill, is to distinguish between simple vowels and diphthongs (bala/baila; dos/dios; pasaje/paisaje).  An understanding of phonological differences in the two languages is also important for explaining differences in methods and approaches to reading and writing instruction in each language. Spanish has very few monosyllable words.

Click here for an analysis of English phonics non-transferability to Spanish.

Click here for a list of Spanish-specific literacy skills: Destrezas Específicas al Español from the Common Core en Español.

Spanish and English Literacy: Same or Different?

Teachers in biliteracy programs are faced with the challenge of coordinating decoding instruction in two languages, which involves a differentiation between methods of instruction that are effective supporting initial Spanish literacy learning in contrast to methods that support early literacy learning in English. Biliteracy teachers are engaged in constructive dialogue with our colleagues about the controversies surrounding different methods and approaches to Spanish literacy instruction based on historical and current research into how students learn to read and write in Spanish and how Spanish literacy is taught in Spanish-speaking countries. By recognizing the commonalities of teaching reading and writing across languages, as well as the way reading methods and approaches respond to the language-specific features of Spanish and English, we have the potential for achieving greater success in biliteracy programs and classrooms in both languages.

Source: Mora, J.K (2016). Spanish language pedagogy for biliteracy programs. San Diego, CA: Montezuma Publishing