Metalinguistic Transfer in Spanish/English Biliteracy

Role of Teachers in Biliteracy Development

Teachers in bilingual/ESL programs are not simply second-language teachers, nor are they exclusively literacy teachers. They are required to develop the full range of language skills, plus reading, writing and content-area knowledge with language-minority students. To accomplish this, the bilingual/ESL practitioner must apply theories and principles from psycholinguistics related to second-language acquisition along with effective literacy practices. Studies of bilingual literacy development and cross-linguistic transfer of skills indicate that there is a high level of transfer of skills and strategies from the first to the second language in reading. Researchers conclude that the greater the similarity in the writing systems of the two languages, the greater the degree of transfer, thus reducing the time and difficulties involved in learning to read the second language (Odlin, 1989). In contrast to the high level of sound-spelling correspondence, English has 44 phonemes with many spelling pattern variations for representing these sounds. Although the consonants in English usually have a one-to-one correspondence with the sound they represent, there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between a letter representing a vowel and the sound of the vowel. This is an area where children learning to read English a second language may encounter some stumbling blocks.

A fundamental principal in the use of the primary language for initiating reading instruction in bilingual education is the linguistic interdependence of language acquisition and the transfer of literacy skills from the primary language into the second-language of the bilingual learner (August & Shanahan, 2006; Bialystok, 2007; Legarreta-Marcaida, 1981; Miramontes, et al., 1997; Roberts, 1994). Teachers’ belief in the positive role of the primary language in development of cognitive academic skills and the value of primary language instruction in building the cultural identity and self-esteem of bilingual students is germane to the effective implementation of transitional bilingual education programs. Moreover, teachers in different types of bilingual/ESL and mainstream programs designed for English language learners would be operating under differing philosophies of biliteracy instruction, according to the program design and needs of the students. The National Association for Bilingual Education (1995) reported a compendium of research findings concluding that when taught by teachers who understand and believe in the important role of primary language in literacy learning, ELL students showed higher levels of achievement in school.

Alphabetic Principle in Spanish and English

The smallest minimal cue to meaningful reading of a first and second language is the phonological or sound system as it is related to the orthographic or writing system of the language. When initial reading instruction is conducted in Spanish, a phonics or analytical approach is commonly used because Spanish is a phonetic language with a very consistent set of phonics rules (Thonis, 1983). The Spanish alphabet has 29 letters that represent 24 phonemes, with five vowel sounds represented by the five vowel letters spelled in a one-to-one correspondence that is mostly consistent. Exceptions are the consonants (c, g) that represent different sounds, depending on what vowel follows in fixed spelling patterns. Other possible points of confusion in an otherwise regular spelling system, are letters such as the "b" and "v", which represent sounds so close in pronunciation that they are often transposed in spelling. Since the vowels in Spanish "say their own name" and the consonant names contain vowel sounds that adulterate the letter-sound correspondence (i.e., f = efe), usually teaching the names of letters in the alphabet is delayed until the reader has mastered the grapheme-phoneme relationships (Thonis, 1983).

Not only is decoding a challenge, but language minority students who are learning English may have difficulty with auditory discrimination of sounds that exist in English that do not exist in the readers’ first language. For example, the short /i/ sound, as in the English words bit and kid, does not exist in Spanish. Therefore, a Spanish speaker learning English will oftentimes fail to identify this phoneme and may encounter difficulty pronouncing the sound as well.

Studies on phonemic awareness and the transferability of first-language reading skills in bilingual programs demonstrate that phonics instruction is important in laying the foundation of decoding skills for proficient decoding and comprehension in reading a second language. Durgunoglu,, Nagy, Hancin (1993) investigated the factors influencing the English word identification performance of Spanish-speaking non-fluent readers. They found that the readers’ performance on tests of letter naming, Spanish phonemic awareness and Spanish word recognition predicted their ability to recognize English words and pseudo-words. They concluded that there is cross-language transfer of phonemic awareness and that first language skills can aid children in the beginning stages of reading. The research findings suggest that teachers of English language learners need a broad repertoire of skills for teaching the grapheme-phoneme relationships in English to students who may be unfamiliar with the English sound system. A component of these skills must be the ability to make students aware of the differences in the sound and spelling systems of L1 and L2 so that the proficient reader of Spanish can transfer knowledge into effective strategies for reading in English.

The study of word formation and the components of words, or morphology, is also a part of the foundation for decoding Spanish, due to the high number of meanings signaled by word derivations. Root words and inflections are also taught since nouns are inflected for number and gender and verbs for agreement in person and tense. Consequently, morphological clues are relied on heavily to recognize Spanish words, so structural analysis often precedes or accompanies the teaching of sight reading vocabulary.

In English, of the 20,000 most commonly used words, 20% have prefixes; and among these words 15 prefixes comprise 82% of the prefixes used (Roe, Stoodt & Burns, 1987). Since many of these words in English share common roots in Greek and Latin with their Spanish equivalents, there exist a large number of cognates, or words that have the same meaning in the two languages. There is evidence that word structure analysis skills transfer from Spanish to English in reading and the bilingual readers capitalize on these cognates. In their study of strategies employed by bilingual Spanish-English readers, Jiménez, García and Pearson (1996) found that the identification and utilization of cognates in resolving unknown words was a distinctive feature of bilingual readers’ repertoire of skills when reading in both languages.

Approaches to L2 Reading Instruction

Fitzgerald (1994) related certain theoretical positions toward second-language acquisition to ESL-literacy instructional approaches. The theories teachers’ espouse influence whether they view L2 reading as a "top-down" or "bottom-up" process, and whether or not they focus on sub-skills of language or on meaning-based reading activities. These strategies were equated with the phonics-skills or whole language approaches to reading instruction. The same continuum of reading methods and approaches that is the subject of debate among teachers of English language arts exists among educators in the Spanish-speaking nations. The continuum for Spanish reading ranges from synthetic methods that focus on part-to-whole strategies to holistic and meaning-focused approaches using sight word methods and narratives, with a mid-point of "métodos integrados" representing a balance (Medina, 1989). The most common sequence for teaching Spanish reading is based on a synthetic approach. Study of individual consonant and vowel letter-sound associations is usually followed by instruction in combining consonants and consonant blends into syllables to form words. These words are then decoded and studied in the context of sentences, either in isolation or in short stories or narratives (Freeman & Freeman, 1997; Thonis, 1983).

Miramontes, Nadeau, & Commins (1997) raise concerns about the applicability of some principles of both the phonics and whole language approaches to second-language readers. They indicate that the whole-to-parts perspective assumes that students have been exposed to a wide range of literacy experiences in their surroundings in the language they are expected to read and write in school. The students’ level of language proficiency in English delimits the level of sophistication with which students can engage in such literacy activities as invented spelling, sounding out words, or expressing ideas. Moll (1994) concluded from his research with Hispanic students in Arizona that the most effective reading approaches with bilingual student populations is a more interactive, comprehension driven or meaning-centered approach where teachers build on the oral language traditions and patterns from students’ cultural and home environments to develop literacy.

The principles and features of whole language that researchers have found to promote biliteracy are the use of a rich array of children’s literature that both includes narrative forms typical of particular cultures, such as folk tales, fables and legends. The use of classic literature with universally appealing messages and values is also recommended (Crawford, 1993; Freeman & Freeman, 1997; Hollingsworth & Gallego, 1997). Consequently, items regarding the use of children’s literature and the principles of the whole language approach were included to indicate the level of belief in these strategies for reading instruction with English-language learners.

Research Hypotheses About Biliteracy and L2 Reading

Current research in the literacy achievement of students who are speakers of a native language (L1) other than English and who are learning to speak, read and write in English as a second language (L2) concentrate investigations into the following areas of inquiry. These research questions have implications for educators in design and implementation of language and literacy programs for bilingual L2 learners.

  1. Relationship between competency or proficiency in the native language (L1) and reading achievement in L1 and/or L2
  2. Relationship between overall reading abilities in L1 and in L2.
  3. Simultaneous versus sequential development of L1 and L2 literacy
  4. Relationship between English language proficiency and reading abilities in L2 English
  5. Cross-linguistic transfer of particular metalinguistic awareness and knowledge in L2 and reading achievement in L2 English including phonemic awareness and phonological development, phonemic-graphemic knowledge and syntactic feature recognition
  6. Similarities and contrasts between knowledge and employment of particular reading strategies in L1 and their use in reading in L2 including word recognition strategies, cross-linguistic processes, intratextual perceptions, metacognitive strategies, prior knowledge and schema formation

Researchers have examined a combination of possibilities around the following hypotheses to explain the literacy performance of bilingual learners who are proficient readers in their L1 (Constantino, 1999).

  1. Poor reading in the L2 is due to poor reading ability in the L1.
  2. Poor reading in the L2 is due to lack of proficiency in the L2.
  3. Poor reading in the L2 is due to incorrect reading strategies in the L2.
  4. Poor reading in the L2 is due to not employing the L1 reading strategies in L2 reading, due to lack of proficiency in the L2.

Constantino (1999) documents that the preponderance of the evidence in most studies points toward a lack of proficiency in an L2 as being the primary reason for L2 reading difficulties, at least at relatively low levels of L2 competence (Alderson, 1984; Cziko, 1978; Kamhi-Stein, 1998; Lee & Schallert, 1997). In the case of advanced L1 readers, poor reading in an L2 is due to a lack of L2 proficiency which causes them to transfer and use only basic reading strategies when reading in the L2 (Carrell, 1991; Clarke, 1978; Kamhi-Stein, 1998; Lee & Schallert, 1997).

Research evidence also supports the conclusion that proficient bilingual and biliterate children and adults have heightened metalinguistic awareness and knowledge that may enhance their ability to use linguistic processes and analysis in L2 reading (Albert & Obler, 1978; Bialystok, 1991; Cummins, 1976; Gass & Selinker, 1983; V. González, 1999, Goswami, 1999; Muñiz-Swicegood, 1994; Zunkernick, 1996).

Transfer of Metalinguistic Knowledge

A theory of L2 language acquisition that informs literacy instruction for teachers of bilingual learners is the cross-linguistic transfer hypothesis (Bialystok, 2007; Hornberger, 1994; Koda, 1997, Odlin, 1989). This theory posits that knowledge is transferred from the learners first language into the performance of cognitive and linguistic tasks in the second language. The cross-linguistic hypothesis suggests that the greater the similarity in the writing systems of the two languages, the greater the degree of transfer, thus reducing the time and difficulties involved in learning to read and write the second language (Odlin, 1989).

Below is a table showing the metalinguistic knowledge that bilingual readers acquires in their first language and transfer to their second language as they develop literacy in Spanish and English.

Transfer of Metalinguistic Knowledge in Spanish/English Biliterate Students

Source: Mora, J.K. (2001). Learning to spell in two languages: Orthographic transfer in a transitional Spanish/English bilingual program. In P. Dreyer (Ed.), Raising Scores, Raising Questions: Claremont Reading Conference 65th Yearbook, 64-84. Claremont, CA: Claremont Graduate University.

The alphabetic principle and Spanish orthography The alphabetic principle and English orthography

There are 29 alphabet letters that represent 24 phonemes.

There are 26 alphabet letters that represent from 40 to 52 phonemes. 20 English phonemes have spellings that are predictable 90% of the time and 10 others are predictable over 80% of the time. There is a high level of correspondence between most Spanish letter-sound relationships and their English equivalents.

The spelling of words can be derived by listening for its component phonemes and writing the corresponding letter. There is only one correct spelling for every word. We know how to pronounce every word we read based on its spelling.

Segmenting words into sounds provides clues to their spelling most of the time. However, spelling in English also varies according to the position of the sound in a syllable, what sounds come before and after a given sound and the morphological structure of the word. Occasionally, a spelling will represent more than one word (read-read) so we have to use meaning as a clue to recognize the word.

Some phonemes are spelled using more than one letter (ch, ll, rr). Other than these cases, if a letter is doubled, both letters are pronounced (leer).

Many letters in English are used as markers that signal the sounds of other letters. These letters have no direct relation to the sounds in the word. Doubled letters may be part of a spelling pattern and frequently represent only one phoneme.

There are 5 vowel letters and 5 vowel sounds that are consistent. They are always spelled the same, except for i which is sometimes spelled with a y (i griega) such as in soy, voy, y.

There are five vowel letters and 15 vowel sounds in English. There are many different patterns used to spell these vowel sounds.

A few phonemes can be spelled in more than one way (/h/= g or j as in jirafa, girasol; /s/ as in cita, sitio; /k/= c & qu as in casa, queso).

There are 19 consonant phonemes that are sometimes spelled using more than one letter.

Dividing words into syllables is helpful in knowing how to pronounce and spell them. Syllabification rules are regular. Syllables either contain a single vowel and or a diphthong. Diphthongs are a combination of a weak vowel (i, u) with a strong vowel (a,e,o) or two weak vowels. When we can pronounce words and break words into syllables and apply certain rules, we know how to place written accents correctly.

Dividing words into syllables is helpful in knowing how to pronounce and spell them. There are six different types of syllables: open, closed, vowel-consonant-e, etc. Syllabification often depend on word meaning and origins, so we must use such word parts such as prefixes and suffixes for correct division and spelling of syllables.

Parts of a word (morphemes) can be added or changed to change the meaning of the word. The meaning changes include verb tense, number and gender and agreement in number and gender, size and affection (-ito, -ón).

Parts of a word (morphemes) can be added or changed to change the meaning of the word. Many parts of words in English do not change the way they are required to in Spanish.

Effective L2 Literacy Teaching

Teachers need a level of specialized knowledge of second language acquisition and biliteracy development to maximize the effectiveness of literacy instruction for second-language readers. To be effective in biliteracy and dual language learning of literacy, teachers must have a knowledge and understanding of the following:

The relationship between oral language proficiency and the development of reading skills and the progression of learning the component skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

  1. The contrasts and congruence points between the first and second languages and methods of contrastive linguistic analysis between the first language of readers and English.
  2. The difficulty level of the reading materials based on unfamiliar or culturally different vocabulary, syntactic complexity and text structure and the purpose of the reading task.
  3. Methods of assessing students’ reading levels to determine to avoid frustration and select the appropriate instructional level of texts for direct instruction and the independent level of reading for comfortable and productive independent reading activities.
  4. Students’ learning styles and related reading styles and interests for selecting appropriate instructional strategies that are congruent with cultural learning orientations as well as idiosyncratic preferences.
  5. Literacy patterns of the students’ families and culture including how reading is taught in the students’ native language and rhetorical patterns commonly used in written text in the native language.
  6. A variety of methods and approaches for teaching decoding and comprehension including principles from phonics, skills and whole language approaches.
  7. Criteria for selecting appropriate reading materials based the redundancy of linguistic forms, conceptual complexity and cultural relevance to the reader of the text.