Linguistics for Biliteracy and L2 Teachers

Linguistics for Biliteracy and Second-language Teachers 

This module addresses CTEL Domain 1: 001; 002; 004 and 005; TExES Science of Reading Instruction Domain 1: A, C, H, Q.

This module offers a description of the essential knowledge for biliteracy teachers from the academic discipline of linguistics, particularly the subsystems of language. Knowledge of linguistics and “how language works” has long been recognized as fundamental for effective language and literacy teachers. Biliteracy teachers in particular utilize knowledge of the subsystems or components of language in their teaching because of students’ needs for learning two linguistic systems simultaneously. Emergent bilingual students use their L1 and their developing L2 skills for communication and for increasingly complex and demanding literacy and academic tasks. Here is a brief description of how knowledge of the components of language is vitally important in biliteracy instruction. For instance, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) identifies the domain of language structure and use among the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) for certification as teachers of English language learners (CTEL) (CCTC, 2009).


Phonology is the study of the sound system of a language. This includes not only vowel and consonant sounds and the combinations in which these are articulated in spoken language, but the syllable stress and intonation patterns of the language that signal meaning. Teachers’ knowledge of the phonology of the languages in which ELL students are learning to read and write is vitally important, since an understanding of the alphabetic principle for decoding English and acquiring phonemic awareness for purposes of reading and writing (National Reading Panel, 2000). In Spanish/English dual language settings, for example, teachers’ knowledge of phonology allows them to determine the sounds that exist in one language that are absent in the other, which often explains students’ difficulties with pronunciation or in learning to apply principles of phonics in their L2. In addition, study of L1/L2 phonology aids teachers in understanding different methods and approaches for teaching literacy in each language based on differences between their phonological features, especially as these relate to the regularity and transparency of the languages’ respective written representations. Therefore, knowledge of L1 and L2 phonology leads to enhanced language and literacy learning by promoting cross-linguistic transfer and metalinguistic awareness.

The discipline of contrastive linguistics is the study of how languages overlap and vary in forms, such as examining the sounds that are the same or different or non-existent in comparing two linguistic systems. The literacy learner becomes aware of the relationships between the letters (graphs) and the sounds or phonology of the language of the text, which is one dimension of metalinguistic awareness. The emergent reader gradually gains insights into how print works when they realize that written text is language that represents meaning through symbols. The learner then grasps the features of text, called concepts of print that are used to signal meaning in text, such as directionality, punctuation, capitalization, etc. Beginning readers acquire the ability to segment words in spoken language to hear their distinct sounds and pronunciation patterns, such as syllable stress in able to decode the text in response to cues in print and cues to meaning through cueing systems to “translate” the printed text into language.


Morphology is the study of words and how words are formed to convey meaning. The morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries meaning, such as the prefix un- as in the word undetermined because adding the prefix changes the meaning of the root word. Languages have different morphological systems and rely on internal changes within words to signal such meanings as tense, singular and plural (number), or the function of words as parts of speech. For example, Spanish nouns have gender and related adjectives are inflected to agree with the gender of the noun, while English nouns do not. However, English and Spanish share many morphological features in common because of their origins in Latin and Greek. The two languages’ common ancestors prompt the study of cognates, which are words with the same origins, often with the same meaning, that have predictable variations in pronunciation and spelling to conform to the phonology and morphology of the language. Teachers’ knowledge of L1 and L2 morphology supports students’ learning through word study, which enhances vocabulary building, reading and spelling.  Research indicates that morphological awareness becomes increasingly important in language and literacy learning as students move up through the grades because 60% of all the new vocabulary students acquire in school consists of morphologically complex words (Koda, 2008). Morphological awareness is developed through instruction in “word families” that have related meanings expressed through the use of Latin and Greek prefixes and root words such as “tele-S” meaning far, far off, or distant and “phon” for sound or “graph” for written or recorded. Teaching how morphological analysis aids in discovery of the meaning of words and how new words are formed or invented, such as “Telemundo” for the name of a TV network enhances students’ ability to transfer word meanings across languages.

Inflections and derivations in Spanish and in English are areas of morphology where contrasts between the languages are salient. There are more irregular inflections in English, such as with distinctive plural forms (children vs. “childs” but also chick, chicken, chickens) that are attributable to the historical origins of English in the Anglo and the Saxon languages (Moats, 2008). In Spanish, derivations perform an important grammatical function. Word derivations are frequent and predictable in Spanish. Derivations result in a change of part of speech grammatical function of words. Constructs of prefixes, suffixes and root words are useful in decoding. Word derivations are frequent and predictable in English. Derivation is a process that results in a change of part of speech grammatical function of words. Constructs of prefixes, suffixes and root words are useful in decoding. Derivations perform an important grammatical function. Some grammatical functions are signaled through derivations in English but not in Spanish, such as comparison and superlatives. There is no equivalent to the English –er or –est derivations for making comparisons in Spanish, which is achieved through the use of más for comparisons and the definite article plus más for superlatives (el más grande; los más grandes).


Orthography is the study of how oral language is represented systematically in writing. The term comes from the Latin roots ortho meaning “straight” or correct, so the term means the science of the correct way of writing. Orthography is more than spelling since it refers to all aspects of written language such as punctuation, word spacing and special features used to signal meaning. For example, in Spanish the written accent mark is a very important feature because signals syllabic stress patterns and also word functions, such as si meaning if and meaning yes, two different parts of speech. Orthographic systems have varying degrees of consistency and regularity in terms of the one to one or multiple relationships with phonetic and morphological units of the language and the use of single letters or letter clusters and combinations to represent different phonemes and morphemes. In planning biliteracy instruction in a Spanish/English dual immersion program, we analyze how Spanish orthography is related to methods for teaching Spanish literacy and we examine the commonalities and differences between the English and Spanish orthographic systems.

In the case of English and Spanish this means that the alphabetical principle is operational in bilingual reading.  Since the reader activates both linguistic systems, this suggests that would phonological characteristics that the languages share in common both serve as a basis for phonological decoding of written text.  Phonological decoding is the sounding out of words in print.  Fundamentally, the reader is processing three aspects of a word: the phonological word, the orthographic word, and the semantic word.  The reader analyzes the phonological features of a word in order to spell or write the word.  The writer synthesizes the phonological elements of a word as he or she writes if based on his or her knowledge of the letter-sound correspondences of conventional alphabetic spelling.  The objective of the analysis and synthesis process is to decode the meaning of the word in reading, or to encode the phonological word into conventional spelling to convey the meaning of the word. Bilingual readers and writers do not encounter one regular orthographic system (Spanish) and one irregular system (English). Rather, they encounter two systems that are irregular in different ways.

Grammar and Syntax

Grammar is the study of the implicit rules for how to form all possible sentences in a language and convey meanings through classes of words, their inflections and relationships to each other. Syntax is the study of word placement and order. Explicit study of grammar and syntax leads students to understand that language is rule-governed and systematic and therefore, highly predictable. The role of grammar and syntax in reading and writing, most particularly in students’ L2, is vital since a lack of familiarity with the grammatical structures of the language of written text can impede decoding and comprehension. Teachers’ knowledge of contrastive syntax and grammar aids them in assessing students’ language development in L2 and in determining possible difficulties in reading due to complexities of the language that students encounter in grade-level textbooks, a process called text analysis.

The metalinguistic universal principle of syntax and grammar is stated this way: Sentences can be analyzed to discover their component parts, which have labels and categories according to their functions. Changes in word order signal changes in meaning. We can change a sentence’s meaning by switching words around and/or adding words to complete the meaning, such as in declaratives sentences to questions, affirmative sentences to negative. Syntactic awareness refers to the ability to understand how words are strung together to form sentences in the conventional order and to recognize and select a word form that is consistent with its grammatical role in a sentence to convey meaning. We know from psycholinguistic research in reading that the reader’s implicit knowledge of syntax plays functional role in his or her ability to predict what words or expressions fit into linguistic or meaning “slots” in a sentence. L2 readers who have a weaker command of the second language’s syntax and grammar may read a text word-for-word rather than having a “flow” of language based on an inherent knowledge of how the L2 is constructed to convey meaning.

Language and literacy teachers also must recognize that as students move up through the grades, the level of syntactic and grammatical complexity of the reading materials and textbooks increases. In fact, most readability formulas are based in part on measures of complexity of syntax and grammar, such as sentence length, frequency of compound sentences, and the number and functions of subordinate clauses. There may be a mismatch between the L2 learner’s interlanguage and the increased linguistic demands of grade-level texts. The linguistic competence of the reader at the word, phrase and sentence levels impact both reading fluency and overall comprehension. Various levels of language systems influence the meaning-making process and operate simultaneously in comprehension.


Semantics refers to the study of relationships between words or word clusters as the concepts or ideas that they symbolize or represent. For example, idiomatic expressions are phrases that may appear to have an atypical syntactic or grammatical relationship with each other, but they convey a particular meaning. Teachers use semantics to analyze the levels of concreteness or abstraction that words convey in order to plan instruction and to determine strategies for building vocabulary and content knowledge. An aspect of semantics is the lexicon, which involves the study of vocabulary words and related expressions that share common meaning or characteristics, such as the names for tools or the study of cognates. Knowledge of semantics is important to biliteracy teachers as they determine whether L2 learners need to be taught the concepts that words label because the concept is unfamiliar or if the L2 speaker merely needs to learn a label for familiar concepts in their unknown language. Semantic analysis also supports teachers in determining when emergent readers may be able to decode the surface structure of sentences but not understand the deep structure of the language, which can lead to break-downs in reading comprehension.

The metalinguistic concept of semantics is the concept of how words as units of meaning. Semantic awareness refers to a set of abilities to isolate words as distinct linguistic units and discern how words function to convey meaning. Recognition of the word based on its meaning is the process of accessing the learner’s mental lexicon, which refers to the words and their associated meanings stored in memory. To access meaning through decoding text, speakers and readers must be able to parse and segment streams of speech or text into comprehensible units such as words (lexical level) or phrases (to look at versus to look for). In biliteracy learning, the levels of lexical and semantic analysis necessary for reading and writing in Spanish and in English are different, as for instance in the way the respective orthographic systems treat words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings (homophones) and words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations (homographs). Spanish uses the written accent mark to distinguish the meaning and function of such words, (acento desinencial). An example is the words with an accent mark that means “yes” and the un-accented si that means “if.” Consider how English has different spellings for there, their, and they’re, and to, two, and too. There are very few Spanish monosyllabic homographs (fue derived from ser versus fue derived from ir) and words with different syllabic stress are distinguished through the written accent.


Pragmatics refers to the study of uses of language for communicative purposes in different contexts and settings. This field of language study focuses on the functions of language in interpersonal interaction and for written forms of communication. Pragmatics informs teachers about how language usage can be taught through a variety of interactive activities. The study of pragmatics also informs instruction through the examination of the way text is structured and patterned linguistically and logically to achieve certain purposes, such as through words that signal chronological order or a cause and effect reasoning pattern. Constructs such as communicative competence (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) stem from the study of language pragmatics and have been useful in providing guiding principles for methods of L2 instruction and the analysis of the challenges in L2 literacy learning.

In literacy education, we often debate the relationship between decoding and comprehension without clearly articulating the implicit theory about how readers derive meaning from a text. Literacy acquisition involves learning about the components or subsystems of language, such as phonology, morphology and grammar to understand how they function in oral language to transcribe and convey meaning through written text. While metalinguistic knowledge leads to an understanding of how language works, metacognitive knowledge is the understanding of how thinking works. In literacy, the convergence of the two are the metacognitive strategies that enable the reader and writer to use language that is contextually appropriate to the communicative purpose of its use through decoding and encoding written text.  Metacognitive strategies support the ability to analyze the learner’s own thought processes and meaning-making strategies, as well as understanding how the authors of text structure and develop different literary genre and patterns of exposition for different purposes. Readers utilize metacognitive strategies to reflect on and monitor their comprehension and problem-solving strategies to read and write effectively.  Strategies include predicting, visualizing, organizing, tapping into prior knowledge, re-reading and self-questioning. For L2 readers, this includes metalinguistic processes, as they utilize their knowledge and skills as bilingual learners such as recognizing cognates, translation, and paraphrasing in their native or primary language. Genre-based writing is an integration of functional linguistics and genre theory to promote literacy development through explicit teaching of the organizing features, functions and choices of grammar and vocabulary that are available to interpret and produce a variety of genre from the three global text types: narrative, expository and persuasive. Genre-based literacy skills are transferable, although the language choices that students use depending on the communicative purpose of a text are language-specific. These language choices are identified for instruction through the text analysis process.


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

Click here for a self-assessment of knowledge of the fundamentals of linguistics for language and literacy instruction of bilingual learners.