Literacy Instruction Methods Spanish vs English

Literacy instruction methods in Spanish and in English: Same or different?

Jill Kerper Mora


Foundational Skills for Spanish and English Literacy

The Common Core Standards reforms nationally and in California have brought about a renewed focus on foundational literacy skills for English learners. The English Language Development (ELD) Standards, Chapter 6 states that “ELs’ native language literacy can help them learn English foundational literacy skills,” recognizing that the use of students’ knowledge of  their native-language writing system, word meanings and spellings facilitates their transfer of decoding and writing skills in developing English literacy (CA Department of Education, 2012:178-9). The ELD Standards are aligned with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy: Reading Standards for Foundational Skills. In dual language programs that implement the 90/10 or the 50/50 model, initial literacy learning takes place in Spanish for native and heritage language speakers of Spanish as well as for native English speakers learning Spanish as a second language. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers (2012), through the San Diego County Office of Education published the CCSS Spanish Language Version, known in the field as the Common Core en Español Standards. These reforms have prompted much conversation among multilingual educators about the commonalities and differences between teaching reading and writing in Spanish and in English and how to plan and coordinate biliteracy instruction to maximize language learning and academic achievement.

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 the child to read in his/her native language, as well as for laying the foundation for the transition into English reading. However, there are also controversies surrounding methods of literacy instruction in Spanish where in some states, policies have been imposed that reflect misunderstandings of the linguistic and grammatical differences in Spanish and English that are addressed through different approaches and instructional strategies for teaching reading and writing.

The Common Core en Español

The Common Core en Español Standards (CCEE) provides first, a translation into Spanish of the English Language Arts standards and second, a linguistic augmentation that gives specific examples and elaborated standards for language features that are specific to Spanish. These augmented standards serve as a guide to dual language program curriculum design for biliteracy teaching. The structure and design of the CCEE is based on the theoretical framework articulated in the metalinguistic approach. The linguistic augmentation of the CCEE is a response to these questions:

Does the Common Core target a language or literacy concept, principle or skill that applies or functions only in English? If so, is there a similar concept or principle in Spanish, where Spanish examples can illustrate the standard’s target knowledge? Are there language and literacy concepts, principles and skills explicit to Spanish that should be added or augmented to address the unique linguistic characteristics of the Spanish language?

The purpose of the Common Core en Español standards is to promote the same expectations and level of rigor for Spanish usage as educators expect for English usage through quality curriculum and instruction. The Common Core Standards reforms have provided biliteracy teachers with a framework for planning language arts instruction in English and Spanish that is grounded in effective language-specific pedagogy (Mora, 2016).

The Research Base for Spanish Literacy

Goldenberg, Tolar, Reese, Francis, Bazán and Mejía-Arauz (2014) conducted an international study that provides a longitudinal comparison of phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and Spanish reading skills acquisition of three populations of Spanish literacy learners in Mexico and the United States. The students’ instructional contexts included first and second grade students in Mexico who are Spanish monolingual learners; Spanish-speaking students who are first generation immigrants to the United States or who have one or both parents born in Mexico and were taught to read in English in bilingual programs; and Spanish-speaking students in the United State taught to read in English only. Phonemic awareness is a skill that is applicable to reading in any alphabetic language and also, to some degree, a skill that is language-specific according to the sound and spelling systems of Spanish versus English. The Goldenberg et al. study examined how much phoneme-oriented instruction occurred in each of the three different instructional contexts? The researchers examined the extent to which  instruction in Mexico versus in the United States reflected prevailing practices in Spanish- speaking countries for Spanish literacy or whether instruction in Spanish in the USA context exhibit influence from English literacy practices. Phoneme-oriented instruction was observed in the United States in 94% of English literacy instruction and 79% of Spanish literacy instruction, but in Mexico, a focus on phonemic skills was observed in only 9% of literacy instruction: Instead, the focus in Spanish literacy instruction in Mexico was on reading comprehension and writing. The study reports that although students in Mexico began instruction in first grade scoring low in phonemic awareness, Mexican students surpassed U.S. Spanish readers and US English readers in overall reading achievement by the end of second grade.

The findings of the Goldenberg et al. (2014) confirm the approaches to instruction in Mexico that focus on meaning-making and writing rather than on phonological training as a prerequisite for literacy learning. The implications of these findings are that the relationship between learning the alphabetic principle and the mapping of sounds unto print in a transparent and orthographically regular system such as Spanish may not depend on explicit phonemic awareness instruction to the same extend as is customarily provided in English reading instruction. However, the study also confirmed that phonological awareness transfers across languages in Spanish/English biliteracy learning.

Mexico’s Programa de Español

Taboada and Mora (2014) conducted a comprehensive study of literacy education in Mexico to describe the federal literacy instruction policy embodied in the Mexico National Reading Program (MNRP) and to ascertain the extent to which the orientation to reading instruction articulated in the program’s theoretical framework and curriculum are congruent with Mexican teachers´ theoretical perspectives on reading instruction and teachers’ classroom literacy practices in urban and rural school settings. Mexico’s basic education reforms in the Programa de Español (2011) moves away from a traditional notion of decoding instruction to adopt a constructivist and psycholinguistic approach to literacy instruction. The metalinguistic aspects of decoding and encoding are addressed as reflexión sobre la lengua where students analyze how Spanish phonology is represented through the orthographic system to convey meaning through written text.

Spanish Literacy Instruction Methods

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. For Spanish literacy Instruction, methods and approachcan be synthetic, analytic, or a combination of synthetic and analytic techniques (Molino García, 1981).

  1. Analytical methods where metalinguistic concepts and skills development moves from whole to part: todo global, método del cuento, método de la oración, método de la palabra.
  2. Synthetic methods where conceptual and skills development proceeds from part to whole: alfabético, silábico, fonético, onomatopéyico. This category includes methods for developing knowledge of letter-sound associations through narrative and storytelling, such as the onomatopoeic method.
  3. Approaches focused on comprehension and communicative functions of language with a separate and explicit metalinguistic reflection component, such as the Mexico Programa de Español (2011).

Scope and Sequence of Spanish Literacy Instruction

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.

A sequence of instruction for initial Spanish literacy is based on the regularities of the grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) relationships in Spanish orthography (Dehaene, 2015), This entails giving priority in instruction to teaching letters and letter-sound correspondences that are more frequent and more regular before teaching the less regular and more complex letter-sound relationships. Usually, the synthetic approach begins with letters that have only one phoneme-grapheme correspondence, starting with the vowels and then letters such as m, p, t, f, n, etc. The instruction moves to synthesis into syllables that begin with a learned consonant and identification of words that begin with that syllable (masa, mano, mago, maceta) and then discrimination of words beginning in different syllables with the same initial phoneme (nudo, nido, nada).

Letter Naming vs. Deletrear

Spelling instruction in Spanish-speaking countries is integrated into learning to read phonetically. Spelling in a formal sense in Spanish is called ortografía or the study of orthographic patterns, including the use of the written accent mark to indicate exceptions to the rules of word pronunciation. The ability to use the written accent mark and to use the different spellings of a phoneme accurately in Spanish is usually the result of extensive reading and a wide vocabulary rather than formal instruction in spelling. Letter identification and naming is an area of Spanish reading instruction where the structure of the Spanish language and traditional teaching methods give rise to different approaches to initial reading and writing instruction. Traditionally in Spanish-speaking countries, teaching letter names is delayed because most letter names in Spanish are multisyllabic and do not provide learners with a “pure” referent for the phoneme most commonly represented by the letter  Since Spanish vowels “say their own name” and the consonant names contain vowel sounds that distort the letter-sound correspondence (i.e., the letter f = efe), the names of letters in the alphabet are not taught until the reader has mastered the grapheme-phoneme relationships. Using the phoneme rather than the letter name in early letter-sound association instruction is recommended. Letter names are traditionally taught after phoneme-grapheme relationships are mastered.


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.


California Department of Education (2012). English Language Development Standards K-12. Sacramento, CA: Author.

California Department of Education (2014). English language arts/English language development framework. Sacramento, CA: Author.

Council of Chief State School Officers (2012). Common Core State Standards Spanish language version. Washington, D.C.: Author. [Available at].

Dehaene, S. (2015). Aprender a leer: De las ciencias cognitivas al aula. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Goldenberg, C., Tolar, T.D., Reese, L., Francis, D.J., Bazan, A.R., & Mejía-Arauz, R. (2014, March). How Important Is Teaching Phonemic Awareness to Children Learning to Read in Spanish? American Education Research Journal. pp. 603-644

Jiménez González, J.E. & Ortíz González, M.R. (2000). Metalinguistic awareness and reading acquisition in the Spanish language. The Spanish Journal of Psychology 001(3), 37-46.

Molina García, S. (1981). Enseñanza y aprendizaje de la lectura. Madrid, Spain: Ciencias de la Educación Preescolar y Especial.

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

Taboada, D. S. & Mora, J.K (2015). Can international research inform Spanish literacy instruction? A look at the Mexico experience. National Association for Bilingual Education Conference, Las Vegas, NV, March 6, 2015.