Communication and Expression

Literacy Development


Dual Language Learners -- Literacy in English

Goal 1:  Young children, whose home language is not English, demonstrate an increasing ability to engage in literacy experiences in English.

The continuum of literacy development of young Dual Language Learners who are learning their home language and English somewhat resembles the literacy development of English-only speakers described in Elements 1, 2, and 3 of the Vermont Early Learning Standards; however, there are some differences. As with English only speakers, oral language development in English and/or the home language has a pivotal role in the ability of young dual language learners to develop literacy skills.

The oral language skills that are the underpinnings of literacy development in any language are: (1) listening and comprehending spoken language, (2) using the language to communicate with others, (3) using age-appropriate vocabulary and grammar, and (4) hearing and distinguishing the sound of the language (Espinosoa, 2013, p.2). To a great extent, the level of the dual language learner’s abilities in each language will determine the success and ease the child will experience in acquiring literacy skills in that language.

In addition to the dual language learner’s oral language ability in her home language and/or English, emergent literacy skills such as phonological awareness, print concepts, and other foundational skills pave the way to literacy. As with oral language development, these foundational literacy skills are developed best through meaningful interactions with print in the context of supportive personal relationships with family members and others. Additionally, if a dual language learner is developing these foundational literacy concepts and abilities in her home language, she can transfer much of this knowledge to English. The evidence is clear that the strength of the home language and literacy experiences in the home language support children’s literacy development in English.

The nature and timing of young dual language learners’ acquisition of literacy in English are dependent on many personal characteristics of the child (e.g., age, motivation, cognitive ability), the quality and quantity of the child’s literacy experiences in English, as well as the child’s oral language ability in English. Therefore, the trajectory of dual language learners’ acquisition of English literacy skills fluctuates from child to child. It should be noted that research has shown that dual language learners may face some challenges due to the fact that they are learning two languages, especially if they only encounter English after age two. While dual language learners can decode written language and seemingly “read”, they may not comprehend what they are decoding. In order to comprehend print, both dual language and English-only children need an “extended vocabulary” and the “mental lexicon” or concept of what is being read; know the syntax or grammar, understands narrative and “book language”. Since dual language learners have vocabularies and use grammars in two languages, the child’s reading comprehension may trail her decoding skills. Therefore, early educators need to be especially intentional in supporting oral language development including using increasingly more complex sentence structures, expanded vocabularies, and exposure to rich and varied experiences. Additionally, early educators need to be mindful to engage families, provide culturally responsive opportunities for the families, and support the family’s efforts to continue developing the home language, including literacy development in the home language.

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