Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

Q2: Do your #ELL struggle with first-language literacy?

L1 literacy enables L2 literacy, but we don’t teach it enough.

Bilingual education has been somewhat politically unpopular in recent decades, but the science is clear: students who can read in their first language have a much easier time learning to read in their second language.  Ask any bilingual teacher working with students who started reading in Spanish first and are transitioning to English: those who can read well in Spanish have no trouble picking up English reading, while those who struggled in Spanish also struggle in English.  One teacher I know has even observed a specific fluency cut-off: his first-graders who can read at least 50 words per minute in Spanish easily learn to read in English, while those below that threshold do not.

It might seem intuitively sensible that students who spend more time learning in English will ultimately be better at English, but this just isn’t the case.  When I studied Spanish in high school, I spent an hour a day learning in that language. This didn’t make me 1hr/day less good at English than my friends who didn’t study a foreign language, because language skill isn’t the simple result of the number of minutes spent using that language.  While exposure matters–kids in Russia aren’t going to spontaneously start speaking Swahili–it’s not the whole story.

The problem is that the testing and accountability system puts pressure on educators to get immediate results, and it’s true that bilingual education will not bring that kind of instant gratification.  When testing (in English) starts in third or even second grade, ELLs who have been in bilingual classes do do worse than ELLs who have been in English-only classes.  However, by 5th grade, those differences evaporate, and from middle school and beyond, kids who have ever been in bilingual classes do better than their English-immersion peers.  Importantly, we only see this benefit if kids can stay in bilingual programs through 5th or 6th grade.

Bottom line: L1 literacy enables rather than detracts from L2 literacy.

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Published by

Ingrid O'Brien

I am a literacy consultant, doctoral candidate, and educator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in the language and literacy development of bilingual children, particularly ELLs in the Common Core. I coach teachers, design & adapt curricula for ELLs, and organize intervention programs.

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