Unlocking the Secrets to Teaching Literacy

Supporting Bilingual and Dual Language Learners

By Tiara Smith, Copywriter & Content Strategist ; Marissa Basch, Executive Editor

Upon viewing recent research about teaching foundational skills and literacy, it is common to ask whether this data applies to teaching biliteracy or supporting dual language learners. Analyzing this research begs the question: Is there a wrong way to teach biliteracy? To answer this question, one must first understand the requirements to achieve biliteracy and the subtle nuances of each language. Achieving literacy in two languages such as Spanish and English can certainly vary widely and presents inherent complexities given the differences between each language. In fact, according to a recent international study of bilingual programs conducted by Goldenberg, Tolar, Reese, Francis, Bazán and Mejía-Arauz (2014) that included students from both Mexico and the United States, the research showed that, due to the nature of the orthographic, or spelling systems, in Spanish, explicit phonemic awareness instruction is not as needed as it is provided in English reading instruction. There are phonological awareness transfers from Spanish to English that support biliteracy.

Approaching English and Spanish instruction in the same way even when using an explicit and systematic approach will not achieve the desired results. When approached appropriately, however, literacy instruction grants bilingual and dual language students a chance to thrive. Within this article we will explore the differences between the Spanish and English languages, present how they impact best practices for instruction, and provide a few tips to improve literacy instruction in your bilingual or dual language classroom.

Pedagogical Differences Between Spanish and English

English and Spanish are both alphabetic languages, and therefore, the process of learning to read is essentially the same in that literacy in general focuses on sound-symbol relationships, including alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, print knowledge, decoding, and then moving on to complex texts that allow students to “read to learn” vs “learn to read.” The sequence of instruction is based on grapheme-phoneme relationships and language can be scaffolded to build upon one area after another.

There are structural differences, though, between both languages that lend themselves to follow varied instructional approaches. While Spanish and English share the same vowels, each vowel in Spanish makes only one sound, resulting in there being five vowels and their corresponding vowel sounds. On the contrary, English has the same vowels, but these vowels are represented as 12+ sounds that are often created based on the other letter combinations surrounding them. For consonants, as well, each makes its own unique sound, making the sound-symbol correspondence in Spanish more predictable than English. As a result, less emphasis is put on decoding in Spanish because multisyllabic words appear more frequently at beginning reader levels, and the sound relationships are consistent throughout the words. The different grammatical system used in the Spanish language also needs to be considered, as it takes into account gender agreement between the articles and their associated nouns, pronouns, and adjectives (e.g., la mesa, but el árbol).

Outlined in the chart below are a list of some pedagogical differences between Spanish and English to keep in mind as you optimize literacy instruction in your bilingual or dual language classroom.

Spanish English
Vowels taught before consonants Consonants taught before vowels
5 vowel sounds 12+ vowel sounds
Direct sound to symbol correspondence Not a direct sound to symbol correspondence
Few monosyllabic words; two and three syllable words common in beginning reading instruction Monosyllabic words common and typically used in beginning ready instruction
Words sounded out by syllables (ta-pa) Words sounded out by individual sounds
Phonemic Awareness taught in conjunction with reading and writing - focus on comprehension Phonemic Awareness taught in the pre-reading stage

Tips to Support Students in Your Classroom

As you notice the inherent differences between teaching Spanish and English literacy, we have a few tips to ensure that each student feels supported.

  1. Create content-rich approaches to teaching Spanish: Spanish language instruction, when based on specific content area vocabulary pertaining to subjects such as Social Studies or Science, allows students to recognize the sound-symbol and consonant-vowel syllable patterns that are present in Spanish. This practice will engage students in knowledge building that aligns with what they are learning in other subjects included in the curriculum. As students learn, they will begin to transfer the linguistic and content-specific knowledge from one language to the other. Implementing a solution such as Raz-Plus Español can help. Offering both transadapted and authentic Spanish resources that align with content area instruction, this solution will provide resources for independent practice and allows students to refine their linguistic skills while building knowledge to apply to more challenging texts in the future.
  2. Reinforce Spanish literacy skills with a tool you trust: When selecting a tool to complement literacy instruction, it is imperative to make sure that it fits your classroom’s unique needs while originating from a trusted source, as it can be easy to find worksheets, assessments, and other tools online, but not all resources are created equal. An add-on to our award-winning literacy solution, Raz-Plus, Raz-Plus Español is a solution you can trust to refine Spanish literacy skills while providing a plethora of activities, assessments, and high-quality texts for practice. This wide array of activities enables educators to readily assess students’ Spanish reading levels, provide quality, differentiated instruction, and offer students independent practice opportunities. Outside of providing resources to better equip students with refined Spanish literacy skills, this solution also provides guidance for teachers by offering clearly modeled lesson plans and more. In addition, Raz-Plus Español offers classroom management tools in the same space as Raz-Plus, allowing teachers easy access to view their students’ Spanish and English literacy levels and assignment activity.
  3. Select a tool that allows students to dissect the text: Upon learning key literacy skills and becoming familiar with the subtle nuances of both English and Spanish, bilingual or dual language students will need to engage in reading practice that goes beyond the act of simply reading the text. As you search for a tool to guide the literacy journey, look for a solution that includes tools to allow for close reading such as:
    • A notes feature to allow students to notate words or concepts they do not understand or write a summary of the text
    • A markup feature that allows students to markup the text as they see fit when they do not understand a vocabulary word or one that will allow them to underline textual evidence to answer high-level questions about the text
    • A record and playback tool to record students as they read excerpts from the text to refine fluency and ensure understanding of the language they are learning

Tools such as this allow students to gain a deeper understanding of the text and the varying literary and linguistic elements used to convey its message. Upon gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text and the way certain elements work together, students will be able to approach texts of increasing difficulty as they progress.

Using Linguistic Knowledge to Better Teach Literacy

Now that you are familiar with some of the key differences between the Spanish and English languages, you are better equipped to provide even greater instruction to bilingual and dual language students. Upon selecting the right tools to support instruction such as Raz-Plus Español, you’ll have all of the materials you need to guide student practice and promote learning gains.

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Footnote:

  1. Kerper Mora, Jill. “Literacy Methods in Spanish and English.” MoraModules, Multilingual Educator CABE 2017 Edition, https://moramodules.com/literacy-methods-in-spanish-and-english. Accessed 31 October 2022.
  2. Ford, Karen, et al. “Early Literacy Instruction in Spanish: Teaching the Beginning Reader.” Colorin Colorado, https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/early-literacy-instruction-spanish-teaching-beginning-reader. Accessed 31 October 2022.
  3. Lam, Kristin, et al. “More US schools teach in English and Spanish, but not enough to help Latino kids.” USA Today, USA Today, 6 January 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/education/2020/01/06/english-language-learners-benefit-from-dual-language-immersion-bilingual-education/4058632002. Accessed 1 November 2022.
  4. The University of Texas at Austin/The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International. “10 Key Policies and Practices for - Teaching Reading in English-Spanish Bilingual Programs.” The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, 2021, https://meadowscenter.org/files/resources/10Key_ReadingBilingual_WEB.pdf. Accessed 1 November 2022.
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