By Margarita Calderón, Ph.D.

Excerpt adapted from M. Calderón’s chapter in Soto, I., Snyder, S., Calderón, M. E., Gottlieb, M., Honigsfeld, A., Lachance, J., Marshal, M., Nungaray, D., Flores, R., & L. Scott (2023). Breaking Down the Monolingual Wall: Essential Shifts for Multilingual Learners’ Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Developing Biliteracy

Biliteracy for MLs is a comprehensive, multidimensional, approach that integrates the speaking, listening, reading, and writing domains. Language and literacy must relate to academic content learning in both languages.

Language and literacy development for MLs is different from the development for monolinguals (National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth, 2006, 2008). The National Literacy Panel concurred with the National Reading Panel (2001) that reading entails five foundational components: phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. These are now typically knownas “the BIG 5” in the Science of Reading.

Since school districts are moving toward the Science of Reading, these foundational skills must be addressed in their plans. To move from monolingualism to bilingualism, the Big 5 should be addressed in both languages to create a strong biliteracy program.

The Joint Statement from the Reading League and the National Committee for Effective Literacy (2023) emphasizes that the Science of Reading is not:

  1. An ideology
  2. A fad, a trend, a new idea, or a pendulum swing
  3. A political agenda
  4. A one-size-fits all approach
  5. A program of instruction
  6. A single, specific component of instruction, such as phonics

Since reading is the strongest predictor of academic success, researchers recommend that reading be taught explicitly to MLs whether in the early stages (foundations of reading), or in the later stages (multisyllabic words, affixes, fluency with automaticity, reading with prosody, and depth of comprehension). ExC-ELL instruction recommends that these subcomponents be taught in dual or multi-language programs.

ExC-ELL Premises, Practices, and Programs

  1. The Foundational Skills for Decoding. To the Big 5, we add background knowledge, concepts of print, and pronunciation practice. Whereas reading comprehension is also one of the five, it is often assumed that after teaching ‘phonics’ the students automatically develop comprehension. Comprehension requires explicit instruction.
  1. The Foundational Skills for Reading Comprehension. Reading comprehension is based on knowing how to decode but has its own strategies and components. Partner Reading with Summarization has been shown to be the most effective reading approach for integrating all five foundational skills. When students read aloud in pairs alternating sentences, they anchor decoding, develop prosody, understand sentence structure, and punctuation. When they stop after each paragraph and summarize, students practice the new vocabulary, discourse protocols, comprehend at a deeper level, and learn the content. Other types of reading are not as effective for comprehension (e.g., round-robin, calling on one student at a time, silent reading, choral reading). Some approaches such as silent reading even have negative effects for MLs. For depth of comprehension, students need to talk with peers to clarify their thinking, learn new ideas, and build knowledge together.
  1. What Transfers Between Two Languages. Highlighting cognates between two languages is not the only thing we can do to leverage bilingual students’ knowledge. While phonemic and phonological awareness are different between English and Spanish, the process or strategies for decoding are basically the same (e.g., letter recognition, letter-sound correlation, blending in English/syllable recognition in Spanish, word recognition, spelling, word application in own discourse). Knowing where MLs fall within the dual language foundational reading subcomponents provides insights into reading difficulties or strengths in either language, and where to focus instruction or extra assistance.
  1. Interrelationship of both languages occurs when the reading subcomponents are taught, compared, and contrasted in both languages. For example, even the smallest units of reading such as the /p/ in English and /p/ in Spanish can be recognized and practiced by contrasting the pronunciation of the phonemes in words such as ‘paper’ and ‘papel’. Students can hold a piece of paper up to their mouth and watch when the paper moves as they pronounce both words back and forth.
  1. Foundations of Reading for Older Newcomers and Long-Term ELs. We must acknowledge in grades 4th to 12th that newcomers and even other more advanced MLs still need foundational skills. Long-Term ELs might have missed quality basic reading instruction. Newcomers may or  may not have developed reading skills in their native country. Without decoding skills, there can be no fluency and much less comprehension as they struggle through dense pieces of reading in science, social studies, math, and language arts in middle and high school. Notwithstanding, the instructional approach to foundational skills must be compatible with their age, educational background, and where emphasis should be placed (e.g., decoding, fluency, vocabulary).
  1. Collaboration, communication, and critical thinking. Multilingual learners enjoy listening to themselves and others read for pronunciation and fluency because reading with a buddy makes it a safe environment to take risks. They learn to delve deeper into their own thinking and comprehension by summarizing what they read while getting help from a peer. Working with same-language peers becomes an opportunity for translanguaging as they put together strings of discourse to build comprehension. Equally valuable, heterogeneous grouping is also effective. For example, in a classroom with Spanish speakers and English speakers, the native Spanish speakers help the native English speakers during reading in Spanish, and the tables turn when it is time to read in English. Collaborating on summaries also gives second language learners opportunities to practice their new discourse skills and social emotional competencies or collaborative skills. Albeit for collaboration to work well, establishing the importance of norms of interaction and cooperative skills become critically important. Whole class interaction such as debriefing after reading a section provides additional opportunities to anchor both languages and prepare for elaborate writing.
  1. Equity. Equity, in this context, involves giving all students access to quality reading materials, excellent teaching, and rigorous, rich, relevant learning opportunities in two languages. It means helping students learn as much as possible, developing their talents and interests, as we meet and anticipate their needs along the way. It means helping them develop stronger relationships with their multicultural peers.

What It Looks Like in a Classroom, School, and District