Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development
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Reading Acquisition in Bilinguals
Section Editor:
Helene Deacon, Ph.D. (helene.deacon@dal.ca)
Department of Psychology
Dalhousie University
Life Sciences Centre, Halifax, NS B3H 4J1
Printable Version:
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Key Messages
What do we know?
The most common type of bilingual learners in Canada are first and second generation immigrants who are learning English or French as a second language. There are two broad categories through which Canadian schools promote bilingual education:
  1. Programs in which all classes are taught in the majority language of the community (English or French) – language minority students are placed in the mainstream classroom with native speakers of English or French.
  2. Programs that aim to promote children’s proficiency in a language other than English – for example, French immersion (children experience at least half of the school day in a language other than their native language) or heritage language programs (children receive the majority of their instruction in English, with some additional classes offered in their home language).
Research suggests that best practices for reading instruction seem to have similar benefits for both native English speakers and English learners. Both groups tend to show similar growth when they receive explicit instruction in phonological awareness, word recognition, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, spelling and writing. English learners are likely to benefit even more if they are provided with high quality vocabulary instruction and opportunities to improve their academic language.
There are three broad stages of learning to read in alphabetic systems:
  1. Pre-reading stage (preschool) – children develop awareness of text and about how books are used and how words are represented in them.
  2. Decoding stage (Kindergarten through Grade 2) – children develop the ability to recognize words by determining the relation between symbols and sounds.
  3. Fluent reading stage (by Grade 4) – children achieve a high level of reading proficiency, allowing them to learn from reading.
In general, bilingual children go through these three stages at the same pace as monolingual children. However, it can vary depending on the languages they speak, their proficiency in each of the languages, and the kinds of writing systems they use.  Research suggests that reading acquisition starts off slower for children who begin elementary school learning to speak and read in a new language than in monolinguals. However, these children catch up by the end of elementary school.
Assessment of language proficiency in bilingual learners can be challenging. The age of when a second language (L2) is learned and amount of continued exposure to the first language (L1) can determine a child’s abilities. As a result, assessment in either language is contested. Ideally, assessment of both L1 and L2 skills is recommended in order to obtain a full picture of the learner’s language and literacy skills. However, it is almost impossible to find appropriate tests in both languages and trained personnel fluent in each language. Oral language proficiency, reading comprehension and phonological awareness are important skills to be tested.
What can be done?
Parents and Educators