Research on the acquisition of first-language reading skills has demonstrated a strong relationship between knowledge of word meaning and ability to comprehend passages containing those words (Anderson & Freebody, 1981). While much less is known about how English language learners become fluent readers at advanced levels, a recent review of experimental and quasi-experimental studies by the National Literacy Panel (August & Shanahan, 2006) emphasizes the importance of vocabulary knowledge in English and Spanish for Latino students’ continued success in reading development beyond third grade.
When it comes to English words derived from Latin, Spanish-speaking students may be able to use their knowledge of Spanish vocabulary to unlock the meaning of general academic words in English, as these words often have close Spanish cognates which generally are high-frequency words in Spanish and low-frequency words in English (e.g.,encounter, in Spanish encontrar, the equivalent of to find or meet in English).
A study conducted with 78 Spanish-speaking middle school students enrolled in a two-way immersion program in the U.S. examined the effects of Spanish vocabulary knowledge on reading comprehension in English. Controlling for the effects of grade, English language proficiency, vocabulary and fluency, knowledge of Spanish vocabulary was found to have a significant and positive effect on English reading comprehension as measured by a standardized assessment of reading ability (i.e., Gates MacGinitie Reading Test).
These findings highlight the role that the Spanish language plays in meeting the academic needs of Latino students in the U.S. and provide support for research that indicates that a strong foundation in the native language facilitates second-language development (Cummins, 1984; Lindholm-Leary, 2013; Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2006; Oller & Eilers, 2002; Thomas & Collier, 2012).