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Volume 23, No. 1 Fall/Winter 1999

Bilingual Children's Reading:
An Overview of Recent Research

by Georgia Earnest García, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The research base on bilingual children's reading is limited. Much of the research on bilingual children's reading acquisition comes from outside the United States. The overview of research presented here is based primarily on a literature review that was written for the third volume of the Handbook of Reading Research (García, in press) and covers the period from 1989 through 1997.

The aim of this article is to articulate needed areas of research. The first part focuses on bilingual children from preschool through Grade 2; the second part focuses on bilingual children in Grades 3 through 12. Topics warranting further investigation are noted throughout the discussion. The article concludes with a brief summary of the types of research that need to be conducted.

Reading Acquisition of Young Bilingual Children

Metalinguistic Awareness

Research has shown that bilingual children younger than age 6 tend to outperform monolingual children on isolated tasks of metalinguistic awareness related to reading (see García, Jiménez, & Pearson, 1998). For example, in a comparative study of Yugoslavian preschool and kindergarten children, Göncz and Kodzopeljic (1991) found that bilingual children were significantly better than monolingual children at explaining how words such as mosquito and ox differed in their length and referents. In another study, Galambos and Goldin-Meadows (1990) found that young Spanish-English bilinguals in El Salvador outperformed their monolingual Spanish counterparts on sentence grammaticality tests in Spanish. More recently, Bialystok (1997) reported that 4- and 5-year-old bilingual preschoolers in Canada (French-English and Mandarin-English speakers) outperformed monolingual English-speaking preschoolers on a metalinguistic task specifically related to beginning reading. Bialystok interpreted the superior performance of the bilingual children and the fact that they performed the task equally well in both languages to mean that they not only had a heightened knowledge of symbolic representation as encoded in text, but that they were also able to transfer this knowledge from one language to the other. Why bilingual children's metalinguistic advantage seems to disappear after the age of 6 is not known, although it could be due to the predominant tendency to provide schooling to bilingual children in only one language at a time, effectively limiting their continued bilingual development.

Important Role of First Language Literacy

Findings from two longitudinal studies highlight the important role that first language literacy appears to play in bilingual students' academic development. The first study was conducted by Collier and Thomas (1989). They reported that non-English-speaking immigrant children did best in American schools when they arrived in the United States at age 8 or 9 with already developed literacy skills in their native language. Children who arrived at age 5 or 6 without native-language literacy skills, and older children who had native-language literacy skills but faced high content and cognitive demands in English, did not fare as well.

Ramírez, Yuen, and Ramey (1991) compared the English academic performance of low-income Spanish-speaking children in Grades 1-6 enrolled in three types of U.S. programs: early-exit transitional bilingual education, structured immersion, and late-exit transitional bilingual education. They reported that by the end of third grade, there was no significant difference in the standardized English language and reading test performance of the students enrolled in the structured immersion and early-exit programs, even though students in the early-exit programs had received much less English instruction. When they examined the performance of students in the late-exit programs, they discovered that those students who had the greatest opportunity to develop their Spanish between kindergarten and sixth grade increased their standardized English language and reading test performance at a significantly higher rate than students in the other programs and in the normed sample from the standardized test. They estimated that if the projected growth rate were sustained, students who had received instruction in Spanish 40% of the time would eventually catch up with their English-speaking peers and perform at grade level in English.

Cross-Linguistic Transfer of Knowledge, Strategies, and Skills

An underlying assumption of bilingual education is that bilinguals can transfer specific knowledge and skills acquired while reading in one language to reading in a second language. Verhoeven (1994) reported that the Dutch reading performance of Turkish children enrolled in a submersion program in the Netherlands predicted their Turkish reading performance. Similarly, the Turkish reading performance of Turkish students enrolled in a transitional program predicted their Dutch reading performance. He concluded that students had applied reading skills learned in one language to reading in the other language. One of the few groups of researchers to document the specific types of skills and knowledge that transfer is Durgunoglu, Nagy, and Hancin-Bhatt (1993). Their study of Spanish-speaking first graders in the United States showed that the children's Spanish phonological awareness and word recognition significantly predicted their English word recognition and psuedo-English word recognition, indicating cross-linguistic transfer. Children who had phonological awareness and Spanish word recognition skills performed better on the transfer tasks than those children who could read some Spanish words but who demonstrated low Spanish phonological awareness. The researchers questioned whether young bilingual children who do not have phonological awareness in their first language should be taught these skills in their first language or in their second language. The extent to which bilingual children need to be taught phonological or orthographic elements that are characteristic of their second language but not of their native language, and whether this type of instruction can accelerate the students' second language literacy development, are topics that need further investigation.

Optimal Level of Second Language Oral Proficiency

Another important issue is the level of oral second language proficiency needed for bilingual children to acquire optimum second language literacy skills. (For a discussion, see August & Hakuta, 1997.) Three sets of researchers (Durgunoglu et al., 1993; Geva, Wade-Woolley, & Shaney, 1993; Verhoeven, 1994) reported that variables related to beginning reading (e.g., word recognition and phonological awareness), not oral proficiency levels, were more powerful predictors of bilingual children's reading performance in either language. This finding could be due to the fact that there is wide variation in the reading performance of young children who have attained a relatively high oral proficiency level in either language, and as a result, first language literacy might be the deciding factor. The finding also implies that a key predictor of young bilingual children's reading is their ability to transfer knowledge about reading from one language to another.

Early Reading Instruction for Bilingual Children

Unfortunately, the type of instructional research that has been conducted with young bilingual children does not help us understand the issues raised in the acquisition research, nor does it help us to understand the types of instructional approaches that could be most beneficial. Ramírez et al. (1991) reported that the type of instruction they observed in structured immersion, early-exit, and late-exit transitional bilingual education classrooms, regardless of the language of instruction, was strikingly similar: passive instruction that did not promote complex language development or higher order thinking skills.

A few researchers have questioned some of the cultural and linguistic assumptions that underlie U.S. early literacy instruction. For example, Valdés (1996) noted that Mexican parents were puzzled by U.S. teachers' emphasis on the alphabet, because in Mexico teachers emphasized syllables. Teale (1986) recommended that educators investigate how writing could be tapped as an emergent literacy activity. In a study of low-income homes, including Latino homes, he found little evidence of parent-child book reading, but considerable emphasis on writing.

A few evaluations of intergenerational literacy programs have been published. The results of these indicate that children's emergent literacy development seems to be enhanced when the emphasis is on the home language (Brown-Rodriguez & Mulhern, 1993). When instruction was provided in English only, the children seemed to improve their oral English but not their emergent literacy development (Thornburg, 1993).

A number of researchers found that bilingual children enrolled in predominantly English settings had difficulty participating in storybook reading when native language support or English as a second language (ESL) modifications were not available. Thornburg (1993) reported that bilingual children did not respond to English storybook reading when teachers used a cognitive approach emphasizing story grammar and prediction questions. Battle (1993) described how a bilingual teacher effectively used native language support to structure daily storybook read alouds in English for her Mexican-American kindergartners by presenting summaries of the books in Spanish, translating parts of the books during the read-aloud, and allowing the children to participate in either language during group discussions.

Very few researchers have investigated the type of Spanish reading instruction offered to young bilingual children. Reading Recovery (Escamilla, Andrade, Basurto, & Ruiz, 1990 & 1991) and Success for All (Calderón, Tinajero, & Hertz-Lazarowitz, 1992) have been tried with U.S. Spanish-speaking children, but the results still have not been widely evaluated or published. Although specialists in early childhood education warn against using group-administered, standardized achievement tests with young children, Goldenberg (1994) credited improvements in first- and second-graders' standardized reading test scores in Spanish to the inclusion of an academic code focus in kindergarten, a more balanced code-literature reading approach in first grade, and systematic efforts that involved the children's families in their early literacy development.

Reading Development of Older Bilingual Children

Reader and Textual Factors

Three sets of researchers have compared monolingual and bilingual students' reading comprehension in the majority language in terms of background knowledge, vocabulary difficulty, and use of metacognitive and cognitive strategies (Droop & Verhoeven, 1998; García, 1991; Jiménez, García, & Pearson, 1995, 1996). Looking across the studies, the results show that bilingual students in Grades 3, 5, 6, and 7 had less background knowledge and less familiarity with the vocabulary in majority language texts than monolingual students from the majority group. García (1991) reported that when differences in prior knowledge were controlled, there was no difference in the reading test performance of bilingual Latino and monolingual Anglo fifth and sixth graders, although the bilingual students still did worse on questions that required them to use background knowledge. Droop and Verhoeven (1998) reported that when third-grade Turkish students in the Netherlands read culturally appropriate texts that were linguistically simple, they outperformed their Dutch counterparts. However, when they read culturally appropriate texts that were linguistically complex, there was no significant difference in performance between the Turkish and Dutch students. The interplay among vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge, and textual complexity, and the circumstances that affect bilingual readers' effective use of background knowledge, are topics that merit further investigation.

A small number of researchers have compared the cognitive and metacognitve strategy use of bilingual Latino and monolingual Anglo students. The results seem to depend on how the students' strategy use was assessed, the ages of the students, and whether the students' performance was examined by reading level. Padrón, Knight, and Waxman (1986) reported that third- and fifth-grade bilingual Latino students used fewer and less sophisticated cognitive and metacognitive strategies in English than monolingual Anglo students. However, in a qualitative think-aloud study that focused on documenting the reading strategies of sixth- and seventh-grade bilingual Latino readers, Jiménez et al. (1996) reported that there was no substantial difference in the comprehension monitoring and meaning-making strategies demonstrated by the two groups of successful English readers: three monolingual Anglo readers and eight bilingual Latino readers. The students who demonstrated the fewest and the least sophisticated strategies were the three bilingual students who were not successful English readers.

Cross-Linguistic Transfer of Strategies

A number of researchers have studied the cross-linguistic transfer of knowledge and strategies in Spanish-speaking students' reading. Several researchers have investigated bilingual Latino students' use of Spanish-English cognates to figure out unknown English vocabulary. Although Nagy, García, Durgunoglu, and Hancin-Bhatt (1993) concluded that fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade Latino students made use of cognates to figure out unknown English vocabulary, they also noted that the fourth graders identified fewer cognates than the older students, and all the students seemed to underutilize cognates.

Other researchers have compared the types of strategies that bilingual students use while reading in their two languages. Intermediate and high school bilingual Latino students reported using the same strategies while reading in the two languages, implying cross-linguistic transfer (Calero-Breckheimer & Goetz, 1993). In a qualitative think-aloud study of fourth-grade bilingual Latino students who were strong Spanish readers, García (1998) also reported that the students' reading profiles across the two languages were similar, implying cross-linguistic transfer. However, the students' actual use of strategies across languages varied according to text genre, text difficulty, and students' language dominance and reading ability. Because text genre made a difference in the type of strategies demonstrated, García recommended that researchers assess students' use of strategies across both expository and narrative text.

Not all bilingual readers have an intuitive sense of transfer or make use of cross-linguistic strategies. Jiménez et al.'s (1995, 1996) research with successful and less successful bilingual English readers revealed that the successful readers had a unitary view of reading across the two languages. They knew that knowledge and strategies acquired in one language could be used while reading in the other language. They also made occasional use of strategies unique to bilinguals, such as cognates, code-switching, and translating, to enhance their reading comprehension. However, this unitary view of reading, cross-linguistic transfer of knowledge and strategies, and use of bilingual strategies did not characterize the less successful bilingual readers, who thought that they had to keep their two languages separate or they would become confused. How characteristic the Jiménez et al. findings are for other bilingual readers and whether transfer instruction can help bilingual students improve their reading needs to be investigated on a much wider scale.

The Role of Second Language Oral Proficiency

The research findings on the role of second language oral proficiency in older bilingual students' second language reading seemed to vary according to research design (quantitative or qualitative), the type of oral language proficiency measures employed, the ages of the students, and the students' success at reading. For example, in a quantitative study, Peregoy and Boyle (1991) reported a strong and significant relationship between third-grade Spanish-speaking students' English reading test performance and their English oral proficiency. In contrast, findings from a qualitative, think-aloud study of 12 fifth-grade Spanish-speaking students (Langer, Bartolomé, Vásquez, & Lucas, 1990) showed that the use of meaning-making strategies across the two languages was more predictive of the reading of the better readers than their English or Spanish oral proficiency. Students' instructional experiences typically were not taken into account in this type of research, although they probably should have been. Additional research needs to examine the different factors that appear to affect the relationship between second language oral proficiency and second language reading for older bilingual students.

Reading Instruction of Older Bilingual Students

Because bilingual children frequently attend poorly funded schools, they often receive poor quality reading instruction in both languages (Padrón, 1994; Ramírez et al., 1991). Unfortunately, very little is known about the type of reading instruction that optimally promotes older bilingual children's literacy development in their first or second language. Even less is known about the type of instruction that helps bilingual students transition from bilingual or ESL to all English instruction.

Several researchers have shown that immersing older bilingual children in second language literature-based activities, such as storybook reading or process writing, without taking into account their second language status, is not very effective (Elley, 1991; Reyes, 1991). On the other hand, Elley concluded that high quality ESL instruction along with literature-based activities did have a positive effect on 8- to 10-year-old South Pacific and Southeast Asian English language learners who were already literate in their first language.

Four sets of researchers developed or tested approaches with bilingual readers that were designed to improve their use of metacognitive and cognitive reading strategies. Although the data were limited, reciprocal teaching, question-answer relationships (QARs), and getting bilingual students to self-generate questions while reading appeared to be effective strategies (Muñiz-Swicegood, 1994; Padrón, 1992). In a qualitative study with five low-literacy seventh-grade Latino students, Jiménez (1997) reported that the students benefited from cognitive strategy lessons that used culturally familiar texts, emphasized reading fluency and word recognition skills, and taught the students how to resolve unknown vocabulary, ask questions, and make inferences, as well as use bilingual strategies such as searching for cognates, translating, and transferring knowledge from one language to the other.

Despite the huge problem that unknown English vocabulary poses for bilingual readers, very few researchers have attempted to address this problem. García (1996) reported that 10 out of 13 fourth-grade Mexican-American students were able to access cognates to figure out unknown English vocabulary after receiving individualized scaffolded instruction on cognate recognition. In an experiment with seventh- and eighth-grade bilingual students (predominantly Cambodian), Neuman and Koskinen (1992) concluded that viewing captioned television during a science program provided these students with the type of comprehensible input they needed to improve their acquisition of English reading vocabulary.

Further research needs to examine the effectiveness of culturally responsive approaches, such as Moll and Gonzalez's (1994) "cultural funds of knowledge approach," where teachers were trained as ethnographers and documented literacy activities in Latino homes and communities that they later incorporated into classroom literacy instruction. A key component of this research was the positive shift in teacher attitudes toward working-class Latino students and their families.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that there is a need for more research on bilingual children's reading development and instruction. It would be interesting to know if bilingual children in the United States have a metalinguistic advantage over their monolingual counterparts. Given the presence of dual immersion programs, it seems possible for us to begin to study biliteracy development and the roles of first language literacy and second language oral proficiency. The transfer assumption that underlies bilingual education makes it imperative for more researchers to investigate the types of strategies, skills, and knowledge that bilingual readers transfer from reading in one language to the other, and whether instruction can help to facilitate such transfer.

We really know very little about the types of instruction that promote bilingual students' literacy development. We need longitudinal research that documents the types of instruction that bilingual students receive in and outside of bilingual programs, taking into account the languages and settings in which they are taught and the influence of social, political, and cultural factors. Research that evaluates packaged instructional programs (such as Reading Recovery), instructional approaches (such as balanced literacy, literature-based reading, or reader response), and instructional innovations (such as reciprocal teaching and cultural funds of knowledge) is also critical. Also needed is instructional research that addresses bilingual students' unique needs, such as second language vocabulary instruction and transfer instruction.

In undertaking this research agenda, it is important to employ a bilingual perspective, where we investigate and identify findings unique to bilinguals at the same time that we carefully evaluate the application of monolingual findings to bilingual populations (García, 1998). We also need funds and commitment that parallel the increasing presence of English language learners in the United States.


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