3. What literacy skills transfer across English and Spanish and which need to be taught explicitly in each language?

There are universal literacy concepts and skills that all readers, regardless of language, possess. These skills and concepts transfer from one language to another and donít need to be explicitly taught. There are other skills and concepts that are language-specific and must be explicitly taught.

Universal concepts and skills that transfer across all languages:

  • Alphabetic and orthographic awareness. All readers understand that the marks on a page are symbols that represent sounds. Readers of alphabetic languages (such as English and Spanish) further understand that letters have names and sounds and that letters combine to form words, phrases, and sentences. Thus, the fact that letters have names and sounds transfers across English and Spanish. (But teachers need to teach children the different letter names and sounds in the two languages).
  • Meaningfulness of print. A powerful source of transfer is the notion that print carries meaning. Readers know that reading is about deriving meaning from print. Using comprehension strategies to make meaning is a skill that transfers across languages.
  • Habits and attitudes about reading and writing. Students who are successful readers and writers in their first language and who have good study habits in that language are able to transfer these attitudes and habits to reading and writing in a second language. Seeing oneself as a literate person and a successful student transfers across languages. This does not  need explicit teaching in a second language.
  • Higher level thinking and metacognitive skills and strategies. These skills transfer across languages: All good readers possess the skills of skimming, paraphrasing, summarizing, predicting, using dictionaries and other resources, and note-taking.
  • Content knowledge.  Knowledge transfers across languages: Content mastered in one language transfers to a second language.

Language-specific issues that have to be explicitly taught:

  • Print directionality.  Print may be read horizontally from left to right (as in English and Spanish), horizontally from right to left (as in Arabic), or vertically from right to left (as in Chinese). Thus, print directionality transfers across some languages (English and Spanish), but not others (English and Chinese. Whether directionality needs to be explicitly taught depends on whether the print directionality is the same or different across the two languages.
  • Grammar and orthographic features.  Each language has its own grammatical system and spelling system.
  • Words. Vocabulary is language-specific and must be taught in each language, although in the case of related languages, such as Spanish and English, transfer can be facilitated through explicit instruction in cognates and common roots and affixes across English and Spanish.
  • Cultural schema. These are cultural assumptions, values, and themes that are embedded in each language and culture. All literature is culturally based; however, the cultural values embedded in a text are language specific and do not transfer from one language to another. It is important that teachers explicitly teach the cultural schema that students need in order to successfully interact with text that is written in their second language.
  • Story structure and rhetorical devices. It is important for teachers to help students learn that story structures and rhetorical devices may differ across languages. These differences need to be explicitly taught.

Helpful resources on this topic include Language Transfer (Odlin, 1989) and Learner English: A teachersí guide to interference and other problems (2nd ed.) (Swan & Smith, 2001). Both discuss transfer issues related to a variety of languages.