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Eunice Kua

I did a literature review recently on this topic - here are some of the key findings. Please leave a comment to share your insights and experience about this!


Studies on biliteracy development deal with Roman script languages, e.g. English and Spanish, as well as with Roman and non-Roman script languages, e.g. English and Arabic/Hebrew/Farsi. Some deal with alphabetic versus non-alphabetic scripts, e.g. English and Chinese.

Case studies of individual children show that developing literacy in different languages in parallel did not result in confusion but that they were able to distinguish between the conventions of different writing systems.

Note that most of these studies followed children in developed countries, where learners had access a favorable environment for literacy development—teachers, parents, siblings, personalized attention, print-rich surroundings and many home literacy practices—very different conditions from those in a refugee camp or rural village.

Key takeaways:


* Young children (4 to 7-year-olds) are able to grasp that different scripts hold different conventions, and are able to assign the correct convention to the correct script. In literate environments, they may develop these understandings even without formal instruction.

* If children mix languages or scripts, this does not mean they are confused or that there is interference in literacy development. They may be exploring the boundaries and differences between languages, and will come to a better understanding of the conventions as they develop competence. Or they may understand the conventions well but are making errors from switching between systems, seen in the ability to self-correct.

* Literacy development in emergent bilingual/biliterate children may proceed at a different pace from that of native speakers of the school language, and thus their progress may not adhere to what is mandated in official curriculum standards based on monolingual speakers.

* While there is no *cognitive* barrier to learning two scripts in parallel, the question is whether marginalized children have access to the quality of instruction, environmental print and sociocultural literacy practice necessary to develop literacy competence in either or both scripts and languages.

* Any potential benefits from transfer of literacy skills from one script to another depends on the learners’ level of language proficiency and the degree of similarity between the writing systems.

Some sample studies:


In a study of 204 monolingual English, bilingual English-Chinese (Cantonese), and monolingual Chinese (Cantonese) children aged 5-6 years old, Bialystock et al. (2005a) found that phonological awareness but not decoding ability was transferred across languages between English and Chinese. Wang et al. (2005) reported similar results in a study of Chinese (Mandarin) immigrant children in Grades 2 and 3, for whom Chinese was L1 and English was L2.

This is consistent with other results indicating phonological awareness as a foundational literacy skill that is transferable even across languages with different writing systems (Kim et al 2016).

Bialystock et al. (2005b) also compared 132 monolingual English, bilingual English-Spanish, English-Hebrew and English-Chinese children in Grade 1, and found that the English-Hebrew and English-Spanish bilinguals showed more advanced phonological awareness and decoding ability than English monolinguals and English-Chinese bilinguals. The additional gains for the Hebrew and Spanish bilinguals compared to the Chinese bilinguals was likely due to the higher similarity between writing systems of Hebrew or Spanish with English.

Helvaara (2002) analysed the literacy learning of Ikram, a British Pakistani boy from ages 5-7, who was learning English at school, classical Arabic in Quranic classes at the mosque, and Urdu (which uses an Arabic script) in an after-school class. The Pakistani children in the Urdu class did not necessarily speak Urdu at home, but rather Pahari. She found that Ikram was able to distinguish between the conventions of each learning situation and was gaining literacy skills and meta-linguistic awareness in his non-English classes that were not necessarily acknowledged or put to use in his English class, which privileged cultural knowledge that he did not possess from his own home environment. 

Eunice Kua Feb 28 '18 · Rate: 5 · Tags: literacy acquisition, bilingualism, biliteracy