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The Science of Reading in Dual Language

Alexandra Guilamo reveals the secrets of biliterate decoding

“Literacy has two beginnings: one, in the world, the other, in each person who learns to read and write.”—Margaret Meek
This quote has continued to rewind and repeat in my mind as a more than 50-year research “war” re-emerges to declare to the educational world that science has definitely and universally revealed how all children learn to read. Yes, all children… But what the science of reading hasn’t revealed is that the studies only represented “typical classroom teachers” and “typical American or English-speaking students” (National Reading Panel U.S. and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). Leaving out the details of where this research world begins, and ends, is a matter of equity and access to accurate knowledge, resources, and educational approaches that have been confirmed in their truth around the world.

It is an omission that withholds undeniable science about how dual language students learn to read in two languages and how best to teach them. More tangibly, the exclusion of key information in the science-of reading-narrative has condemned many dual language educators to an impossible ultimatum—either conform to this approach or be labeled as defiant to research-based practices. And therein lies the problem. Emergent bilinguals and dual language students learn how to read differently than monolingual, English-speaking students, and there’s decades of research to prove it. So, what has research revealed about the science of reading for dual language programs that’s been excluded from the reading wars?

The Reading Wars

Let’s start with a quick version of what the reading wars, or the sciences of reading, are. While there are many different scientific models for how children learn to read, there are only two views that have claimed center stage in the debate. There is the simple view of reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986; Hoover and Gough, 1990), which says that reading comprehension is the result of decoding and linguistic comprehension, or D x C = R. Then there is whole language or the three cuing view of reading (Goodman, 1967), which says that reading in English is as natural a human process as learning to speak—a process that should emphasize making meaning and expressing meaning in reading and writing.
These two views were positioned as each other’s rivals, and the monolingual world was forced to choose—explicit phonics or whole language. Meanwhile, in the world of second-language acquisition and dual language (particularly in the vast majority of programs that leverage Spanish and English as partner languages), this war seemed founded on a common understanding of reading, language, learning, and teaching that was fundamentally flawed (Pennycook, 2001). Dual language programs draw from an immense body of research and system of beliefs that assume the benefit and utility of each language (DeMatthews et al., 2017) and that cannot be separated from literacy in that language, texts that reflect the cultures that speak that language, distinct pedagogies, and instructional practices that stem from an understanding of the way in which that language works.

In short, the war appeared to use language in a way that manipulated and undermined the validity of a third view of reading that has also been systematically built. It is a view of learning to read in two languages that requires meaning making and reading words, efficiency of practice, and focus on purpose, all while systematically leveraging the most useful aspects of each language. In the world of dual language, an equally substantial body of research has found that neither decoding ability nor the ability to use the three cues can exist without the other if children are to receive instruction that provides any benefit in reading in two languages while becoming proficient in both. While the evidence abounds, looking at the phonics debate alone provides more than enough.

The Science of Decoding in Dual Language

Let’s take, as an example, the part of the formula for the simple view of reading that is decoding, which includes phonics and phonemic awareness.

The way we define decoding is the same in Spanish and English. Phonics is the ability to recognize and accurately match graphemes, or letters, to the phonemes, or the sounds, they make. Phonemic awareness, on the other hand, is the ability to focus on and manipulate the phonemes of a word. If students know what to do with each part of a word, they can read the whole word. As all students build confidence and competence in decoding, they begin something called orthographic mapping, which is basically the brain’s muscle memory for identifying similar parts in new words. Once children understand a phonemic pattern (like the -ght in light), they use it like a map or a fingerprint to read other words with the same pattern. That pattern then gets used to read more words automatically (Kilpatrick, 2015).

But here is where the monolingual and dual language worlds diverge. English is highly irregular, which means there are many more parts to identify and manipulate. Spanish is not. In the most widely cited meta-analysis to date, the importance of the English language’s orthographic structure is brought into question: “if children were taught only the 44 letter–sound correspondences, they would be able to read any word they encountered, and there would be no reading problems (Aukerman, 1981; Popp, 1975)” (National Reading Panel U.S. and National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).

Why is this point critical? Well, it helps educators understand that each word part children have to decode is governed by orthography, or the structure of a language itself. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. However, as noted in the report, there are 44 possible phonemes (25 consonant correspondences and 19 possible vowel correspondences). This is because English is considered a language that is highly irregular, deep (or inconsistent), and full of pronunciation deviations. Just because students hear a sound doesn’t mean that they can always predict the letter or letter combination that produced that sound, which is why explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness is needed.

This instruction then must include strategies that are designed to help students learn how to manipulate, delete, blend, etc. However, this is not the case for all languages. In the case of Spanish, which is taught in the greatest number of dual language programs in the country, there is a much different orthography. There are 27 letters but only 22–24 phonemes. This is because Spanish is considered a very consistent, shallow, and ideally phonemic language, where the spelling of a word is the most transparent indicator of how to pronounce the word. What you see is what you almost always get, and if you can see it, you can say it, and then you can read it. The fact that Spanish is one of the most transparent languages in the world is the anti-reason for an equivalent length and intensity of explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness. And here is where orthographic mapping re-emerges and gets really interesting. For dual language and emergent bilingual children, there isn’t an actual linguistic or cognitive wall between their two languages. The two literacy and language systems dynamically flow through a corriente of linguistic resources and codes (Garcia et al., 2017). Research has shown that bilingual/biliterate students are able to use the same orthographic mapping process but with their full linguistic resources and codes within and across languages (Van Hell and Dijkstra, 2002; Dijksra et al., 1998). Program models might separate the languages of instruction, but linguistic resources and codes will continue to seek connections.

What’s most interesting for Spanish–English dual language children is how few linguistic resources from the corriente are needed for decoding in Spanish, and so all those resources are redirected to play a larger role for processing words in English (Harm and Seidenberg, 2004). And this is where dual language education is uniquely situated to disrupt the reading wars. What’s collectively known about learning to read while learning a language across the hundreds of languages that define and unite people is that semantic and syntactic information, better known as MSV, and decoding of words are interrelated and codependent processes. Dual language students deserve access to all research that will accelerate how they break the code, understand the code, and deposit the code into the corriente for continued use in both languages. That means that biliteracy will require linguistic comprehension and explicit phonics instruction in English for skills that are untransferable and more ambiguous (Gottlob et al., 1999).

Science-Based Recommendations

Any pedagogical recommendation should include investigating, discovering, confirming, and sharing out any and all methods, strategies, or “approaches that have been found, through research, to give kids a learning advantage in reading” (Shanahan, T., 2018). This requires shared responsibility between dual language and literacy departments to scrutinize research’s limitations (Kubotra, 2004), collective inquiry into and understanding of the science behind program models, and implementation of language-specific reading processes that may be different but no less valid. Through this collective inquiry, programs can focus resources and energies to create:

  • A coherent definition of biliteracy (not literacy) that balances analytical and synthetic methods and aligns to the three goals;
  • Shared responsibility and knowledge of research-confirmed methods, strategies, and approaches that are accurately matched to each program language;
  • Authentic and systematic processes for assessing, monitoring, and supporting a language-specific sequence of skills;
  • Collaboration and focus on actionable steps informed by valid assessments;
  • Texts, tools, and talk that are authentic, identity affirming, motivating to students, and allow the application of reading skills when it matters most—in the act of reading.

In short, it goes back to what Margaret Meek says. Developing biliteracy really does have two beginnings, one designed for the typical classroom and another designed to be so much more—designed to give dual language learners access to the promise of dual language education itself. So, there can be no reading war for dual language educators. The only way to attain biliteracy and bilingualism is to leave the typical formula for reading as decoding and linguistic comprehension, or D x C = R, for the formula for developing biliteracy as oracy + decoding + linguistic comprehension + transfer, or O x C x D x T = R2.

References available at

Alexandra Guilamo is a dual language expert, author, keynote speaker, and chief equity and achievement officer at TaJu Educational Solutions, a company dedicated to professional development, coaching, and technical support for dual language and bilingual programs.
Visit or follow Alexandra @TajuLearning on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

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