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HomeScience of ReadingListen to the Bilingual Science!

Listen to the Bilingual Science!

DLeNM’s Professional Development Team addresses the intersection of the science of reading and biliteracy development

Two years ago, we (Dual Language Education of New Mexico’s [DLeNM] professional development coordinators) outlined a framework for high-quality dual language education that incorporated recent research, best practices, and the guidance found in the third edition of the Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (2018). The framework consists of three instructional spaces—the partner language space, most commonly Spanish, the English language space, and the “bringing the two languages together” (formally called the cross-linguistic) space. All three instructional spaces rest on the fourth, which is the foundation of a culturally and linguistically responsive environment. A detailed description of each of these spaces is included in the article “The Four Instructional Spaces of a Dual Language Classroom” (Soleado, 2021).

In order to give dual language teachers more information on the reasons to leverage these spaces with intentional planning, appropriate materials, and strategies that validate and celebrate their multilingual students’ funds of knowledge and experiences, we would like to utilize the Four Spaces Framework to address the use of the science of reading or structured literacy for their multilingual students learning in English and Spanish. We will address the role structured literacy plays in language development in schools serving Tribal communities in a future issue.

In Soleado’s winter issue of 2022, our colleagues at the National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) addressed the failure of one-size-fits-all “scientific” reading and literacy approaches for English learners (EL) and emerging bilinguals (EB). A common failure of approaches ranging from 2001’s No Child Left Behind to the most recent structured literacy approach is the fact that most of the research conducted either did not include emergent bilinguals in their study samples, or did, but failed to disaggregate findings for this population (Noguerón-Liu, 2020). Instead, NCEL calls for “a comprehensive approach to literacy development [that reflects] the ways in which literacy instruction for EL/EBs is different in significant ways from instruction for monolingual students” (Soleado, 2022, p. 10). Noguerón-Liu (2020) reminds us of the instructional, demographic, and sociocultural realities of the students who make up our multilingual student population. Many have grown up as simultaneous bilinguals, children who have been exposed to and use two languages at the same time. There is great diversity in the nations and communities they come from, the ways that they have been socialized to use their language(s), and the families’ participation in formal educational settings. This reality means that, while some of the instructional needs of this unique population can be addressed by the strategies found in the science of reading, additional guidance regarding best practices for biliteracy development is required.

The science of reading is reflected in Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001), an image that envisions skilled reading as the fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and language comprehension skills. English reading’s critical components for word recognition include phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition. Language comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge. Since Scarborough’s Reading Rope was developed with only English in mind, bilingual educators must consider how well each component reflects the development of skilled reading in languages other than English. These considerations will be further addressed in the discussion of the partner language space later in this article.

Of primary importance is the culturally and linguistically responsive environment, which serves as the fourth space and the foundation for any instructional setting serving multilingual learners. The instructional environment, therefore, must reflect a commitment on the part of the educators to understand and validate the students’ identities from an asset perspective. This means that the educators have developed a critical consciousness to dig deeper in order to understand student issues that may arise. Their instructional pedagogy, therefore, would include the understanding that all of the languages in their students’ linguistic repertoires are equally critical to the development of bilingualism and biliteracy and are not just in the service of English literacy. Likewise, students’ experiences and funds of knowledge inform their understanding of the big ideas of units of study and support their development of the sociocultural competencies that view those big ideas from a wider global context. In the context of literacy development, this space might include experiences and reading selections that reflect the students’ communities, traditions, and events. These community elements, along with students’ language practices and cultural knowledge, help to bring the home and school together.

As we move from the foundational culturally and responsive environment into the instructional contexts of the English and partner language spaces, it is important to study all aspects of Scarborough’s Reading Rope and its relevance to each space. The language comprehension strand of background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge can all be developed by a focus on oracy: the specific subset of oral language skills that more closely relate to literacy objectives (Escamilla et al., 2014).

The Development of Oracy

The three components of oracy development that make up the subset of skills and strategies are language structures, vocabulary, and dialogue. These three components are clearly represented in Scarborough’s language comprehension strand and are critical in both the English and the partner language spaces. In each space, students must be given ample opportunities to express their ideas and complete instructional tasks, both orally and in writing. Clear connections must be made between the students’ prior knowledge and the new information shared with them. Vocabulary must be continuously broadened, and more complex grammatical structures must be introduced and practiced. Students’ literacy knowledge must be addressed by exposing them to various genres and concepts of print and by providing many opportunities to engage with fiction and nonfiction selections through class discussions and small-group dialogue.

Therefore, in both the English and the partner language spaces, activities and experiences that support students’ development of these language comprehension skills are similar. The difference lies in the need for scaffolds that specifically target a highly diverse population of emerging bilinguals, regardless of the fact that they speak the same home language. For example, Spanish is spoken in 21 different countries with very different cultures, influences, traditions, and lifestyles. Differences in the type and amount of background knowledge related to a topic can vary. It is essential that teachers take the time to develop shared experiences with their classes so that all of the students approach new information with similar background knowledge.

Teachers must also be aware of students’ proficiency profiles; those identified as English learners have ACCESS scores, while those in bilingual programs also have proficiency levels derived from language-specific assessments such as Avant’s STAMP Language Proficiency Test in Spanish. Careful examination of the scores beyond the single composite score can yield valuable information concerning the student’s understanding and use of more complex grammatical structures and vocabulary. An analysis may point to the need for intentional practice in language functions, such as describing, defining, or comparing, or in complex syntax, such as the appropriate use of prepositions, verb tense, pronoun referents, and plurals. Beyond simple exposure to these language features, emerging bilinguals require opportunities for conversations and dialogue with their classmates about academic topics that require the use of those language features during multiple exchanges. This kind of meaningful interaction allows for the practice of language structures and vocabulary that are inherent to the academic topic of the class and provides important exposure to agreeing and disagreeing in appropriate ways, stating and defending an opinion, answering questions, and otherwise articulating their own thinking.

Early Reading Instruction—English and Spanish

While the language comprehension strand of Scarborough’s rope (along with critical scaffolds) is equally adaptable to both language spaces, the word recognition strand takes on a very different look in the English and partner language spaces. Using Spanish as the partner language, the reason for these differences lies in the orthography of each language. While both English and Spanish are alphabetic languages, using almost identical letters in the visual representation of the language, English is considered to have an opaque orthography while Spanish has a transparent orthography. What does this mean? English includes many letters and letter combinations that have multiple sounds. For example, the -ough in the word through, in the word though, and in the word tough each represent different sounds. There are also 14 vowel/vowel sound combinations with different pronunciations for the same spelling patterns in English. This reality underscores the importance of the phonological awareness and decoding skills that represent the bulk of the word recognition strand and the focus of some teacher professional development. English phonic-centric training often recommends extended instructional time for students to master these very specific skills, often to the exclusion of the English-language comprehension activities and specific scaffolds that emerging bilinguals need in order to become fluent, successful readers and writers. This extended time for phonics and decoding also limits the time bilingual teachers have to address literacy development in the partner language. There is only so much time in an instructional day.

The Spanish language has a more transparent orthography, with most letters representing only one sound. This fact shifts the focus of early reading instruction from a more phonic-centric approach to a focus on the regularities of the letter–sound relationship and syllabic boundaries of the language. Instruction in the Spanish-speaking world often begins with teaching vowels, which make only one sound, then consonants and combining them into simple syllables (ma, me, mi, mo, mu). This leads to the identification of words that begin with the syllables learned (mano, masa, malo). The syllable, therefore, is a more important unit of phonological awareness in Spanish than it is in English. Spelling instruction is integrated into learning to read syllabically and is achieved through extensive reading and vocabulary development, rather than formal instruction in letter names and spelling. Students learning to read in Spanish move quickly to writing narratives and storytelling as a way to develop a deeper understanding of letter–sound association.

Recognizing where English and Spanish language pedagogy intersect is of critical importance to bilingual teachers. Of equal importance is recognizing and understanding the methods and approaches that respond to language-specific features of the two languages and developing strategies and activities to honor each language in its own right.

Bringing the Two Languages Together

The space to bring the two languages together is not anchored in any science of reading research and is not represented in any way in Scarborough’s rope. The research base does not acknowledge the critical role that metalinguistic awareness plays in biliteracy development. The original focus is on English-speaking students learning to read in English.

The bringing the two languages together space has two distinct purposes. One is metalinguistic awareness, which is why our original Four Spaces Framework used this title. To support students’ development of metalinguistic awareness, bilingual and dual language teachers design lessons that facilitate students’ authentic discovery of similarities and differences between English and Spanish, with regard to phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. For example, a cognate chart allows students to discover the shared etymological base of many academic terms in English and Spanish (biology/biología, parasite/parásito, astronaut/astronauta). A comparative chart allows students to discover the difference between noun–adjective placement in English and Spanish (the big, bad wolf/el lobo grande y feroz), or the importance of gender and number in Spanish nouns and the regularity of articles in English (the water cycle/el ciclo de agua, the sun’s rays/los rayos de sol). Activities such as Literacy Squared’s Así se dice ask students to work together to translate a piece of text from their unit of study to negotiate, defend, and discover the different ways vocabulary and phrases can be used to reflect the same understanding—”Is the translation of caras vemos, corazones no sabemos ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ or ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’? The difference is subtle, but critical… To understand which is more appropriate, you need to have more than vocabulary and concept knowledge. You need to reference culture and intent” (Escamilla et al., 2014, p. 76).

The other purpose for the bringing the two languages together space is to develop sociocultural awareness. The strategies and activities teachers design for this space support students’ identity development, cross-cultural competence, multicultural appreciation, and critical consciousness. Here, students may be given the opportunity to engage with texts that address a particular event from varying perspectives—for example, reading the book Encounter (Yolen, 1996), which offers the perspective of a young Taíno boy on the arrival of Christopher Columbus, while studying early American history, or middle school students reading Ecos del desierto, (Dubovoy, 2007), a book that tells the story of a teenager who crosses the Mexico–US border and experiences the day-to-day living and societal realities common to most Latino immigrants. Aligning literature with social studies topics and teaching students how to analyze text by way of stories, essays, letters, and poetry help them to develop an awareness of social justice and a sense of their own identities.

Biliteracy development and English literacy development for emerging bilinguals are complex. They both require an understanding of the needs of students learning in a second language, bilingualism, and an awareness of the unique features of each language. It is not appropriate to try to force monolingual research and approaches on our emerging bilingual student population or on the committed teachers who serve them. There is a better way; the bilingual education community has vast knowledge about the intersection of the science of reading and biliteracy instruction and should be honored.


Escamilla, K., Hopewell, S., Butvilovsky, S., Sparrow, W., Soltero-González, L., Ruiz-Figueroa, O., and Escamilla, M. (2014). Biliteracy from the Start: Literacy Squared in Action. Caslon.
Dubovoy, S. (2007). Ecos del desierto. Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, D.F.
Noguerón-Liu, S. (2020). “Expanding the Knowledge Base in Literacy Instruction and Assessment: Biliteracy and translanguaging perspectives from families, communities, and classrooms.” Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S307–S318. International Reading Association.
Scarborough, H. S. (2001). “Connecting Early Language and Literacy to Later Reading (Dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice.” In S. Neuman and D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for Research in Early Literacy (pp. 97–110). Guilford Press.
Yolen, J. (1996). Encounter. Voyager Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

There are many valuable resources to support biliteracy development available at:
Teaching for Biliteracy
Literacy Squared
¡Colorín Colorado!
Estrellita Accelerated Beginning Spanish Reading
MoraModules—Jill Kemper Mora
DLeNM’s Contextualized Learning for Access, Validation, Equity and Success (CLAVES)

DLeNM’s Professional Development Team includes Lisa Meyer, Evelyn Chávez, Diana Pinkston-Stewart, Kathleen Salgado, Natalie Olague, Yanira Gurrola, and Ruth Kriteman.
This article was originally printed in Soleado: Promising Practices from the Field, spring 2023.

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