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An ESL child's emergent literacy development.


This naturalistic case study describes how a kindergarten ESL child used reading and writing strategies to advance her literacy knowledge. The study suggests that a balanced literacy program provided the support necessary for this ESL child to construct sophisticated oral and written language understandings. Thus, this case study corroborates the hypotheses that oral language development and literacy develop concurrently and that reading and writing can assist literacy development for ESL children.


Recent investigations suggest that young ESL children are capable of making sense of written input while they are working on becoming fluent speakers of English (Fitzgerald & Noblit, 1999; Weber, 1996). This research orientation maintains that just as speaking, reading, and writing are interrelated in the emerging literacy of native speakers they are equally related in the emerging literacy of second language children. A literature-based curriculum, in particular, may encourage children to talk about the stories they hear and to write their own stories (Bates, 1995; Lindfords, 1989). This case study is an in-depth look at how one ESL kindergarten child, Melissa, explored the functions and features of print in the context of a literature-based curriculum. The questions addressed are as follows: 1) What do Melissa's emergent literacy behaviors look like? And 2) What reading and writing strategies does she use?


This case study centered on describing the context within which participants act and the influence the context had on their actions and on understanding the process by which events and actions take place (Maxwell, 1996). Melissa, a December baby, was four years old when she started school. She had never been to pre-school and when she entered kindergarten her score in the Language Assessment Battery (LAB) identified her as limited-English proficient. Her bilingual kindergarten was composed of 21 Portuguese-background children, 18 of which were identified as having limited-English proficiency. Classroom instruction was done primarily in English and reading and writing were introduced in English.

Data Collection

Data collection took place in this space during the 65 classroom observations I conducted throughout the school year. Data sources included: 1) field notes; 2) audiotaping; 3) collection of children and classroom artifacts, such as notes to and from parents, copies of workbook pages, classroom notices, copies of report cards, and test scores, 4) periodic photographs of wall charts, blackboard entries, and displays of children's work; and 5) informal interviews with the teacher. Field notes served to identify literacy events and to describe the literacy practices embedded in each event.

Data Analysis

I went through the field notes and coded specific boundaries between literacy events. I noted the time of day, the duration of events in the literacy program, and the physical location of the literacy interactions. For example, I divided the Language Arts period in two. The first always took place around 9:30 in the morning and was always in the Reading Center with the whole class. It involved the reading of a book and predictable teacher-led discussions of the story. Thus, I use the designation of Circle/Reading events. The second period entailed work on either Phonics/Handwriting or Journal Writing, which was completed by the children at their desks. After I identified the three literacy events, I clustered specific literacy practices for each event using the constant comparison method (Glazer & Strauss, 1967) and noted Melissa's emergent literacy behaviors and reading and writing strategies.

Classroom Literacy

The teacher, Ms. B., would begin storybook reading by activating children's background knowledge about the story to be read. She might initiate an oral discussion or use the Language Experience Approach (LEA). Ms. B. used Circle/Reading to ease children's transition to English literacy and emphasized both the emergent aspects of reading and conventional aspects of reading. That is, on the one hand, she encouraged children to read a book by looking at the pictures and by relying on memorization of predictable language structures. On the other hand, Ms. B. called children's attention to beginning sounds in words and modeled concepts of print, such as directionality. In mid January, Ms. B. introduced literature response journals to the kindergarten class and instructed children as follows: "Draw and write something about your favorite part of the story. As you hear the sounds in words write them down (field notes, 1/15/97, p. 52)." Thus, journals served primarily as literature response logs where children could spell anyway they wanted without worrying about accuracy. During Phonics lessons, Ms. B. asked children to generate words that started with a particular sound or asked them to name objects with the same letter/sound. Then children completed phonics workbook exercises and Ms. B. checked the accuracy of their work.

Melissa's Emergent Literacy Development

At the beginning of the year, Melissa used both Portuguese and English to socialize with her peers but appeared to be going through a "silent period" that lasted until early October; not unusual for ESL children (Saville-Troike, 1988). During instructional periods she was often observed repeating language after the teacher in murmuring voices. Melissa made great strides in speaking, reading, and writing throughout the kindergarten year. Indeed, at the end of the year and according to the Language Assessment post-test, she no longer qualified as a limited-English speaker.


Records of language experience charts and drawings show that Melissa moved from labeling, "Me playing," in September, to describing her pictures, "I'm seeing the birds singing and smelling the flowers," in October. Similarly, Melissa's meaning-making attempts during phonics literacy events became increasingly more complex. In December, she started to volunteer words that started with a specific sound as in doll for /d/. However, by February she was using compound words like girlfriend for /g/) and two-word expressions with one referent (fire drill, fish tank). In January, it was evident that Melissa was already working out sound/symbol correspondences effectively. For example, upon hearing other children discuss whether Kevin should be written with a G Melissa stated, "That would be Geven." At first, Melissa's drawings bore no resemblance to the words she chose to label her journal entries. She used conventional spelling to spell words she knew and copied words from books. For example, she wrote the words "cat, one, baby, and crayola" next to a picture of a Christmas tree. See issue's website <>

However, Melissa's writing became more elaborate as she began to personalize her reactions to literature and to experiment with invented spelling. The journal entry below, composed in April of the kindergarten year, shows that Melissa spelled most of the words conventionally, except for wheels. Here she confused the vowel and wrote another consonant for h. She put spaces between words and followed a left to right linear progression. The preposition on is omitted or substituted by "he." Although this is reflective of her insufficient knowledge of English syntax, it shows that Melissa is starting to take risks. She is now willing to use her emergent knowledge of English to make connections between the reading and her personal ideas. See issue's website <>

Melissa later experimented with the narrative form. From her narrative in Figure 3 we can only infer that a housewife met a man whom she fell in love with. However, there is a clear introduction, development, and conclusion and a precise storybook language structure. In this piece, there is a balance between conventional spellings and invented spellings with no clear boundaries between words in the first sentence. Yet, Melissa represents most of the sounds in words, which indicates she uses transitional spelling strategies effectively. Also, while Melissa's sentences are marked by ungrammatically (e.g. in the love) she uses the syntactical and lexical features of storybooks (e.g. Once upon a time). See issue's website <>

The analysis of Melissa's writing indicates that she is trying to construct meaning by using both conventional and invented spellings and by making use of her developing knowledge of story grammar and syntax. Melissa's purposes for writing include: 1) labeling or naming objects, 2) express personal opinion, and 3) tell stories. As her writing progressed she started to take more risks and to use invented spelling in her personal narratives. In reading, Melissa made use of similar meaning-making strategies and emerged as a strategic reader who orchestrates a variety of cueing systems.


From September through March, Melissa read predictable books using picture cues and letter- sound cues during Circle/Reading events. In so doing, she used phonetic decoding strategies to assist her in pronouncing words. For example, as children worked on an art project involving cutting out a butterfly drawing, Melissa read the label "Barerfly ." Apparently not satisfied she paused, looked attentively at the print and quickly changed her response saying, "butterfly." Indeed, reading words seemed to help Melissa perfect her spoken English. For example, "Valentime" and "elmow" change to her oral rendition of "Valentine" and "elbow" after Melissa observes how the teacher spells them (field notes, 3/20/97, p. 111).

From April to June, Melissa focused on integrating picture reading with phonics cues and sight word knowledge in her reading attempts. At this point in time, Melissa was choosing to read books by herself at snack time. She always checked whether what she read made sense and when the reading didn't make sense to her she would ask herself "What does that mean?" and "I never heard that." In the following example of Melissa's reading it is evident that she orchestrates a variety of strategies to derive meaning from the book Danny and the Easter Egg by Edith Kunhardt.

Melissa: Lucy favorite egg has ... is ... Lucy favorite egg is special?

Melissa: (pauses).

Melissa: It's almost like candy, she seys (says).

Melissa: Julie favorite egg has spots on ... it. Oops, Julie favorite egg has stars (points at the picture).

Melissa questions herself about possible meanings not encoded in print (e.g. Lucy favorite egg is special), pauses and redirects her reading by paying attention to print. She omits the possessive in the names Lucy and Julie and mispronounces the word says. Later, she reads spots for stars and then self-corrects by using picture cues.

Clearly, Melissa's reading is guided by her knowledge of print. She knew this story and recognized many words by sight (e.g., it, is, has like she). Moreover, she consistently checked herself to see if her reading made sense. Later, during the reading of the last part of the book, Melissa made substitutions that did not affect the meaning of the story.

Melissa: "After dinner it is time for bed," "Danny put his egg onto (for into) the Easter ..." (silence).

Teacher: "basquet."

Melissa: "He leaves the basquet at the ... table (for bottom of the stairs)," "I hope the Easter Bunny likes them ... those (self-corrected), he saize (for says)." "Goodnight, Danny saize (for says), to ... whom?" (not in text). "Danny saize (for says) to his father."

Melissa's miscues and occasional skipping of print did not affect meaning. Although the basket appeared in the picture on top of a table at "the bottom of the stairs," her skipping of that part of the sentence made no difference in terms of understanding that Danny is leaving his Easter eggs for the Easter Bunny. Also, in spite of the teacher's rendition of the word basket and her mispronunciation of "saize" for "says" she was still able to make sense of the story by using good meaning-making strategies. At times, she corrected herself even when her miscues did not significantly alter the intended meaning (e.g. them for those) which shows she was attending to print.

In addition, Melissa asked herself meaningful, context- specific questions while reading (e.g. "to whom?") and, as a result, was able to read the next line of text successfully. Here, Melissa went back to the beginning of the sentence to make sense of the printed message. That is, she reread the chunk of text with the subject of the sentence. In short, Melissa's reading seems guided both by decoding strategies and by the use of picture clues and context to make sense of the text. Her orchestration of these strategies played an important role in Melissa's reading development. She seemed determined to read and to derive meaning from print.

Some connections between Melissa's reading and writing strategies can be drawn. Namely, her reading is marked by ungrammatically as in her reading of "into" as "onto" and the omission of the possessive "s." However, by the end of the kindergarten year the resulting emergent reading and writing behaviors resemble conventional reading and writing. Melissa was able to construct narratives and to read pictures books independently. Clearly, her developing understanding of the English language appears intertwined with her reading and writing development. Perhaps more importantly, reading in the new language seemed to assist Melissa's oral language development.


Melissa's first attempts at writing are marked by her developing understanding of the English language and her reading development appears intertwined with her oral language development. Phonological awareness and attention to meaning aided Melissa in constructing literacy knowledge. The classroom literacy curriculum placed emphasis on these complementary reading and writing processes and Melissa was able to orchestrate the various cueing systems to learn how to speak, read, and write in English. Thus, this case study provides evidence that a balanced literacy program supports the literacy growth of ESL children in much the same way it supports the literacy development of native English-speaking children (Freppon & Dahl, 1998; Fitzgerald & Noblit, 1999). Furthermore, it suggests that ESL children armed with letter-name knowledge, phonological awareness, and basic letter- sound relationships can teach themselves how to read, provided they are immersed in a print-rich environment (Torgesen & Hecht, 1996).

Melissa's emergent literacy behaviors and the strategies she used reflect deviations from English syntax and phonology, but they also reflect a developmental path from emergent forms of reading and writing to more conventional forms of literacy. Insufficient knowledge of oral language did not preclude her from advancing her reading and writing knowledge. Indeed, knowledge of the features of print helped Melissa to revise her hypothesis about how oral language works. Importantly, attention to meaning seems to permeate her explorations of print and the communicative purposes it serves.


Bates, L. (1995). Promoting young ESL children's written language development. In M. K. Verma; K. P. Corrigan; & S. Firth (Eds.), Working with bilingual children (109-127). Cleveland: Multilingual Matters.

Fitzgerald, J. & Noblit, G. (1999). About hopes, aspirations, and uncertainty: First-grade English-language learners' emergent reading. Journal of Literacy Research, 31, 133-182.

Freppon, P. & Dahl, K. L. (1998). Theory and research into practice: Balanced instruction: Insights and considerations. Reading Research Quarterly, 33, 2, 240-251.

Glazer, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine.

Language Assessment Battery. (1982). NY Public Schools.

Lindfords, J. W. (1989). The classroom: A good environment for language learning. In P.Rigg & V. G. Allen (Eds.), When they don't all speak English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Maxwell, J. (1996). Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach. London: Sage Publications.

Saville-Troike, M. (1988). Private Speech: Evidence for second language learning strategies during the "silent period." Journal of Child Language, 15, 567-590.

Torgesen, J. K., & Hecht, S. A. (1996). Preventing and remediating reading disabilities: Instructional variables that make a difference for special students. In M. F. Graves, P. van den Broek,& B. M. Taylor (Eds.), The first R: Every child's right to read (pp. 133-159). New York: Teachers College Press.

Araujo, an Assistant Professor, specializes in ESL Emergent Literacy.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:English as a second language
Author:Araujo, Luisa
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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