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Emergent literacy of bilingual kindergarteners.


This case study compares two bilingual kindergartener's emergent literacy development with the purpose of identifying possible issues and research questions concerning bilingual children's literacy development. Observational data was examined based on an emergent literacy framework proposed by Whitehurst and Lonigan. Findings suggest that social and functional engagement in the literacy practice may be influenced by sociocultural factors which require attention in future research.


Between 1980 and 2000, the number of people who spoke a language other than English doubled (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). Today, nearly one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home, and federal projections suggest that this trend will continue over the next 50 years (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996). With these demographic changes, public schools now deal with an increasing number of non-English speaking children. Yet, the teaching force is becoming increasingly White, monolingual, and monocultural (Gay, 2000). These teachers haven't been prepared to identify developmental issues faced by bilingual learners, nor have they been taught to recognize the ways in which cultural experience and language are interconnected.

This article discusses early literacy experiences of two bilingual kindergarteners in a standard-English classroom. The study is not driven by one particular research question; rather, its purpose is to identify possible issues and generate potential research questions about bilingual children's literacy development.

Emergent literacy

Unlike other perspectives on reading acquisition, embedded within emergent literacy is the notion that literacy acquisition begins before young children enter school through exposure to print and socially meaningful literacy events. (Bialystok, 1997; Dickinson & Tabor, 2001; Hudelson, 1994; Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2001). From such experiences, children gradually discover the symbolic meaning of print and the functions it serves.

Whitehurst and Lonigan (2001) proposed an emergent literacy framework consisting of two domains: inside-out and outside-in. The inside-out domain refers to decoding knowledge that children utilize to process the information derived from the print. However, successful translation of phonological representations does not guarantee reading comprehension. Sources of information beyond the print are necessary to support comprehension. The outside-in domain is composed of contextual resources outside the printed word. It includes knowledge about the literacy contexts, accumulated world knowledge and semantic information. Both domains are critical to emergent literacy development; however, the inside-out domain is the gate-keeper to children's meaningful production and comprehension of print.

While there is considerable research about first language literacy development, there is scant information concerning the literacy development of bilingual learners. Although monolingual and bilingual children take a similar path toward literacy as they accumulate literacy knowledge through social interactions early in their lives, there are significant differences between the two groups regarding the role of social and affective factors in early second language development (Hudelson, 1994). For example, many bilingual learners speak their native languages at home until they go to English-only schools. For this reason, mainstream classrooms may pose cognitive and social challenges to bilingual children (Tabors & Snow, 2001).

The Study

In this article, we will briefly summarize our key findings. In order to capture a holistic picture and rich details of the literacy events, we used participant observation for our study. We each visited the same classroom on eight separate occasions. Observations took place from September to November, 2003 and lasted between two and three hours per visit. Each of us followed one individual student. We also interviewed the teacher and the parents. The classroom served 20 culturally-diverse children, almost half of whom spoke a language other than English at home. The teacher, Mrs. Rogers, was a monolingual English speaker who passionately believed that all of her students could achieve. She greatly valued the linguistic variety and cultural diversity her students brought into the classroom. One of her professional goals was to attain certification as an ESL instructor.

Participants [1]

Robert Robert was a happy 5 year-old boy who demonstrated an advanced level of literacy awareness upon entering kindergarten. He was able to read several types of texts with a great deal of fluency and would experiment with highly sophisticated grammatical concepts such as apostrophes and exclamation points in his writing. He was quite engaged in classroom activities and had a great desire to learn. Robert's parents were Albanian and spoke to him in Albanian both in public and at home. Robert was born in the United States and preferred to speak English. He identified with being an American citizen and, on one occasion stated, "My parents are Albanian, but I'm American." Robert was able to understand a great deal of spoken Albanian. However, at the time of this study, Robert had not had any literacy experience in Albanian.

Amy Amy was a happy, five-year old Chinese bilingual girl who could speak and comprehend both English and Cantonese equally well. Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese, was the primary language spoke at home. However, her literacy skills in English were better than Chinese. At the age of 5, Amy was able to recognize English letters and discriminated some letter sounds. She also attended a bilingual alter-school program in Chinatown, where the teacher would help her with homework and teach her new English words. Although Amy was born in the United States, she had a very strong ethnic and cultural identity as Chinese. This might be due to the fact that she and her family had daily contact with the local Chinese community and continued to celebrate Chinese holidays.

Literacy events in class

Literacy events were observed within three different instructional contexts--whole class events, seat work and literacy centers.

Whole Class Event Throughout the day, the class would gather in the carpeted meeting area on several occasions. The activities usually included group story reading, instruction for a specific lesson, and individual story sharing.

Seat work Children spent a great deal of time doing individual assignments at work tables located throughout the classroom. Some of this work was related to Reader's/Writer's Workshop where children were required to create stories through drawing and writing. At other times, seat work included tracing numbers and letters or doing a teacher directed art project.

Literacy Centers Literacy centers were situated throughout the classroom and included a computer area, math center, library corner, spelling words center and guided reading center. Each day alter the morning meeting, students traveled through the centers in small groups and each group attended two or three centers for twenty-minutes at a time.


As a framework for our analysis we used Whitehurst and Lonigan's (2001) two domains of emergent literacy, as outlined above, as well as their proposed developmental stages of emergent writing. According to Whitehurst and Lonigan's framework of emergent writing, early writing occurs along a developmental continuum.

At the beginning of this continuum writing is represented by pictographic images and scribble-like marks. Over time there is movement towards letter-like forms and eventually letters begin to represent specific syllables within words. At the end of this continuum children begin to use letters to represent individual sound in words. This model of emergent writing development is based on first language acquisition; however, some studies suggest that second language learners' writing development is similar to that of native speakers (Hudelson, 1994).


Inside-out Domain

Letter Naming and Phonological Awareness

Both Amy and Robert could easily name and write all the letters of the alphabet, although Amy seemed to enjoy letter-naming tasks far more than Robert did. The two children exhibited different levels of phonological awareness. Amy could understand grapheme-phoneme relationships only at the level of single letter and, while she understood that combinations of letters could create a word, she was only able to distinguish the initial sound of the word. Her phonological processing skills had not reached the level of blending individual sounds to form spoken words. It is important to note that, although Amy knew how to spell some words such as cow and moon, she had memorized them as sight words without linking grapheme-phoneme relationships. This may be because, in the Chinese writing system, an orthographic symbol stands for one meaning; whereas in English, combinations of symbols represent one meaning. It is likely that Amy's knowledge of Chinese language and orthography and the way she was taught English by her Chinese bilingual after-school teacher had an impact on her phonological development and vocabulary learning.

Robert, on the other hand, possessed an advanced level of phonological awareness and made careful decisions about what letters should be use when creating texts. For example, one day he and his friend Jose constructed the following sentence with magnetic letters at the Spelling Center: "Dinosaur is eete popcorm" After reading the sentence over, Robert noticed that the 'm' in "popcorm" did not sound correct. He searched through the pile of magnetic letters, found an 'n' and replaced the 'm' with it. Robert also read at an advanced level and demonstrated a great deal of fluency when reading out loud. He was quite comfortable blending phonemes and syllables into words and enjoyed reading a great deal. It is possible that English phonological awareness was easier for Robert than Amy because there's a stronger orthographic relationship between Albanian and English than Cantonese and English.

Emergent Writing

Amy would appear to have a mixed level of emergent writing according Whitehurst and Lonigan (2001). She used both scribbling and drawing in her writing. Although she started to invent spelling later in the semester, the scribbling marks did not disappear. In her writing, she usually only wrote words with consonants. However, by the end of the observation period, Amy had progressed to the stage in which she began to imitate cursive writing. Robert appeared to be approaching conventional spelling as he was including vowels and consonants in his attempts at writing. Throughout the semester, he would experiment with punctuation marks, sometimes adding a period in the middle of a word. By the middle of November, when asked by the researcher, he was able to put an exclamation point at the end of an adult written sentence.

Outside-in Domain

Both Amy and Robert had a basic understanding of the conventions of reading print in English. However, when compared to Robert, Amy used more personal experiences from her cultural background when attempting to comprehend classroom texts. The following conversation occurred while Amy was putting together an animal puzzle and clearly demonstrates that, for her, knowledge was derived from daily experiences which served as an important resource that supported her comprehension of classroom texts:
 Amy: What is your favorite animal?

 L: um..I like bears.

 Amy: I like bears too. (after several exchanges)

 Amy: This is a cow. I know how to spell cow. C-O-W ...
 (Before she put the piece back on the board, she
 shows me her necklace). See, this is a cow. I am Chinese. I
 am a Chinese cow (Cow is one of the Chinese zodiac).

 Student: I am a cow too.

 Amy: No, you are not. I am Chinese and you are not. I am
 Chinese cow. (FN, YCL)

Robert possessed a high level of semantic awareness and understood that words could be manipulated to convey multiple meanings depending on the situation or context. For example, when working in an academic context such as the guided reading center, he was able to use contextual clues within the text to help him pronounce words correctly. In social situations with his peers, he purposefully used nonsense words or created "secret codes," knowing that they had no meaning, in order to elicit a response from his friends. Whatever the context, he was able to read each text in a top-down, left to right manner.

Interactions with the Environment

Amy and Robert both actively used cues from the classroom to help them complete the assignments. However, Amy's enthusiastic desire for letter naming may have been overly reinforced by the constant focus on letter knowledge found throughout all the literacy centers and her after school experience. Thus, while other children might benefit from the reinforcement, Amy needed to be encouraged to look for meaning within texts. Because of Robert's advanced level of reading, the teacher provided him with more difficult texts than the other children, and modified certain literacy center activities to make them more challenging. As a result, he never appeared to be bored by the class and greatly enjoyed the classroom environment and social interactions with other children.

Individual Differences and Identity

Amy and Robert were both successful students who were doing quite well in kindergarten. Amy's literacy development was progressing at a consistent pace. Amy dutifully followed classroom rules and was a focused student who was able to complete assigned activities even in the midst of noise. Robert entered kindergarten with an advanced level of literacy development, but he also valued social interaction with other children in the class; thus, his attention was often split between classroom activities and his peers. Unlike Amy, literacy events for Robert were noisy group centered affairs where language was often used as a means to negotiate power between his him and his friends.


When interacting with classroom materials, Amy freely made connections between her Chinese cultural background and classroom materials. She appeared to be proud of her Chinese identity and wanted to share it with her classmates. Robert, on the other hand, identified with being a US citizen and appeared to be uninterested in speaking Albanian. He associated the Albanian language and culture as making him 'different' from his peers and this made him feel very uncomfortable within the classroom.

Implications for Future Research

There appears to be a dearth of literature on the emergent literacy development of bilingual learners. We have generated several possible research questions regarding the emergent literacy of bilingual learners that we hope will generate more research on the subject. We have also provided instructional implications for classroom teachers. While monolingual and bilingual children's literacy development progresses along a similar developmental continuum (Hudelson, 1994), it cannot be assumed that instructional strategies that are successful for one group will be successful for the other. Research must be done that is driven by questions like "What is the cognitive and social effect on bilingual learners when they become literate in their non-dominant language?" and "How does becoming literate in the second language impact the child's view of their home culture?"

Since Amy and Robert showed different patterns of social interaction when engaged in literacy events, we hypothesize that the way children define the functions of language has an effect on the type of interaction patterns they exhibit in the classroom. Further research is needed to investigate this hypothesis in order to look at how peer-to-peer and adult-to-child interactions contribute to differences between each child's emergent literacy development. Amy and Robert also exhibited different learning styles, social interaction patterns, and personal relationships with their cultural identity. It is also important to explore what effect these sociocultural factors have on children's emergent literacy development. Many studies have emphasized the value of a print-rich environment in children's emergent literacy development (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Hudelson, 1994). For second language learners with limited target language exposure at home, it is important to create a literacy-rich classroom which invites them to engage in various literate behaviors. It is also crucial to remember that each child's emergent literacy skills develop at different rates (Seda and Abramson, 1990). Future research must be done that addresses how environment and literacy activities can be modified to meet individual children's needs in mixedlevel classes.

As public school classrooms across the United States become more culturally and linguistically diverse, we believe it is important to provide a culturally sensitive environment that embraces such differences. Mrs. Rogers considered her students' cultural backgrounds a vital resource for learning and frequently encouraged children to share their cultural and linguistic backgrounds within the classroom environment. In an environment like this, where there is an appreciation and respect for other cultures and languages, children can feel secure about sharing their personal cultural heritage and language.


Bialystok, E. (1997). Effects ofbilingualism and biliteracy on children's emergent concepts of print. Developmental psychology, 33(3), 429-440.

Dickinson, D. K. & Tabors, P. O. (2001). Chapter one: language development in the preschool years. In Beginning literacy with language (pp.1-25). Baltimore, MD:Paul H .Brookes publishing Co.

Gay, G., (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research and practice. New York, NY: Teacher College Press

Hudelson, S. (1994). Literacy development of second language children. In Genesee, F. (Ed.), Educating second language children: the whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community (pp. 129-158). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Seda, I., & Abramson, S. (1990). English writing development of young, linguistically different learners. Early childhood research quarterly, 5 (3), 379-391.

Tabors, P. O. & Snow, C. E. (1994). English as a second language in preschool program. In Genesee, F. (Ed.), Educating second language children: the whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community. 103-125, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tabors, P. O. & Snow, C. E. (2001). Young bilingual children and early literacy development. In Neuman, S.B. & Dickinson, D. K. (Eds.), Handbook of Early literacy research (pp. 159-179). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

U.S. Census Bureau (2003). Language use and English-speaking ability: 2000. Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce.

U.S. Department of Commerce (1996). Current population projections of the United States by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin: 1995 to 2050. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Whitehurst, G. J. & Lonigan, C. J. (2001). Emergent literacy: development from prereaders to readers. In Neuman, S.B. & Dickinson, D. K. (Eds.), Handbook of Early literacy research(pp.11-29). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


[1] Pseudonyms have been used throughout this study for participants and location.

Kelly Demers, Boston College, MA Yi-Chien Lee, Boston College, MA

Kelly Demers and Yi-Chien Lee are doctoral candidates in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College.
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Author:Lee, Yi-Chien
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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