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The Importance of L1 Literacy Development in Supporting Multilingual Learners

When working with multilingual learners, many educators understandably focus on development of the new language, often called the L2 (although the new language can be a third, fourth, or even fifth language). However, it is important for us not to dismiss the development of the native language of the student, referred to as the L1.

As more dual-language programs gain traction in US schools, languages other than English are now taught in primary grades alongside the foundations of English literacy such as phonics and sight-word recognition. Spanish Language Arts (SLA) is now commonplace in many elementary schools across the country. However, SLA is not only important as an L2 for native English-speaking students learning Spanish as a second language; it is also crucial in the development of literacy for native Spanish speakers as well. Therefore, it is essential that educators do not dismiss the role that native language (L1) literacy plays in the development of English mastery.

Frequently we hear, “Why is Spanish literacy important?  The student is already a fluent speaker!” While this might be the case, oral fluency is not the only indicator of true competency in a language. Consider this: If literacy were only about oral skills, all native English speakers would be top-level readers, there would be no intensive reading courses, and illiteracy both in the United States and around the world would be non-existent. Of course, we know that to be untrue. In fact, the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that about one in five US adults (21%) have low literacy skills, translating to about 43 million adults.* You might think that these statistics show ample evidence to support English-only programs for multilingual learners, but these statistics actually validate the need for SLA programs for native Spanish speakers.

Studies in elementary school-aged children have indicated that, for multilingual learners, “phonological awareness in the native language (L1) predicts successful literacy acquisition in both L1 and a second language (L2).”** The foundational patterns established in early L1 literacy education allow for stronger L2 acquisition. Some parents and educators fear that practicing literacy in two languages consecutively is too difficult for children and could even confuse them in their language learning. However, the studies appear to reflect the opposite phenomenon. In fact, strengthening native literacy while learning a new language has shown to be an effective approach to building language skills.

Another reason to acknowledge the importance of SLA is that language is such an integral part of one’s culture and identity. Therefore, to embrace a native language is to welcome the whole child into the classroom. The moment a multilingual learner steps into the classroom, they immediately understand the need to communicate so that they can navigate through their new surroundings. Educators can help children acclimate to their new school setting by forming relationships, and an effective way to initiate these new relationships is to include both Spanish and English language tools in the classroom. We at Vista Higher Learning have always recognized that L1 literacy is a crucial component to a student’s journey to language acquisition. Our La Cartilla series specifically targets SLA phonics development in kindergarten and first grade, when those initial phonics lessons begin to take shape in early childhood curricula. As students begin to grow beyond phonemic awareness in their SLA development, they can dive into our Español Yabisí series to develop language and literacy skills through a balanced literacy approach. We also provide opportunities for SLA growth with our A+ Kits, which include both fiction and nonfiction literacy kits, offering a variety of titles that include poetry, content-area reading, and mentor texts for writing practice.

Vista offers a wide array of both print and digital resources for SLA students that are both comprehensive and engaging. We believe learning should be FUN for students, while providing teachers with pertinent data to drive their instruction. That is why we recently launched our Vista Level Spanish (VLS) platform. VLS is a teacher-led digital solution that identifies literacy gaps by continuously assessing and measuring each student’s gradual mastery of the standards, pinpointing actionable teaching points, and providing targeted instruction through phonics books and activities, authentic texts with audio, games, video lessons, and quizzes. At Vista Higher Learning, we recognize the value of progress monitoring and believe that, with the right tools in both English AND Spanish, all learners have the chance to become successful.


By: Jody Nolf

Also read:

Teaching Newcomers and Beginning Proficiency English Learners: Where to Start

How to Foster Language and Literacy Development in the Spanish Classroom

Translanguaging: Defining and Describing Its Use with Second Language Learners

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Secret Teaching: Closing the Literacy Achievement Gap in Discreet Ways
1 year ago

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