Contact Us

Literacy Issues in Second-Language Families - February 2009

< Back to Previous Page

Literacy Issues in Second-Language Families

- by Deborah Chitester, MS, CCC-SLP

Children who come from homes where English is not the first language are increasingly represented in American schools. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the immigrant population has tripled from 1970 to 2000. This increase is expected to escalate at even higher rates in the future.

Much of the literature supports the idea that in order for a child to achieve true literacy, a family's home language should be maintained as the primary language while a child is learning English as a second language. Given this philosophy, teachers often want to know how to encourage the families of their students to follow this path. The concept of literacy is clearly culturally defined and is viewed differently by different cultures. There are various bodies of research including NABE and OELA, that support the fact that the extent to which a child is literate in the home language will in large part determine his or her positive experience in second language learning. Teachers often recognize that the lack of family literacy in culturally linguistically diverse families can be a predisposing factor to the child having problems in school. This is correct, and in fact, this lack of literacy can serve to complicate the second language acquisition process substantially. The absence of a strong family language may be the first "domino" in a series of falling dominoes. When critical opportunities for language building are missed, these children can and often do wind up in special education instead of in an English Language development paradigm.

The following is an example of a child who could have been referred to special education, but was not, thanks to a careful look at home literacy opportunities:

LN, a first grade boy, was referred for a speech language screening by his first grade teacher. The SLP assessed the child informally in the classroom setting. The student conversed readily and spoke of wanting to be a doctor in the future. LN was hard to understand due to morpho-syntactic errors and misarticulations. The SLP reviewed the Home Language Survey and learned that the mother had indicated that English was the language most often used in the home by both the child and by the family. Based on this survey, the SLP decided to send home consent to prepare for a formal speech language referral and testing.

After receiving this notice, the father came to school and let the SLP know that Mom spoke mainly Cantonese with the child, although this was not noted on the Home Language Survey. He explained that the mother was not a proficient English speaker, but tried to tutor her child in English daily. The father, who was from Mexico spoke English with a heavy accent and made many grammatical and articulatory errors in English. The parents did not feel the child had difficulty learning English. Rather, they felt that language models in the home impacted the child's speech patterns. Although the child had some expressive limitations, it was determined his needs could be met within the classroom. Since the "problems" did not appear to stem from a disorder, the child was not referred for special education at this time.

This example may serve to illustrate the consequence of home language literacy opportunities when they are missed or not fully actualized, and it clearly demonstrates the importance of early experiences with the home language. Often, children are not fully encouraged to participate in home language literacy opportunities. As a result, it may be perceived that the child is disordered in a language when in reality he or she has not received ample exposure or experience in this particular language. If there are English literacy experiences that are inconsistent, it may look as if a child is delayed in English language development, which in reality is likely not the case. By conducting an extensive home language background history, language background and use can be correctly ascertained.

An additional factor that can impact home language literacy for English language learners or children for whom English is not the first language, is language loss. Language loss is defined as the gradual replacement of the native language by English when the child's opportunity or contact for language exposure in the native language are hampered or interrupted in any way. This can occur in school or begin at home where parents often feel it is better for their children to receive English input "at any cost." Parents who are English language learners themselves will inadvertently supply less than rich, optimal language input in a second language of which their own command may just be emerging. This can impact and often does affect second language learning experiences. What is advisable is that parents use their stronger language, (usually their native language) to communicate and provide enriching language experiences for their children. According to Cummins (1983), if the L1 is nurtured and strong, this foundation will positively impact the development of the second language. This notion is not understood often and is not shared with parents nearly enough to be able to make a difference. This author must note at this time that this phenomenon is more prevalent in Hispanic families where parents often view it necessary to drop the Spanish language in the home in an attempt to "prepare" the child for school where English is suspected to be the only language recognized. The extent to which this occurs may depend upon the diverse family's belief that the abandoning of their language and heritage will facilitate and speed up the acculturation process, which of course is not the case.

Second language acquisition is often misunderstood and is an area where professional development efforts need to center for appropriate educational programming to be more bountiful in the public school arena. For example, a "silent period" of a child being exposed to English in school initially is a normal period of time where he may not be using the language to speak. This time period is often mislabeled as being problematic and possibly a sign of a possible language disorder. The implications of an inappropriate referral to special education of children who speak two languages are enormous. Children who are typically learning can miss out on specialized language support as well as access to the mainstream curriculum which can alter the status of their academic future. Parents need to understand the type of language support available to their children, and how long they should receive it. Questions parents may need the answers to include: What kind of help or support will be provided to my child for whom English is still emerging and being acquired? Will our home language and its distinctness from English be taken into consideration when assessing my child's school performance?

Often parents of bilingual or second language children need additional background knowledge to know how to access the system and to know which recommendations coming from schools and personnel are the most appropriate given the child's status. I have worked on cases and consulted with attorneys who have referred me to children who were inappropriately labeled as having a disability by school-based examiners who did not employ the use of appropriate test protocols and conduct the comprehensive analyses into language background and use as well as other relevant factors. These parents sought out assistance when the children did not make any progress in academics after years of speech therapy and in some cases, actually experienced cognitive decline.

It is highly recommended that school principals and administrators advocate for professional training in their schools to heighten educator awareness of the differences and impact of linguistic and cultural differences on students. The following guidelines were written for educators and parents and have been presented to many audiences. Various educators have reported that this advice is quite helpful in facilitating home language literacy in diverse homes, where English is the second language:

"It has been well established that the demographics of American schools are changing. The National Center for Education Statistics tells us that the numbers of students coming from ethnic, racial or linguistic backgrounds is steadily increasing. Educators are often at a loss for knowing how to reach these children and to lend the necessary support for their academic needs.

The following are some general pieces of advice and guidelines for reaching this population:

  1. Slow down to ensure that your words are being fully comprehended by the child so he/she can fully process the information.
  2. Focus on teaching meaning rather than focusing on modeling appropriate grammar. Meaning for these children will emerge more readily in English language learners.
  3. Avoid asking the child to respond immediately to any questions posed.
  4. Encourage the child's growth and development via the use of his/her primary language. This will give the child a sense of pride in his/her heritage and native background.
  5. Do encourage the child to interject their own cultural backgrounds into learning and classroom situations.
  6. Include parents and community members in classroom activities who represent the cultural diversity in the community.
  7. Collaborate with people from the local cultural community who can serve as cultural informants and interpreters. Drawing on knowledge from those in the child's community will help you obtain accurate information about the child and his community and help lessen the gap between school and family.
  8. Educate yourself as much as possible about the family's culture and language. This information can be obtained from a local library or the cultural group in question.
  9. Learn some basic working vocabulary in the student's language so the child can see you, the educator value his/her language. Multicultural families' often appreciate the efforts put forth by professionals to connect with them and it also shows deference to the minority culture."

Clearly, it has been documented in various bodies of research that pre-service teacher education and continuing professional development for all educators is needed in order to address literacy issues among diverse children. Often, there exists a mismatch between the backgrounds of teachers and students which can result in a serious barrier to student achievement unless schools, social entities, and other organizations attempt to understand the other's expectations. Tensions can develop as geographic, cultural, linguistic, and communities differ. There has been some relative success with increasing parental involvement of parents of children for whom English is not a first language. This can be accomplished by making use of community volunteers from similar dialectical communities as the students'. Principals and school administrators are encouraged to contact local Lions or Kiwanis clubs in order to identify local volunteers available to support these children in school. The clubs mentioned above often do make forming these volunteer pools a top priority and are generally quite receptive to requests.

Parents of culturally and linguistically diverse children need to be encouraged to participate in school and to also maintain home language literacy as well. In order to enhance families' involvement, it is important to reach out and communicate with those families. Families need to feel connected with the principal, teachers and other educators in order for optimal parental involvement to occur. A family's participation and involvement in the education process of their children is largely determined by the degree to which they feel their culture and language are valued by the educators around them. Principals and school administrators are encouraged to support staff efforts at making all classrooms culturally and linguistically friendly to the many cultures represented in the schools. Meetings for parents should be offered in both English and the home language whenever possible. Valuing the student's home language, will increase the likelihood of a positive attitude toward learning English. In addition, relevant information about the advantages of bilingualism and the importance of maintaining the home language can also be discussed in meetings. School administrators can play a pivotal role in achieving this goal by supporting their teachers with the necessary training in second language and cultural diversity. The more this occurs, the better the outcomes can be, to attain multilingual literacy for multicultural families.

This Months Featured Organization,

Special Thanks to Deborah Chitester, MS, CCC-SLP for this month's article.

Deborah Chitester is a licensed Bilingual/Bicultural Speech-Language Pathologist, with specialized training in methodologies consistent with the facilitation of Bilingualism and Biliteracy. She has many special certifications and extensive expertise assisting second language learners to master spoken language. Also, Deborah's own success as a fluent/competent second language learner (English/Spanish) and her knowledge of second language development allow clients to develop effective communication competence.

For contact info visit

Tags: February 2009 Newsletter SLP Literacy Bilingualism Article