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Oral Proficiency and Literacy in First Language

This document contains extracted content from the executive summary of the National Literacy Panel Report on Language Minority Children and Youth titled "Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners." This extract content reviews the case for how oral proficiency and literacy in the first language aides literacy development in English. The content extract from the report's Executive Summary is as follows.

Oral proficiency and literacy in the first language can be used to facilitate literacy development in English.

Language-minority students are not blank slates. They enter classrooms with varying degrees of oral proficiency and literacy in their first language. There is clear evidence that tapping into first-language literacy can confer advantages to English-language learners. For example, there is evidence that language-minority students are able to take advantage of higher order vocabulary skills in the first language, such as the ability to provide formal definitions and interpret metaphors, when speaking a second language. Studies also indicate that students are able to take advantage of cognate relationships between their first language and English to understand English words, an important precursor to comprehension. There is limited evidence, as well, that cognate knowledge is associated with the development of reading comprehension in English. Cognates are words that have similar spellings and meanings in two languages, such as "continue" in English and "continuar" in Spanish.

First-language oral proficiency also influences developmental patterns in second-language speech discrimination, speech production, intraword segmentation and vocabulary, which reflect the patterns of the first language ”at least until students become more proficient in English."

There is ample evidence as well that first-language literacy is related in other important ways to literacy development in English, including word and pseudoword reading, reading comprehension, reading strategies, spelling and writing. Language-minority students who are literate in their first language are likely to be advantaged in the acquisition of English literacy. It is important to take into consideration the transferability of some literacy skills, then, when planning and providing second-language literacy instruction to students who are literate in their first language.

Moreover, the research indicates that instructional programs work when they provide opportunities for students to develop proficiency in their first language. Studies that compare bilingual instruction with English-only instruction demonstrate that language-minority students instructed in their native language, as well as in English, perform better, on average, on measures of English reading proficiency than language-minority students instructed only in English. This is the case at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Executive SummaryDeveloping Literacy in Second-Language Learners Report of the National Literacy Panel Report on Language Minority Children and Youth, 2006, pg 5

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