My wife began working with our six-year-old son on reading and
writing skills early in the summer because, even with soccer lessons,
tennis lessons, basketball lessons, pottery classes, painting classes,
drama classes and four or five different vacation Bible schools, our
boy had too much "down time" at home without regular school
There is a lot of good research showing that building a child's
literacy skills in their first language will equip them conceptually
for grafting onto their neural pathways further literacy skills in
a second or third language as well. Bill VanPatten explains
the theory behind these processes very nicely in a book,
"From Input to Output," as well as in several talks he gave at the Kansas
TESOL meeting in 2004:
Our son's first language, thanks to the attentiveness of his
mother, a native Spanish speaker from Colombia, is Spanish.
At the end of every summer, and sometimes at holiday
season, he gets the chance to communicate 24/7 in Spanish
during a visit to the home of his Abuelita in Florida. The
grandparents are so happy and proud of their grandson's
Spanish speaking ability. He even said happy birthday to
his great-grandmother in Colombia on the phone a few
weeks ago, when she turned 90.
Spanish is a great language for learning how to read
because the sound system maps very precisely and
regularly onto the writing system. This regularity of
the sound-symbol relationships makes it much easier
than English for reading out loud as skills are just
beginning to develop. I'm pretty sure that phonemic
awareness is not quite as popular a money-making
scheme in Spanish-speaking school systems as it
is in the U.S., with the complex array of sound-symbol
relationships in English.
Our boy's Spanish reading skills are growing very
quickly. At first, he would read simpler books for
practice out loud, whereas his mother would read
to him (as she has always) from longer stories. One
of their real favorites is the "Casa del Arbol" series.
His writing has developed more slowly, but he is
very interested in, for example, writing lists of items
for his Abuelita to buy for him, and writing simple
messages in Spanish. He can now compose in
Spanish very nicely, writing new ideas and explaining
things with good detail.
When the school year arrived, he brought his
advanced reading skills to bear on the challenges
of reviewing the English sound/symbol system and
trying to read English texts out loud. At first, he
was frustrated, stating that he believed English
was completely different from Spanish, and lacking
the confidence in his ability to sound out words.
However, over the first month or so of school, he
has continued making an effort to read (and write)
English, and he is now reading English much more
fluently than before. His daily Spanish lessons with
his mother, including now mathematics using an
abacus, are continuing. He reads out loud in Spanish
while we are driving, while we are sitting anywhere,
just so happy to be reading.
Recently, the past week or two, his mother has
also incorporated in their daily study time an activity
in which she dictates certain English sentences
and Bill guesses the spelling as he writes them
out. My wife reports that he embraces this challenge
very enthusiastically, seemingly even more interested
in sorting out English than Spanish (we do live in
Kansas). Everywhere we go, my son is reading
the signs and spelling out words for practice.
School personnel have responded very positively
to our son's bilingual ability and our aspirations that
he develop full literacy in both of his languages. My
wife has been invited to work with children in the
school on basic Spanish skills, which she is enjoying
immensely as well.
Sometimes it is nice to be able to step outside the
media battles and research duels over bilingual education
and the role of first language literacy in second language
development. We see the results every day. To really
implement our plans for him to fully develop his Spanish
skills in the context of grade level content, throughout
his schooling, we are going to have to "go back to school"
ourselves and enable ourselves to provide that content
in Spanish. We are also considering spending a year
or so in a Spanish-speaking environment in the future,
so that our son can attend school in a community that
values Spanish most highly.
By Robb Scott
2009 ESL MiniConference Online
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