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How Secondary Language Affects Children in Reading and Writing Performance

Students who enter into the educational environment with literacy skills in multiple languages present a number of substantial challenges for educators. Although second language learners (SLL) have some socio-cognitive advantages over peers who speak only one language, such as the ability to understand the communication needs of other people, children's success at second-language learning is highly dependent on such elements as parental attitude toward second-language learning and the status of the child's language(s) in his or her community. Thus, it is crucial that educators bring a positive and supportive attitude towards second-language learning to their own classrooms so that they might take advantage of students' inherent desire to learn while also taking into account some of the barriers and limitations which non-English speaking students may encounter in an English-speaking classroom.

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I have personally experienced classroom environments where I was not valued as a student because English is not my first language, and I believe that the peer relationships between SLL and their unilingual peers is greatly impacted by the attitude of the classroom teacher. For example, a teacher who demonstrates that all of her students are valuable and valued members of the classroom community, regardless of their language skills, will send a strong message to her students about tolerance, acceptance, and inclusiveness. Conversely, a teacher who behaves dismissively towards a student who is still learning the dominant language of the classroom sends a similarly strong message to her students that they need not treat others with respect and kindness. It is important for all teachers to remember that it can take quite a long time for SLLs to become fluent in their second-language, especially in oral form.

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As the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development points out, such students may face developmental lags in comparison to their monolingual peers and "tend to have a smaller vocabulary in each language than monolingual children in their language. Nonetheless, their understanding of linguistic structure is at least as good and often better than that of comparative monolinguals" (p. i-ii). Thus, although SLLs may give the appearance of being less academically-accomplished than their monolingual classmates due to the difficulties they face in becoming proficient orally in their second language, this is not always the case. Thus, educators must strive to properly assess the strengths and needs of SLLs from the outset so that they might develop appropriate lessons which both acknowledge the positive benefits which the SLL brings to the classroom while also addressing the reality that many SLLs may need extra social and academic support from their teacher and classmates.

In her scholarly paper, "Second-Language Acquisition and Bilingualism at an Early Age and the Impact on Early Cognitive Development," Elaine Bialystok emphasizes that educators cannot begin to assist SLLs as they integrate into a monolingual classroom environment until they understand the individual needs and experiences of the child herself. Bialystok recommends that educators conduct an assessment of the SLL which takes into account a number of factors including whether the child's home language is one which is valued in the larger community and whether the majority of the child's literacy tasks at home are conducted in their home language or their second language. Bialystok also suggests that SLLs are more likely to succeed at school when their parents are actively involved in (or are at the very least supportive of) the child's acquisition of a second-language. Although it is my intention, in my future professional life, to build strong relationships with the parents of all of my students, I recognize that I may have to make an extra effort with the parents of my SLL students. This is not to suggest that the parents of SLL students are not just as interested in their children's educations as the parents of monolingual students; however, there will be language and cultural barriers between myself and such parents which will need extra work to overcome so that, together, these parents and I can work in tandem to help their child acquire the language skills necessary for success in the classroom. As Bialystok notes, "information about the language, cognitive, and educational development of children with varied language backgrounds is essential to interpret the performance of these children in school and assess their development" (p. 1). Thus, it is crucial that educators do not just expect SLLs to 'keep up' with the classroom curriculum or integrate successfully with their peers without some level of support or assistance. I believe that teachers, especially those working with very young SLLs, must effectively balance providing direct instruction and support to SLLs while also giving them the autonomy and freedom to develop their own classroom coping skills.

I have encountered several research reports suggesting that the success of a SLL in acquiring reading and writing proficiency has less to do with the classroom environment than the child's home environment. Initially, I found this to be a rather distressing revelation as it seems to imply that there is not much teachers can do to improve the performance of SLLs except hope that their parents are strong supporters of second-language acquisition. However, closer examination of Bonnie Wing-Yin Chow's 2010 article, "Parent-Child Reading in English as a Second Language: Effects on Language and Literacy Development of Chinese Kindergärtners" and Vrinda Kalia and Elaine Reese's 2009 article, "Relations Between Indian Children's Home Literacy Environment and their English Oral Language and Literacy Skills" demonstrate that the best approach to achieving reading and writing success in the classroom is to build strong and effective relationships between student, teacher, and parents so that all members of this team may work together to promote second-language literacy. In their study of 50 kindergärtners in Bangalore, India, Kalia and Reese note that a child's successful acquisition of English language skills in the school environment is strongly determined by the amount of parental involvement and parental teaching practices which occur in the home environment. They determined that children are more likely to integrate successfully within an English-speaking classroom if parents attempt to speak English in the home environment while also using learning materials such as books and worksheets which are in English. Similarly, Chow's research of 51 Chinese kindergärtners demonstrated that parent-child reading activities can increase a child's English word reading skills while dialogic reading can potentially lead to enhanced phonological awareness in both the home and second language. One way in which I hope to support the reading and writing skills of my SLL students is to provide a classroom lending library which enables my students to take books and other literacy-related activities home to share with their parents. I also believe it would be effective to hold several workshops over the school year which are aimed at helping parents (both those who speak English at home and those who speak other languages) to support their children's second-language learning at home.

However, while support of second-language learning in the home environment plays a critical role in ensuring the success of SLLs, Bialystok emphasizes that educators must not minimize the rich cultural and social benefits that a child receives from utilizing and connecting with his or her home language. As she writes, "Parents are often concerned that using a non-community language as the language of their home will disadvantage their children [but] research provides solid evidence that the overwhelming effect of bilingualism in the home is positive" (p. 3). I believe that one of the greatest challenges that I face as a future teacher who will undoubtedly work with SLLs is to develop curriculum, deliver instruction, and create an educational environment which supports my students' acquisition of English literacy while not minimizing or undermining the importance of their first language. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this balance between first and second language skills is to create individualized learning plans for each of my students which will serve as an instructional guide for both myself and parents when they conduct learning activities in the home environment. I also believe that we must not underestimate the child's own enthusiasm as a driving force when it comes to the acquisition of English literacy, and instead must create a classroom environment which encourages the SLL to quickly integrate into this English-speaking environment without the need to reject or dismiss any of their first-language skills or cultural values.


Bialystok, E. Second-language acquisition and bilingualism at an early age and the impact on early cognitive development. Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.

CEECD. Second language. Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.

Chow, B.W.Y. Parent-child reading in English as a second language: Effects on language and literacy development of Chinese kindergärtners. Journal of Research in Reading, 33(3).

Kalia, V. & Reese, E. Relations between Indian children's home literacy environment and their English oral language and literacy skills. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(2): 122-145.
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