Becoming Biliterate

Charmian Kenner & Eve Gregory. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

More children in the world are bilingual than monolingual, and more children are being educated bilingually or in a second language than only in their mother tongue, according to Tucker (1996). This may seem an unusual statistic from the point of view of Anglo-centric countries, where mainstream schooling tends to be monolingual in English and bilingualism is perceived as outside the norm, but children in many other countries are indeed learning to read and write in more than one language and often in more than one script. Datta (2000) describes how in India, for example, children in every region learn three languages in school. These include a regional or local language such as Bengali in Calcutta, and Hindi as the national language, as well as English. Each of these is written in a different script, and Datta herself had become literate in all three languages simultaneously via home tuition from her mother before entering school at age seven (Datta, 2000: 3).

Thus it clearly is possible for very young children to become multiliterate, and in many settings internationally this is seen as a normal part of literacy development. This chapter will focus on minority-language children whose development is taking place in majority-language contexts, since young learners in these situations face particular challenges. In England, North America and Australasia, for example, where English is seen as the dominant world language, there is relatively little support for children to develop a minority-language literacy such as Bengali or Spanish. However, families and communities persist in their efforts to accomplish this goal, and evidence for the cognitive and cultural advantages of bilingualism and biliteracy suggests that mainstream education should broaden in these directions (see Gregory and Kenner, in this volume).

We will begin by looking at the ways in which young children may encounter writing in different languages through literacy practices at home and in their communities. We will then discuss the processes involved in becoming biliterate, looking particularly at how children transfer cultural and linguistic knowledge between their literacies. Finally, the chapter will consider research on promoting biliteracy in mainstream classroom contexts.

Early Encounters with Biliteracy

It is only recently that researchers have begun to investigate young children’s participation in literacy events in bilingual homes, and to reflect on the implications for early learning. In this section we outline several aspects arising from this research: children’s understanding of the purposes of writing and reading, the varying nature of multiliterate experience, and children’s awareness of different scripts.

Purposes for Reading and Writing

The propensity for young children to take note of family literacy events is recorded by Minns (1990), who researched the literacy lives of four-year-olds growing up in the English Midlands. The parents of Gurdeep, for example, commented that even when he was a baby ‘you’d be reading or writing and he’d be out there sitting in that corner and quickly he would pick it up’ (1990: 7). He would be the first to want to open birthday cards and wedding invitations, which would be read out to him, and would try to copy his parents when he saw them writing in Panjabi and English.

Children in Kenner’s (2000a) study of a multilingual nursery in South London showed a similar desire to participate as readers and writers, as shown in the following example:

Danny, a four-year-old who had recently arrived with his mother from Ecuador, attended the primary school nursery class where he was beginning to learn to read in English. Meanwhile, Danny was engaged in a variety of Spanish-based literacy activities at home.

When his mother wrote letters to Ecuador in Spanish, Danny would sit beside her and dictate what he wanted her to include. At the same time, he would rapidly cover pages with emergent writing to make his own letter.

Another important source of literacy knowledge for Danny was the Bible. He and his mother read the Bible together in Spanish regularly and Danny would open the book himself to read again, saying for example ‘Pap Dios nos da las flores’ (‘Our Father God gives us the flowers’).

Danny’s uncle had given him a storybook called El Rey León (based on the Disney film The Lion King), with an accompanying audiotape. Danny derived considerable enjoyment from simultaneously listening to the tape and looking at the book. He entered into the spirit of the story, enunciating the words with resonance, and knew when to turn the page. He could also perform the song from the tape, strumming along on an imaginary guitar. (discussed in Kenner, 2000a: 13-14)

Thus even before attending the more formal lessons provided at community language schools, children are likely to be involved in writing and reading in their immediate environment. Bilingual family literacy practices tend to be based around key social purposes, as identified by ethnographic researchers Martin-Jones and Bhatt (1998) in their work on the experience of Gujarati-speaking families in the English Midlands. For these families, the main reasons for using Gujarati literacy included:

  • Keeping in touch with relatives living abroad
  • Maintaining links with the wider community in Britain
  • Religious observance
  • Supporting cultural interests.

From the description of Danny’s home activities in Spanish, we can see that he is involved from an early age with writing to family abroad and with religious literacy. Cultural interests are also a significant reason for wanting to read, although with this particular text Danny is being introduced to the global media-associated culture of Disney rather than the more traditional literary heritage of Ecuador.

The Varying Nature of Multiliterate Experience

Purposes for writing and reading in bilingual families involve both continuity and change. Some communities, such as the mainland Chinese families described by An (2000), are expecting to return to their home country after a few years’ stay abroad, and parents concentrate on maintaining children’s literacy in their home language, with fairly intensive home teaching taking place from the age of six or so. In other cases, parents and grandparents will be maintaining religious or other cultural practices as discussed above, but the family’s intention to stay in a new country will also give rise to further literacy needs. Most of the thirty Pakistani-origin families with children aged two, three or four interviewed by Hirst (1998) in an English inner-city area wanted their children to become competent in four languages: English for everyday life and education, Urdu to write to relatives, Panjabi (spoken) to use with the family, and Arabic to participate in the Muslim religion. Hirst documented the print-rich environments of the children growing up in these families, who were from a range of socio-economic backgrounds. Twenty-seven of the 30 children were said to be given opportunities to share books and stories at home, and more than half of the children owned between four and 12 books. The children participated in many family literacy events, from writing greetings cards to religious worship. Often books were in English and greetings cards, for example, were written in English as well as Urdu.

Delgado-Gaitan (1990; 1996) found similar concerns amongst Latino-American parents in the United States, who wanted to give their children access to literacy in both Spanish and English. In settings where parents feel unconfident about their knowledge in English, researchers have found that older siblings take on the role of teacher, particularly in helping younger children to learn to read (Rashid and Gregory, 1997; Volk, 1999; Blackledge, 2000). With an awareness of literacy practices from both mainstream and community schools, siblings are well placed to combine these practices in their teaching. Thus a range of interactions around literacy may occur through young bilingual children’s participation in home and community events with a variety of family members (Rodriguez, 1999; Xu, 1999; Volk and de Acosta, 2001).

English literacy will figure to a greater or lesser extent in the lives of most bilingual families living in an English-dominant society. In fact, as families settle into their new environment, English may become the main literacy. Luke and Kale (1997) describe how six-year-old Elsey, a Torres Strait Islander child living in Queensland, Australia, would read functional print such as an advertising flyer with her grandmother in English, although the talk around the text was conducted in both English and Torres Strait Creole. Zentella’s (1997) study of second-generation Puerto Rican families in New York indicated that most literacy materials (storybooks, magazines, and the Bible) were in English.

Zentella’s study also points to the effects of technological change on literacy. Most of the reading done by adults was from the television screen: advertisements, credits, and programme scheduling. This was in English, along with the instruction manuals for operating the technology. However, in the years since Zentella’s study a further change has taken place. Many more cable and satellite channels are now available in minority languages and these are being tuned into enthusiastically in homes around the world. Visits to bilingual children’s homes in London in 2001 (Kenner, forthcoming) gave a window onto this highly varied world, in which a family might be watching ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’ in English one moment and then switch to the news on Arabic satellite TV. Print in the family’s other writing system, such as Arabic or Chinese, was thus present on screen as well as in dictionaries on the shelf or posters and calendars on the wall. These multilingual media possibilities, in an otherwise English-dominated world, may help in motivating children to develop their other languages and literacies.

Children’s Awareness of Different Scripts

There is evidence that very young children take note of the symbols being used for writing and reading as well as the overall purpose of each literacy event. Saxena (1994: 100) provides us with a case study of a Panjabi Hindu family living in Southall, West London. The four-year-old son encounters a variety of languages and a variety of scripts during a typical day. Although teaching only occurs in English at his primary school, as he enters the building he sees bilingual signs in the Gurmukhi and Devanagari scripts, designed for the multilingual school community. The Gurmukhi script is usually used for Panjabi and the Devanagari script for Hindi, although as Saxena points out, both languages can be written in both scripts. When the child gets home from school in the afternoon, his grandmother sends him to the local shop with a shopping list written in Hindi/Devanagari, and the shopkeeper records the goods sold in the same language and script.

During the day, the four-year-old can also observe his parents and grandparents reading and writing; for example, his mother reads Hindi film magazines and novels, and together with his grandmother writes to relatives in India in Panjabi-Hindi mixed code using Devanagari script. The family also uses English for a number of purposes, such as when the father reads a newspaper in the morning or the grandfather reads his grandson a storybook in English brought home from primary school. The complexity of this multiliteracy environment is not lost on the little boy; Saxena states that he can already distinguish between the Gurmukhi and Devanagari scripts and the Roman script in which English is written.

Similarly, Kenner’s (2000a; 2000b) case study of four-year-old Meera, from a Gujarati-speaking family, shows how a young child who had been receiving no formal instruction in her home language literacy still recognized the difference between that script and English. Meera stated clearly that she wished to work with Gujarati—‘I want my Gujarati’—and began to produce her own emergent ‘Gujarati’ symbols, using her mother’s writing as a resource.

The Processes Involved in Becoming Biliterate

It is clear from the above discussion that children growing up in bilingual or multilingual homes tend to have access to a variety of texts and literacy practices involving different languages. This experience is supplemented by their school learning, whether at community-run classes (as discussed by Gregory and Kenner, in this volume) or in mainstream school. What do children make of these inputs and what factors come into play which can aid or hinder the development of biliteracy? This section looks at research on children’s learning about different writing systems and different cultural worlds, and then considers to what extent children can transfer aspects of knowledge between their literacies.

Knowledge about Different Writing Systems

One part of the process of becoming biliterate involves producing the symbols which make up different writing systems and recognizing what they stand for. Research with young children shows that they are capable of differentiating two or more script systems and of beginning to distinguish the principles on which these are based. Datta (2000: 100) gives an example of a five-year-old, Raki, who spontaneously produced three types of script in one text, demonstrating her knowledge of letters from the Bengali, Arabic and English alphabets. Raki was also experimenting with ways of forming words by combining consonants and vowels in Bengali.

Kenner et al. (forthcoming) have followed six-year-olds in London learning to write in Chinese, Arabic or Spanish as well as English, and have found that children understand the form-meaning relationship in their different writing systems. In this project, the participant bilingual children were asked to conduct ‘peer teaching sessions’—teaching their mainstream primary school classmates how to write in their home language system. Tala, who was attending Arabic Saturday school, showed that she understood how each Arabic letter has four different forms: as well as the main form in which it appears in the alphabet, there are initial, medial and final forms which must be used when the letter appears joined to others at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word respectively. Tala explained to her primary school peers which letters she used from the Arabic alphabet chart to construct her name, and how they looked different ‘because I joined them up.’ Pointing to the letter which began her name, she said ‘There’s a T in Arabic like this,’ and as she demonstrated how to join this letter to the following one, she stated ‘and now I change it, because Arabic is magic.’ Yazan, who attended the same community language school as Tala, was clear about the directionality of books in Arabic as compared to English. When showing his Arabic textbook to his primary school class, Yazan pointed to the front cover. Recognizing that his audience would have expected this to be the back of the book, he stated ‘Not the end.’ He then turned to the back cover, emphasizing ‘This is the end,’ and reinforced the concept by returning to the front and stating ‘This is the first.’

The principles mentioned so far had been directly taught to Tala and Yazan at Arabic school, but children in the study also showed that they were making their own deductions about how writing systems worked. For example, teachers at the Chinese community school were not observed to discuss the conceptual basis of the Chinese writing system as compared to English. Yet in a peer teaching session, Ming compared the three characters which represented his full Chinese name (Lai Sei Ming) on the front of his Chinese school exercise book to his name as written in English school, ‘Ming.’ He remarked ‘That one’s got three words and the English one’s got four’ (i.e. four letters). Later he said ‘Ming is four, seven if it’s together,’ referring to the seven letters needed for his full name in English, ‘Ming Lai.’ Here Ming was distinguishing between the characters used to represent whole words in Chinese, and the alphabetic letters which form the building blocks of English.

These young children also demonstrated that they were able to produce complex symbols with care and accuracy, often from memory (Kenner and Kress, forthcoming). This ability has surprised teachers from mainstream schools, who would be expecting emergent writing—as yet relatively unsophisticated—from children of this age. An extract from Selina’s exercise book in her first year of Chinese school, when she was aged five, shows how she was learning the particular sequence of strokes with which to build up a character, and then practising the whole character numerous times. Children were required to pay great attention to the detail of each stroke, so that the character could not be confused with another similar one, and to ensure that the character was harmoniously balanced in the centre of each square.

Knowledge about Different Cultural Worlds

Children’s engagement with their different writing systems occurs in particular cultural contexts—such as home, community school or place of worship—and is thus part of the meanings they encounter as they represent and experience their complex bilingual worlds. Their engagement with the overall purpose and content of text also opens out a variety of cultural knowledge. The Welsh Language Board (1999) includes the following aspects in its list of advantages arising from bilingual education: ‘twice the enjoyment of reading and writing’ and ‘access to two cultures and worlds of experience.’

An example comes from Gurdeep, the four-year-old mentioned above who was growing up in the English Midlands. Minns (1990) commented on the literary worlds which were opened up for Gurdeep by reading the sacred Sikh text, the Guru Granth Saheb, with his mother and by hearing her tell folktales in Panjabi with their clear moral messages. Meanwhile, Gurdeep also experienced children’s stories in English written out of a different cultural tradition, both in his primary school class and when his father read him books borrowed from the local library.

Datta (2000) emphasizes how children’s knowledge is strongly based in the oral, written and media discourses encountered at home and in their communities, the content and the style of which influence children’s learning. She quotes a student teacher who began to investigate the multilingual literacy worlds of eight-year-old English-Gujarati bilinguals in her primary school class and concluded ‘it appears that their linguistic and literary experiences are mostly embedded in cultural and religious experiences’ (2000: 21). If young children’s home-based literacy experience is very different from that offered in mainstream school, teachers may need to cater specifically for this difference, as will be discussed below.

Transfer between Literacies

Concepts and ideas which bilingual children develop in one language can interact with those developed in another, as explained by Cummins (1991). Some examples of how this could happen with literacies are given by Baker (2000): once children understand that letters stand for sounds, or that words can be guessed from the storyline, these principles can be applied when reading or writing in another language.

Several researchers have found evidence for this kind of transfer. Verhoeven (1994) studied the early biliteracy learning of Turkish children in the Netherlands and found that word decoding skills and reading comprehension skills developed in Turkish predicted corresponding skills when Dutch was acquired later. Transfer can also occur when literacies have different orthographies: Wagner (1993) found a positive interaction between the learning of French and Arabic in Morocco.

The process of creating and interpreting textual meanings can be enriched through multilingual experience. When Sneddon (2000) studied children from a Gujarati-and Urdu-speaking Muslim community in north-east London, she found that children who had opportunities to develop their language through using the cultural and leisure facilities of the local Gujarati community centre had a higher level of linguistic vitality in Gujarati than those who did not have this opportunity. This led to children being more creative storytellers in both Gujarati and English. Meanwhile, the children were becoming literate in Urdu for religious purposes, via community classes in which they answered complex questions on textual comprehension, with discussion taking place in English and Gujarati as well as Urdu. Sneddon suggests that this negotiation of meanings between three languages may provide strategies which can also be used when reading in the English mainstream classroom.

Researchers have also observed that young bilingual children have the propensity to write in more than one language within the same text, combining the resources available from their different literacies. Mor-Sommerfeld (2002) gives examples of children writing stories and messages in both Hebrew and English, switching from one language to the other and finding inventive ways to deal with the different directionalities of each script. She gives this process the apt name of ‘language mosaic.’ Kenner (forthcoming) noted that six-year-old Brian, growing up in London with Spanish as his home language, combined Spanish and English literacy resources within one phrase in order to write a caption for his drawing of a flying bear. For the Spanish phrase ‘un oso que vuele’ (‘a bear that flies’) Brian wrote ‘1osokwle.’ The number ‘1’ represented ‘un’ (‘un’ can mean both ‘a’ and ‘1’ in Spanish)—thus Brian was making use of the number system as a resource here too. The word ‘oso’ was familiar to Brian and he could write it spontaneously. He then called upon his knowledge of the English alphabet (the letter-name K and the sound of /w/) to give a good representation of the sounds he needed at this point. The final part ‘le’ is the rather more standard ending to the word ‘vuele.’

As well as the possibility of transferring understandings across the variety of writing systems already mentioned in this section, logographic systems such as Chinese can also be combined with alphabetic systems in order to represent meaning. Selina, one of the children in Kenner’s study (forthcoming), produced drawings of her mother and sister accompanied by both Chinese and English writing. In an increasingly multilingual world, this kind of linguistic creativity is likely to stand children in good stead later on in life. Pennington (1996) examines the prevalence of mixing and borrowing between Chinese and English in texts in Hong Kong, and the need for readers and writers in a bilingual society to be able to produce and interpret such texts. She argues that users of more than one linguistic code can use the differences in formal properties, semantics, and symbolic associations ‘to produce a range of expressive effects which involve the differential contrastive meaning potential of the available languages’ (1996: 254).

Cognitive and Cultural Challenges Involved in Biliteracy Learning

As well as being able to transfer skills, children meet various challenges when they learn a second or third written language, especially if the new literacy is not immediately connected with their home language and culture. These challenges may be phonological, syntactic, semantic and textual, and young learners will have particular advantages and disadvantages when they set out to deal with them.

It is often found that bilingual children are more confident about decoding words than about answering comprehension questions on a whole text, for example. Rosowsky (2001) discovered that bilingual learners may be more accurate than monolingual peers when reading aloud, and he suggests that decoding skills are reinforced by the teaching of this aspect in community classes. However, overall comprehension of a passage involves grammatical and cultural knowledge which is less easily available in a second language, and here the monolingual children in Rosowsky’s study tended to do better.

Within the area of phonology, some aspects will also be easier for bilingual learners than others. Gregory (1996) points out that in a first language, children will be familiar with the usual patterns of sounds: for example, sounds which tend to occur in clusters, or tend to start or end words. In a second language, children have less experience from which to build this understanding.

Thus it is possible to analyse the likely strengths and difficulties which second-language learners will have in the areas of phonological, syntactical, lexical, semantic and bibliographic knowledge respectively. The following list shows examples based on a fuller discussion by Gregory (1996: Chapter 3).

Grapho-phonic knowledge

  • Strengths: Concept of matching symbols to sounds can transfer.
  • Difficulties: Hard to distinguish/pronounce sounds not used in own language.

Lexical knowledge

  • Strengths: Awareness that words have different forms and properties.
  • Difficulties: May not know collocation (e.g. ‘grind’ goes with ‘corn’).

Syntactic knowledge

  • Strengths: Awareness that different grammatical structures exist.
  • Difficulties: Don’t yet have a ‘feel’ for grammar in the new language.

Semantic knowledge

  • Strengths: Awareness that different cultural experiences will exist.
  • Difficulties: Cultural content will be unfamiliar, so hard to predict text.

Bibliographic knowledge

  • Strengths: Experience of different kinds of texts.
  • Difficulties: Format and style of English storybook may be unfamiliar.

In the final section of this chapter, we discuss how teachers can help bilingual children to build on their strengths and increase their knowledge base in both or all of their literacies.

The Task for Educators

Throughout the chapter, we have highlighted a number of areas which educators of bilingual children need to keep in mind in order to support the development of biliteracy. Now we consider research evidence on tackling the cognitive and cultural challenges just described, and bring together examples of successful classroom practice regarding biliteracy work with minority-language children in mainstream schools, identifying the common factors involved.

Building New Knowledge Bases

Second-language researchers have emphasized that a clearly organized approach is necessary to ensure children become more deeply acquainted with the structure and content of a new literacy. Gregory (1996) lays out the varied activities that can be undertaken to introduce emergent bilinguals to the unfamiliar aspects of another written language. For example, with regard to building lexical knowledge, teachers can provide experiences which will highlight certain words so that these become meaningful and memorable for children. Words can also be introduced in lexical sets, grouped around a theme, which again makes it easier to store and recall them.

Bates (1995) recommends that when teaching children to write stories in a second language, the different elements of story structure are clearly explained. Young writers can be encouraged to elaborate on their texts, and to use pronouns and definite articles for reference within their writing, through feedback from an audience which requires them to clarify what they have produced. This kind of detailed approach, based on an analysis of children’s language needs, is brought together by NALDIC (1998) in a guide to good practice for the teaching of literacy in English as an additional language, showing how direct interactive teaching can give children models of language use for different purposes and contexts and enable learners to make this language part of their repertoire.

Building on Knowledge Which Children Already Have

The NALDIC authors emphasize the importance of selecting culturally relevant texts and drawing on children’s own experience, and also of encouraging the use of home languages to build concepts and negotiate meaning (1998: 6).

Several authors show how work which connects with home language experience can be a springboard for children’s development in a second literacy. McWilliam (1998) suggests asking children to compare the use of vocabulary in their different languages, to highlight awareness of specific meanings and word classes. Datta (2000) gives striking examples of how to connect with children’s rich imaginative worlds which arise from texts and events encountered in homes and communities. These experiences can then become a starting point for writing in English. The young writer of a ghost story could draw on knowledge of ghost stories from Bangladesh, whilst the writer of poetry could draw on the rich imagery and use of metaphor in Bollywood film songs, or ideas from the Buddhist tradition about peace and harmony. Meanwhile, through this ‘intercultural literate community approach’ (2000: 135) children can also be introduced to the metaphors and imaginative devices used in English literature.

Gregory (1996: Chapters 4 and 5) argues that both an ‘inside-out’ approach (starting from the known) and an ‘outside-in’ approach (introducing the unknown) are needed when teaching reading. These two approaches complement each other in order to fully develop bilingual children’s literacy capabilities in their second language.

Developing Literacy in Children’s Home Language

In majority-language contexts, the balance of power is heavily in favour of the dominant language and literacy. Few opportunities are offered for children to study their home literacy: as discussed by Gregory and Kenner (in this volume), such opportunities are almost always in voluntary-run, underfunded out-of-school classes. As a result, children tend to focus more strongly on the dominant literacy, and this may limit development of their full potential as biliterates.

A number of researchers have therefore devised and implemented action-research projects to develop children’s literacy in the minority language alongside the majority language. Such research has demonstrated that when children have the opportunity to work with their home languages and literacies in supportive mainstream classroom environments, their English development also benefits. The projects described below share certain key factors, including the integration of bilingual work into the curriculum, parental involvement, and an increase in the status of the minority literacy.

In Feuerverger’s (1994) research in an elementary school in inner-city Toronto, extending the provision of dual-language and first-language books in the school library built up skills and confidence for bilingual children as readers. These texts could be taken home to read with parents, and became part of classroom work when teachers encouraged children to write book reports and stories based on their reading, or to read the books to the whole class group. Kenner (2000a) found that bringing texts such as newspapers, videos and calendars in different languages from homes into a South London nursery class, supported by parents writing in the classroom, was successful in stimulating literacy work by both bilingual and monolingual children.

The importance of relevant cultural themes for literacy work is emphasized by Masny and Ghahremani-Ghajar (1999), who found that Somali children in a Canadian elementary school who were thought by their teachers to be illiterate began to demonstrate literacy skills when the teacher-researcher brought in books such as the Qur’an. The same teacher drew on Somali themes for language work and invited participation from parents in spoken Somali. With this approach of ‘weaving multiple literacies,’ children began to make progress in their learning.

Multilingual computer-based texts show considerable potential for biliteracy work. They are linguistically flexible and motivating, enabling children to manipulate different scripts and realize ideas on screen. Edwards (1998: 71-2) describes how an ‘Urdu club’ with computer access in a multilingual English primary school aided literacy development for children. Meanwhile, parents used the resources to produce dual-language books and other teaching materials, gaining the status of expert within the school. Anderson (2001) found that producing web pages helped secondary school pupils in London to extend their writing in both English and Bengali; this approach could be adapted for young children, who are keen to experience web page authorship.

Bilingual Education

Whilst identifying the above projects as ways of supporting bilingual children’s literacy learning in mainstream English classrooms, we would emphasize that biliteracy development would be greatly enhanced if dual-language education was more widely available. Verhoeven (1999) points out that literacy in two languages can be acquired either successively or simultaneously. Since ethnographic studies have shown that literacy in the mother tongue may help to enhance community and cultural identity, ‘both cognitive and anthropological arguments speak in favor of a biliteracy curriculum’ (1999: 147). Given the importance of raising the status of minority literacies in order to promote additive bilingualism (see Gregory and Kenner, in this volume), this biliteracy curriculum is most likely to be successful if it is participated in by all children rather than by bilingual pupils only. Collier’s (1995) longitudinal assessment of the effects of different types of bilingual education in the United States showed that the most effective were two-way immersion programmes involving children from both Spanish-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

Biliteracy Futures

Children’s early learning experiences lay the foundations for later development, and for this reason it is particularly important that educators should pay attention to young children’s biliterate development in the mainstream classroom. Otherwise children may feel that the domains in which their home literacy can be used are highly restricted, and even if community classes are on offer, their motivation to attend and learn can be diminished. Hardman (1998) found that in a Cambodian community in the United States, children had pride and confidence in their family’s spoken language, but little interest in writing Cambodian. Hardman comments ‘Possibly, because there is no room for L1 literacy in the children’s school, there is no room for it anywhere in their lives’ (1998: 72).

Access to a wide variety of print materials in the home language can also aid children in finding their individual paths to biliteracy. Tse (2001) interviewed 10 adults who had grown up in the United States, to find out how they had developed relatively high levels of literacy in their home languages of Spanish, Cantonese and Japanese respectively. One important common factor was reading for pleasure, which could involve novels, magazines, newspapers and comic books for example. Tse notes the results of a survey which showed the lack of Spanish-speaking materials in elementary school libraries even where schools had populations of over 90% Spanish-speaking children, and she argues that more books in minority languages should be provided by the mainstream.


As explained earlier in this chapter, for young children who live bilingually or multilingually, there are many links between their experiences as well as differences. When schools address the child as a whole person and give status to the minority literacy as a valued part of mainstream education, these links are strengthened with all-round benefits for self-esteem and learning.

As an example of the possibilities for biliterate children, we return to Gurdeep, the four-year-old introduced at the beginning of the chapter from the work of Minns (1990). Minns followed Gurdeep’s progress, and described his ‘enormously wide range of literacies’ as a 10-year-old (1993: 65-8). Gurdeep was reading a whole variety of texts, from The Concise Oxford Dictionary to Teenage Mutant Turtles comics and his father’s books on engineering. His weekly Panjabi classes at the Sikh temple were preparing him to study the sacred book, the Guru Granth Saheb. The words of this text were part of his daily act of worship, and related to his music making activities since he was also learning to play the drums at the temple. Gurdeep was drawing on his two languages to extend his literacy learning. He commented: ‘In Panjabi, there are new words that I learn when I translate them into English. I’ve never heard of them before, and I find the meanings and I learn new words as well’ (1993: 66).

When Minns (1997) reported on Gurdeep’s progress again at age 15, he was heavily involved in academic-related reading and writing in English, but still found time to read teenage horror novels and write business letters for his mother on the computer. Meanwhile, through his classes at the temple he had already passed both GCSE and A-level in Panjabi by age 14: these levels of examination are usually taken at age 16 and age 18 respectively in the English system, but biliterate children are often ready earlier. From this rare longitudinal research study we can see how, as Minns commented in 1997, Gurdeep’s early experiences had shaped his literacy life. His deep connection with Panjabi literacy had continued alongside his attainment of a high level of English. This development had been made possible by the strength of family and community support as well as mainstream school input. The cognitive and cultural advantages of biliteracy would accrue to Gurdeep, as we hope that they could accrue to many other potentially biliterate children.