I’m Maria Carlo. I’m an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Um, yeah I guess when I use um the term um—when I say that I study reading as a cognitive process, I’m trying to distinguish it um from other studies of reading that will try to um characterize reading in terms of its social functions and how its constructed socially. So um I guess I’m trying to distinguish between literacy as a social construction, which I think is one very legitimate way of us to think about what’s happening with literacy. Um, but I try to distinguish it from literacy as an individual accomplishment and as a psychological process. Um, so that’s the distinction I try to draw when I—when I say that I do research on um cognitive processes that underlie reading in a second language. I’m also trying to um, in the use of—of that phrase, I’m trying to stay away from the idea that reading is one global process. Um, more I’m conceiving as um comprehension as the product of a number of other cognitive processes that result in comprehension and so, you know, when we read we um—we recognize words and there are a number of things that go into recognizing words and we um assemble words into meaning—unit—units of meanings that makes sense to us and we draw instances from what we read. And I think we need to think about all of those processes um separately, not for instructional pur—purposes because the act of reading is going to involve assembling and orchestrating all of them, but I think in terms of understanding what the sources of difficulty might be for a child or where the strengths are for a child learning to read and particularly a second language reader, I think it’s useful to look at them separately and analyze them separately. And that’s what I try to do.
Mm-hmm. OK. When I think of the cognitive processes that go into this more general act of reading, a lot of researchers would split up the pie somewhat differently, but I would include some very perceptual—very basic level perceptual processes that involve recognizing features and recognizing how the lines are orienting and so on and that’s one level of analysis a child will go through when—when reading words. Um, there’s recognition of letters, um, um the assembling of those letters into units that activate some sounds and the assembling of those into units that might activate whole words and um I would sort of make those distinctions um from them on. Then on I would um distinguish the process of accessing the meanings of words, lexic—what we sometimes call lexical access, um and accessing the appropriate meaning of the word. In English there polis—a lot of word polisimy and we need to make those distinctions. Um, the application of metacognitive strategies. As we read we monitor um our understanding and we revise, we—we read, we ask questions. I would distinguish that level of processing. We draw inferences. Um, and somehow we get to the point where we experience what everyone recognizes as comprehension.
Mm-hmm. I think it’s interesting to view second language readers from the perspective of these cognitive processes—by understanding these cognitive processes because I think there’s um some pretty persuasive evidence out there that bilingual readers are not two monolingual readers in one head, but that there’s a different system all together um that at some levels of processing, we might be talking about a system that’s somewhat different and all um—all give the example for um—in the case of uh word decoding and word recognition. In some of the research with—research that hasn’t been looking specifically at reading but has looked at expert bilinguals, fluent bilinguals, um studies of memory representation with that population, um seems to suggest that—that the representation of words um for fluent bilinguals isn’t necessarily separate for their two languages. That it’s sort of one system in that to the extent that there’s some similarities across words in the two languages that that—that might impact the manner in which words are recognized. And so, I mean, if you think of just the vast amount of space that one would need to search in order to access a word if—if they’re all represented in one common store, if they’re all in sort of one box so to speak in memory, then um I think that presents an interesting issue for us to investigate in the case of bilingual um readers. Um, it presents a very interesting issue with regard to how cognates are processed, for examp—cognates are words that are spelled the same way across to languages um and that have similar meanings. Um, in Spanish and English a cognate would be metal. It’s—it’s spelled exactly alike in Spanish and it’s pronounced metal. What kinds of demands do word like that make for readers um of Spanish and English, bilingual readers in those languages? Um, which sound representations get activated when they see a word like that? Um, and, you know, to what extent does—does—is that something that facilitates the processing of the word? The fact that there’s a similar meaning in the two languages and they may have come to recognize that word in their first language very well. Does that facilitate or does it interfere? I mean I think we get into very interesting questions of that nature somewhat academic. But I think that down the line they um begin to have important implications for how we teach. I mean, is there an advantage to teaching words like that and teaching the meanings. Do—do kids immediately recognize that they meanings are shared? Um, that’s an interesting question from my perspective. So um I think that um to the extent that we start looking at these components of reading, these cognitive components, and we start to hypothesize how they may present a different problem set for the bilingual reader, um we’ve moved forward in our understanding of the bilingual reader. If we don’t make those distinctions, if we assume that reading is this one, you know, global process, um we don’t ask those questions.
Well, I guess there are two separate things that I would like um teachers who are not very familiar with second language readers to keep in mind as they um approach the task of teaching a second language speaker of English to read. One is basically to think of what is that the typical five-year-old monolingual English speaker brings to the task of learning to read for the first time in—in a formal setting? Um, that child brings a whole lot of knowledge about the English language and how it works and um we build a lot on that knowledge. You know, for example, we can assume that there’s a certain level of knowledge and command over the phonology of that language of English. Um, that certain distinctions that are made at the level of phonology in that language are—can be appreciated by the child. Um, we assume and we know that the child—the typical five-year-old monolingual child has a fairly good command of the grammatical um, uh rules of the language and an implicit knowledge of those rules that he or she understands how words come together in English, what the relationships between words are and they have really good intuitions about what those words—um what words go together, so to speak. Um, so in the task of reading for comprehension I would argue those children bring that knowledge and don’t have to deal with um the—the grammatical um aspect of it. Um, the child brings a fairly large vocabulary in that language um, so conceptual knowledge um that a bilingual child may have but may not have the labels in that language. Um, so you make the—you can make some safe assumptions about what words the child is likely to know and not know. Um, you um—well, I guess then I would make those types of distinctions. What—um—so the typical monolingual English child knows all those things or brings quite a bit of competence in—in that—in those domains. And I would argue that a second language um learner of English will vary with respect to how well they command those domains. There will be a great deal of variation among any group of second language learners in terms of their command of the phonology. And that’s going to depend on how long they’ve lived in this country, how long they’ve been exposed to English, are they exposed to English at home, is the exposure they get to English um mostly through the media, um what dialect of English are they exposed to. All those—so you’re going to get a lot of variation depending on those dimensions. You’re going to get a whole lot of variation around vocabulary knowledge. Um, and I’d—I’d say it gets compounded with conceptual knowledge as well and, you know, a—a five-year-old um bilingual child, English language learner, will have a smaller um conceptual do—knowledge then um a 12-year-old bilingual child who’s had maybe a lot of opportunities to build concepts in the first language and the process of vocabulary expansion into English will be one of label acquisition. So I—I’d see very different approaches in those two cases. Um, and then there’s the command over the grammar of the language. And again, what dialect of English are they being socialized into um and how does it map onto the academic discourse used in schools, the sort of language conventions of the schools? So I would say that to the extent that we can’t assume any of those things to be similar across bilingual readers, we need to approach the task of teaching reading to second language learners somewhat differently.
Mm-hmm. Well, I think that when teachers um are faced with the task of teaching second language um speaker of English how to read I—I guess there are a few things that I—I—a few sources of information that I—I think would be useful for them to try and—and get answers to. Um, the first thing would be, I would be very interested in knowing um how are the English language skills of this child um when seen in the context of social situations and um informal conversations, and do I see a great discrepancy between that domain of language use, social uses of—of language and the way in which they—he or she uses English um in an academic setting and um in the context of say a lecture when I’m doing sort of a mini lesson. Do I get the sense that that child is understanding what I’m um speaking about in those terms? So what I’m getting at is, I think it would be important to address the question of “To what extent are the social uses of this language of—of this child in this language on par with the more academic uses of language?” Because that is one place where we see big discrepancies and different rates of progression for bilingual children in terms of social language always sort of being quite ahead in terms of the time course of development then—then academic language. So I’d—I’d sort of invite inquiry into that. Um, one um issue that I’ve had to deal with a lot in working with student teachers is I’m often told, “Well, I’m working with a second language learner.” And I ask, “What language does the child speak?” and nobody seems to know. And I’ve sort of made it a rule (laugh) that I should be—that that should be the first question to ask. “What language does your child speak?” And it has a number of important—there are reasons why you need to know that in other—other then just sort of respect for the child and—and his or her language. Um, I think it has important implications for how we think about what his or her needs will be um especially in connection to reading. Um, I would ask is that—does the language that the child speak, is it an alphabetic language or is it a language based on a different rating system then English? Um, if—if it’s an alphabetic language, meaning that there’s some um—that—that the system is—is um based on a mapping of symbols to sounds that’s roughly one-to-one or—or so on, um do they use the same alphabet. Um, can I—can I assume that the child has familiarity in recognizing these letters and distinguishing them from one anot—from one another. Um, has this child been instructed to read in his first language? Um, if the child doesn’t read an alphabetic language, if the child reads a logographic language, a—in some dialects of Chinese, um there may be differences in how they approach the task of—of um decoding words. Um, there may be more of a need to um foster opportunities for the child to discover the alphabetic principle. To discover the way this language works that we may not need to emphasize as much if we can assume that a child has already made that discovery in the context of learning to read their first language. Um, so I would make those types—I would ask those types of questions of—of the child or of someone who’s um close to the child, I’d be interested in how much schooling the child had in his or her first language prior to coming to this country. Um, you know, can I assume that certain concepts around science and social studies have been instructed or is my instruction going to be directed at conceptual development as well? Is this child a good reader in his first language? Does this child know to monitor his comprehension in the first language? Does he know or she know to re-read? Does she know—does she know to um—how to take notes on what he or she reads? Does he or she know to question—to draw questions that will lead to further understanding of the material? I would assume that if a child—or I would argue that if a child can do those things in his or her first language, they’re probably more likely to do it in their second language and you can have a different set of assumptions about what you need to target and what to expect.
Well, there’s a very prevalent notion in bilingual education and among bilingual educators and this idea that there’s transfer of academic skills from the first language to the second language and um this is a concept that has been around for, you know, over 30 years and that was formalized um into a hypothesis by um Jim Cummins who um has done a lot of work in—in this field. And it’s a topic that interest me a lot because I think it ties back to the question of “Is bilingual reading different or similar to monolingual reading?” And I think that to the extent that we argue that what a child can do in his or her first language is going to impact the manner in which the second language develops and particularly how reading acquisition folds in the second language. And I’d argue that we’re talking about a different process altogether, right? And that then questions about which language does this child speak, um in what ways is that language similar or different from English become very relevant. And so um I’ve been engaged over the past few years in research that um is aimed at looking at what are the—what’s the relationship between literacy practices and competencies that have been developed in the mother tongue to second language reading um acquisition and literacy development? And I looked at this question mostly from the perspective of Spanish/English bilinguals. And um a number of people have been doing work in this area. Um, there’s not a whole lot of work but um there’s evidence to suggest that one skill, like phonological awareness which um we speak about so often these days in—in reading instruction, the awareness that words are made up of smaller units of sound and um that those sounds can be manipulated, seems to be almost um an enabling skill to—later um skills, such as decoding, is basically at the heart of cracking the code and this alphabetic principle um idea. Um, that skill, there’s research to suggest, might transfer across languages and that children that appear to be more competent in terms of their phonological awareness skills in their first languages also tend to be more competent in phonological awareness tasks in English. Um, and that’s something we’ve been able to show among um a group of 2nd grade children that we followed into 3rd grade. And we measured their—specifically their phonemic segmentation abilities. We asked them, “OK, here’s the word ‘boy.’ Can you segment that into the sounds?” And we wouldn’t say it that way but basically we’d do it more of a game routine but we were interested in seeing if the child recognizes three sounds in that word. Um, and we would do similar tasks in Spanish. Um, and we followed those children from 2nd into 3rd grade um and we had children who had been instructed to read in Spanish from um—from their—the initial formal instruction in reading in children who had not. What we find is that there’s a relationship as I mentioned um that children who seem to be competent at—and who seem to have those insights about their first language, seem to be able to do it in the second language despite not having had formal instruction in that language yet. Um, Ellen Belistock has also done work in that area and other people are showing similar findings. So that’s one good candidate I’d say for a skill that transfers. We’ve also found that um children’s letter recognition abilities—again, Spanish and English share the same alphabet but when we give them tasks that involve letter naming which is a good predictor of um reading achievement in the early years. Um, children with good letter naming skills in the first language also tend to be able to do that—um, accomplish those tasks better in the second language in English. And then the third task where we’ve seen um strong transfer effects is for word recognition. What we found is that children um who are good reader—good word readers in Spanish—and we’re defining good word reading here not just in terms of accuracy, but also the efficiency with which they read words. How quickly they can recognize words um also a predictor of—of comprehension abilities. Kids who can do that, who can recognize words fairly efficiently in their first language tend to also be able to recognize words more efficiently in their second language then children who are poor in terms of those skills. What’s interesting is that that sort of effect only comes out when we look at children who have received formal instruction in Spanish reading. In—for bilingual children—Spanish/English bilingual children who have not formal instruction in Spanish reading, you don’t see that relationship between the two languages. But in fact, the evidence we have seems to suggest that it’s facilitating their reading acquisition.
Um, OK. Well, one of the findings that we have been able to obtain um when we have studied to separate groups of children, children who have been instructed to read in Spanish from the very beginning of their formal reading instruction um and children who have not had formal reading instruction in Spanish, that is all their formal reading instruction has been in English, but they are Spanish/English bilingual children. When we look at the effects of transfer from Spanish to English on a word reading task where we’re not just measuring how accurately they read words but also how efficiently, how quickly they read words, we find that there is an affect of transfer on English word reading for the children who had received formal instruction in Spanish reading, in that they appeared to get facilitation on their English reading performance—English word reading performance that relates to how well they read words in their first language. Where as children who have not had formal reading instruction in Spanish don’t seem to be getting that facilitation because they haven’t had anything to draw from—any instruction to draw from, from Spanish to English.
OK, so why is it important that um—that we’ve obtained evidence that suggests that how well kids do in their first—in their second language relates to how well they can accomplish many of these reading tasks in their first language. For one it—it lends support to the idea that the time that the children have spent in first language reading instruction is not wasted time from the perspective of—of their English reading development. If one is someone who appreciates bilingualism, of course, instruction in the mother tongue—in literacy in the mother tongue is never going to be wasted time, but if—but if you are—if your only concern is English reading instruction, you may be inclined to suggest that any time spent developing reading skills in the first language is time that could be better spent developing English reading. And what this research suggests is that it’s not wasted time, that children gain some benefits, that they can become active in their learning of English by exploiting um aspects of their first language that seems to be helpful to the second language.
I’m often um—I often find myself not being able to respond very well to the question of “What is it that we know about second language reading?” because there’s a sense in which we know a lot, a lot of research has been conducted in the area of second language reading, the problem is I see it is that there—while there’s a lot of research, not all of it um—not all of it merges into sort of um themes that are explored really systematically and in depth. So we’ve, I think, have begun um in the field of second language reading research, we’ve touched on many areas that are important to second language reading development, but we’ve never really followed a very systematic approach to understanding any one of them in depth. That’s my personal take on it. Um, one of the areas that I think is in just very um desperate need of research, although it’s hard for me to convince a lot of people of this, is um the area of expert reading—expert bilingual reading. I think that when we look at a lot of the progress that has been made in monolingual research on reading, a lot of it came from looking at “What does the expert fluent monolingual reader do and what does the developing reader need to do to get to that point?” And I think there’s been a focus in the field of second language reading on—on the developing second language reader. And we don’t really now a lot about how is it that people who manage two languages on a day-to-day basis, how do they read? What do their reading processes look like? And I think it’s had two affects to do that. One is that we’re always looking at second language readers in deficit terms when—when we um focus on what they can’t do um or when we see them sort of struggling with tasks that are sort of in—in the process of—their—their—their in the process of mastering. Um, another affect that it has um in addition to sort of looking at kids in—into deficit terms is that we get—we lose sight of what the goal is. Where is it that we want to bring these children in terms of their biliteracy development in—in English and their native tongue? Um, and so even though I think it appears that one is um wasting valuable resources by not investing them in research on children, I think that we would make a very significant contribution to research on children’s English reading development if we understood what is it that good bilingual readers do when they read? What do their reading processes look like?
OK, when—when I think about the connections of second language development and second language reading development um I find it important to make a number of distinctions that have to do with um recognizing what people may have learned about the process of reading from having learned to read in another language other then this second language in that when we look at monolingual reading development, we of course argue for very strong ties between oral language as a—as sort of the point of departure into—into reading acquisition for monolinguals. Um, one implicat—if we were to apply that model to second language readers, we might argue that until someone has the kind of command of the oral aspects of the second language um similar to what a typical five year old may know about his or her language when he or she encounters reading for the first time, we might argue that unless one has that, one can not introduce reading in a second language. And where—although I—I think there are—it’s very important to establish that oral base in the first language. I think it would be a mistake to um—to really prolong the introduction of literacy to the process of second language development because—especially if someone has already learned to read in their first language, um I think to the extent that they can approach the task of reading certainly not as a fluent reader but um perhaps relying more on their general knowledge about he world and using sort of more um what we’d call top-down processes, relying more on their prior knowledge to sort of guide their reading. I think that becomes um a—another source of input into their language development so that reading can foster language development in the same way that it does for monolinguals but at a somewhat earlier stage then we would expect um for second language learners. And I guess I’d like to distinguish—I’m not arguing that efficient reading is going to be sort of always in that way sort of top-down, always preceding from one’s general knowledge. I think one eventually comes to use both strategies, um bottom-up strategies and top-down strategies, but um to the extent that one can introduce print and to the extent that someone has strategies for dealing with print and using print as another source of input into their language, um then we’ve moved again um away from the idea that reading development in a second language is going to parallel reading development in a first language. There’s another mechanism unfolding.
OK, when—when I um think about what sort of essential knowledge for teachers in regards to the needs of second language um learners I tend to focus on one, to understand that their first language may impact the manner in which their second language develops and um to that extent I think that to the—well, to the extent that someone gains sort of an understanding of how that process might occur, I think they’ll be in a better position to serve um children. I think another point that I um always try to emphasize to students that are working with me on the research and in—and in classes is the idea that grade level and reading level don’t always match up for the second language learners so that you may have a 5th grade child who has entered a US school um speaking um English um with a certain um degree of um hesitancy, some difficulties with English, um and you’re, you know, you’re given the task of teaching this child to read. I find—I mean, I’m surprised by this. But I often find that we make the assumption that this child is in a position to tackle the tasks, the reading tasks that any 5th grader would tackle. And so we tend to ignore all of the learning that happened before that got that 5th grade monolingual reader to read as a 5th grade monolingual reader and we introduce the second language speaker to reading instruction that is not appropriate to their level of development in English reading. Um, it may be appropriate for a 5th grader, but not for a child who has never been formally instructed to read in English. And so I think we lose sight of these very early skills, like phonological awareness which, we assume—we tend to assume um should only be um targeted in the very early grades. I would argue you—you need to modify it. You’re not going to infantilize the child in the process of teaching them those skills. But they have to have the experiences that will lead to the insights that reading is going to build upon. So I would argue that one thing that we need to understand, in addition to understanding that the first language reading skills can impact second language reading skills, is that we need to make a clear distinction between level of development in terms of the progression of reading development and grade level, and that we need to distinguish that. And then there are a number of components of reading that I think um continue to be areas of um potential problems for second language readers even when they’ve already acquired a certain level of oral skills in the second language. They um may be undistinguishable from—from their monolingual peers in terms of their uses of social language and English. Um, they may be good decoders in English and they may have no problem um, um reading aloud and—and so one. And one of those is I think the area of vocabulary. And I think we need to understand how the process of vocabulary development might be different for bilinguals and monolinguals in that um it’s often the case that bilingual children develop very different sets of words in each of their language which, of course, reflects the context in which their living and the words—the things they have to name in their—in their environment. And so um even though one might argue that in terms of total vocabulary size, a bilingual child is probably similar to a monolingual. Um, if we—if we sort of look at distinctions across the two languages, they may look like they have reduced vocabularies in either one of their languages because the context in which those languages are used are different. And I think that’s what we need to understand. It’s not that bilingualism is going to lead to reduced vocabulary use, it’s that we exist in different context in each language and we name different things in each languages. Anyway, to the extent that vocabulary knowledge impacts reading comprehension, I think con—continues to be—despite having achieved um competency in reading on many other domains, vocabulary still remains as an area of potential problems for bilingual learners. And I think that we need to be a lot more um conscious and more explicit about the vocabulary instruction we provide for all students. I think that to the extent that we target vocabulary instruction to our second language learners, um we’re also finding ways of enriching vocabulary instruction for our monolingual learners in that um, you know, the palisamy of the English language can be sort of better explored and, you know, that becomes a source of um potential difficulty for a second language learner. But you also get a monolingual learner to understand how palisamy works in English. Um, I think there are ways in which um we need to draw priorities about what types of words do we want the second language learners to tackle um at each grade level. Um, you know, do we focus on the very easy words, high-frequency words, that they’re going to encounter most likely in their every day language use? And I would argue a lot of vocabulary programs for English language learners tackle those very words at the expense of more academically based words. Um, so I think that we need to be very careful and consciences about how we prioritize teaching of vocabulary for second language um readers and um evaluate. How likely is it that this child will get this—these types of words? How likely is that they will encounter them in text? How likely is it that they’ll encounter them in every day world language use and how can I make sure that in my instruction I address those areas that um—that aren’t supported in their oral vocabulary and every day use of language.
I think that one problem with focusing our teacher preparation efforts in terms of methods for teaching is that—and this is not true only for second language learners, but for all learners, um is that one tends to forget the question of why one does any one of those or one uses any one of those methods. Um, and I think that the question of why we do things as practitioners is important for all learners but I—I guess I’d like to highlight how it becomes important for second language learners in particular. And I think um we need to emphasize um a rational for doing something over the method itself because um we find a lot of variability among English language learners in term of the competencies they bring to the task of uh learning to read in English. Um, one example um or one contrast that I like to use um is contrasting the second language um learner to the typical five-year-old monolingual. Um, that five-year-old monolingual child brings a lot of knowledge about his or her language to the task of learning to read English. And second language learners are likely to differ from one another in terms of how much of that knowledge of the English language they’ve mastered when their first um in—exposed to formal instruction in English reading. And a lot of it is going to have to do with differences in how long they’ve been in this country and whether they’ve been instructed in their first language and whether their parents are fluent speakers of—of English or not um, and the whole host of—of reasons. But we need to be um very um clear about what—what it is we’re trying to um facilitate for this child and to understand how each one of these second language learners is different from one another in terms their mastery of these tasks that um—that are either precursors to reading or that reading builds um on in—in sort of different ways. Um, we always need to ask, “Why is it that I’m going to focus on vocabulary instruction for second language learners and why is it that I’m going to focus on academic vocabulary for this particular group of students?” Instead of thinking, “I need a strategy for teaching vocabulary to these children.” Um, yes we need those strategies, but we need to understand how those strategies fit into um the particular, you know, the constellation of—of needs that these children have. And so we need to make priorities in terms of instruction and without a rational for using these strategies, these methods. I think um without that rational I think we—we—we lose in terms of being able to be effective with the—with the students.
Um, I think that we gain a lot of information about a child when we assess his or her first language in addition to assessing reading skills in the second language. And it’s because I believe there’s a very strong connection between how well they can read in their first language and what they’ve learned about the process of reading in their first language and the process of acquiring reading skills in a second language. Um, I think we can gain information about um, you know, what—what does the profile of this child look like in terms of um his or her reading skills in—in the first language. Could I um—could I assume that this child has really good, well-developed um reading comprehension strategies? Um, are these strategies that I think this child could apply to the process of reading English? Um, does this child, um as another example, understand how his language works in terms of a writing system? Has this child understood um what, you know, if—if the child reads an alphabetic language as his first language, um does this child understand this idea of one-to-one mapping, um that these symbols connect to sounds? Um, has this child um understood um, for example, in the case of um how words derive from one another? Do they understand the connections between one part of speech um in a word, in another—in the case of a derivation? For example, do they have the insight as a monolingual reader might have um in the—an English monolingual reader, of the relationship between the word ‘fragile’ and ‘fragility’ or ‘vine’ and ‘vineyard’? Do they understand that? And if they understand that in their first language, will—can they bring that insight to English and understand the relationship between vine and vineyard? Um, I think those are all sources of information that we can exploit when we’re teaching children how to read and we could um in fact draw connections for them if we understand something about how reading occurs in their first language and how much they’ve mastered about their first language. I think we can draw these points of connection for their children more explicitly then when we don’t have that information.
Well, I learned English as a child. I um—I’m Puerto Rican and um Spanish was the language used in my home. Um, I lived here in the United States as a—as a child and started school here in the United States and was actually um first taught to read in English here in the United States. And um I was um—not so long ago told a story by my mother that actually connects to um an academic interest of mine, which is this issue of transfer from the first language to the second language for academic skills for bilingual students. Now I always thought this was an interest that I had developed out of, sort of, just intellectual curiosity but I found out recently that I had a more sort of personal connection to that. And um it comes back to this um issue of—of my first experiences in instruction in reading in English. And apparently I was um having a lot of difficulty as a child learning to read in English and um my mother was pretty much at a loss about what to do and, of course, call her mother to see if she had any insights into what to do. And um, you know, my grandmother response well was, “Well, you need to teach her to read in Spanish first.” And um, you know, after—the way my mother tells it, they sort of argued a lot about it and my mother had a lot of concerns about whether or not um that would confuse me and so one. And I guess my grandmother got inpatient and got on a plane for the very first time in her life and came um to um New Jersey where we were living. And the way they tell the story, I was sort of reading in Spanish and English in—after two weeks of her instruction, um but it seems like my grandmother had an insight that has taken me a long time to sort of develop in terms of um the relationship between Spanish and English um reading um and she seemed to understand or believe that it would help me and um, you know, as—as I said, I always thought that I had purely intellectual curiosity a—about this question but it—it was something that was a—a source of support for me in my reading. And so I sort of rediscovered that later on.
Um, one of the ideas that I’m trying to think most seriously about um these days has to do with making explicit to children what the connections are between their first language and their second language and how the first language can be a source of support. Um, I think that we’ve talked a lot as researchers and educators about this idea that academic skills transfer from one language to the other but we’ve failed to take that idea far enough into what implications it has for day-to-day instruction. I think it clearly has implications for problematic decisions like “Do we support the child’s first language development or not? Does the child go into a bilingual program or not?” and so on. But I think there’s potential for investigating further how this idea might impact what we do on a day-to-day basis and I think right now we—we have bilingual programs in place that teach the child to read in their first language, then we transition them into English reading and we expect the child to do all the work of drawing these connections. Teachers also have a lot of implicit knowledge about how to facilitate that transfer. But we haven’t really asked teachers and we haven’t observed teachers and we haven’t sort of tried to characterize what that knowledge is all about. So I think um one area that I would like to see um developed further in terms of research is around this idea of teaching for transfer. Like how do we teach children English reading? Um, by making explicit to them how their first language might relate to the second language reading development. I think another piece of that is research on teachers and what do they do either intuitively or very consciously to facilitate that so that we can make that knowledge generalizable to—to more teachers. But, for example, in the area of vocabulary, if we know that Spanish/English bilingual children may benefit from attending to relationship across words that are similar in meaning and orthography across the two languages such as cognates, um which mean the same in two languages and are spelled the same—the same way in two languages, how can we draw children attention to those relationships and have them exploit that? Um, when we think about um teaching children about derivational morphology, um if they understand how one transforms the word um ‘friend’ to ‘friendly’ in their first language, can we make explicit to them how would work in—in English. Um if they understand that (speaks Spanish) ‘friendly,’ that—that suffix (speaks Spanish) consistently maps onto ‘ly’ in ‘friendly,’ can they sort of have an insight about that that they can later take to a novel word that has a similar ending and can they use that to generalate—generate some hypotheses about what that word means. And um that’s the kind of instruction I think we need to start thinking about and that I think we need to be more active in terms of research. Um in making—um finding what the sources of transfer, of positive transfer, will be and then finding ways of making the connections explicit for students um so that we don’t have them do all the work. In part because when we look at transfer of learning in other domains, we find that it’s very difficult to accomplish and a lot of students don’t transfer, say what they know about addition to multiplication on their own. That needs to be made explicit. And so in the same way I think we need to be more explicit ourselves in our teaching and how we think about our teaching and in what we communicate to students about what the sources of positive transfer are into English reading instruction.