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Mapping the Literacy of Bilingual Children

The exploration of oral language skills takes a twist when we consider children growing up in bilingual or multilingual environments
Associate Professor Paola Uccelli

Children's reading and writing skills build off of their earlier emerging skills using spoken language. The exploration of oral language skills takes a twist when we consider children growing up in bilingual or multilingual environments. Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Paola Uccelli and her colleagues seek to understand how early skills in spoken Spanish and English unfold and interact as children learn how to produce narratives in two languages. They focus on vocabulary and narrative, as these oral skills have been identified as foundational in children's literacy development.

With her collaborator Mariela Paez, associate professor at Boston College, Uccelli examined the development of vocabulary and oral narrative skills among a group of 24 bilingual (Spanish/English) children living in communities in Massachusetts and Maryland. The children came from families in low socio-economic conditions who were already enrolled in a larger study, The Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-Speaking Children (ECS). Uccelli and Paez's goal was to better understand how children's developing skills in Spanish and English support or conflict with one another in the area of narrative development.

The children participated in a language assessment in both Spanish and English in kindergarten and again in first grade. The assessment consisted of two parts: a vocabulary test and a narrative skills task. In the vocabulary test, the children were asked to say a word when a picture was shown.

In the narrative skills test, children were prompted to tell a story based on a series of three drawings. They were scored for the number of total words they used, the number of distinct words used, and two indicators of narrative quality: story structure score (inclusion of appropriate story elements and sequence) and language score (clarity and complexity of grammatical features in the story).

For both vocabulary and narrative skills, children were tested in English on one day and in Spanish on another, by native adult speakers who interacted with them only in the relevant language.

Vocabulary Skills

While a few children displayed above average or close to average vocabulary skills in both languages, a majority of children performed considerably below the monolingual norms in Spanish and/or English. Spanish vocabulary scores tended to be lower than English scores and showed no improvement from kindergarten to first grade. The majority of children in the sample attended English-only classrooms, which probably contributed to the relatively flat Spanish vocabulary growth. English vocabulary scores improved somewhat over time, but were consistently and considerably low even in first grade, a crucial year for learning how to read.

The authors call for a cautious interpretation of these findings. Despite the controversy of using monolingual norms to interpret bilingual children's vocabulary development, these assessments can be used to offer an estimate of the distance between these children and their monolingual peers. As the authors state, "Even though it is expected that a bilingual child's vocabulary measured only in one language would not match that of a monolingual speaker, when bilingual children's vocabularies are too low in the language in which they are learning how to read, these young learners will certainly encounter difficulties [particularly, in the context of monolingual English instruction]."

Narrative Skills

The researchers were particularly interested in knowing whether children's English narrative scores in first grade were related to their English and Spanish language skills during kindergarten. In other words, are children who have stronger spoken English and/or Spanish skills as five year-olds at an advantage when they are asked to narrate stories in English at age six?

Uccelli and Paez found that, on average, first-grade English narrative quality scores were higher among children who, at kindergarten scored higher on the English vocabulary test, used a greater number of distinct words in their English narrative, and had higher story structure scores on their Spanish narrative. First-grade Spanish narrative scores were best predicted by kindergarten Spanish vocabulary scores.

Uccelli and Paez's study is also suggestive of a positive relationship between early Spanish storytelling skills and English narrative skills. 

This shows that knowing and using a greater variety of words at age five is related to producing higher quality narratives at age six. The relationship between narrative skills across languages is particularly intriguing. Above and beyond the impacts of English vocabulary skills, children who displayed stronger story structure skills in Spanish in kindergarten had stronger storytelling skills in English in first grade. By separating story structure from language features, the authors were able to distinguish aspects of storytelling that might be shared across languages (i.e., story structure) vs. aspects of storytelling that require language-specific learning (i.e., grammatical features).

This finding suggests a supportive relationship between early storytelling skills in Spanish and later storytelling proficiency in English. The authors note that, given the relatively small number of children in this study, this finding should be replicated with a larger sample. If this result is confirmed, it would indicate that children's experiences telling stories in a native language can facilitate the development of those same structural and organizational skills in English. Language features, such as those required for clear reference and complex grammar, however, need to be learned in each language.

Applying these Results in the Classroom

The authors urge practitioners who want to know bilingual children's full language profiles to carry out assessments in both English and their home language. Since early vocabulary skills are not necessarily related across languages, a full assessment of a bilingual child's early language competency should account for their skills in both languages. These types of assessments would be useful for identifying children with lower language proficiency in both languages who may need additional support as they progress through their language and literacy curriculum. Testing narrative skills in both languages would also allow teachers to monitor whether children are developing skills in organizing a verbal narrative, in one or both languages that they are learning.

Uccelli and Paez's study is also suggestive of a positive relationship between early Spanish storytelling skills and English narrative skills. This means that the practice that young children have in telling well-organized stories in Spanish, in or out of school, might carry over to corresponding storytelling skills in English. More research is needed to know whether this represents a causal relationship; does practice in Spanish narrative actually improve these same skills in English? While we do not yet know the answer to this question, these promising results suggest that narrative structure skills across languages support, rather than conflict, with each other.

By studying the same children at two time points, Uccelli and Paez were able to begin teasing apart the relationships between the language skills that children bring to, and practice in, school. By focusing on very young children, this line of research highlights the need for educators to pay attention to the bilingual development of oral language skills with the ultimate goal of preventing the formation of a wide literacy gap between bilingual and monolingual English-speaking children.

This article is based upon: Uccelli, P. & Paez, M.M. (2007). Narrative and vocabulary development of bilingual children from kindergarten to first grade: Developmental changes and associations among English and Spanish skills. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 225-236.

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