Supporting early literacy in Spanish and English

Acquiring early literacy skills is imperative for all students, especially the five million English Language (EL) learners in public schools today.1 Mastery of these skills, including oral language, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and the use of phonics, helps ELs develop the strong reading foundation necessary for learning and academic success in all the subjects. Whether these early literacy skills are taught in students’ first language or in the target language of English, they are critical to ensuring long-term student success.

In numbers: the need to support ELs
Data shows that Hispanic students have experienced more unfinished learning in reading, as well as math, over the past two years due to the pandemic. the Understanding Student Learning: Fall 2021 Insights The report found that schools serving majority Hispanic students saw almost double the number of unfinished learnings in third-grade reading and math in those two years compared to schools serving majority white students.2 The percentage of late Hispanic students increased by 14 points, according to data from i-Ready Assessment.

Californians Together also cites that of the 1.15 million EL students in California alone, 200,000 of those students are classified as Long-Term English Learners (LTEL) – EL students who have been attending US schools for six years or more without reaching English levels. competence should be reclassified.3 According to the organization, an additional 130,000 ELs in the state are at risk of becoming LTEL.

These figures reinforce the immediate need to address the fundamental reading skills of EL students. So what exactly can educators do to support ELs when it comes to their early literacy development?

Understand the differences
the Playback Preview white paper in development by Curriculum Associates looks at the many aspects of teaching reading in English and Spanish. Above all, it reminds educators that:

• Learning to read is not an automatic process

• Reading requires learning the codes of the language

• There are distinct differences between early literacy development in Spanish and English

To effectively teach reading in Spanish and English, it is first important that educators truly understand the distinct differences between the two languages, especially since the two languages ​​can sound quite similar. Likewise, it is important for educators to teach these differences to students.

To begin with, English has 26 letters in the alphabet and 44 phonemes or sounds, while Spanish has 27 letters and 22 to 24 phonemes.

The white paper describes English as “an opaque language” that is highly irregular and has no one-to-one grapheme-sound correlation. For example, the letter a has several sounds, like above /ə/, pat /æ/, late /eɪ/.

Spanish is described as “a more transparent language”, which means that “the correlation between a letter and a sound is regular, unequivocal and very coherent”. An a is always /a/, for example.

Focus on phonological awareness
The white paper goes on to say that the different phonologies of languages ​​can impact students’ phonological awareness, or their ability to “identify and manipulate various elements of spoken language, such as sentences, words, syllables and sounds. individual”.

With this in mind, educators should always try to remain authentic to the phonology of each language when teaching. Educators should also strive to provide intentional, explicit, and systematic instruction to support bi-literacy. And, for skill development, educators should provide students with opportunities to make connections between languages ​​and develop metalinguistic knowledge.

Implementing appropriate scope and sequence with a focus on phonological awareness can effectively support this type of teaching. To support ELs and literacy instruction in bilingual classrooms, a phonological awareness scope and sequence should ideally:

• Address the skills students need to succeed in Spanish and English

• Include lessons that focus on one skill at a time

• Provide educators with the opportunity to teach these skills and give students time to practice these skills

• Continually reinforce the skills and understanding that students have acquired in previous courses

• Keep students engaged and focused throughout the learning process

The scope and sequence should also include lessons that focus on a phonological awareness skill – such as rhyming, blending, segmenting, isolating, manipulation and stressed syllable – both to help support and accelerate student progress. When choosing high-quality lessons, educators should also look for ones that feature:

• Very useful and grade-appropriate words

• Possibilities to mix letter sounds and syllables

• Engaging and alliterative text

• Decodable text experiences for students

• Culturally relevant stories and illustrations

When beginning to teach Spanish reading, it is effective to teach students the vowels first. Once these letters are mastered, educators can move on to high-frequency consonants. This helps students more easily decode words and apply letter-sound associations to words with target sounds as they read.

Provide support in both languages
In addition to the strategies above, it is important to remember that emerging bilingual students do best when supported in both English and Spanish. The study “Growth in English reading among Spanish-speaking bilingual students: moderating effect of English proficiency on cross-linguistic influence” found that students whose first language is Spanish and who had early proficiency in Spanish reading showed greater growth in their ability to read English.4

According to the study, students who spoke Spanish and had better Spanish reading skills in kindergarten also performed better over time.

These findings further reinforce the need – and benefit – of educators teaching reading in both languages. Since some literacy skills can be transferred from one language to another, educators can help students use what they have mastered in Spanish to support reading in English, and vice versa.

For example, once students learn that the prefix im- means “no” in Spanish and English, they can quickly add other words, such as not possible/impossible and impatient—to their reading vocabulary.

Teaching students to read is a complex process. And teaching EL students to read in two languages ​​at the same time can undoubtedly bring additional complexities. However, by providing explicit and systematic instruction and using the right strategies and resources, educators can help ELs develop strong reading, Spanish, and English skills necessary for continued success.

1. National Center for Education Statistics (2021). “Learners of English in public schools.”

2. Associates of Degree Program (2021). Understanding Student Learning: Fall 2021 Insights.

3. Californians together. Long-term English learners.

4. Relyea, J., and Amendum, S. (2019). “Growth in English Reading Among Spanish-Speaking Bilingual Students: Moderating Effect of English Proficiency on Cross-Linguistic Influence.”

Claudia Salinas is the Vice President of English Language Learning at Curriculum Associates ( and the regional manager for Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. She is responsible for helping school leaders meet the needs of their English and struggling learners by bringing research-based professional development, assessments, and standards-based teaching materials to school districts.