Being a teacher these days is a challenge--a challenge that many of us accept and tackle with great passion because it is our calling. Being a dual language teacher brings on a whole new layer of challenges: the lack of resources and more content needing to be taught in the same amount of time during a day, just to name a couple. However, we get the opportunity to cultivate readers who are going to be biliterate and bicultural. This is a job we do not take lightly. Teaching motivates us to show up each day and give our students everything that we have.
Our classrooms today, whether dual language or transitional bilingual, are a very different make up of students than they used to be years ago. Our students that make up our classrooms now, largely consist of simultaneous bilinguals. Simultaneous bilinguals are students who are developing and learning two languages at one time: in the case of many students in our nation today, those languages are English and Spanish.
Dual Language Programs: Students learn literacy and content in two languages. The goal of this type of program is for students to become bilingual and biliterate.
Transitional Bilingual Programs: Students first learn and master content in their primary language to then transition to learning English. Students use their native language to make connections while learning English.
In the past, our classrooms consisted largely of students who are considered sequential bilinguals. Sequential bilinguals are students who have a base in their native language already and can use that to make connections when learning a new language. Today, native English speakers in a two-way dual language classroom may be considered a sequential bilingual. Because of the different makeup of our student populations in our classrooms today, we need to keep in mind how the makeup of our classrooms changes our instruction.
The Importance of Phonological and Phonemic Awareness in a Dual Language Classroom
When people think about teaching early literacy skills in Spanish, many don’t jump to phonemic awareness right away, but rather they think of phonological awareness. Phonological awareness works with bigger units of words-such as syllables-and Spanish is a language that has a large focus on syllables.
“Phonological awareness is the understanding of different ways that oral language can be divided into smaller components and manipulated” (Chard and Dickson, 1999).
However, students working with Spanish also do need to develop phonemic awareness. When students manipulate syllables in the early stages of learning, students are manipulating phonemes. Students also manipulate initial phonemes when they are rhyming words.
Phonemic awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made of individual sounds called phonemes.
While in Spanish we do have a larger focus on phonological awareness, phonemic awareness is just as important. According to Ford & Palacios, “Having experience working with language at the phoneme level in Spanish may make it easier for them to apply what they have learned about reading in Spanish as they take on the task of learning to read in English” (2015).
Teaching phonological awareness and phonemic awareness in both English and Spanish not only provides students with the essential foundational skills that they need as part of their early literacy development, but this instruction also provides students many opportunities to make metalinguistic connections. Students can make metalinguistic connections when they have metalinguistic awareness.
Metalinguistic awareness is “the understanding of how language works and how it changes and adapts in different circumstances. In bilingual learners of Spanish and English, it is the understanding of how two languages are similar and different” (Beeman & Urow, 2013).
An example of a metalinguistic chart created based off of the initial /s/ sound in both English and Spanish.
As the teacher, I can plan for and teach these metalinguistic skills to students so that they can make these connections between languages. However, students will also begin to make these connections on their own when they start to become more aware of the language patterns in English and Spanish. The bilingual brain is amazing and the sooner we can get students to make these phonological and phonemic connections across languages, the sooner they will be able to read, not only in one language, but in two!
One of the things that I love most about phonemic awareness in both English and Spanish is how easily we can transfer right into phonics instruction. Students have warmed up their brain and are now ready to connect sounds to print. This work in Spanish is usually done with syllables at the beginning where students work on manipulating phonemes in learning the different consonants that go with the different vowel sounds. Once students get comfortable with this, they then start to combine those syllables to make words.
I love the foundation that phonemic awareness instruction builds in order for students to be even more successful with phonics. A strategy that we use when we teach, especially in dual language or transitional bilingual classrooms, is activating students´prior knowledge. I think of phonemic awareness instruction as the ‘prior knowledge’ that we are building up for students in order for them to be successful with phonics and reading.
My Classroom Experience
In 2019 I had the opportunity to teach two-way dual language kindergarten for part of the school year. During my time in this classroom, I made it a point to teach phonemic awareness in both English and Spanish daily. It wasn’t an easy task to try to ‘fit everything in’ to a kindergarten schedule, but because I knew how important phonemic awareness instruction is, I wanted to make the time.
I know that time is always an issue when it comes to scheduling and planning out our days in a classroom. However, phonemic awareness for me was non-negotiable. Because of the impact it has on students’ success as readers, and even writers, I would never sacrifice this time of our day. There is the saying, ‘make time for what is important’, which is what I did.
Other than the reading growth that I saw in the kindergarten students from the beginning of year to the middle of the year, another big celebration was the metalinguistic connections that students were making. In a dual language or transitional bilingual classroom, the connections that students make from English to Spanish or vice versa are indicators of their learning.
Although I would explicitly plan for many of our metalinguistic connections to work with during phonics instruction, students were making their own connections as they became more comfortable with both languages. We were creating multiple metalinguistic charts a week to highlight our learning as not only readers, but also as linguists. I believe that because students were so phonemically aware in both English and Spanish, these connections were much more obvious to them.
In addition to becoming more metalingtuistically aware, students made growth from the beginning of year to the mid year district assessments. Students showed growth in the areas of blending, segmenting, identifying initial sounds, and identifying letter sounds. Many students were even able to read decodable words in English and syllables and words in Spanish. Many students who came into the school year not reading at all, were reading, and their confidence in not only English, but Spanish, was evident and alive.
What is next for Heggerty and Dual Language?
I joined Heggerty officially in Spring 2020. I was doing some consulting with them on the side and digging into some of the Spanish curriculum prior to this. One of the big tasks I completed was creating the Spanish assessments. But when I was asked to join officially, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. Early literacy and bilingual education are my two biggest passions and this was the opportunity to take my two worlds and work with both of them. I know how difficult it is to find a curriculum that is evidence-informed, as well as systematic and engaging to support our dual language learners. I joined this team to help provide teachers with quality curricula in the areas of phonological and phonemic awareness. Our promise is to provide equal opportunities for our dual language learners by providing educators with quality curriculum and supplemental resources. We want to ensure that all learners get access to the early foundational literacy skills that they need in both languages, to meet their goals of being biliterate.
As teachers of early learners in preschool, kindergarten or first grade, we are given an opportunity to set students up to be successful. As you can see, and as the research proves, both phonological and phonemic awareness are essential skills that students need to master in order to be well-equipped readers. We look forward to hearing your success stories in implementing phonological and phonemic awareness in your daily instruction and how your students flourish as biliterate individuals.