Millions of children around the world are raised and educated in multilingual environments. Many of these children learn to read in two different languages and/or in a different language than that spoken at home. Children in Kenya, for example, often speak a local dialect at home and are then educated at school in both Kiswahili and English.

Researchers have previously found that, for multilingual children, the language of literacy instruction affects outcomes. In a randomized trial in Kenya of two different literacy interventions — one delivered in English and Kiswahili, and a second delivered in English, Kiswahili, and the local dialect — the second intervention had bigger impacts. Researchers know little, however, about exactly how children in multilingual environments learn to read.

“We don’t study children learning to read in multilingual environments,” says Kaja Jasińska, a professor in the linguistics and cognitive science department at the University of Delaware. “The research on the routes into literacy — how kids get there, what matters, and how to support kids — those studies are almost all done in Western countries where kids are only learning to read in one language, or they’re learning to read in a language they also speak at home.”

In a recent paper, Jasińska and co-authors Sharon Wolf, Matthew C. H. Jukes, and Margaret M. Dubeck set out to address this gap. The researchers utilized a longitudinal survey of 1,100 schoolchildren in coastal Kenya. The children in the group spoke a range of languages at home. The researchers examined how the home language affected how children learned to read in both Swahili and English.

“Kids who speak a language at home that is linguistically similar to the language of literacy in the school leverage that knowledge.”

Jasińska and her colleagues found that both phonological awareness and receptive vocabulary were strong predictors of literacy in English and Kiswahili for all children, regardless of the language spoken at home. Children, however, relied more heavily on certain skillsets when learning to read in Kiswahili — considered by linguists to be a very “transparent,” phonetically consistent language — than in English, a more “opaque” language. More specifically, there was a stronger relationship between phonological awareness and Kiswahili reading than English reading. Researchers had previously found that students learning more transparent languages rely more heavily on phonological skills in the early stages of literacy.

Jasińska and her colleagues found that the pathways to literacy in English and Kiswahili also differ by children’s home language, and how similar that language is to the language of literacy instruction.

“Kids who speak a language at home that is linguistically similar to the language of literacy in the school leverage that knowledge,” Jasińska says. “Kids whose home language has a lot of phonological overlap with the language of instruction – the same kinds of sounds and patterns – leverage phonological awareness more than kids who are learning to read in a linguistically distinct language.”

“A teacher could use knowledge about a child’s linguistic background to develop content to help boost that child’s skills.”

The paper has important implications for the design of literacy interventions. The evidence in the paper, for example, suggests that if a child’s home language is linguistically similar to Kiswahili, a literacy program in which early instruction occurs in the home language, followed by instruction in Kiswahili, may be most effective. Furthermore, transparent and opaque languages may require different instructional strategies; those strategies should ideally be further differentiated based on the characteristics of a child’s home language.

“If you know something about the child’s linguistic background, that might make a difference and help explain why he or she might be struggling,” Jasińska says. “A teacher could use that knowledge to develop content to help boost that child’s skills.”

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