ERIC Identifier: ED358747 Publication Date: 1990-10-00
Author: Rivera, Klaudia M. Source: National Clearinghouse
on Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy
Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
Developing Native Language Literacy in Language Minority
Adults. ERIC Digest.
Increasingly, adult education programs need to serve students whose native
language is not English. Some of these students are already literate in their
native language, and their only need is to learn both oral and written English
as a second language (ESL). Others are not literate in their native language,
and therefore may need to acquire literacy skills both in their mother tongue
and in English. Research evidence suggests that first language literacy promotes
second language acquisition, and that literacy skills in the native language are
likely to transfer to the second language (Rivera, 1988).
COGNITIVE ASPECTS OF NATIVE LANGUAGE LITERACY
assumption in the schooling of language minority children is that skills and
knowledge learned in the native language transfer to English. This transfer is
referred to as the cross-language transfer of skills and knowledge. Based on
this assumption, Cummins (1983, 1986) has formulated two hypotheses pertinent to
native language literacy.
First, the Interdependency Hypothesis states that "to the extent that
instruction through a minority language is effective in developing academic
proficiency in the minority language, transfer of this proficiency to the
majority language will occur given adequate exposure and motivation to learn the
majority language" (Cummins, 1986). In other words, language skills, once
learned, transfer globally from one language to another. Second, the Common
Underlying Proficiency Hypothesis holds that the development of first language
reading skills provides a deep conceptual and linguistic proficiency that is
strongly related to the development of literacy and general academic skills in
the second language. This common underlying proficiency makes possible the
transfer of cognitive and academic or literacy-related skills across languages
When adults are taught to read in the language they already know, they can
use the linguistic strengths they bring into the program and draw upon the
knowledge and skills they have acquired in their first language (Rivera, 1988).
This approach is consonant with one of the underlying tenets of adult education:
New skills and knowledge are best acquired when they build on the already
existing knowledge and skills of the adult learner. Ovando and Collier (1985)
state that even when two languages use different writing systems, readers are
able to apply the visual, linguistic, and cognitive strategies they use in their
first language to reading in the second language. Students transfer what they
know about reading in one language to the other, and in so doing maximize the
linguistic strengths they already possess.
SOCIOCULTURAL ASPECTS OF NATIVE LANGUAGE LITERACY
addition to the cognitive and psycholinguistic tenets central to the native
language literacy approach, there are social, cultural, and political concerns
that argue for native language literacy development. According to Giroux's
(1987) definition of literacy, to be literate is to be present and active in the
struggle to reclaim one's voice and history, and to move into the future
confidently. Language carries the conception of the world to the group that
speaks it; language does not merely reflect reality but plays an active role in
the construction of reality. The students' native languages should be actively
incorporated in the educational process. The use of the native language allows
learners to discuss their current life experiences using their own words. It
also allows them to retain ties to their culture and past as, for example, when
they write home to the people they have left behind.
INSTRUCTIONAL DELIVERY MODELS FOR INITIAL LITERACY
commonly followed model in adult education for language minority groups in the
United States focuses on ESL, with little or no development of non-English
mother tongues. These programs may include adults who have completed little
formal education in their native language as well as adults who can read and
write in their own languages.
Some programs are not able to offer native language literacy instruction
because the students speak a number of native languages, making it economically
unfeasible to offer literacy classes in each non-English native language. In
other cases, programs do not see the immediate benefits of devoting time to
instruction in the first language because they do not perceive literacy in the
native language as a viable solution for students' survival while in the United
States. They may see the acquisition of spoken English proficiency as the sole
factor to have immediate social and economic benefits in the community,
regardless of literacy ability in either language.
While they may not teach in the native languages of their students, some ESL
literacy programs employ bilingual (or multilingual) personnel in a variety of
capacities, including in-take counselors and teachers' aides. Bilingual
personnel--who are frequently members of the same national, ethnic, or
linguistic groups as the students--may help ESL teachers in and out of the
classroom as translators, tutors of individuals and small groups, and sources of
cultural information for teachers to incorporate into ESL literacy lessons.
Programs that provide native language literacy instruction differ in their
structure and design. To varying extents, different program designs reflect
learner preferences, political beliefs, various theories about literacy
acquisition, and pragmatic concerns such as the existence of a written alphabet
for the native language, and the availability of instructional materials,
trained teachers, and program funding.
Most programs that offer native language literacy have bilingualism and
biliteracy as a goal. Some require that students wanting to enroll in English as
a second language classes demonstrate some threshold level of literacy ability
in their native language before receiving ESL instruction. In this approach,
students who are not literate in their native language take a course or a series
of courses to develop basic literacy skills in the native language before
starting the ESL sequence.
In other programs, ESL and native language classes are taken separately
during the same enrollment session. In this approach, ESL classes typically
focus on developing students' oral/aural proficiency, while reading and writing
abilities are developed in the native language. ESL and literacy classes are
often held on alternate days, are taught by different instructors, and may or
may not cover the same thematic content.
Some programs offer special bilingual literacy classes, where students
develop their reading and writing skills simultaneously in their native language
and in English. Such classes are either team taught by a native language speaker
and an English speaker, or by one bilingual teacher, and typically cover similar
content in both the native language and English. This model is akin to what has
sometimes been referred to as the "concurrent approach" to bilingual education
for children (Ovando & Collier, 1985).
Bilingual programs are often initiated by community-based organizations that
seek to promote the maintenance of the cultural identity of a given language
minority community. These programs often encourage cultural transmission
activities such as documenting life stories from the native culture and writing
letters to family members from the home countries, activities that help to
inculcate a sense of history and pride in younger generations. These life
experiences, in turn, can serve as a powerful basis for developing the thematic
content of the literacy curriculum.
Parents or grandparents may believe that unless they become literate in their
native language, they will not be able to convince the young of the value of
that language, and the family risks losing its cultural and linguistic roots and
diversity. As Hakuta (1990) points out, "If the languages represented by
American linguistic minorities were seen as a natural resource, such as species
of birds or trees, there would be a public clamor to set up investigative
commissions to monitor and prevent their rapid extinction."
OTHER LITERACY PROGRAM MODELS
To an increasing extent,
adult educators are taking note of the fact that in many adult education
systems, the only course offerings available to limited English proficient
adults consist of ESL or native language classes that teach initial literacy,
whereas native English speaking students are able to take a wider range of basic
skills courses in math, science, and social studies. Educators' experiences with
the amnesty education program (see Terdy & Spener, 1990) have led some
municipal and state education systems to consider providing LEP adults with
content courses in their native language. Where they are offered (in New York
City and Los Angeles, for example), such courses fall under the rubric of what
has been termed BENL (Basic Education in the Native Language) or BABE (Bilingual
Adult Basic Education). Beyond the level of adult basic education, it is
possible in many cities to take the test of General Educational Development
(GED) in Spanish, and it is not uncommon for adult education programs serving
limited English speakers to offer GED preparation courses in Spanish.
Bilingual Vocational Training (BVT) programs are another example of a program
design that may provide some literacy instruction in the adult's native
language. The BVT model calls for use of the native language to teach vocational
skills associated with a given occupation. This instruction in the native
language (or in English with bilingual support) is coupled with special
vocational ESL (VESL) classes, which develop the English skills needed to
competently carry out the duties of a particular occupation.
In view of the large and increasing immigrant
population in the United States in need of literacy and English as a second
language services, more research on the results of the different approaches
available must be conducted. This research should take into consideration not
only the pedagogical and linguistic factors involved in the education of adults,
but also the social and political implications of bilingualism and biliteracy
with regard to equal opportunities and full participation in society.
Cummins, J. (1986). Empowering minority
students: A framework for intervention. "Harvard Educational Review," 56, 18-35.
Cummins, J. (1983). Bilingualism and special education: Programs and
pedagogical issues. "Learning Disability Quarterly," 6(4), 373-386.
Giroux, H. A. (1987). In P. Freire & D. Macedo (Eds.), "Literacy: Reading
the word and the world." Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.
Hakuta, K. (1990). "Bilingualism and bilingual education: A research
perspective." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Bilingual Education.
Ovando, C., & Collier, V. (1985). "Bilingual and ESL classrooms." New
Rivera, K. M. (1988). Not "Either/Or" but "And": Literacy for non-English
speakers. "Focus on Basics," 1(3/4), p. 1-3.
Terdy, D., & Spener, D. (1990). "English literacy and other requirements
of the amnesty program. Q&A." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on
Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related
to any Federal agency or ERIC unit. Further, this site is using a
privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored
or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government.
This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents
previously produced by ERIC. No new content will ever appear here
that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.