Literacy for U.S. and Other Cultures

This section of the Multicultural Topics in CSD site is dedicated to literacy development in bilingual Spanish-speaking students in a monolingual educational setting. The target age group is early intervention and school-age (0-18 years) children. Although this section of the website discusses literacy in regard to Spanish-speakers learning English and literacy skills, it leaves the door open for others in the future to add additional information on various bilingual groups seen in school settings.

Hispanic children are more likely to score lower than White children and other groups in emergent literacy measures that are typically measured in school settings (ex. letter recognition, identifying beginning and ending sounds, word reading). Therefore, it is important to take a closer look into what is expected in literacy development in the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking cultural groups.


Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition: literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate, according to this same source, derives from Middle English and Latin terms meaning “marked with letters” and “letters, literature.” Two definitions are provided:

  • “able to read and write,” and
  • “versed in literature or creative writing…having knowledge or competence”


A person's ability to use reading and writing for communication or learning. Note that literacy can apply to different written languages. A person's literacy in English may be low, while their literacy in their primary language may be high. Health Literacy

Low Literacy or Limited Literacy:

An inability to read or write well enough to perform necessary tasks in society or on the job. In the U.S., this is generally categorized as having a reading level at or below seventh grade. “Low-literacy materials” are those that are written in simple language and can be understood by people with limited literacy skills. Health Literacy Glossary

Majority Language for Literacy Within U.S. Schools

* Euro-American/English-Speaking

Cultural Importance:

English language proficiency stands out as the defining difference between native and non-native English speakers, even though English learners range along a broad continuum from non-English to fully English proficient. (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000)

Orthography & Glyphs:

In English and other languages that use alphabetic writing systems speech sounds are represented by letters and letter sequences reflecting the nature of the alphabetic-principle. For beginning readers to make use of this, they need to (a) hear individual speech sounds in words [phonemic awareness], and (b) learn the symbols that represent those sounds [phonics and graphophonics]. Spanish & English (same writing system): certain features of the writing system transfer readily such as the idea that speech sounds are represented by letters and letter sequences and the notion that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

For Spanish literate students, explicit instruction on English vowel spelling is often useful, especially in the context of reading simple texts. Also, attention to text comprehension is essential, given that some students learn to decode English so well that they can appear like they are comprehending when they are most likely decoding the whole word, not understanding. (Peregoy & Boyle, 2000)

English is an opaque language, because the words are not usually pronounced/read as they are spelled. English-speaking children may use the visual (lexical, whole-word reading) route to reading, because of the opaque English orthographic system.

Other Languages to Consider Within the U.S.


Cultural Importance:

The Latino culture is characterized as collectivistic, or high-context. Latinos highest priority is supporting the family unit. Therefore, the cultural importance placed on literacy is directly connected to how the skill affects the good of the community (Trumbull et al., p. 57). In countries of origin where literacy rates are high, Latinos generally place a high importance on education and literacy. In countries of origin where the literacy rates are lower, perhaps due to more agricultural focus on sustainability, literacy rates continue to fall behind their Latino peers when the population immigrates to the United States.

There are also differences between how Latino families view literacy in the context of being proficient, at least in their first language of Spanish [L1], compared with proficiency in their second language, or English [L2]. These cultural views also vary widely between and among families and communities. Some Latinos assimilate into mainstream Euro-American culture, learning English only, perceiving it as the dominant language for success. Some may see this as an attempt to stay monolingual, switching from using one language over another. However, other Latino communities hold the view that literacy is important in the context of their L1, in this case Spanish, above that of English acquisition and literacy, though they may live in an English dominant community.

Many Latino families who decide to immigrate to the United State do so to ensure their children’s education. Nevertheless, Latinos may feel threatened by the differing school culture in the United States. A common Euro-American misconception is Latino, primarily Mexican-American, ambivalence toward literacy (Zuniga p.195) when in actuality many hold education as the highest achievement. Access to this education in culturally competent educational settings refutes the aforementioned stereotype.


Similar to English counterparts, but dependent on individual child, following a pattern of acquisition involving:

  • Memorization/ recitation of culturally significant songs, poems at an early age
  • Inference derived through pictorial images
  • Decoding of common words
  • Reading and comprehension of text
  • Written narrative
  • Written research

Academic Performance:

Latinos with heritage stemming from highly literate communities are far more likely to graduate from an American school system. Cuban-Americans are the most likely Latino-Americans to graduate high school and move on to college educations. (Zuniga)


Literacy rates suggest cultural acceptance of illiteracy until adolescence. However, this age is decreasing among Latinos who have lived in the United States for more than a single generation.


Similar to U.S. and English speaking countries, genres include academic writing found in schools and universities, folklore and mythology, historical, political, pop-culture, musical, as well as religious text.

Orthography & Glyphs:

Spanish speaking countries use the same Romanized alphabet used in English, including the use of the tilde [~] and accent markings [´]. All of the sounds represented in Spanish texts can be found in English texts, with the exceptions of the ñ, rr, and b/v sounds, which are produced as a nasal-palatal, trilled-alveolar ®, or bilabial-fricative sound respectively.Spanish is a transparent language, because the pronunciation of words is straightforward to the spelling. Spanish-speaking children may use the phonological (grapheme-to-phoneme conversion) route to reading, because of the transparent Spanish orthographic system. (Gutierrez-Clellen, V.)

Roles and Responsibilities of Professionals:

International Reading Association advocates encourage culturally and linguistically diverse [CLD] children to become biliterate as well as bilingual, and suggest beginning literacy instruction in the child’s first language. While this may not be possible for children from smaller language groups, there are many programs available to help Spanish first-language users to adopt this approach. By using this approach, educators and SLPs can build a bridge with literacy from school to home by presenting books in their native language. (Paul, 2006)

Schools may give little recognition to children’s home language, but will take into account that the children still need to learn English to advance in their education. Most schools now offer ESL (English as a second language) services, which specialize in giving guidance in the structure and use of the language of English. Outside of ESL, the children take on the literacy curriculum along with the native English speakers. The issue is they are learning to read and write in English while they are acquiring it. (Weber & Longhi-Chirlin, 2001)

“…language proficiency is a multidimensional construct difficult to measure, and assessments of language proficiency do not predict how well students will perform on standardized reading or content area assessments…” (Pray & Jiménez, 2009).

Research surrounding literacy and bilingualism has focused on three main categories:

  1. The acquisition of literacy by bilingual (or partially bilingual) children (or adults) in a weak language (ie. Spanish speaking children learning English literacy at school)
  2. The acquisition of literacy by monolingual children in different languages.
  3. The cognitive and linguistic components of fluent reading in a second language.

“Phonological awareness is the metalinguistic concept most clearly connected to reading. Its role in initiating and promoting literacy in children has been documented in countless empirical studies” (Bialystok, 2002).


Clinical Implications for SLP's and Educators

Instruction that identifies phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension, has clear benefits for language-minority students.

Instruction in key components of reading is necessary, but not sufficient, for teaching language-minority students to read and write proficiently in English. Oral proficiency in English is critical as well, but stuent performance suggests that it is often overlooked in instruction.

Oral proficiency and literacy in the first language can be used to facilitate literacy development in English. However, language minority students can acquire literacy in English-only classrooms as well.

Individual differences contribute significantly to English literacy development.

Most assessments do a poor job of assessing individual strengths and weaknesses.

There is surprisingly little evidence for the impact of socio-cultural variables on literacy achievement and development. However, home language experiences can have a positive impact on literacy achievement.

(Grant, Wong, & Osterling, 2007)

Dynamic Assessment

Important to use dynamic assessment when assessing bilingual children in schools. Bilingual students helped most by the prompts and cues provided during dynamic assessment were ones that showed the most growth in word recognition from fall to spring (Gutierrez-Clellen, V.)

Reading Assessment

Most tests are not norm-referenced to a national sample of bilingual speakers. Most Limited English Proficiency students take between 4 to 7 years to acquire sufficient English skills. The reading assessments should address:

  • Bilingual acquisition variables (age of first exposure, years of exposure, language input, proficiency, and use)
  • Cross-linguistic similarities and differences between Spanish and English (Gutierrez-Clellen, V.)

 Resources and References