Biliteracy is a term used to describe competencies in reading and writing, to any degree, developed either simultaneously or successively, in two linguistic systems. It is widely accepted that the development of literacy in childhood is a transformative and emancipating accomplishment. Literacy is consistently associated with educational achievement and continues to be a part of the cultural capital valued by our society. Becoming literate has significant intellectual advantages, including the development of metalinguistic awareness (i.e., the ability to talk and think about language), access to valued cultural resources, and the strategic use of linguistic and literacy resources as tools for thinking. In the case of bilingual children, learning to read and write in only one language does not suffice since bilinguals need to function in two linguistic communities. If becoming literate represents such a remarkable achievement, then the development of biliteracy seems to be an extraordinary feat. This entry looks at the characteristics of biliteracy and the process in which it is developed.
Biliteracy is a complex phenomenon of bilingualism, a ubiquitous but often misunderstood construct. Although there is no simple definition of bilingualism, François Grosjean has discussed several features of bilinguals that are relevant to understanding children who are developing biliteracy. First, bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Second, bilinguals are rarely equally fluent in all language skills in all their languages, as the level of fluency largely depends on the need and use of a language. Third, few bilinguals possess the same competence as monolingual speakers in either of their languages. Fourth, some bilinguals may still be in the process of acquiring a language whereas others have attained a certain level of stability. Fifth, the linguistic repertoire and language proficiencies of bilinguals may change over time. Finally, bilinguals interact both with monolinguals and with other bilinguals and adapt their language behavior accordingly. These characteristics highlight the complexities involved in defining and understanding individual bilingualism, while at the same time belie the existence of great within-group diversity.
Biliteracy is a special form of literacy that must be understood as distinct from that of monolinguals. This is because bilinguals can experience a range and variety of literacy practices and transact with two literate worlds to create knowledge and transform it for meaningful purposes through their participation in multilingual and multicultural social networks that are not accessible to the monolingual. Regardless of the pervasiveness of bilingualism in the world, including in highly literate settings, biliteracy remains a relatively unexamined phenomenon.
Biliteracy is important because it may amplify bilingual children’s linguistic and intellectual possibilities by providing them with access to a broader range of academic, social, and cultural resources. Evidence from the growing research base in emergent, or early, biliteracy acquisition suggests that bilingual children have the potential to develop literacy in two languages, and that these literacies can develop more or less simultaneously in supportive classroom settings. The evidence also suggests that there are multiple paths to children’s biliteracy development and that these multiple paths are normal aspects of bilingual development. Further, when biliteracy is encouraged and promoted, literacy skills and strategies learned in either language appear to influence, or transfer to, the other language. This means that biliteracy involves a bidirectional process rather than one that only involves transfer from the first language to the second. Finally, the context in which biliteracy acquisition and development occurs is an important factor that has tremendous implications for the maintenance and continued support for dual-language literacy.
Some bilingual children learn to read and write in both languages simultaneously. Many two-way immersion or dual-language programs in the United States follow this type of model for dual-language and literacy acquisition. Other young bilinguals learn to read and write in their second language before they learn to read and write in their first, as in the case of French immersion programs in Canada where native English-speaking children are introduced to literacy through their second language, French. Both of these approaches tend to result in high levels of biliteracy as children continue to develop both languages and literacies to high degrees on a longitudinal basis.
A third approach is where children develop literacy first in their native language, and later in a second language. In the United States, this is a common route to English-language literacy for language-minority children. This can be a successful route to biliteracy only if the native/minority language continues to be promoted and developed to high degrees once English (second language) literacy is achieved and not abandoned before it is fully developed.
As researchers have observed, multiple paths are possible for becoming bilingual and biliterate, and no single sequence is best or more appropriate for all children. For example, many emergent bilinguals write in their second language before demonstrating oral ability in that language. This pathway questions the common assumption that literacy is always dependent on progress in the spoken language. Second, a number of emergent bilinguals can write better than they can read in their second language. This pattern is also found among young monolinguals. Third, some emergent bilinguals are more proficient speakers in their first language but better readers in their second language. Formal instruction in native-language literacy, or lack thereof, may play an important role in these instances. These examples highlight the tremendous diversity in the ways in which children progress and develop in their biliterate abilities.
A growing body of research suggests that the relationships between bilingual children’s languages and uses of English and Spanish within and outside of school are fluid and reciprocal. Similarly, biliteracy development is a dynamic, flexible process in which children’s transactions with two written languages mediate their language and literacy learning in both languages. Emergent bilinguals employ literacy behaviors and skills cross-linguistically and bidirectionally. In other words, bilingual readers and writers apply what is learned in one language to the other language. Bidirectionality plays an especially important role in young bilinguals, as language and literacy in the two languages develop simultaneously, and development in each language supports advances in the other language.
With continued encouragement, support, and instruction in two languages, bilingual children learn to control the writing systems of both languages. That is, if children are placed in classrooms and instructional programs where their bilingualism and biliteracy are encouraged in additive contexts, dual-language literacy can thrive. For example, in Canadian immersion programs and dual-language (or two-way immersion) programs in the United States, children develop linguistic and literacy skills, often to high degrees, in two languages at no cost to either of the languages. In contrast, in subtractive environments that threaten the status and maintenance of one of the languages, usually a minority language such as Spanish or Chinese in U.S. contexts, the development of bilingualism and biliteracy is limited and often only serves as a temporary bridge to monoliteracy in English.
Biliteracy is a complex phenomenon that requires further study. This topic is only just beginning to receive more attention from educational researchers in bilingual education, literacy research, and linguistics. Children become literate in two languages not only though acquiring and developing a set of skills or abilities but also through becoming competent in a range of practices and uses of literacy that constitute the experience of living, going to school, and being successful in a bilingual community. The growing research base in the field suggests that if children have access to and opportunities to function in both languages and writing systems, they will be more likely to maintain and continue to develop their bilingualism and biliteracy at school and beyond. As such, biliteracy offers multiple lenses through which to interpret, navigate, and negotiate the world in ways that are unique to bilinguals.
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