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Research to date on the cognitive aspects of how children acquire literacy and content area knowledge in school has yielded the following key insights:

Future successful readers typically arrive at school with a set of prior experiences and well-established skills conducive to literacy, including an understanding of literacy, abstract knowledge of the sound and structure of language, a certain level of vocabulary development, and oral connected discourse skills. In terms of English-language learners, there is considerable variability among ethnic or language groups in home literacy practices; some minimal ability to segment spoken language into phonemic units is a prerequisite to beginning to read, and bilingualism promotes this ability; English vocabulary is a primary determinant of reading comprehension; and there are positive correlations between English second-language oral proficiency and reading ability, particularly at higher grade levels, but not equally across all first-language groups.

Early instruction is impacted by lack of explicit instruction in the local orthography, absence of background knowledge and skills acquired in highly literate environments, and lack of semantic support for decoding that comes from familiarity with the words one reads. With regard to reading instruction in a second language, there is remarkably little direct relevant research.

Studies of the nature of what can be transferred from first- to second-language reading need to take into account not only the level of first-language reading, but also the level and content of the second-language reading material.

English-language learners may encounter difficulties in reading because of limited access to word meanings in English and novel rhetorical structures.

Different subjects have different core structures; there are multiple kinds of knowledge—knowledge of ideas and facts, as well as knowledge of how to do something; and prior knowledge plays a significant role in learning.

The above five conclusions suggest that literacy assessments alone are not adequate measures for understanding specific subject matter knowledge; certain disciplines may lend themselves more easily to the transfer of knowledge across languages, depending on the structure of knowledge within the domain; attention to the subject matter specificity of learning and issues surrounding different classes of knowledge suggest the difficulty of providing high-quality instruction designed for English-language learners; and the way content learned in one language is accessed in a second is of concern since depth, interconnectness, and accessibility of prior knowledge dramatically influence the processing of new information.

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