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Teaching Bilingual Students

When teaching third-grade ESL students to read, it is important to remember that these students, at their grade level, should already have some established phonemic awareness as well as print-to-sound recognition or morphophonemic awareness. The important thing is to reinforce the prior knowledge and connect it with the target skill. A third grader whose native language is Spanish should be taught the English alphabet in such a way that takes advantage of the similarities in the phonemes of the two languages.

This will be the prior knowledge where the learning will be anchored upon. As a teacher, what I am going to do is have my class recall their native alphabet as a refresher; and then I will introduce the English alphabet. From there I will have them compare the two alphabets and let them realize which sounds between the Spanish and English are similar. To accomplish this, I will then use the similar letters in words and have them come up with their own list of words that are using the same letters that have the same sound.

For example, the phoneme “a” is similar in both Spanish and English, so I will then give the words “mesa” and “apple” and have them compare the “a” in both words. They should be able to recognize the similarities in the sounds and be able to come up with their own list of words. This goes on with all the phonemes that are similar to both languages. Starting with what students know is encouraging because it gives them a sense of accomplishment early on in the lesson. This will motivate them and prepare them for the next lesson, which is being able to identify the letters that are not present in the two sets of alphabet.

For example, the “n” does not exist in English, and the students should be able to easily recognize that. Then I will drill the students on how the “n” in Spanish is different from the “n” in English by giving them a list of words to pronounce. Once the similarities have been established and the differences distinguished between the two alphabets, then I will focus on reinforcing the English alphabet and how their sounds are produced, making occasional references to the Spanish alphabet. Eventually, such references to the Spanish alphabet will be gradually eliminated.

This strategy is meant to make the third-grade students be comfortable with the target alphabet by relating them to their native alphabet. However, once the students become comfortable with the English alphabet, then the Spanish alphabet should be removed from the material. This way the students can be fluent in the English alphabet independent of the other. (Alyousef, 2005, p. 7)


Alyousef, H. (2005). Teaching Reading Comprehension to ESL/EFL teachers. The Reading Matrix. Vol. 5, No. 2. Pp 5-7.

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