Deconstructing bilingual phonemic awareness: the case for language-specific instruction

Deconstructing bilingual phonemic awareness: the case for language-specific instruction

First Author: Emily Barnes -- Trinity College Dublin
Additional authors/chairs: 
Ailbhe Ní Chasaide; Neasa Ní Chiaráin
Keywords: Phonemic Awareness, Bilingualism, Biliteracy, Cross-linguistic, Instruction
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: This paper investigates the validity of the traditional conceptualisation of phonemic awareness (PA) as a unitary construct across bilinguals’ languages. Ireland offers a suitable linguistic context, as children in Irish (Gaelic) immersion schools, as well as Irish-medium schools in Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) regions learn to read in Irish and English.

Despite this, children do not typically receive PA training in Irish. The expectation is often that skills from English will positively transfer to Irish. This practice fosters the risk, however, that children will fail to recognise key phonemic contrasts in Irish (particularly the velarised-palatalised consonant contrasts, not present in English), preventing them from understanding Irish orthography.

Method: PA was tested with equivalent (i) word-to-word matching tasks (phoneme identification) and (ii) phoneme deletion tasks in Irish and English. Tasks were administered to 125 Grade 3 pupils (105 in immersion schools; 20 in Gaeltacht schools).

Results: Performance on phoneme deletion tasks in Irish and English were highly correlated for immersion (r=.82) and Gaeltacht pupils (r=.94). In contrast, performance on the phoneme identification task in Irish and English were only moderately correlated for immersion (r=.42) and Gaeltacht pupils (r=.49).

Performance on the phoneme identification task was significantly lower in Irish than English for immersion (p=.00) and Gaeltacht (p=.02) pupils; an error analysis indicated poor performance on velarised-palatalised consonant contrasts in both groups.

Implications: It is evident that PA has both a language-specific and metalinguistic component. The implication for dual-language literacy education is that PA should be trained in each language.