How do children understand texts in their second language: Sentence level, schooling, and societal factors

How do children understand texts in their second language: Sentence level, schooling, and societal factors

First Author: Xi Chen -- University of Toronto
Abstract / Summary: 

Learning to read in the second language is essential to achieving full bilingualism because successful societal participation relies on being able to speak and to read the language. This symposium presents four studies that involve English-French bilinguals, Turkish-Dutch bilinguals, Spanish-English and Portuguese-English bilinguals. Together these studies explore the factors that support reading comprehension in the second language. Intriguingly, three of these studies hone in on aspects of syntactic skill as important in the achievement of reading comprehension. These studies are important in moving beyond the word level focus of reading research; there is clearly a good deal of power in exploring the syntactic, or sentence level, in children’s reading outcomes. The final study explores how socio-economic and language backgrounds might be related to reading outcomes; here we step back from the micro linguistic level to take a broader view on the context in which children are learning to read.

Symposium Papers: 

Early reading comprehension in first and second language readers of Dutch

First Author/Chair:Liza van den Bosch -- Behavioural Science Institute – Radboud University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Eliane Segers; Ludo Verhoeven

Purpose. Already in the early stages of reading development there is considerable variation in children’s reading comprehension performance; not only for monolingual (L1) children, but also for children learning to read in their second language (L2). In this study, we aimed to gain insight into the factors that predict early reading comprehension performance and we investigated whether those factors differed across ability levels and language background.
Method. Participants were 161 second-grade children (6-8 years old) who were either monolingual Dutch children (L1 readers: n = 83) or bilingual Turkish-Dutch children (L2 readers: n = 78). Key predictors were decoding skills, vocabulary, syntactic knowledge and working memory. Furthermore, we checked whether language background (L1 vs. L2) explained unique variance in reading comprehension over and above the key predictors.
Results. Quantile regression analysis showed that the predictors of reading comprehension performance in the second grade varied as a consequence of children’s ability level rather than their language background. Decoding skills and syntactic knowledge were significant predictors across ability levels (i.e., poor, average, good), whereas vocabulary knowledge was predictive for poor comprehenders and working memory for good comprehenders. Language background did not explain unique variance in reading comprehension across ability levels.
Conclusions. Our results suggest that universal principles apply to the prediction of early reading comprehension performance in L1 and L2 readers. In order to identify and remedy reading comprehension problems at an early stage, not language background but oral language skills, in particular vocabulary knowledge, should be considered.

Learning to read in a second language: The role of syntactic awareness in the reading development of children in French immersion

First Author/Chair:Tamara Duncan -- Dalhousie University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Juwairia Sohail; Xi Chen; Hélène Deacon

Purpose: Many children attend school in a second language (L2) and thus learn to read in a language that they are still acquiring (e.g., Cummins, 2000). In contrast, monolingual children have a foundation in that language. For monolingual children, metalinguistic skills, including syntactic awareness, are intricately linked to the development of reading comprehension (e.g., Deacon & Kieffer, 2017). For children learning to read through the L2, the nature of the relationship between metalinguistic skills and reading comprehension is less clear (e.g., Armand, 2000; Low & Siegel, 2005). To further our understanding of L2 reading development, this study details the relationship between first and second language syntactic awareness and L2 reading comprehension.

Method: Participants were 146 first grade, non-francophone children who were being educated in French through an immersion program. Children completed cognitive, language, and reading measures. To assess syntactic awareness, a syntactic error correction task was administered in each language.

Results: After controlling for non-verbal reasoning skills, phonological awareness, L2 vocabulary and L2 word identification, hierarchical linear regression modelling revealed a significant relationship between L1 (English) Syntactic Awareness (p = 0.02), but not L2 (French) syntactic awareness (p = 0.16), and L2 reading comprehension.

Conclusion: Our results highlight that children draw on their established metalinguistic skills from their first language to learn to read in a L2. As such, this study contributes to ongoing discussions about general cognitive and linguistic mechanisms that operate across languages to facilitate biliteracy development.

Cross-language transfer of syntactic awareness in French immersion children

First Author/Chair:Diana Burchell -- University of Toronto
Additional authors/chairs: 
Catherine Mimeau; Hélène Deacon; Xi Chen

Purpose: French and English have grammatical structures which are common to both languages as well as structures which are not shared. This study aims to examine cross-language transfer of syntactic awareness in emergent English-French bilinguals enrolled in early French immersion programs. Specifically, we explore whether awareness of language shared and language unique syntactic structures in English and French will transfer to the other language.
Method: Participants included 122 grade two children enrolled in early French immersion programs. English and French grammaticality repetition measures were designed that consisted of both shared syntactic structures across the two languages and structures unique to each. These measures were administered alongside a battery of language and literacy measures including nonverbal reasoning, phonological awareness, word reading, vocabulary and reading comprehension in both English and French.
Results: Preliminary results showed that children performed better on the items tapping structures that are common between French and English when the syntactic awareness measure was given in English. There was also evidence that both types of items (shared and unique) were correlated across English and French. We will perform regression analyses to examine whether syntactic awareness in one language will contribute to reading comprehension in the other language after controlling for within language phonological awareness, word reading and vocabulary.
Conclusions: These results have two primary implications for reading comprehension: 1) Acquisition of French as a second language strengthens syntactic awareness in English, especially for structures that are present in both languages. 2) Children transfer syntactic skills between English and French.

Education as the Great Equalizer: Some good news for a change

First Author/Chair:Alexandra Gottardo -- Wilfrid Laurier University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Aline Ferreira; John Schwieter

Purpose: Much has been said about the equalizing nature of public education to mitigate experiences for low versus mid- socio-economic status (SES) students (Alexander, Entwisle & Olson, 2007; Kim & White, 2011). The role of schooling should be particularly important for second language learners who have less practice with English outside of school. However, most studies report failures of the school system to achieve the goal of equality (Kim & Guryan, 2010).
Method: This study examined the English performance of students (8 – 13 years) in three groups: Portuguese heritage speakers (N = 20) and Spanish first language speakers (N = 24) who had received all of their education in Canada and Spanish L1 speakers who were recent immigrants (N = 25). Groups were compared on raw and standard scores on measures of English word reading, phonological awareness, rapid naming, receptive vocabulary and expressive vocabulary.
Results: For the two Spanish-speaking groups average parental had education was an undergraduate degree. The mean education level of the Portuguese-speaking parents was significantly lower than the Spanish-speaking parents, Scheffé F = 1.74, p < .01. For the measures, the groups only differed on raw scores on phonological awareness, F = 3.14, p < .05, and expressive vocabulary, F = 3.41, p < .05. The Portuguese speakers had lower scores on phonological awareness, while the recent Spanish-speaking immigrants had lower scores on expressive vocabulary.
Conclusions: Despite differences in SES (low SES Portuguese) and L2 status (recent Spanish immigrants), the groups were similar on most English measures.


First Author/Chair:Hélène Deacon DISCUSSANT -- Dalhousie University

The four studies here enable us to zoom in and to zoom out on just how children achieve reading comprehension in a second language. We do so through four studies conducted at diverse ages and schooling contexts, ranging from 6 to 13 years and from immersion to immigrant learning contexts. The first study identifies the potency of syntactic awareness and word decoding, out of a large set of predictors, as critical in reading comprehension in Dutch. Notably, these factors are consistent across first and second language readers of Dutch, with variability emerging instead from reading level. The second and third studies then delve into aspects of syntactic awareness that support second language reading comprehension; they do so in the context of children in the early grades of a French immersion program. The final study takes a broader view, stepping back to the impacts of socio-economic status and language background on the achievement of reading and related skills. Together these studies shed light on the skills that support second language reading comprehension.