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Creating Successful Learning Contexts for Bilingual Literacy

by Nancy H. Hornberger - 1990

Explores alternative ways teachers can serve linguistically and culturally diverse student populations. Two Philadelphia elementary teachers have successfully created learning contexts for bilingual literacy. This article describes ways they adapt their teaching for biliterate development and for the particular bilingual contexts and media of their program, school, community, and district. (Source: ERIC)

I want to thank M. López and L. McKinney, the two teachers who not only permitted but welcomed me into their classrooms and shared with me both the successes and the difficulties of their teaching; as well as the School District of Philadelphia and the principals of the Lea and Potter Thomas schools, John Grelis and Felicita Meléndez, who consented to the study. I am also grateful for a National Academy of Education Spencer Fellowship, which enabled me to devote full time to this research during 1989; and for the Dean’s Fellowships, the Literacy Research Center, and the Research Fund, all of the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, which provided support for graduate students to work with me on the project.

The Philadelphia School District, like other large urban school districts in the United States, serves an increasingly bilingual school population. Of the district’s nearly 200,000 students in 1989, approximately 9 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent Southeast Asian.1 The two elementary schools reported on here, each with about one thousand students, have concentrated language-minority populations: the Potter Thomas School, grades K-5, counts approximately 78 percent of its students as Hispanic (of which the vast majority are Puerto Rican); the Henry C. Lea School, grades K-8, counts about 37 percent of its students as Southeast Asian (of which the vast majority are Cambodian).2 As these and other schools seek to serve linguistically and culturally diverse student populations, teachers are confronted with a complex teaching challenge.

Such a challenge requires not one uniform solution but a repertoire of possibilities and alternatives. This article seeks to open up some of those alternatives by focusing on two teachers, in very different contexts, who appear to be successfully creating learning contexts for biliteracy—a new term designating bilingual literacy.

The two classrooms, a fourth/fifth grade at Potter Thomas and a fourth grade at Lea, are situated in widely disparate communities, within different types of programs, and the particular languages involved contrast in a number of ways thought to be relevant to the development of biliteracy; yet in both classes, language-minority children appear to be successfully becoming biliterate. This article asks what the teachers do that permit this.3

Many of the things these two teachers do could simply be characterized as “good teaching” anywhere, not just for linguistic-minority children, and not just for biliteracy. However, although good teaching in these classrooms may look a lot like good teaching anywhere, it actually reflects sensitivity to a wide range of factors unique to these classrooms. Specifically, then, I will try to identify the things these teachers do that go beyond good teaching to be good teaching for bilingual literacy.

Lee Shulman has argued that pedagogical excellence must be defined by a model that goes beyond a set of globally effective teaching skills considered without reference to the adequacy or accuracy of the content being taught, the classroom context, characteristics of the students, and the accomplishment of purposes not assessed on standardized tests.4 I will try here to contribute to our understanding of pedagogical excellence by providing a description of the content- and context-specific ways these two elementary teachers teach for linguistic-minority children’s biliterate development. Here, the content is the children’s second language and literacy; and the context will be discussed in terms of four themes drawn from the literatures on bilingualism, literacy, second- and foreign-language teaching, and the teaching of reading and writing, and which identify critical aspects of contexts for teaching for biliteracy: motivation, purpose, text, and interaction.5

The description focuses not only on the similarities but also on the differences in the ways these teachers teach. Significantly for a discussion of biliterate development, one classroom uses both of the children’s languages as media of instruction, while the other uses only their second language. As a “believer” in bilingual education and the value of students’ being able to develop and apply their first-language literacy skills in their acquisition of second-language literacy, I was perplexed over the fact that the Cambodian children appeared to be thriving despite the fact that they were not receiving any instruction in their first language. Clearly, however, they are also involved in biliterate development, because they read and write in their first language at home and in their community. I therefore also ask what the things are that the teacher in the monolingual instructional setting does for students’ biliterate development that appear to compensate for the lack of first-language instruction in school.

The term biliteracy refers to any and all instances in which communication occurs in two (or more) languages in or around written material. An individual, a situation, and a society can all be biliterate: Each one would be an instance of biliteracy. I have recently argued that every instance of biliteracy is situated along a series of continua that define biliterate contexts (the micro-macro, oral-literate, and monolingual-bilingual continua), individual biliterate development (the reception-production, oral language-written language, and first language-second language transfer continua), and biliterate media (the simultaneous-successive exposure, similar-dissimilar structures, and convergent-divergent scripts continua).6 The more the contexts of the individuals’ learning allow them to draw on all points of the continua, the greater are the chances for their full biliterate development. Here, a learning context for biliteracy is taken to be successful to the degree that it allows children to draw on the three continua of biliterate development, that is, on both oral and written, receptive and productive, and first- and second-language skills, at any point in time.


The Puerto Rican community of North Philadelphia and the Cambodian community of West Philadelphia differ in a number of ways, most of which can be aptly summarized by John Ogbu’s argument concerning the variability among minority groups in school performance and the persistence of problems created by cultural differences for some minority groups—the involuntary minorities.7 The Puerto Rican pattern of immigration tends to be a cyclical one in which the mainland community is constantly receiving new arrivals from the island and in which individuals may alternate island and mainland residence during their lifetimes; the Cambodian pattern is one of once-for-all refugee immigration. While long-term contact with their homeland and the development of a sense of identity in opposition to the dominant culture have led to the creation of institutions in the Puerto Rican community that foster and strengthen the maintenance of Spanish language and literacy, in the Cambodian community no such institutions have (yet) evolved.8

The program at Potter Thomas School has been since 1969 a two-way maintenance bilingual program in Spanish and English: Spanish-speaking children learn English while maintaining their Spanish (the Latino stream), and English-speaking children learn Spanish while maintaining their English (the Anglo stream). This program, which belongs to the enrichment model of bilingual education, is unique in Philadelphia and rare in the United States.9 In it, both languages are developed beginning in kindergarten and through fifth grade at the school, and both languages and literacies are used for subject matter instruction. In contrast, the program at Lea School, which has arisen over the last decade in response to the influx of Southeast Asian children into the school, pays no explicit attention to the Cambodian children’s first language and literacy, but rather mainstreams them into their second language by means of a pull-out ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program.10

The two classrooms described here contrast sharply in terms of their populations. While the Anglo and Latino streams, the Spanish and English reading cycle structure, and the bilingual teaching staff at the Potter Thomas School yield up classrooms that are relatively homogeneous as to linguistic and cultural background, the classrooms at Lea School are linguistically and culturally more heterogeneous. M. Lopez, who came to mainland United States from Puerto Rico at age eight, teaches reading to classes of approximately twenty-five students, all of Puerto Rican background. In contrast, L. McKinney, a third-generation Italian immigrant, teaches reading to approximately twenty-eight students, of whom eleven are Southeast Asian (nine Cambodian, one Vietnamese, one Vietnamese-Laotian), sixteen African-American, and one Ethiopian.

Though community, program, and classroom contexts differ for the two teachers, they share the context of the various policies and guidelines that govern all public schools in the district. Grade assignment guidelines that assign children to grade by age regardless of level of English or achievement mean that both teachers’ classes encompass a wide range of English and academic abilities. Citywide and state-mandated testing has consequences for students’ promotion to the next grade and their participation in Chapter 1 and TELLS programs.11 Grading guidelines dictate that a student reading below grade level cannot receive a grade higher than C and those reading on grade level cannot receive a grade higher than B. The standardized curriculum assigns goals and objectives for every curriculum area, for every grade, for every school in the district. Both the standardized curriculum and the grading guidelines create indirect pressure for schools and teachers to use basal reading series for reading instruction, and in fact, in both these cases, the teachers feel that they really have no autonomous choice about the basals.

The foregoing paragraphs describe differences and similarities between the two classrooms across the three continua of biliterate contexts: macro-micro, oral-literate, and monolingual-bilingual. As for the continua of biliterate media, the two classrooms differ on all three. The Spanish language and its writing system are relatively similar to English: Both are Indo-European languages and both use the Roman alphabet. In contrast, the structure of the Khmer language (especially in terms of its phonology, syllable structure, and syntax) and its script, which is derived from Sanskrit, are markedly different from English. Furthermore, whereas the Puerto Rican children in Potter Thomas School are acquiring literacy in both languages simultaneously, those Cambodian children at Lea School who are acquiring Khmer literacy are most likely doing so before or after English literacy, rather than simultaneously with it.

The classrooms are alike, then, in that the linguistic minority children in them are developing biliteracy. They differ, however, in the degree to which the linguistic minority community and the school program support the maintenance of bilingual literacy, the students and teacher share linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and the two languages and scripts are similar or divergent and simultaneously or successively acquired by the students.


What do the two teachers do to create successful learning contexts for their students’ biliterate development? Four themes identifying critical aspects of contexts for teaching for biliteracy—motivation, purpose, text, and interaction—must be considered to answer this question.


Both teachers make membership in the classroom community desirable through affective and experiential bonds while at the same time maintaining the successful execution of literacy tasks as the criterion for membership. In both classrooms, the teachers explicitly include themselves in the community; for example, they share personal anecdotes with their students and hold themselves accountable to them for their own absences.

Yet the basis for the classroom community is entirely different in the two classrooms. Lopez builds on a shared cultural background with her class in ways that are oftentimes probably not even apparent. For example, she brings four stuffed dolls to school one day because they are so appealing to her; she sets them up at the front of the room, and in response to students’ requests and on condition of their completing their assignments, lets them borrow the dolls for brief periods in order to, as she tells me, “help them be children; they’re too grown up.” Both the open display of tenderness and affection and the motherly concern for the children are expressions of the warm human caring that particularly characterizes Puerto Ricans.

McKinney does not share a common cultural and linguistic background with her students, but makes up for that by creating classroom-based shared experiences. One way she does this is the annual camp trip she and another teacher take their classes on for three days in May. Throughout the year, she refers frequently to the future camp trip, linking class activities to what they will do, see, and experience at camp—for example, camp buildings and natural features were the reference points for a map lesson in social studies. The students participate in a candy sale to raise money for the trip. Students who present consistent behavior problems are warned, and, if necessary, excluded from the trip. She works conscientiously, often with the help of the home-school coordinator, to convince parents that their children will benefit from the trip and be well supervised, and is genuinely sorry that each year there are a few parents who will not give permission for their children (usually girls) to go. Furthermore, she makes every effort to assure that no child will be excluded because of lack of ability to pay the $30 contribution asked of each child (toward a $50 per child cost).

Another way she creates classroom-based shared experience is the games in which she participates with the students. One of the most popular is a panel game modeled on a television quiz show. The panel game exemplifies both important aspects of membership in the communities these teachers create. Not only is membership made desirable through affective/experiential bonds, but membership is made dependent on the successful execution of literacy tasks. The questions used in the game are comprehensive review questions composed by the teacher and covering social studies, math, and language arts lessons from the preceding weeks.

Aside from creating a desirable, literacy-based classroom community, the other major way these teachers build their students’ motivation is through taking an interest in and holding accountable each individual as an individual. This individual attention to each student’s ability, activities, and current status achieves the double purpose of demonstrating the teacher’s concern for that student and at the same time making clear her expectation that each and every student participate fully.

In these two classrooms, this good teaching practice requires the teachers to be attentive to specific community, program, and classroom characteristics. For Lopez, this requires accommodation to the high classroom population turnover rate that is a concomitant of the cyclical immigration pattern mentioned earlier: Aside from the new students the school registers at the beginning of each year, many more arrive and leave during the school year. For the 1986-1987 school year, for example, records show 198 admits and 235 dismissals for Potter Thomas School.12 At the classroom level, this means that students come and go throughout the year. For example, one student arrives in early March for his first day in Lopez’s class; he has just come to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico and knows neither English nor the routines of an American classroom. Lopez finds him a place and a desk, introduces him to the class and has students introduce themselves to him, points out to him the two other students who arrived from Puerto Rico during the year, and explains to him about the activity students are working on at that moment, journal writing. That day, and every day thereafter, she tries to bear in mind his particular linguistic and cultural needs, even while attending as well to the needs of all her other students.

For McKinney, this attention to individuals requires keeping track of which ESOL students have been pulled out for which ESOL class at which time. For example, she arranges for ESOL children in her class to be excused from ESOL to attend the special Settlement Music School assembly program with the rest of their classmates; or for them to copy an outline from the board, to make up a social studies test, and to go down and get their library books, all missed because of ESOL. This configuration is further complicated by the fact that different segments of both ESOL and non-ESOL students are also regrouped for Chapter 1 and TELLS instruction apart from the rest of the class at different times during the week.

At its best, the teacher’s ability to focus on individuals makes it possible for each individual to experience a coherent learning activity in the context of a group lesson. Consider the experience of one student as McKinney works with her group using Increasing Comprehension.13 When the students take turns reading aloud, this girl reads the second paragraph. After all three paragraphs have been read, McKinney asks which sentence in each paragraph is similar to the “main idea sentence” given in the exercises. The student volunteers at her paragraph, “I got it,” and reads, “It is its lung that makes this one-foot-long fish different from other fish” from the story, to justify “It is its lung that makes the walking catfish different” as the sentence expressing the paragraph’s main idea. Despite the fact that several student turns intervened between her original reading and her answer to the main idea question, she has the opportunity to successfully answer the question relating to the paragraph she originally read. Her experience epitomizes the way motivation works in these classrooms: As an individual she is held accountable and given opportunity to successfully execute the literacy task; and as a member of the classroom community she values, she wants to do so.


These two teachers establish both broadly social and more narrowly task-focused purposes for their students’ biliterate development. As to broad social purpose, there is a contrast between the two teachers in their approach to the students’ non-English linguistic and cultural identities. Lopez feels her identity to be primarily American, despite having spent her early childhood in Puerto Rico, and having attended Spanish church and studied Spanish in high school in mainland United States; she attributes this American identity in part to the fact that she never lived in a Hispanic neighborhood and her father did not allow Spanish to be spoken at home. Nevertheless, regardless of her own sense of identity, she explicitly states that the important thing at Potter Thomas is for the teacher to accept students where they are—whether they prefer Spanish or English, or want to identify with the Puerto Rican or the American culture. That is, she leaves open the option for maintenance of either or both languages and cultures by her students. Her bilingual/bicultural maintenance approach is congruent with the school’s two-way maintenance bilingual education program and the community’s institutional support for literacy and culture in Spanish as well as English.

In contrast, McKinney notes that although she does not want the Cambodian children to lose their culture, she sees it happening, just as it happened in her own family’s history. While she is appreciative of linguistic and cultural diversity, she tends to see it as a contribution to a “mix.” She is cognizant of unique aspects of the Cambodians’ language and culture—for example, an American-born student gives evidence of his teacher’s awareness when, on being frustrated because a Cambodian child keeps saying “wolleyball” instead of “volleyball,” he finally remembers that his teacher told him they do not have v in their language.

Although McKinney is aware of their different language and culture, at the same time she intentionally mixes Southeast Asian and non-Southeast Asian students at their work tables and does not seem enthusiastic about the Cambodians’ using their language in class. She says that last year her all-Cambodian pre-primer group would at times speak Khmer among themselves—at which she would admonish them, “Hey, wait a minute! I don’t know what you’re saying.” Her tolerant assimilation approach is congruent with the school’s pull-out ESOL/ mainstream program and the community’s relative lack of institutional support for literacy in Khmer.

At the level of task-focused purpose, the two classrooms are quite similar in many ways. In both classrooms, tasks are clearly defined, teacher correction is focused on the task and includes teacher acknowledgement of her own mistakes, and the teacher continuously adapts the definition of the task to the immediate situation. All of these are good teaching practices. What is of interest here, however, is the ways in which the teachers’ task definitions, corrections, and adaptations reflect responsiveness to the particular configuration of biliterate contexts, media, and development in any one situation in their classrooms, and the contrasts between the two classrooms.

For example, Lopez corrects a child for using English during Spanish reading, not because she cannot understand but because the present task (Spanish vocabulary introduction) requires the use of Spanish. At other moments of the same lesson, the teacher encourages use of one language to aid development of the other (see Interaction discussion below).

In McKinney’s classroom, where Cambodian children are becoming literate in their second language without recourse to their first, it is significant that her corrections of students’ oral reading and of their writing emphasizes meaning rather than phonological or grammatical form (her approach to her students’ use of black English vernacular is similar). For example, one student reads a paragraph from Increasing Comprehension fluently, but substitutes “Joe’s” for “Joseph’s” and “train track” for “railroad track.” McKinney does not correct these, and the child goes on to answer the multiple-choice comprehension question correctly. Three students get full credit on their homework sentences despite grammatical errors such as: “I am skater with my sister”; “I’m reading a book call Peter Pan”; “The winner has win again.”

Such instances are consistent with McKinney’s expressed approach to student writing. In correcting written work, she says, she looks for complete sentences and for answering the question, but does not pay too much attention to spelling; for creative writing, especially, she prefers not to grade at all since it is not done for grammar or spelling, but for the expression of ideas.

This emphasis on meaning over form is also reflected in her adaptation of tasks to the situation. In a lesson based on a reading about Native Americans, she adapts to the ambiguity in an exercise involving fill-in-the-blank sentences followed by a word-search puzzle: As she notices that in more than one case the sentence can be meaningfully filled by more than one word, she tells the class she will accept an answer if it makes sense, even if it is not the one she is looking for, but that they should be aware that they may not find that word on the word search.

In Lopez’s classroom, the bilingual maintenance purpose is reflected in attention to the allocation of use of the two languages. In McKinney’s classroom, the tolerant assimilation purpose is reflected in greater attention to the meanings expressed by the children than to the form in which they express them.


As noted above, both teachers feel constrained to use basal reading series. Such texts can be used in narrow and limiting ways; yet these teachers not only use them in more open and challenging ways, but they also seek to expose their students to genres in addition to those in the basal readers and workbooks.

For example, Lopez reads aloud a short biography of Luis Muñóz Marin to her class, one of several short biographies she reads over the course of the year.14 Her room, as well as the Potter Thomas School library, is stocked with books in both Spanish and English, for students to read and do book reports on.

While the variety in Lopez’s classroom derives primarily from exposure to both first- and second-language texts, in McKinney’s classroom it derives primarily from a wide exposure to both oral and written texts, and both receptive and productive interaction. She says, “Reading is very important to me, and I want the kids to feel that reading is enjoyable, not just a burden.” There are a lot of books and magazines in this classroom, including a well-stocked and well-organized library, complete with card catalog, designated librarians, and borrowing rules. The library collection encompasses fantasy, adventure, biography, and social studies and science reference works.

Every day in the twenty-five minutes between recess and lunchtime, McKinney reads aloud to the class. During this time, she reads books of her own choice that she liked as a child or that she has found to be good, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. To a certain degree, she follows the sequence of genres indicated in the district curriculum guide, but her main goal is for the children to “like being read to.” There are variations on the story time. Sometimes she will read a story brought in by a student (e.g., The Lost Prince: A Droid Adventure). Toward the end of the year, the students themselves each choose, practice, and read a story to their classmates.

She gives the students an opportunity to gauge their oral reading of a story in their reading group at least once during the year, by taping and playing back their reading. “I explain in the beginning that this is . . . a learning tool, that it’s something that we’re not making fun of each other. We all sound pretty bad when it comes down to it. . . . But you want to really be able to say, ‘What is it that I have done wrong?’ And somebody else might be able to pick something up that you didn’t, and, . . . it’s what we call constructive criticism.”

Each year, basal readers are put aside for a couple of weeks and the children read book-length stories. McKinney tries to “bring out . . . what an author puts into writing a book . . . and that language is very important. Like in the Ghost of Windy Hill [by Clyde Robert Bulla], we point out all the dark language that’s in the story, and events that are leading up to, foreshadowing (I’m a frustrated English major). Why is this person in the story? Why did this happen? And why didn’t the author tell you this? . . . So it’s a great way to—like a short story is hard to get children to get into it as much.”

In writing, students explore a variety of genres, including autobiography, personal letters, poems, and fantasy stories. In providing for her students’ exposure to a wide range of genres and to opportunities to listen, discuss, read aloud and silently, and write across those genres, McKinney is cognizant of the fact that different students in her class are at different points along the continua of biliterate development. For example, she notes that the written work of one student is much better than her oral reading or her speaking, which are barely intelligible. The writing sometimes takes her by surprise, she says, because it does not seem the student could have understood so well.

In Lopez’s class, there is not such a variety of oral and written texts and receptive and productive interactions as in McKinney’s class; the variety of genres lies instead along the first language-second language continuum. It seems that, because of the interconnectedness of the developmental continua of biliteracy, a particularly rich environment along one or two of the continua may make up for poverty with respect to another.15


In both classes, interaction with and around texts is characterized by opportunities for a range of participant structures; the activation of prior knowledge; and the development of strategies for signaling understanding of text, analyzing features of text, and reasoning about text.16 All of these are good teaching practices. Yet, differences between the two classrooms in their interactions around text point to options that go beyond what is simply good teaching to what is good teaching for biliterate development.

Small-group peer interaction occurs differently in the two classrooms. In Lopez’s classroom, there is a complex desk arrangement that yields approximately four group areas of seven to eight desks each (in either two rows or a three-sided rectangle), as well as some individually situated desks; and there are at least three different seating patterns for the children, one each for Spanish reading, English reading, and homeroom periods. Within these groups, when the students are not working with the teacher, there is a certain amount of peer interaction, which seems to be neither encouraged nor discouraged by the teacher. Both the students’ initiation of peer interaction and the teacher’s permission of it seem to me to be congruent with a culture that values social relationships and mutual support and cooperation.

This is somewhat different from the peer interaction in McKinney’s class, which appears to be both planned and tightly controlled. The children are seated at nine work-table areas (created by pushing four desks together) and do a minimum of moving around. Rather, the teacher comes to them when she wants to work with, for example, a reading group made up of two or three adjacent work tables. She encourages the children to interact with the others at their work table, and distinguishes between “busy noise,” which is directed noise, evidence that students are working, and “noisy noise,” which is not. Yet she also specifies when such interaction should and should not occur. Thirty minutes into the children’s writing of fantasies, she tells them, “Let someone at your table read your story and see if they understand it.” On another occasion, she tells three students, “Sometimes you girls help each other and that’s OK sometimes, but sometimes you have to get it yourself.”

The two teachers differ as well in the degree to which they emphasize classroom-based or community-based prior knowledge. Lopez does of course draw on concepts developed or topics discussed in previous lessons in the course of any particular lesson, but far more characteristic are her frequent appeals to students’ knowledge from outside the class or the school. For example, during Spanish reading, she draws the students out on whether they like and how they prepare pulpo (octopus, apparently a favorite Puerto Rican delicacy) in order to introduce the word marino (marine); in a discussion of President Reagan’s overnight decision to send American soldiers to Honduras, she includes a student’s volunteered news that his tio (uncle) was called to go; and she clarifies the name of a stone, yunque, by identifying it as the same name as the mountain in Puerto Rico. During English reading, too, she draws on students’ community-based knowledge: in order to define sift, she elaborates on “Mom” making a cake and on preparing rice for cooking by sifting out the stones; to define ancestors, she provides a brief exposition of the source of the three ancestral heritages—European, Indian, and African—that make up Puerto Rico; and in discussing interview, she encourages a discussion of the interviews several of the students had had a few weeks earlier to go to Conwell Middle Magnet School next year.

An area of prior knowledge that in a sense represents a combination of classroom-based and community-based knowledge is the students’ knowledge of the other language, and Lopez frequently draws on this. Direct translation is a convenient means of rapid identification: In reviewing English vocabulary, at the word ledge, she asks, “What’s the Spanish for that?” and a student replies lecho. Similarly, she assists the students to draw on school-community language resources when their own knowledge falls short; indeed, she models this strategy for them. In compiling a list of the capitals, languages, and nationalities of the South American countries, she is uncertain of the name in Spanish for Bolivian and Paraguayan nationalities, and sends a student to ask one of the Spanish teachers for these terms. A corollary to this explicit drawing on community language resources is the acceptance of both languages in the communication of information. When the Spanish reading class needs to refer to a map, and the map happens to be in English, that is not seen as an obstacle to the communication of the necessary information—in this case, identification of the oceans, continents, and countries. The children bring with them a wealth of knowledge from their experience at home and in the community, and their knowledge of two languages, and she takes advantage of her shared linguistic/cultural background to exploit that wealth.

In contrast, McKinney is not able to exploit a common reservoir of community-based knowledge, but compensates for that by emphasizing the students’ classroom-based prior knowledge. She does of course draw on their experience outside the classroom and school. Far more characteristic, however, are her frequent appeals, usually through display questions, to students’ knowledge from previous lessons or shared class experiences. She may encourage students to connect across stories: A story about Pablo Picasso includes a picture of his painting Harlequin and she reminds the full group of an earlier story they read about a harlequin. She may seek connections across reading groups as well—after the full group composes a new stanza for the poem “Over in the Meadow,” she jokes with the rhymes group that this stanza is “almost as good as the one you did, Rhymes.”17 She draws on shared class experience in discussing vocabulary: For the word exhibit, she refers to class trips to the Academy of Natural Science, the zoo, and the art museum; for meadow and camper, she ties discussion to their future camp trip; and for germ, she discusses the flu going around the class and school.

Perhaps most representative of her activation/reinforcement of students’ classroom-based prior knowledge are her “remember” statements: “Remember I said English is hard because when you learn a rule, you have to learn five more that have broken it”; “Remember I want you to get a little more independent. Read the directions yourselves”; “Remember we talked about the main sentence in the paragraph in our workbooks? What sentence usually tells us what the main idea of the paragraph is?” Indeed, McKinney insists that remembering is the sign of learning: “You learn something, you remember it. If you learn something and forget it, you haven’t really learned it.”

Finally the two teachers differ in their approach to the development of students’ strategies for interacting with text. Both teachers encourage their students to signal understanding through such moves as defining word meanings, identifying the main idea in paragraphs, and following a story line as it unfolds; to analyze features of the texts they read, ranging from minimal units such as letters, sounds, morphemes, or words to sentence-level features such as punctuation and complete thoughts to discourse-level features such as title information, the structure of paragraphs, main characters, author’s purpose, and genre; and to reason about the texts they read by exploring alternative interpretations and expressions in text and by inferring, guessing, and predicting from text. The teachers seek to develop these strategies by pointing out features or giving definitions and rules, or asking the students to do so. Yet there is a difference in the way the two teachers do this. Whereas Lopez’s approach is characterized by helping her students “connect and transfer” across languages, McKinney’s is characterized by her insistence on precision at all times.

When I asked Lopez about her approach to teaching reading and writing, she said, “I don’t know any name for it, but I think of it as just adding to the pile. I try to get the kids to connect and transfer. I’ve noticed, I guess, language is language; the skills are almost the same; for example, prefixes, outlines.” Here, “adding to the pile” refers to drawing on and building on prior knowledge, while “connect and transfer” refers to helping students make explicit connections across their two languages.

Thus, Lopez encourages her students to signal understanding through translation. We have already seen how students sometimes define words through translation into the other language. She also encourages students to analyze features across languages. As one student unsuccessfully looks up disolvieron (they dissolved [it]) in the dictionary, she elicits from the class the fact that one needs to take off the suffix to get the root word, and makes an explicit connection between analyzing suffixes in Spanish and in English. Finally, she encourages students to reason across languages. For example, she explains the difference between fact (“I can see it, hear it, touch it”) and opinion (“I think”) and has students judge whether particular sentences express fact or opinion, assigning this kind of task for both Spanish and English.

McKinney encourages students to signal understanding, analyze features of text, and reason about text in very similar ways, but whereas Lopez emphasizes the connections between two languages, McKinney emphasizes precision in one. As children signal understanding by giving definitions or answering comprehension questions, their answers must be precise. For example, McKinney does not accept “to sweep” as a definition of “broom” because “it tells me what you can do with it, but it doesn’t tell me what it is”; nor “a screw” as a definition of “tool” because “it is a type of tool, but not a definition.” The following interchange exemplifies both the type of question and the type of response expected as she guides students toward being able to signal understanding of a story as it unfolds:










In chapter 6, Mr. Arden gets very angry with Bob. Why?

He goes into Mr. Arden’s library.

Why did Bob go in?

He wanted to read a book.


He wanted to find out what was in back.


The door was open.


The same precision is required in analyzing features of text. Spoon is not acceptable as a word with the same sound pattern as room; “apostrophe s” is not acceptable as the mark of contractions and possessives since “there’s not always an s”; and a definition of a homonym as “same word, different meaning,” clarified as “same spelling, different meaning,” is not acceptable since “the important thing is ‘sound the same,’ even though they’re spelt [sic] differently in most cases.” Complete sentences are often required in oral answers (“Who was the man that was responsible? Try to answer me with a good sentence.”), and always in students’ written work.

Finally, she requires precision as students reason about text. She guides them toward precision in their reasoning about alternative word meanings: Not only a book, but also a person can be “firm”; the suffix “-er” can be used to compare things (e.g., “bigger”) as well as to mean “one who does”; “center” means not only “the middle” but also “building,” as in “health center”; and you cannot always tell the meaning of compound words by taking them apart—for example, though “a blueberry is a berry that is blue, a strawberry is not a berry that is straw.”

As students choose, in succession, each of the live sentences of the following paragraph as the main idea, she guides them toward the correct response (sentence 2), but at the same time does not deny the “main ideaness” of their responses, since in this case all the sentences seem to carry only part of the main idea:

Most zoos keep the animals in special pens, or fenced-in areas. But there is another kind of zoo. This kind of zoo lets the animals go free and puts the people in cages! These zoos put all the animals in a big park. The visitors can see the animals from their car or from a bus or train.

As she guides students to infer, guess, or predict from text, the goal of precision remains whether they are inferring at the level of grammar, vocabulary, or discourse:

Look at these words [it’s, its]. One’s a contraction, one’s a possessive. Remember I told you there are some possessives that don’t use an apostrophe—pronouns; so which one of these is the contraction? You should know the answer from what I just said.

I’m not going to tell you what “flummoxed” means, you’ll have to figure it out from the story.” [After reading the story “The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies” to the class, she guides students through some of the of the things that the woman did, to elicit the meaning “tricked” for “flummoxed.”]

In the following dialogue, McKinney guides Tyjae and the other students to infer exactly why Bob, the character in the story they are reading, justifies continuing to work for a man whom he has begun to suspect of doing something illegal.




Why does Bob say, “Oh, he’s rich, he won’t break the law”? Can’t rich people break the law?”

Rich people can do anything they want to cause they have money.

Sometimes it can seem that way. . . . Does Bob want the job? Why? [She elicits the idea that he wants to keep the job because he is making good money, and therefore does not want to admit that there might be something wrong.] So in a way, Bob is trying to make himself feel good.


The two elementary teachers reported on here adapt their teaching for their students’ biliterate development, and, specifically, for the particular biliterate contexts and media of their program, school, community, and school district. Both teachers have found ways to create successful learning contexts for biliteracy for the students in their classrooms, but these contexts are both similar and different.

Both teachers build motivation in their students by creating a classroom community in which membership is made desirable through affective/experiential bonds and simultaneously is dependent on the successful execution of literacy tasks. Yet, whereas López builds those bonds on a shared linguistic and cultural background with her students, McKinney builds them by creating classroom-based shared experience. Both teachers take an interest in and hold accountable each individual in the classroom community. For Lopez, this requires accommodation to a high classroom population turnover while for McKinney it requires accommodation to a complex multilayered pull-out structure.

Both teachers build meaningful purpose in their students by keeping them focused on literacy tasks that are clearly defined and suited to the immediate situation, and at the same time embody a broad social purpose that is congruent with the program and community context. Yet whereas Lopez, the Potter Thomas two-way maintenance program, and the Puerto Rican community share a broad bilingual/bicultural maintenance purpose, reflected in attention to the allocation of use of the two languages in literacy tasks, McKinney, the Lea School ESOL pull-out program, and the Cambodian community share a broadly tolerant assimilationist purpose, reflected in more attention to meaning than form in literacy tasks.

Both teachers build their students’ exposure to a variety of texts. Yet whereas the strength of Lopez’s approach is the inclusion of both first- and second-language texts, the strength of McKinney’s is the inclusion of opportunity for oral and written, receptive and productive interaction with a wide range of genres.

Both teachers build students’ interaction with text by taking advantage of a variety of participant structures, drawing on students’ prior knowledge, and developing students’ strategies for signaling understanding of text, analyzing features of text, and reasoning about text. Lopez allows small-group peer interaction to occur spontaneously and asystematically as a natural outgrowth of shared cultural values, emphasizes her students’ community-based prior knowledge, and seeks to help her students to “connect and transfer” strategies across languages. McKinney structures small-group peer interaction more carefully, emphasizes her students’ classroom-based prior knowledge, and builds her students’ strategy use by insistence on precision at all times.

Michéle Foster has recently noted that “we have little empirical evidence that documents what takes place when teachers and students share a common cultural background which positively affects classroom interaction.”18 Patricia Nichols has suggested that while it is undoubtedly true that “teachers teach from within their own cultural traditions,” it is also possible for teachers to adopt a “ ‘double perspective’ . . . which requires [them] to understand . . . the limitations of their own cultural perspectives and to appreciate separate ways of understanding and shaping the world.”19

Lopez’s teaching provides evidence of the positive effects that a shared linguistic and cultural background can bring to the teaching of bilingual literacy. On the other hand, McKinney’s teaching seems to exemplify a double perspective that allows space for Cambodian children to draw on their own linguistic and cultural backgrounds within a learning context that is situated squarely in a second language and culture.

Both teachers have found ways to build their students’ biliterate development. The differences between the two teachers’ approaches point primarily to the degree to which community-based knowledge and experience, the development of students’ first-language literacy, and goals for bilingual/bicultural maintenance are incorporated into the students’ learning. These are not negligible differences. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in the highly complex, increasingly multicultural environments in which our schools are situated, we will need to allow for the greatest possible range of approaches for teaching for biliteracy, among them both of those discussed here.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 92 Number 2, 1990, p. 212-229
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 309, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:36:48 PM

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  • Nancy Hornberger
    University of Pennsylvania

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