CLIL - Content and Language Integrated Learning > info > Helping preschool and primary school children to develop phonemic awareness and bilingual literacy skills in the light of SLA theories

Helping preschool and primary school children to develop phonemic awareness and bilingual literacy skills in the light of SLA theories

Magdalena Sokół

Master’s degree

Affiliated Institution: Choo Choo Train Preschools, Jules Verne Primary School in Warsaw

Email address:   


Key words: SLA, bilingual(ism), literacy, skills, reading, writing, phonics


Biographic entry: Magdalena Sokół is a graduate of Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies and College of English Language Teacher Education (Warsaw University). She has passed with merit Cambridge Delta (Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) exams and worked in Spain (Barcelona) and Poland, teaching Spanish and English to students of all ages. Currently, she is a methodology director at Jules Verne Primary School and Choo Choo Train Preschools in Warsaw. She is interested in Montessori education, synthetic phonics, bilingualism and Dogme ELT.


Summary: The article gives a brief outline of some of the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) findings and their implications on bilingualism and ELT (English Language Teaching) in Choo Choo Train Pre-schools and Jules Verne Private Primary School. It consists of five parts. The first one introduces some basic information about bilingualism, our school and preschools. The second one concentrates on SLA theories and how they contribute to ELT. It also presents different groups of children that are in our institutions. Afterwards, developing phonemic awareness and bilingual literacy skills are being discussed alongside some typical learners’ problems. Finally, I present two case studies of children who have a chance to become proficient users of English, acquiring native-like pronunciation, fluency and accuracy.



My interest in developing bilingual literacy skills is both personal and professional. As a mother, I have decided to bring up my daughter bilingually, adopting OPOL (One Parent-One Language) strategy. As a teacher, teacher trainer and methodology director, I usually observe and research implications of early SLA (Second Language Acquisition) on bilingualism and ELT (English Language Teaching). The children that I know from school or preschools first learn Polish, their L1, and then at the age of three, they start learning their second language (L2), that being English. Although for the majority of them Polish is a dominant language because they are not being raised or taught bilingually, they still have a chance to become bilingual in the future.


In this article, I would like to present briefly SLA findings, some of our conclusions drawn from the foregoing, as well as English curriculum and school policy that help our children acquire bilingual literacy skills.


  1. What is bilingualism and what does it mean for us?

“Bilingualism is the use of two languages by an individual, multilingualism is the use of more than two. Bilingual users of English speak English as their second language alongside one or more other languages. This does not mean that they speak both (or all) languages equally proficiently: even an elementary student is bilingual in a sense” (Thornbury 2006: 25).

Although our school and preschools are not called “bilingual”, I strongly believe that in partnership with parents, we are able to create a language-friendly environment and together seek opportunities for bilingual literacy growth.


  1. What are some of the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) theories and how can they contribute to ELT (English Language Teaching)?

SLA is a relatively new field of study, investigating how second (or additional) languages are acquired. Its researchers draw on the findings of linguists, psychologists, neurologists and sociologist. They accept that “language acquisition is such a multidimensional phenomenon that no single SLA theory will capture its complexity” (Thornbury 2006: 203). It is essential, however, to know some recent SLA studies because they contribute to ELT (English Language Teaching). We might suggest a number of approaches compatible with current perspectives on SLA:


  • Quality and quantity of the language that the child hears, as well as the consistency of reinforcement matter and will affect the success in language learning (Lightbown, Spada 2013, Zurer Pearson 2013: 113, 207-209). In effect, it means that children should have many hours of English per week, four being a minimum number according to Marzena Żylińska, the author of “Neurodydaktyka. Nauczanie i uczenie się przyjazne mózgowi” (Toruń 2013).
  • Children need to access many samples of the natural language (caretaker talk, songs, rhymes, chants and stories) in order to develop linguistically because of their special ability to acquire languages often referred to as LAD (Language Acquisition Device) or UG (Universal Grammar) (Lightbown, Spada 2013). Some linguists infer that UG must be available to second language learners as well as to first language learners.
  • Children need to be stimulated at the right time for Universal Grammar to work. Some psycholinguists believe that the critical period (specific and limited time period for language acquisition) is to about the age of 12 (puberty). Afterwards, it is no longer available and all language learning will be more difficult and incomplete (Lightbown, Spada 2013).
  • Children need to be supported in their learning by caretakers, family and teachers (Bruner 1983). They need to interact with them. Teacher’s role should be facilitative, scaffolding learners when necessary.
  • Children will naturally pick up some of the language with no attention to form but they also need to be consciously trained in order to learn reading and writing skills (Lightbown, Spada 2013, Zurer Pearson 2013).
  • According to Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist from York University in Toronto bilingual children have more advantages when it comes to cognitive development than monolinguals. She has investigated that executive functions (working memory, attention shifting and selective attention or inhibition) work better in bilingual children.


These are the reasons why we want to promote bilingual skills and try to provide conversational give-and-take in English every day, always adjusted to children’s level of comprehension with age-appropriate and brain-friendly activities. The books that we have in our library and use in the classroom are not the ones created for second language learners. We prefer authentic or naturalistic texts because they are more interesting and more emotionally engaging for children, and thus favour “unconscious” learning of language as text. These will be the books that are usually not in children’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) in terms of decoding or understanding of the text, but we, teachers, are there to aid the learners. Texts that we choose for classroom are fairly short, “so that there can be time in the lesson for various activities and exercises that encourage learners to use the language of the text and to modify it for their own purposes” (O’Neill 1998: 27).


We continually adapt our English curriculum in order to meet the needs of our learners whose dominant language is usually Polish, and whose parents want them to be proficient readers and writers above all in Polish, and only then in English. This is why we develop phonemic awareness and phonics skills early on, in preschool, but explicitly teach phoneme-grapheme correspondences, that is “the relationship between sounds and the letters which represent those sounds” (Rose 2006: 95), and blending the phonemes to read the words only to those preschool children that already read with ease in Polish, applying Rocławski’s sliding method. We do not want to introduce English graphemes, “a letter or a group of letters representing one sound” (Rose 2006: 94), before the child masters Polish graphemes because it might be confusing for them that, for instance, the letter “j” represents completely different sounds in Polish and English.


Our preschool and school curricula are rather similar, consisting of general English lessons that include English culture and art and craft activities, phonics provision (developing phonemic awareness, expanding vocabulary and teaching blending for reading, that is decoding words and sentences that are in the zone of proximal development of a child, and synthesizing for writing), CLIL instruction with elements of science and mathematics, storytelling and library lessons with authentic texts enjoyable for young learners from authors such as Julia Donaldson, Eric Hill, Eric Carle, Mo Willems or Rod Campbell.


  • The trees that grow in our bilingual orchard

Some time ago, I read a book about raising a bilingual child(Zurer Pearson 2013) that contained a botanical metaphor I have been using ever since because I find it very useful and easy to understand for many parents. Children learning languages are compared to different types of trees, depending on the time they start learning their first and second language(s). Although “there is no single metaphor that can encompass all the metaphors that SLA has drawn on to explain how learners acquire an L2” (Ellis 1997), I would like to present this particular one in here.


  • Two separate trees: Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA)

Children who acquire two languages from birth may be compared to two separate trees growing in an orchard or a forest (Zurer Pearson 2013: 117-118). Each tree has its roots in the ground and grows separately. We do not distinguish here the first or second language (L1 or L2). Both can be the child’s first languages because they were planted at the same time (usually from birth) and if we are to expect that they grow simultaneously, we need to  provide the same amount of food to every tree. They will have separate roots, branches and fruit but, sometimes, some of the roots or branches might be inextricably intertwined and so children will tend to code-switch in the presence of people who understand both languages.


  • A fig tree: Early Second Language Acquisition (early SLA)

Children who start their second language acquisition adventure early in their lives, that is in preschool, might be compared to a fig tree that, on the one hand, has its own roots and branches, but on the other hand, it can grow on a different tree. Although, both trees are intertwined, one of them might grow considerably bigger than the other one and then we will say that one of the languages is dominant and the other just passively shaded.


  • A grafted tree: Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

Grafted trees may represent children who start learning their L2 at school. Their roots and stem belong to L1 and we can just see different fruit on the grafted branch, belonging to L2. With the passing of time however, the branch of L2 might grow significantly bigger and in certain conditions it may even overshadow L1.

Since the majority of children in our school and preschools are like fig trees, I will concentrate in this article on the analysis of this group of learners, showing some ways we can help them develop phonemic awareness and bilingual literacy skills.


  1. What is phonemic awareness and how can we develop it?

I strongly believe that developing English phonemic awareness, that is “the insight that every spoken word can be conceived as a sequence of phonemes, that are represented by the letters of an alphabet” (Rose 2006: 95), is key to understanding the logic of reading and writing. This is the reason I train our preschool and school teachers to use all sorts of engaging games, stories, songs or rhymes to introduce our preschool children to the key phonemes of the English language without referring to graphemes or the letter names. We want our children to get to know the rhythm of English words, poems and chants, which is why we explore the sounds in words throughout the course of the day’s activities, as well as in planned teacher-led sessions with groups and individual children. Simultaneously, we expand children’s vocabulary as much as possible and teach some basic grammar structures and formulaic language, that is “sequences of two or more words that operate as a single unit” (Thornbury 2006: 85) . We introduce phoneme-grapheme correspondence to preschool children who competently use the Polish alphabet, and start teaching the mechanics of blending the words for reading to children who already read well in Polish.

In our primary school, however, we teach sounds alongside graphemes, following the synthetic phonics scheme that involves learning phoneme-grapheme correspondences, blending (synthesizing) the phonemes to read words, segmenting (breaking up) the sounds in words to spell and handwriting. These core skills are essential for the larger picture of language and literacy. We want to teach phonics fast because we believe that it helps the learners become more independent language users. During the lessons, the learners are required to read decodable words and texts but they have free access to their text books and our library and may use their resources freely, even if they are beyond their alphabetic code knowledge and skills.


What else is important?

Apart from phonics, that is reading, spelling and handwriting (both in Polish and English) as well as a tripod-grip for holding the pencil, we develop syntactic structures quite fast, too. For instance, children who are seven years old start learning the past simple tense and, if they are willing, they should be ready to take the Cambridge Starters Exam (YLE Starters) (not that we promote young learners exams).

We teach grammar through guided discovery, consciousness raising and communication activities. We request for clarification and promote self-correction, but ultimately we are aware that “what is learned is controlled by the learner and not the teacher, not the textbooks, not the syllabus” (Ellis 1993: 4).

I think all of our children love storytelling time and we find this the most enjoyable and convenient time for slipping as much lexis and grammar into teaching as possible. Talking about pictures, revisiting the text, retelling the story, and even watching a film based on the book – they have all proved to be the most successful in promoting reading skills and language development. For us, it is a perfect time to work on the meaning and semantics, too.


  1. Bilingual literacy skills and learners’ problems

Bilingual literacy is the ability to read and write in two languages (Thornbury 2006: 125). In our school, we explicitly concentrate on reading and writing skills during general English classes.

We are aware that although our children have already acquired many reading or writing strategies in their L1, we need to think of them as second language learners and start building their English literacy skills from scratch.


Reading skills

In the process of reading, proficient readers deploy a range of receptive skills determined by the purpose of the task such as activating schemata, skimming or scanning. We often guess or predict the content of a text and “such pre-existent knowledge is often referred to as schema (plural schemata)” (Harmer 2001: 199).We do it in order to get the gist of a text. Nuttall (1996) compares this approach to an eagle looking down on the landscape from above. Later on, depending on the purpose of reading, we decide which parts of the text to ignore and at which we shall take a closer look, that is we use skimming and scanning strategies. I believe efficient reading requires these skills and so it is useful to teach our students to use them.By skimmingwe mean running your eyes quickly over the text to determine its gist, and by scanningrunning your eyes quickly to search for specific information (date, number, etc.) (Nuttall 1996: 49).


Although all the previously mentioned skills are familiar to learners in their native tongue (L1), they have difficulties in applying them in a foreign language (L2) (Grellet 1981: 14).


Furthermore, learners get easily discouraged when they stumble on unfamiliar words, phrases or structures, and there are a lot of them in authentic or naturalistic texts. They stop and fail to get the meaning of a sentence or paragraph or look some words up in a dictionary instead of trying to guess the meaning from the context (Grellet 1981: 16). Sometimes, however, they will read the whole passage and ask a teacher about some of the key words. We are very happy, then, because this is what we would like them to do, and how we train them. We teach them to ignore unknown lexical items by showing them that it possible to get the gist without them. Moreover, we want our learners to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar lexical items (ibid., 28), so we will not always provide a definition or a synonym in L2. Luckily, our students do not demand immediate translations to their L1, since in our school we adapted OPOL (One Parent-One Language) strategy, and English teachers use English only on the school premises and during field trips.


Writing skills

When it comes to writing, our students learn how to identify and select letter shapes, write letter shapes and spell at word level using the alphabetic code knowledge. We train them in handwriting starting with letters, diagraphs and words and then we move on into joined writing using the grammar and lexis they know. From a word level, they move to a sentence and then paragraph level. They discover that English paragraphs differ from Polish ones, and that the punctuation is different, too.


Older students learn about layout and text organization, coherence, lexical and grammatical cohesion, style and register. In a coherent text, the sequence of information allows the reader to understand the writer’s purpose, e.g. apologize and suggest compensation, and follow his line of thought (Harmer 2004: 24-25). Cohesion is “the grammatical and lexical relationship between the different elements of a text, both within a sentence and between sentences” (Richards & Schmidt 2002: 86). It makes the text “stick together” (Harmer 2004: 22).


We explicitly teach the mentioned skills, since we would like, for instance, our fourth graders to be able to write a semi-formal e-mail to their English teacher, following the standard features of semi-formal writing, starting with the greeting “Dear Mrs …” and closing with “Kind regards” and their name. We find it meaningful and useful.


Our children are usually introduced to different genre writing first in Polish and then in English, and so new habits in terms of layout and organization need to be formed. For instance, an informal letter to a friend or an e-mail to an English teacher have different formats in Polish and English, and children should know the differences.


One of the learners’ problems is that they often do not know what information they should include in particular paragraphs. For instance, they present details of a situation in the introductory paragraph, put too much information in one paragraph or scatter it across a few, which confuses the reader.


Also, they use inappropriate style and register when you ask them to write a more formal piece of writing. Sometimes, they organize their ideas illogically or unclearly because they lack cohesive devices, or their sentences are too simple and contain many grammar, vocabulary and punctuation mistakes. These writing skills problems are addressed during general English classes.


  1. Case studies.

In this passage, I would like to present two case studies of children who have a chance to become proficient users of English, acquiring native-like pronunciation, fluency and accuracy. I will try to focus my attention on various aspects of their lives for the reader to gain more insight into how different language opportunities influence children’s language acquisition.


  • Case study 1: Kuba

mother’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, English at C1/C2 level, German

father’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, English at C1/C2 level

parents towards each other: Polish

language used at home: Polish and English

language used at school: Polish and English

child’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, English at A1 level


Case study – 1 strengths weaknesses
input Both parents are Polish native speakers and proficient users of English. They sometimes speak English at home (we might consider this Minority Language at Home, mL@H). 
family Kuba’s Polish cousin lives in Ireland. When they meet, they usually speak English. 
environment Easy access to English books, films and games.  Mainly majority language is used.
attitude towards bilingualism Positive attitude in both parents. 
travelling opportunities They go abroad twice a year, during summer and winter holidays. 
preschool Choo Choo Train Preschool with early partial immersion program (or OPOL strategy) 
primary school Jules Verne Primary School: Polish school with early partial immersion program (or OPOL strategy), with many hours of English language provision (6 hours of general English, 2 hours of CLIL lessons and 1 storytelling class per week) 
learning disabilities None 
English vocabulary Wide range of vocabulary 
formulaic language Good, often used even without reminding Kuba to speak English 
grammar Good recognition and understanding  Weak spontaneous production
pronunciation Pronounces words and utterances correctly.  Polish accent
speaking skills Strong and willing to speak in and outside of the classroom. Knows many discourse markers. 
writing skills Uses some basic cohesive devices. Writes slowly, shape letters are not neat, has some problems with applying alphabetic code knowledge, and makes a lot of spelling mistakes, especially in tricky words, even when copying from the book or a board. 
reading skills A wide range of lexis and grammar helps Kuba understand a variety of texts. He is able to infer the meaning of unknown lexical items. He decodes accessible texts (i.e. those that are in his zone of proximal development) and reads many tricky words with accuracy. The pace of reading is rather fast.  Kuba has some problems with skimming and scanning, sometimes gets discouraged, especially if his friends have already finished. Often feels time pressure and although is definitely stronger than most of his friends, he does not score high in reading “tests” and might make mistakes that can later self-correct.
listening skills Very good when Kuba is attentive (but he often gets easily distracted) 
Polish writing skills  Kuba does not like writing in Polish but is not weak at writing either. 
reading skills  Kuba likes reading Polish books. At school, he reads at a moderate pace.



Kuba is an 8-year old boy, talkative and rather confident among his friends. He represents a fig tree in our school orchard (early SLA), his English being at CEFR A1 level.


At the beginning of the year he was rather shy and reluctant to speak to an English teacher. Additionally, he did not seem to enjoy English and was rather inattentive and disruptive. His bilingual literacy skills were rather poor.


Currently, Kuba is a very strong student in the classroom, motivated, attentive and willing to take part in the lesson even though he sometimes misses a lot of classes. He works well in pairs, but needs to be reminded to use English only to his language partner. He is quite fluent and speaks a lot, often approaching his English teacher during the break to talk in English and share some news from his life, such as watching in English a British science-fiction series with his father, “Doctor Who”. He seems to pick up a lot of language from English books, films and games. He actively engaged in a phonics computer game, “Teach Your Monster to Read” and it might have strengthened his phonics skills. In April, Kuba took a Cambridge Starters Exam, which seemed quite easy for him.


Kuba’s bilingual literacy skills are rather strong at the moment and in all likelihood he will achieve a ‘native speaker’ performance in English and develop a very good level of reading and writing in both languages, especially that his parents consider the foregoing very important life skills. His L2 might even become dominant, taking into account his parents’ attitude towards bilingualism and the number of hours he devotes for indirect language learning outside of  the classroom.


  • Case study 2: Ninka

mother’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, English at B2 level, German at B1 level

father’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, German at C1 level, English at B1 level

parents towards each other: Polish

language used at home: Polish

language used at school: Polish and English

child’s knowledge of languages: Native speaker of Polish, English at A1/A2 level, and German at lower than A1 level


Case study – 2 strengths weaknesses
input Both parents are Polish native speakers. They use more German than English.
family Ninka’s family cannot support her in English language acquisition, nobody lives in an English-speaking country or uses English on a daily basis
environment Easy access to English books, films and games Mainly majority language is used
attitude towards bilingualism Positive in both parents. They would like Ninka to be proficient user of English and know German at a communicative level.
travelling opportunities They often go abroad with their German friends or visit them in Germany. Parents speak German to each other and Ninka usually code-switches between English and German.
preschool Ninka attended extracurricular English classes at Helen-Doron Academy once a week since the age of 4. Polish preschool with few English classes
primary school Before 2014 – extracurricular English classes.2014-2015 – Jules Verne Primary School: Polish school with early partial immersion program (or OPOL strategy), with many hours of English language provision (5 hours of general English, 1 hour of CLIL lesson and 1hour of preparation for YLE Movers exam per week) Before 2014 – State school with few hours of English.
learning disabilities She was thought to be dyslexic by parents and her Polish Literature teacher but it was excluded.
English vocabulary Good
formulaic language Good, but Ninka needs to be constantly reminded to use it towards English teachers
grammar Good recognition and understanding; able to self-correct her mistakes in written tasks. Weak spontaneous production.
pronunciation Pronounced words and utterances correctly Polish accent
speaking skills Good
writing skills Ninka is creative, uses some basic cohesive devices and is able to write a good paragraph. Ninka makes some spelling mistakes. She often asks about spelling of familiar and unfamiliar words but is given phonemes instead. She is currently working on simple phoneme-grapheme correspondences.
reading skills A wide range of lexis and grammar helps Ninka understand a variety of texts. Good at typical YLE Movers reading tasks, rarely makes mistakes. Decodes accessible texts with ease, even with many tricky words. Reads rather fast and is currently working on skimming and scanning skills.
listening skills Rather good but sometimes needs repetition.
Polish writing skills  She writes well according to her Polish Literature teacher and is a very good student. She sometimes makes some spelling mistakes.
reading skills  Reads a lot age-appropriate books. She is often seen with a book during the break at school.


Ninka is a talkative, confident and diligent 11 year-old girl, at CEFR A1/A2 level.. Her class, 4b, joined our school in September and so, they are following a different English syllabus from the one we would normally offer to children continuing education in our school. This is why, for instance, Ninka took Cambridge Movers Exam this year, and not Flyers.


Ninka is one of the strongest students in her class, enjoys speaking and reading, and is willing to contribute. She works well in pairs, uses English in the classroom but needs to be constantly reminded about it.


She enjoys phonics classes and storytelling time enormously and sometimes reads some English books. She has made a big progress this year and her bilingual literacy skills are rather strong.


She might become a fluent and accurate English speaker in the nearest future. Nevertheless, we cannot predict which language, English or German, will become more dominant.





A phonics lesson: Children write about their monsters from an online game called „Teach Your Monster to Read”. The game and the books which are in the photograph enable children to practise phoneme-grapheme correspondences



A phonics lesson: Children are revising phoneme-grapheme correspondences



A phonics lesson: Children are reading a book that enables them to pracise /sh/, /tch/, /th/ and /ng/



A storytelling lesson: Children are reading “The Gingerbread Man”



A storytelling lesson: “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you see?” by Eric Carl and Bill Martin Jr. Children are writing the story from memory and playing a memory game.



A storytelling lesson: “There’s a Bird on Your Head!” by Mo Willems. Children from class 1a and 4b have made some pictures representing the story.



A storytelling lesson: “The Gruffalo” by Julia Donaldson. Children are doing some post-reading activities.



A CLIL lesson (Science): Bees are social insects – project



A CLIL lesson (Science): Animals in different habitats. The author of the master copy drawings is Magdalena Łukasiewicz, UW student who had her teaching practice in our school.



A general English lesson: Children are having fun with Halloween vocabulary



A general English lesson: The making of Advent calendars



Bruner, J. (1983). Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language. New York: Norton.

Ellis, R. (1997). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford introduction to Language Study. Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (1993). Talking shop: SLA research: how does it help teachers? An interview with Rod Ellis in: ELT Journal Volume 47, Issue 1, pp. 3-11.

Grellet, F. (1981). Developing Reading Skills. Cambridge: CUP.

Harmer, J. (2004). How to Teach Writing. Harlow: Longman.

Harmer, J. (2001). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman.

Lightbown, P.M., Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned. Oxford University Press.

Nuttall, Ch. (1996). Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Heinemann.

O’Neill, R. (1998). Crucial differences between L1 and L2 acquisition in: Melta News, Number 35, pp. 26-27.

Richards, J. C., Schmidt R. (2002). Longman Dictionary of  Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Longman.

Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, Final Report. Ref:0201-2006DOC-EN, Retrieved 1 July, 2014, from:

Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Zurer Pearson, B. (2013). Jak wychować dziecko dwujęzyczne. Poznań: Media Rodzina.

Żylińska, M. (2013). Neurodydaktyka. Nauczanie i uczenie się przyjazne mózgowi. Toruń: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK.


Published: 2015-06-19