Orthographic Learning: A Multilingual Perspective

Orthographic Learning: A Multilingual Perspective

Daniel R. Espinas (University of Maryland, College Park, USA), Min Wang (University of Maryland, College Park, USA) and Yixun Li (University of Maryland, College Park, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch005


This chapter discusses orthographic learning, i.e., how children learn the relation between their spoken language and writing system. The process is discussed for children learning to read and write in one language, as well as for multilingual children acquiring literacy in more than one language. In both cases, the developmental course is mapped from children's first insights into the form and function of their writing systems to the development of word-specific mental representations that code for multiple linguistic forms (i.e., sound, spelling, and meaning). The chapter concludes with instructional recommendations for supporting children's orthographic learning throughout development.
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The texts that children read today in school and for leisure are far more complex than ever in the past (Adams, 2009; Hiebert & Martin, 2015). While many factors account for this complexity, vocabulary stands out perhaps as the most important (Snow & Uccelli, 2009). Indeed, Hiebert, Goodwin, and Cervetti (2018) recently estimated that literate English-speaking high school graduates need to know a core vocabulary of at least 11,298 words. Looking back to middle school, we see that texts at this level are also densely packed with novel vocabulary (Jitendra et al., 2001). Even in first grade, approximately 23 of every 100 words that children encounter in print are new (Hiebert & Martin, 2009). From these findings, we can see that the scale and rate by which vocabulary must be learned far exceeds the capacity of any direct instructional effort (Share, 1995). Nonetheless, when faced with this immense challenge, the bulk of children remarkably prevail. However, a substantial proportion of children of course do not (National Center on Education Statistics, 2018). This certainly is the case for many multilingual learners. For example, on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 9% of fourth grade students identified as English Language Learners (ELLs) scored at or above the proficiency level in reading. By eighth grade, this figure dropped to a startling 5%. This is in stark contrast to the 38% of fourth and eighth grade non-ELL students who demonstrated proficient reading.

Many factors have been hypothesized to account for ELL students’ troubling underachievement in literacy (Uccelli, Galloway, Barr, Meneses, & Dobbs, 2015). Among these, vocabulary has enjoyed the greatest attention. As was mentioned above, a large and sophisticated vocabulary is critical for accessing the complex texts that children are expected to read from a young age (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005). Furthermore, while many linguistic skills easily transfer among languages, vocabulary does not (August, Calderón, & Carlo, 2002). Researchers, then, have devoted great effort to understanding multilingual vocabulary development (Wagner, Muse, & Tannenbaum, 2006). These efforts have revealed much about how children learn and integrate the various linguistic forms of words. Based on these findings, a myriad of instructional interventions targeting vocabulary from infancy throughout the school-age years have emerged. For school-aged children, interventions have focused both on developing word-specific knowledge and word-learning skills (Wright & Cervetti, 2017). Regarding the former, words’ phonological and semantic (i.e., meaning) forms are often linked through direct instruction. For example, the word cat may be explained as a furry, four-legged animal that stars in videos on the Internet. Words are often selected for their importance to specific texts of broader instructional themes. The benefits of such efforts for children’s reading comprehension is clear (Elleman, Lindo, Morphy, & Compton, 2009; Wright & Cervetti, 2017). However, existing vocabulary interventions have largely neglected words’ orthographic forms. In this chapter, we show that to read or write a word, children must possess knowledge of its phonological, semantic, and orthographic forms. Consequently, literacy instruction for multilingual children must focus on all three (Perfetti & Stafura, 2014).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Orthographic Representation: A word-specific, mental representation of word spelling.

Sublexial Representation: The mental representation of a subcomponent of a word (e.g., letters, phonemes).

Multilingualism: The ability to communicate in more than one language.

Orthographic Learning: The cognitive process by which orthographic knowledge is acquired.

Biliteracy: The ability to read and write in more than one language.

Orthography: The system used to encode language into writing.

Semantic Representation: The mental representation of a word’s meaning.

Writing: The ability to convey information in a written, symbolic form.

Reading: The ability to draw an intended meaning from a text.

Lexical Representation: A mental representation at approximately the word-level.

Visual Word Recognition: The ability to recognize printed words (i.e., read).

Orthographic Knowledge: Broadly, an understanding of how language is encoded in writing. More specifically, general knowledge about the rules, patterns, and word-specific forms of written language.

Phonological Representation: A mental representation of how a word is pronounced.

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