Each person has a particular rate of growth and development. The area of literacy (the process of learning to read and write) does not escape this determination. Each child has their own learning speed and this can vary even more in bilingual children.
Detecting the difficulties that an individual may present in this area early and effectively through an early evaluation can represent a significant improvement for the well-being of the person. For these reasons, diagnosis, evaluation and treatment can be decisive in the development of children.
Although we live in an increasingly digital world, reading and writing continue to be an essential tool in most people’s lives and it seems it will continue to be so at least in the near future.
In general, as adults we have forgotten how we learnt to read and write when we were children and simply carry out the process automatically, but it is in fact a complex and lengthy learning task for children, which requires effort and continuous practice. In order to start reading, it is necessary to understand that oral language is divided into isolated sounds, each with its matching graphic representation, which are the letters of the alphabet. As children learn the different sounds for each letter, they can join them to form words and in time will create mental representations of whole words that they can then recognise visually, helping them to read at a faster rate. Therefore, reading has a visual component, identifying letters and words, as well as a linguistic component providing access to the meaning of words, sentences and texts, enabling comprehension of written information.
Children tend to develop these abilities at a different pace, often based on the amount of stimulation received. In general, at 5 years-old they begin to recognise the sounds of certain letters and to identify some words commonly found in children’s books. Around 6-7 years of age, children are considered to have enough tools to start formal literacy learning and progressively begin to decode words and sentences. At the same time they will also start writing some words. In the following years, the process continues to be gradually perfected, achieving independent reading and a progressively improved access to meaning. It is important to highlight that learning to read and write can be done simultaneously from the start in more than one language and that bilingual children learn these skills in the same way as monolingual children do.
Although there are many different definitions of the term bilingualism, in a broad sense it can be understood as the common use of two languages by an individual or a group of individuals inside a community of speakers. However, people who use more than one language do not often belong to a homogeneous group with many differences regarding the moment of language acquisition, the frequency of usage and the level of competence in each language, amongst other aspects. In the past, bilingualism was believed to be potentially harmful and have a negative influence on children’s linguistic abilities. In fact, today there is enough evidence to disprove that this is the case. Therefore, it can be concluded that bilingualism in itself does not cause oral language, literacy or learning difficulties, or any other cognitive or emotional issues whatsoever.
However, bilingual children can have difficulties when learning to read and write, just like children who only speak one language. As there are several factors that need to be taken into account, it is essential to analyse the reasons why the child is experiencing difficulties in each individual case. The following are some red flags that can arise at different stages: early difficulties in recognising or remembering letter-sounds, later slow reading and letter or syllable substitution, addition or omission errors, letter inversions, persistent spelling mistakes, difficulties organising ideas on paper, etc.
In any case, if there are signs of a possible difficulty, it is vital to carry out an early and individualised assessment, using specific tests in order to determine in which areas the child needs help, as well as providing specific recommendations and steps to follow, and establishing the right support at school as soon as possible.
On one hand, some children might show a mild delay, due to developmental delays or lack of stimulation and with the right help they are able to reach the level of their peers in a relatively short period of time.
On the other hand, other children show significant and persistent difficulties, presenting considerable differences compared to the expected level for their age with no apparent reason. In these cases a specific learning difficulty for reading and/or writing must be considered as a possibility. It is estimated that dyslexia, a specific learning disorder of neurobiological origin is present in approximately 5-10% of the population, whether or not there exists a bilingual situation. Bilingual children will show difficulties in both languages, and in all cases dyslexia requieres an early evaluation in order to avoid a possible scenario of school failure in the future.
When dyslexia is suspected, a multidisciplinary assessment and diagnosis should be carried out by a speech and language therapist and an educational psychologist. However, in Spain, speech and language therapists are the main professionals in charge of the detection, evaluation, diagnosis, and specific intervention, which needs to be individualised, explicit, systematic and designed with a mid-long term period in mind. This is different from English speaking countries like the UK or the USA, where the professionals are usually specialised teachers or tutors. In Spain, speech and language therapists specialise in reading and writing issues, as these are considered to be equally related to language, even though the communication channel is written instead of oral. Intervention consists of a specific approach to treatment focused on the rehabilitation of the reading routes and any other aspect detected during the evaluation, together with a series of recommendations regarding school adaptations.
In other cases it may also be useful to work with an academic tutor, whose job is mainly focused on supporting children with school-work and training them in study techniques. This is principally to help children with mild difficulties or those who have already received therapy. This type of support will be of great help to improve time-planning, organisation and self-monitoring skills, etc.
It should also be mentioned that oral language difficulties can affect reading and writing development, either because of specific issues in this area, or due to lack of development in the first language or in the language of instruction (vocabulary, sounds, etc.)
In every situation, oral and written language stimulation at home and at school will be essential with the aim of encouraging curiosity and a life-long love of reading. By making it as fun as possible, a reading habit can be established for life, and not just for studying or working purposes. If children are motivated, improvement will be consistent and observed on an academic and also a personal level, helping in their general well-being.