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Adult first-time readers in a second language
Martha Young-Scholten


Is there a critical period for learning to read?

Unschooled adult refugees are often resettled in countries where survival depends on oral proficiency and literacy in a second language (L2). Development of reading is slow; as Strucker and Davidson (in press) note for low-literate Spanish speakers, weak decoding skills persist even for those with an average of 6 ½ years’ native language (NL) schooling. Are adults are too old? While language develops with mere exposure to appropriate input for all young members of the species within a specific time span (Lenneberg’s 1967 critical period hypothesis), mere exposure to printed text is rarely sufficient for reading. If it does not emerge naturally, is there a critical period? A dearth of evidence precludes an answer to this question. While much is known about children’s reading development, closing the research gap in post-puberty first-time literacy should be a priority, given connections between low literacy and income for L2 adults (Burt 2003).

Phonological awareness and learning to read

Considerable research links children’s development of reading to awareness/manipulation of phonological units. Initial awareness emerges naturally, with pre-school children becoming aware of increasingly smaller units, from word to syllable to onset to rhyme. Only through learning to read in an alphabetic script does the child become aware of phonemes and grasp the (alphabetic) principle that graphemes correspond with segments (e.g. Goswami & Bryant 1990). If no critical period exists, adult first-time readers should show awareness of word, syllable, onset and rhyme prior to instruction, and awareness of phonemes as they learn to read. In groundbreaking work on adult Portuguese first-time NL readers, Morais et al. (1988) found that prior to instruction, awareness of units larger than the phoneme existed, but phonemic awareness emerged only with training. Robson (1982) arrives at similar conclusions for adult Hmong refugees: alphabetic literacy rather than education per se led to L2 reading progress. For learners with some schooling, language proficiency seems to be a factor determining at what point NL reading skills transfer (Bernhardt and Kamil’s 1995 language threshold).

Adult English learners with little or no schooling

Presented here are results from a study of the phonological awareness, L2 reading ability and oral proficiency of 10 Somali and 7 Vietnamese living in Seattle. US residence ranged from about a year to 20 years, and 16 had family members with NL and/or English literacy, with some siblings or children having university experience. English instruction varied as did NL schooling (see Table 1). Saville-Troike (1976) claims learning to read occurs once, so the schooled Somali and Vietnamese, whose languages use the Roman alphabet, may transfer reading skills. However, two Vietnamese learners were at least partly schooled in Chinese. Morais et al. ‘s claim that adults develop phonemic awareness only through alphabetic script training is mirrored by studies on adult L2 readers from non-alphabetic script backgrounds. Ng (2000) concluded that mere exposure to written English is insufficient for development of phoneme manipulation skills by Chinese readers (see also Read et al. 1986), and Ben-Dror et al. (1995) found that English readers surpassed unpointed Hebrew readers in phoneme manipulation.

Tests administered measured NL and English reading skills and phonological awareness, and English morphosyntactic proficiency and phonological competence. The awareness component used real words on tasks involving repeating words in a story read aloud, tapping out syllables, identifying a non-rhyming or non-alliterating word in a set of four, and removing first, last, middle sounds from words to create new words. Tasks were done in the NL and then English. Results from a sub-set are presented here.

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