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How Do Cantonese-Speaking ELLs Learn to Read English?

Decoding words doesn't play as large of a role in how Cantonese-speaking children living in the United States learn to read English as it does for children who speak only English at home or English-language learners who speak Spanish at home, according to a new study. The author of the study found that reading comprehension for Cantonese-speaking children is equally dependent on decoding ability and oral-language proficiency, as measured by tests of oral vocabulary and verbal memory.

By contrast, with native speakers of English or Spanish-speaking ELLs, decoding is much more important than oral-language proficiency, according to previous studies by other researchers cited in the study.

Yuuko Uchikoshi, an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Davis, presented these research findings at the American Educational Research Association earlier this week in New Orleans. I wasn't there to see her presentation, but I interviewed Uchikoshi before she spoke about her study, and I've read a draft paper reporting her research findings.

One reason that Cantonese-speaking ELLs may need a different kind of emphasis in how they are taught to read in English than Spanish-speaking ELLs is that the Cantonese language doesn't share the same alphabet or have cognates with English, she told me.

Uchikoshi studied the reading comprehension of 101 Cantonese-speaking ELLs in the 2nd grade. She told me that the children in her study all came from Cantonese-speaking homes, but most of them couldn't read or write well in Chinese. She said that while their parents speak to them in Cantonese, they answer in English. She said she'd like to conduct an additional study with Cantonese-speaking children who regularly attend Chinese-language schools and may have a higher proficiency in their native language than did the 101 ELLs in her recent study.

The implications of her recent findings, she says, is that it's crucial for Cantonese-speaking ELLs to have access to a curriculum that puts a lot of stress on oral-vocabulary development as well as decoding words.

I draw attention to this research because it's one of few studies that has examined reading learning for ELLs who speak a language other than Spanish at home.

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