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On Bike Riding, Reading, and Young Learners’ Biliteracy Development

by Spencer Salas |

Greetings from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! This spring, I’ve taken up riding my bike through the neighborhood again. It’s an especially beautiful time of year; and, the azaleas and dogwoods are in full bloom.

I learned how to ride a bike when I was five or six years old in a San Antonio, Texas neighborhood back in the day when we didn’t wear helmets and when small children roamed neighborhoods fearlessly without the protection of their parents.

On my way back from school one afternoon, I spied a large green snake slithering its way down the middle of the street. I remember carefully dismounting and slowly walking my little bike in a large half circle far out of its path. Another time, a German Shepherd chased me down a block — and I pedaled as fast as I could. Since my school days, I have taken up riding my bike intermittently — sometimes riding daily for weeks at a time and then letting it go for months or even years.

They say once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget how. For this post, I’d like to talk about bike riding as a metaphor for the importance of teaching our children to read in their first language — first.

In the United States, historical assimilationist narratives framed everything ethnic, including immigrants’  home languages, as a potential disadvantage to their rapid Americanization. Unfortunately, too many K–12 schools still operationalize this sort of thinking through what Angela Valenzuela famously called  “subtractive schooling.” So, instead of building off students’ cultural and linguistic knowledge and heritage, schools with high immigrant populations sometime function in ways that suppress what students already know about reading or what they could know about reading with “English only” policies, for example. In other cases, well-meaning immigrant parents who speak a language or even languages (plural) other than English at home stop doing so when their young children enter school. We’re afraid to confuse them.

Research for second language acquisition and literacy education tells us something very different. TESOL, for one, has composed a robust articulation of the relationship between language and literacy development for young learners and why it’s so important to pay attention to first language literacy development. You can find it here: “Position Paper on Language and Literacy Development for Young English Language Learners (ages 3-8)

In a nutshell, we learn to read once, and it’s all about initially grasping the concept that symbols on a page or screen or street sign stand for sounds, which stand for words, which stand for something in our lives. “M-o-m” — for example — is a symbolic written representation of the woman holding us on our lap and sounding out that combination of letters with us. Once children figure that out, then U.S. schools move in and grow young children’s proficiency with phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension across a range of texts. Later, when children or youth or adults learn a new language and start reading in that language, they’re not relearning to read because they understand how it works (more or less). Reading in a second language, ideally, is an application of our previously developed knowledge, understanding of, and strategies for reading — but juxtaposed against another sign system or linguistic code.

So, that’s how reading is like riding a bike. Once you get it, you get it. You don’t forget how — even if the bike is bigger or shaped differently or has a motor attached. If the street or pavement is flat or hilly or bumpy, we are still able to adjust how we pedal and how we maneuver the new terrain. We still remember how to ride a bike, just as we still remember sounding out “M-o-m” and the magic those symbols represent and our joy at recognizing them as such.

Here are some parting questions to consider as we continue to advocate for young multilingual learners of English:

  • What are your first memories of reading, and what is the first language you learned to read?
  • How does your school or district frame literacy development in a child’s first language? What supports are (not) available?
  • How might we as teachers and teacher-leaders grow those resources?
  • What other metaphors can help us to understand the process of learning to read and then learning to read in an additional language?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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