The role of First Language (L1) and Second Language (L2) in the literacy development of early grade learners

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

17 Pages, Grade: 80.0



This paper discusses the role of First Language (L1) and Second Language (L2) in the literacy development of early grade learners. It will critically analyse the challenges associated with literacy development and suggest ways in addressing the challenges. In line with this, it shall also discuss the meaning of literacy, the concept first language (L1) acquisition and the stages of L1 acquisition, the concept of second language (L2) acquisition and the stages of L2 acquisition.


Literacy is one of the most important foundations for a child’s success in school and life.

A poor foundation in literacy prior to formal school entry does not only reduce the likelihood of later success in literacy, but also increases the risk of children ‘dropping out’ of formal education (Silvastein et al. 2002).

For all learners, a high-quality early education is critical to ensuring their long term academic success. Through active engagement in literacy development process, children are able to develop their literacy skills. Early grade learners can develop a strong foundation for literacy development when they are given opportunities to engage in purposeful, meaningful language and early print activities. Effective early literacy instruction provides early grade learners with developmentally appropriate settings, materials, experiences, and social support that encourage early forms of reading, writing, speaking and listening to flourish and develop into conventional literacy.

Meaning of Literacy

Many definitions of literacy exist, but the basis of these definitions relate to oral language and one’s ability write to write legibly (penmanship). The development of literacy occurs across the lifespan of the individual from ‘womb to tomb’ (Alexander, 2006). It is essential to view literacy across such a lifespan developmental framework and in turn to consider and conceptualise a definition of literacy from a broad and comprehensive viewpoint while giving due cognisance to the crucial early years of literacy development. As such, the definitions of literacy reviewed in relation to early childhood education.

A proposed operational definition by UNESCO, (2005) states that, literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.

This proposed definition attempts to encompass several different dimensions of literacy. People acquire and apply literacy for different purposes in different situations, all of which are shaped by culture, history, language, religion and socio-economic conditions. The definition by UNESO latches upon these different purposes and situations. Rather than seeing literacy as only a generic set of technical skills, it looks at the social dimensions of acquiring and applying literacy. It emphasizes that literacy is not uniform, but is instead culturally and linguistically and even temporally diverse. It is shaped by social as well as educational institutions: the family, community, workplace, religious establishments and the state. Constraints on its acquisition and application lie not simply in the individual, but also in relations and patterns of communication structured by society.

According to Alberta Education (2015). Literacy is the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living. Literacy is foundational for all learning, making sense of the world and communicating with others. Literacy is more than the ability to read and write. It involves the knowledge, skills and abilities the competencies that enable individuals to think critically, communicate effectively, deal with change and solve problems in a variety of contexts to achieve their personal goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in society (Alberta Education, 2009).

In this paper, literacy is viewed as the ability to speak, listen, read, write (authorship and penmanship), comprehend and critically appreciate various forms of communication including spoken language, printed text and digital media.

First Language (L1) Acquisition

First Language (L1) refers to a person's first acquired language. It is the language that is most prevalent in the home as learners are growing up and the first language used for communication (Goode, n. d.).

According Bloomfield (1994), first language (native language/mother tongue/arterial language/L1), is a language that a person has been exposed to from birth or within the critical period.

Language is extremely complex, yet children already know most of the grammar of their native language(s) before they are five years old (Adam, 1990). Children acquire language without being taught the rules of grammar by their caregivers. First language learners receive hours of naturalistic exposure to language from caregivers who scaffold their language development (Tomasello & Brooks, 1999).

Stages of First Language (L1) Acquisition

In nearly all cases, children's language development follows a predictable sequence. However, there is a great deal of variation in the age at which children reach a given milestone. Each child's development is usually characterized by gradual acquisition of particular abilities: thus "correct" use of English/Ghanaian Language verbal inflection will emerge over a period of a year or more, starting from a stage where verbal inflections are always left out, and ending in a stage where they are nearly always used correctly (Owu-Ewie, 2018). There are also many different ways to characterize the developmental sequence. On the production side, one way to name the stages is as follows, focusing primarily on the unfolding of lexical and syntactic knowledge (Owu-Ewie, 2018). Virtually, all children go through these stages as they learn to use a language. The stages are discussed below.

1. Pre-language stage (3-8 months). The pre-linguistic stage is sub-divided into two stage; ‘cooing’ and ‘babbling’. Cooing is a stage of infants’ pre-linguistic speech development and consists of the production of single syllable, vowel-like sounds like ‘a’, ‘i’. Babbling typically follows the cooing stage of pre-linguistic speech and usually emerges between three and six months of age (Bukatko & Daehler, 2004). This stage contains syllable-type sounds such as ma and da as in mamama/dadada (Owu-Ewie, 2018). Also during this stage, the child may be able to nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to questions or point to things they want.
2. One-Word stage or Holophrastic stag (9-18 months). At this stage, children are able to utter one-word responses, although they can understand more. They learn to communicate this way and are able to explain wants and needs using one-word utterances (Goode, n. d.).
3. Two-word stage (18-24 months). At this stage, children begins to develop more complex phrases with multiple words which form a more complete thought than in the previous stage. The child can better define items and personal belongings by combining two words at a time. For example, the child may point to a car and say “mommy car”, communicating that either the child thinks that is his/her mother’s car or it actually is.
4. Telegraphic stage (24-30 months). During this stage, the children analytical skills enhance and their ability to form complete sentences emerges. Their words have more of a purpose rather than simply identifying objects and people like in the previous stages (Goode, n. d.). At this point in a child’s life, roughly age two, they tend to acquire more and new vocabularies rapidly.
5. Later multiword stage (30+ month). At this stage, children begin to use grammatical elements (Owu-Ewie, 2018). Language development of language begins to grow exponentially at this stage.

Second Language (L2) Acquisition

Second language (L2) refers to any language learned in addition to a person's first language. According to Nordquist (2017), second language (L2) is any language that a person uses other than a first or native language (L1). Savile-Troike (2006:2) mentions the term “second language” which means the additional language people use subsequent to their first languages. Second language can also refer to the third, fourth or even tenth language acquired by individuals (Juanggo, 2017).

Stages of Second Language (L2) Acquisition

Second Language acquisition also follows a universal pattern like children acquiring a first Language. According to Owu-Ewie (2018), all new learners of L2 progress through the same stages to acquire language. However, the Length of time each student spends at a particular stage may vary greatly due individual differences and other factors like L1 proficiency.

Proponents of second language acquisition theories, including Annie Oliveri and Judie Haynes, identify five distinct stages of second language acquisition as originally espoused by linguist Stephen Krashen in year 1981. These include the following:

1. Pre-production stage. This stage is also called the silent stage. At stage there is more understanding of the language than actual use. Comprehension is still minimal and there's a lot of use of gestures and other forms of nonverbal communication. This stage is characterized by the learner following simple commands, pointing and responding with movement.
2. Early production stage. This stage may last up to six months and students will develop a receptive and active vocabulary of about 1000 words (Owu-Ewie, 2018). Leaners will begin to respond with one or two word answers or short utterances such as ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘names’. Present tense use is most common at this stage.
3. Speech emergence stage. At this stage, learners typically acquire a vocabulary of up to 3,000 words, and learn to communicate by putting the words in short phrases, sentences, and questions. Learners tend to use the Language purposefully. Again, they may not be grammatically correct, but this is an important stage during which learners gain greater comprehension and begin reading and writing in their second language.
4. Intermediate fluency. At this stage, learners typically have a vocabulary of as many as 6,000 words. They usually acquire the ability to communicate in writing and speech using more complex sentences. This crucial stage is also when learners begin actually thinking in their second language, which helps them gain more proficiency in speaking it.
5. Advance fluency stage. According to (Goode, n. d.), it takes most learners at least two years to reach this stage, and then up to 10 years to achieve full mastery of the second language in all its complexities and nuances. Second language learners need ongoing opportunities to engage in discussions and express themselves in their new language, in order to maintain fluency in it. At this stage learners have a good handle on their L2 language. They understand well, speak with very few errors, and even possess a strong L2 vocabulary.

Role of L1 in the Literacy Development of Early Grade Learners


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The role of First Language (L1) and Second Language (L2) in the literacy development of early grade learners
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meaning of literacy, First language (L1) acquisition and the stages of L1 acquisition, Second language (L2) acquisition and the stages of L2 acquisition, Challenges associated with literacy development, Suggested ways in addressing the challenges associated with literacy development
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Seth Badu (Author), 2019, The role of First Language (L1) and Second Language (L2) in the literacy development of early grade learners, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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