Phonological Awareness and Reading in Monolingual Arabic speaking and emergent Bilingual Arabic-English speaking Kuwaiti children

Research Seminar at the University of Reading, 05/03/2013
Speaker: Nailah Al-Sulaihim


Children who spoke Kuwaiti dialect (L1) and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) (L2) were considered monolingual, and children who also spoke English (L3) were considered bilingual.


The study aimed to investigate the relationship between phonological awareness (PA) and literacy skills in monolingual children and emergent bilingual children. Specifically (1) whether PA and reading skills are higher in bilingual than monolingual children. (2) Whether PA skills improve after a year of formal literacy education (Grade 1). (3) Whether PA tasks at the smallest phonological level (phoneme) correlate higher with reading tasks than larger units (syllable). (4) Whether there is a cross-linguistic relationship between PA abilities in L1 and L2 (shallow orthography) and reading skills in the L3 (deep orthography). The study hypothesised that 1-4 were true.


Kuwaiti children (n=120), kindergartens (monolingual; 60,  bilingual  60,  mean age 5;5), grade 1 (monolingual  60  bilingual  60,  mean age 6;2).


Monolinguals were tested in L1 and L2, and bilinguals with the addition of L3. PA tasks included segmenting words into syllables; recognising similarities between words such as rhyme: cat, hat and alliteration: hit, hop, hike; the sound-matching task was a picture-sound task where children matched pre-recorded words with images; lastly awareness of phonemes: sweep /s w ee p/. Reading tasks included single word reading and letter recognition. The kindergarten group were tested once while grade 1 children were tested at the start of year 1 (T1) and again 6 months later (T2).


(1) Cross-sectional analysis showed kindergarten bilinguals exceeded monolingual peers in non-verbal abilities, PA tasks and reading tasks. L2 vocabulary did not significantly differ between groups. At grade 1 longitudinal analysis showed bilinguals significantly exceeded monolinguals at T1 and T2 on most PA tasks and the reading tasks. (2) Monolinguals showed significant improvement from T1 to T2 on 8/10 PA tasks and reading tasks. Bilinguals were the same except for improving on 7/10 tasks. (3) Monolinguals reading at T1 did not significantly correlate with any PA tasks, at T2 it did, with rhyme, phonemic isolation, elision and sound-matching. Letter recognition significantly correlated with 3 PA tasks at T1, elision, phonemic isolation and rhyme awareness. Letter recognition and reading at T2 showed significant correlation with the same PA tasks. Bilingual reading and letter recognition at T1 significantly correlated with, elision, sound-matching and phonemic isolation. At T2 results were the same except phonemic isolation replaced rhyme awareness. (4) L1/L2 PA tasks, syllable awareness, elision, sound-matching, phonemic isolation at T1 and T2, significantly correlated with single word reading in L3.


The study shows bilinguals have an advantage in PA and reading skills in L1 and L2 when comparing monolinguals and bilinguals across ages. Monolingual and bilinguals improved on most PA and reading tasks with formal education. Phoneme PA tasks, rather than syllabic, were most significantly correlated with reading and letter recognition, evidenced by sound matching, elision and phonemic isolation. A cross-linguistic effect was found in the bilinguals since some PA skills in L1 and L2 significantly correlated with reading skills in L3. 


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