What Is Biliteracy?

A Guide to Understanding Biliteracy in Education

Written by Liz Armstrong on April 16th, 2019

Biliteracy Definition

Simply put, biliteracy is the ability to read and write proficiently in two languages. Fluency in both reading and writing are present in biliteracy. Usually, someone who is biliterate has knowledge and skills to read and write in their home language and in a second language. Unlike a person who is biliterate that can read and write proficiently in two languages, the term bilingual is used to describe someone who can only fluently speak two languages. A person who is biliterate is also considered bilingual, but a person who is bilingual is not necessarily biliterate.

That being said, being bilingual is a part of being biliterate. In fact, "reading and writing float on a sea of talk" (Britton 1970, 164), which is why the standards for English language arts include the areas of speaking, listening, and language (grammar) along with the more recognized literacy areas of foundational skills (phonics, word recognition, and fluency), writing, and reading (literary and informational text). In other words, language is literacy and literacy is language. However, when a language is learned in the absence of strong reading and writing instruction, there is a danger of bi-illiteracy or bilingualism without biliteracy. This is the exact issue I have watched unfold across the nation with certain bilingual models designed with more of a focus on content.

Intentional Teaching for Biliteracy

While content can be engaging, one of the most significant parts of elementary instruction needs to be a focus on learning to read and write in order to be successful in elementary school and beyond. What started happening when content was the focus of instruction at the elementary level was that many kids were learning content with reading and writing activities being planned and completed by students. However, there was an absence of the intentional teaching of literacy processing and strategies in reading and writing. In addition, many students were "reading" at high levels in Spanish and low levels in English.

This shouldn’t be the case in biliteracy. In fact, within the work by Escamilla et al. (2013), there is a biliterate reading trajectory that puts the literacy learning in the second language slightly behind the learning in the first language of instruction. In the same resource, Spanish is the main focus for initial literacy learning because the language of strength moves ahead and is used as a way to bridge (or transfer) what is known in one language to the other language.

The Effects of Bridging in Biliteracy Development

In the example of unsuccessful literacy teaching and learning, I put reading in quotation marks because the reading students were doing in Spanish, most often, focused on a simple theory of reading with decoding and accuracy rather than reading for comprehension and meaning, which adversely impacted reading fluency. The huge gaps between literacy in Spanish and English were concerning because of the lack of transfer between the two languages. Additionally, by the time students reach middle school, much of their coursework is in English. With such wide gaps between Spanish and English reading levels, the students would be practically illiterate in English.

What effect would being nearly illiterate in English have on students when they reach middle school? There is much research that suggests if students are not proficient by third grade, the gap rarely closes, and students have more of a likelihood of dropping out (Fiester and Smith 2010). This is not only a teaching and learning issue but also an issue of social justice and equity.

No matter what the bilingual or mainstream model is or should be, early instruction in literacy needs to be focused around a literacy framework with intentional teaching of literacy processing in reading and writing. Bridging then needs to focus on helping students use what they know in one language to work in the other language. This should be less focused on the level of vocabulary and words. Instead, the focus should be on the level of strategic actions and literacy strategies that readers and writers use.

Teaching Literacy Strategies to Ensure Generative Learning

We often take for granted that students can naturally transfer what we teach them to do from one language to another. As stated above, we need to be cognizant of the need to bridge more critical pieces of knowledge rather than just improve vocabulary and strings of language. Last year a bilingual coach who attended a literacy processing training with me decided to try this out with the students in her lab classroom. When the bilingual coach talked to students about what they had been learning to do before reading in Spanish, she was shocked by students' response.

Students were able to articulate why there was a need to take a sneak peek before reading in Spanish. However, when the students were asked what to do before reading in English, there wasn’t an automatic response. She described their reaction as going from a deep understanding of how and why (in Spanish) to the sound of crickets (in English). Once she let them in on the secret, she saw light bulbs of awareness brighten as students responded to the lesson.

This was not a lesson on bridging phrases, taking a sneak peek, and echar un vistazo. The more significant lesson and bridged strategic activity required students to use what they know to help them in a different context. In this case, previewing a text prepared their minds for the story or informational text whether it was before reading a book in Spanish or a book in English. This type of generative learning will catapult additional learning and further actions taken by students.

As mentioned before, students should not have wide gaps between the level of proficiency in their native language and that of the language they are learning. Instead, they should learn to use what they know in one language to help them with the other language. This type of understanding is also captured in The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum (2016). In the guided reading section of the resource, both language and literacy grow together across text levels and along the continuum. Keeping these changes in mind will help you advance your students along the continuum in all areas accordingly.

Using Leveled Spanish Books for Kids to Ensure Biliteracy

The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum, Common Core State Standards, and the Spanish adaptation of CCSS (Common Core en Español) were used when literacy experts were creating and adapting leveled books and teacher's guides to Spanish. Here are some of the features of text that pertain to leveled guided reading books in Spanish:

The books at the lower levels focus on familiar content and themes and progressively advance to include realistic stories, simple fantasy, and traditional tales. At levels of increasing complexity, readers are challenged to understand and empathize with characters and the subjects of biographies who lived in past times or in distant places and who have very different experiences and perspectives from the readers’ own. At higher levels, fantasy requires that readers understand completely imaginary worlds. (Fountas and Pinnell 2016, 406)

When a child is literate, or biliterate, they can learn about all sorts of things through extensive reading and writing. This can pertain to characters and social issues addressed in fiction and information through nonfiction books for kids. But when a child falls behind in reading and is not proficient by third grade, the gap becomes almost impossible to close (Fiester and Smith 2010). This is why it is of utmost importance that bilingual/dual language teachers are teaching the reader and not the book, as well as teaching the writer and not the piece.

Teaching generative problem-solving through strategic actions (overt behaviors) at a point of difficulty will lead to strategic activity (in the head processing). This happens when the focus on teaching and learning in the elementary years is working from a literacy framework and students have opportunities to be exposed to, read, and receive specific instruction at a processing level in both reading and writing. In a bilingual/dual language environment, this type of learning needs to be bridged explicitly so that students truly transfer the knowledge from one language to another.

Teach with intention to ensure biliteracy!

About the Author

Liz Armstrong has been a Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la Lectura Teacher Leader for the past five years. Before training to be a Teacher Leader, Liz obtained her master's degree in administration with licensure as principal, director of instruction, and significant coursework toward director of special education licensure. She has been an educator since 2002 with experience as an ESL teacher, bilingual classroom teacher, bilingual literacy intervention specialist, and bilingual instructional coach. In 2011, she completed a professional development certificate program with action research on how a focus on language development impacts achievement in reading and writing in various instructional settings. Language development, using data to inform instruction, and equity/advocacy for all students have been areas of emphasis in her career as an educator.


Britton, James N. Language and Learning. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press.

Escamilla, Kathy, Sandra Butvilofsky, Manuel Escamilla, Susan Hopewell, Olivia Ruiz-Figueroa, Lucinda Soltero-González, Wendy Sparrow. Biliteracy from the Start: Literacy Squared in Action. Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing, 2013.

Fiester, Leila, and Ralph Smith. "Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters." Anne E. Casey Foundation, 2010. https://www.ccf.ny.gov/files/9013/8262/2751/AECFReporReadingGrade3.pdf.

Fountas, Irene, and Gay Su Pinnell. The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching, Pre-K–8. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2016.