Building the Phonemic Awareness Skills of Multilingual Individuals



With more and more SLPs taking on the role of reading specialist in the school environment, important reading strategies must be reviewed with current evidenced based practice (EBP).  Additionally, multilingual clients bring a greater challenge to the SLP teaching phonemic awareness.   In fact, reading and writing can be more complex in English than in many other languages because English has a moderately complicated spelling system.  In Spanish, for example, the relationships between letters and sounds are typically 1:1, meaning each sound is usually written using one spelling unit, and each spelling unit is typically pronounced one way.  There are exceptions with a few letters like the “C,” which has a “soft c” and “hard c” distinction in both languages.

i.e. In Spanish “cerca” is a word with a “soft c” while “corto” is a word with a “hard c.”  In English, “circus” is a word with a “soft c” while “cat” is a word with a “hard c.”

In fact, English has 26 letters and a total of 44 sounds!

The Spanish alphabet has 29 letters that represent 24 phonemes.  The five vowel sounds correspond to the five vowel letters with a one-to-one ratio that remains consistent.




When it comes to teaching a client how to read, the following methods are typically implemented for monolingual and bilingual students:

Whole-word (i.e. sight words) – “look-say” method


Phonics Based (i.e. sounding it out)

(Or combined phonics-based and whole-word methods)

For Spanish-speakers, the phonics-based approach has been successful when learning to read in Spanish, due to the simple phoneme-grapheme correspondence in the Spanish language.  In English, however, segmenting or blending phonemes with sounds that do not exist in Spanish, such as the short vowel “i” (i.e. fin, big), may result in confusion due to the inability to discriminate this vowel from others.

The lesson here is to assess the child prior, during and after teaching new phonemic awareness concepts to ensure understanding.  Also, do not be hesitant to try a new method if the other one isn’t working!



1.  Tracking – English tracks from left to right but some languages track right to left including:

  • Arabic script – used for Arabic, Persian, Urdu and many other languages.
  • Hebrew alphabet – used for Hebrew, Yiddish and some other Jewish languages.
  • N’Ko script – used for several languages of West Africa
  • Cypriot syllabary
  • Kurdish language

This needs to be taught prior to starting phonemic awareness tasks.

2.  Vocabulary – When we target phonics-based reading goals, we have to make sure the child understands the vocabulary that we use in the home and new languages.  We typically refer to the placement of sounds as in the beginning, middle, end of a word; therefore, the client needs to understand this vocabulary.  Changing the vocabulary using other sequence words (i.e. “last” instead of “end”) may result in confusion and should be avoided.  For multilingual clients, a word wall of helpful reading words can be on display in the room, as a resource of reading vocab. definitions.

3.  Sequencing – The client needs to understand sequencing, in order to sequence the letters of a word appropriately.

4.  Phonological Awareness –  Can the child hear a rhyme in two words?  Assess it!  Dr. Adria Klein, Professor at CSU San Bernardino designed this nice quick assessment:


I am going to say two words: cat – fat.

I want you to tell me if the two words sound alike. This is called a rhyme.

Let me show you.


Cat and fat have the same sound at the end so they rhyme. Cat and mop do not rhyme because they do not have the same sound at the end.

Listen to these sets of words. Thumbs up if they rhyme. Thumbs down if they do not rhyme.

Here we go…

fin – win

rug – mug

hat – dress

pan – man

bird – book

lock – rock

bet – get

cup – dog

The good news is that for multilingual students, phonological awareness may be a general, not a language-specific, contributor for clients learning phonemic awareness skills. Cross linguistic studies in second language acquisition involving Chinese/English and French/English contained these findings (Dufresne & Masny, 2006).

 Good luck with your reading goals!  Don’t forget to make reading fun because the repetition which is often needed to grasp reading concepts may inadvertently result in a (somewhat boring) repetition of materials.  So make the materials and strategies as diverse as your clients!   Also, think outside the box with the multilingual population; keyboards in other countries are sometimes different, letters may be written differently (i.e. Greek upper-case letter “Σ” has two different forms as lower case: “ς” in word-final position and “σ” elsewhere), so research of the home language will improve in understanding the child’s phonemic productions as well as invite the family to collaborate.

Here are some fun reading recommendations for multilingual students who are early readers, provided by the School Library Journal published in May of 2014, categorized into culturally-specific and culturally-general books PreK and up:


Dufresne, T., & Masny, D. (2006). Multiple literacies: linking the research on bilingualism and biliteracies to the practical. Paediatrics & child health, 11(9), 577.

Please follow and like us:

4 thoughts on “Building the Phonemic Awareness Skills of Multilingual Individuals

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *