Found in translation–the power of cross-linguistic transfer

Educators don't need to speak a second language in order to support English language learners in their classrooms. Read on to find out how cross-linguistic transfer works and five areas in which any teacher can help make it happen.

By Amplify Staff | February 13, 2023

¿Cierto o falso? You must be bilingual to support emergent bilingual students in their literacy development.


An essential component of supporting emergent bilinguals in developing literacy is understanding cross-linguistic transfer (CLT): when emergent bilinguals use knowledge of one language to support learning another.

Educators do not need to be fluent in both languages to identify—and teach—which elements of one transfer to the other.

“Teachers should not feel discouraged in supporting their students who are Spanish-speaking, because there are ways that they can still support cross-linguistic transfer without actually speaking the language,” says Amplify senior PD strategist in biliteracy Lauren Birner.

But CLT doesn’t just happen—it requires explicit instruction. So we do need to ensure that this takes place if we want to support equity in education, especially in early childhood education.

How can educators bring the power of CLT into instruction? And support equity and excellence in education?

Making connections: The impact of CLT

Our recent webinar Making Connections: The Importance of Cross-Linguistic Transfer in Biliteracy Instruction—led by Lauren Birner and Amplify’s Kajal Patel Below—explored answers to these questions.

In the webinar, Birner and Patel Below describe similarities and differences between English and Spanish, discuss how those similarities and differences can impact instruction, and explain why CLT helps English learners leverage skills from both languages to build their biliteracy.

They also underscore why it matters—namely, that it’s about supporting equity in early childhood education and beyond.

More than 15% of our K–3 students in this country are emergent bilinguals, and we have a responsibility to help them cultivate and expand that superpower.

—Kajal Patel


The Simple View of Reading and biliteracy

The idea behind the Simple View of Reading is that the combination of language comprehension and word recognition is what leads students to gain meaning from text. If either language comprehension skills or word recognition skills are lacking, students cannot become skilled readers, and this is true in both English and Spanish.

“Research shows that when teachers explicitly teach students what transfers from one language to the other,” says Patel Below, “students are able to devote more cognitive processing time toward the more complex orthography and morphology systems of English that require more time than the more transparent systems of Spanish.”

Birner had this to add: “While components of these domains might overlap, it can be helpful to think of them individually, and how they’ll impact language and literacy development.”

So let’s take a look at the areas of language where we can leverage cross-linguistic transfer.

  1. Phonetics and phonology: 92% of all of the sounds in English and Spanish have a direct correlation. That means that teachers can focus explicit instruction only on the remaining 8% of sounds—such as the rolled r in Spanish. Meanwhile, we can also encourage them to be language detectives and recognize where the languages do connect and how they can use their skills in one to understand the other. That approach, says Birner, “will not only save valuable time and energy, but it’ll also help [educators] recognize bilingualism as an asset for all of our students.”
  2. Morphology: Students can explore cognates like hospital/hospital and celebration/celebración, while also exploring similarities and differences in pronunciation. “Whether or not they are Spanish-speaking, teachers can look to cross-linguistic transfer guidance and start to recognize things, the prefixes and suffixes that are similar across the two languages,” says Birner.
  3. Syntax and grammar: Spanish and English do have rules and structures that differ from each other, in the areas of word order, gender, conjugation, and possession. As students progress in learning these distinctions, teachers can seize opportunities for explicit instruction. For example, let’s say a student constructs the sentence: “The flower of Ana is pretty.” This is not an error, but an approximation “to be celebrated.” Birner says. “It’s a comprehensible sentence in English that just needs a minor adjustment. We can use this type of sentence as an opportunity to provide explicit instruction on possessives.”
  4. Semantics: Semantics is the study of word meaning and is critical for language learners. Exploring idioms, homonyms and homophones, and other nuances of usage across language can give students the chance to build from similarities and identify differences. “You might do something like hang a chart of idiomatic phrases in each language,” says Birner. “Looking at both languages side by side is a really great way to support your students in learning a second language.”
  5. Pragmatics: Pragmatics encompass the ways people communicate that are nuanced or unsaid. They’re often rooted in cultural norms, which include both physical norms (looking someone in the eye when speaking) and social norms (using euphemisms). “Providing students with explicit instruction on how communicating may differ from culture to culture and situation to situation can help avoid misunderstandings,” says Birner. “It’s also a great way to allow students to see the world in perspective.”


More to explore

Amplify’s biliteracy programs, rooted in the Science of Reading, can help all educators engage with multilingual learners and make the most of cross-linguistic transfer and dual language education. Here are some additional resources for you:

Biliteracy principles, as shared by biliteracy experts (students!)

Our biliteracy video playlist

”The Importance of Dual Language Assessment in Early Literacy” (white paper)

The Importance of Dual Language Assessment in Early Literacy (infographic)

Principles of Biliteracy + the Science of Reading

The Science of Reading


Bilingual Dual language Literacy instruction Reading curriculum

Related resources