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Adult first-time readers in a second language
Martha Young-Scholten
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Table 2. Organic Grammar stages for verbal syntax (from Vainikka and Young-Scholten 1994)


sample utterance

basic word order

types of verbs

agreement, tense

complex syntax


Car. Bicycle. One boy.

one-word utterances





You my car hit here teacher.

resembles native language


copula ‘is’


formulaic questions


The woman is cry.

begins to resemble English


additional copula forms; modals;


no agreement some tense

formulaic wh-questions;

non-inverted yes/no questions; conjoined clauses


Car hit the kid that’s lie down on the street.


generally target-like

some agreement tense common

productive wh-yes/no questions, yet uninverted;




When you reverse, you have to see anybody behind.



usually correct


Of the eight unschooled adults, two demonstrated phonemic awareness and read words in isolation (scoring highly on all other reading sub-tests). Unlike these two, whose level of oral proficiency was rated as high, the six non-readers were at a level of morpho-syntactic development resembling children’s one-word stage. This and statistical measures showing a significant positive correlation (at p < .01) for the Somalis for overall reading ability and both morpho-syntactic and phonological competence indicates existence of a language threshold for non-schooled adults, too. .

Implications for the classroom

If there is no critical period for learning to read, what accounts for the problems unschooled adults experience? That L2 exposure may be involved is implicit in Cunningham-Florez and Terrill’s (2003) claim that 500 - 1,000 hours of instruction is required for NL-literate adults to start functioning in their L2. Clearly non-literate adults require more exposure. Those who have addressed low-literate adults’ reading development recommend various solutions, from use of real life materials and basic skills work (Condelli et al.’s study of 500 low-literate adults in classrooms across the USA) to the teaching of NL reading in an alphabetic script prior to introduction of English (Burtoff 1985 on Haitian Kreyòl). Answers will come through closing the research gap on non-literate adult refugees resettled in literate societies.


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Bernhardt, E. B. and M. L. Kamil. 1995. ‘Interpreting relationships between L1 and L2 reading: consolidating the linguistic threshold level and the interdependence hypotheses’ AppliedLinguistics. 16:15-34.

Burt, L., A. Holm and B. Dodd. 1999. ‘Phonological awareness skills of 4-year-old British children: an assessment and developmental data’ International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders.

Burt, M . 2003 ‘Issues in improving immigrant workers’ English language skills’ ERIC Brief. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.

Burtoff, M . 1985 ‘Haitian Creole literacy evaluation study: final report’ ERICDigest 277273. Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.

Condelli, L ., H. Spruck Wrigley, K. Yoo, M. Seburn and S. Cronen. 2003. What Works. Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students. Volume II: Final Report. American Institutes for Research and Aguirre International. US Department of Education, Washington, DC.

Cunningham-Florez, M . and L. Terrill. 2003 ‘Working with literacy-level adult English language learners’ ERIC Q & A Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC.

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Lenneberg, E. H. 1967. The Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley.

Morais, J., L. Cary, J. Alegria and P. Bertelson. 1979. ‘Does awareness of speech as a sequence of phones arise spontaneously?’ Cognition 7:323-331.

Ng, C . 2000. ‘English phonological skills in Chinese ELF learners with different L1 literacy experience’ Paper presented at the AAAL conference, Vancouver.

Read, C., Y. Zhang, H. Nie and B. Ding. 1986. ‘The ability to manipulate speech sounds depends on knowing alphabetic spelling’ Cognition 24:31-44.

Strucker, J . and R. Davidson. In press. Adult Reading Components Study (ARCS) Boston: NCSALL.

Robson, B. 1982. ‘Hmong literacy, formal education and their effects on performance in an ESL class’ In B. T. Downing and D. P. Olney (eds). The Hmong in the West: Observations and Reports. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota.

Vainikka, A . and M. Young-Scholten. 1994. ‘Direct access to X'-Theory: Evidence from Korean and Turkish adults learning German’ In T. Hoekstra and B. D. Schwartz (eds.) Language Acquisition Studies in Generative Grammar: Amsterdam: Benjamins. pp. 265-316.


Martha Young-Scholten is a senior lecturer, recently relocated with four Durham University Linguistics & English Language colleagues to the University of Newcastle’s School of English Literature, Language & Linguistics. Before becoming an academic, I taught both EAP and all levels of refugees and immigrants in Seattle. My research since the early 1990s focuses on the development of L2 morphosyntax and phonology, primarily by adults in 'naturalistic' contexts.

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