Acquisition of English morpho-syntax and the development of reading by
immigrant adults
Kate Moss
Migrating to a different country is a reality faced by approximately 214 million people worldwide, many
of whom are illiterate and learn the language of the host country. Despite this, the process by which
illiterate adults become L2 speakers is largely ignored by SLA researchers. Research presented here
concerns particularly the relationship between literacy and the development of L2 morph-syntax. Data
was collected from four low-literate male L1 Kurdish speakers relating to their literacy level, phonemic
awareness, and competence in English morpho-syntax. Literacy level was found to positively correlate
with both phonemic awareness and morpho-syntactic competence, though the direction of causation
remains unclear. However, this case-study provides qualitative analysis of the circumstances in which the
participants learn both English and literacy, which offers further insight into the relationship between the
seemingly parallel development of L2 morpho-syntax and literacy.
Acquisition of English morpho-syntax and the development of reading by immigrant adults
1. Introduction
Migrating to a different country is a reality faced by approximately 214 million people worldwide, for
political, economic or social reasons (International Organisation for Migration 2011), and a substantial
proportion of these migrants are known to have low levels of formal education and literacy (UNESCO
2004). Low-literate migrants often encounter problems with social and economic integration when
settling in highly literate societies, which strains the social services and diminishes economic output
(Cameron and Cameron 2005). However, learning to communicate with members of the host community
can alleviate these problems considerably (Dustmann and Van Soest 2002), therefore learning literacy, as
well as the language of the host community, is important for social and cultural integration (Dustmann
and Van Soest 2002). Unfortunately, second language acquisition (SLA) research investigates
predominantly the process by which highly literate people learn a second language (L2) (Comings et al.
2003), and the vast majority of literacy research concerns how children learn to read in their first language
(L1) (Comings et al. 2003; Thompkins and Binder 2003). Illiterate adult L2 and literacy learning is
largely ignored (Tarone and Bigelow 2005), though this bias in research has started to be addressed in
some European countries, the USA and Sweden (Van de Craats et al. 2006). This study aims to
investigate the effect literacy, as a general cognitive mechanism, has on the process of SLA, which as
Bigelow et al. (2006) note is relatively understudied. Research so far indicates vast differences between
literates and illiterates in terms of L1 and L2 language and linguistic capabilities and seems to be a key
factor in SLA (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 2007).
Generative linguists, however, do not believe that general cognitive mechanisms influence SLA, rather
SLA is a product of an innate language-learning module inside the brain. Chomsky (1957; 1981)
proposed the idea that all children are born with an innate language learning mechanism, termed
Universal Grammar (UG). It consists of a set of principles and parameters that guide first language (L1)
acquisition (Chomsky 1986). An innate predisposition to learn a natural human language allows for rapid
and complete learning of a language (Pinker 1994) and accounts for the asymmetrical development of
language and other cognitive skills (Curtiss 1982; Curtiss and Yamada 1981). Children learning a first
language go through similar stages of syntactic and morphemic acquisition, regardless of the language
they are learning (Klima and Bellugi 1966; Slobin 1970). For instance, Brown (1973) investigated the
acquisition of morpho-syntactic elements of L1 learning of English, and found a common route of
acquisition, though the rate of acquisition varied. L1 acquisition requires little involvement of general
cognitive mechanisms (Gombert 1992); the common order must be attributed to innate universal learning
processes (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 2007). This evidence suggests that language-learning is a
specialised and modular function of the brain that is not influenced by general cognitive mechanisms
(Chomsky in Piatello-Palmirini 1979), and is the generative linguistic perspective.
Following up from Brown’s (1973) findings, Dulay and Burt (1973; 1974; 1975) investigated the route of
acquisition of English morpho-syntax as a second language by Spanish and Chinese speaking children,
and, again, found little difference in the order of morpho-syntactic acquisition despite different language
backgrounds. Bailey, Madden and Krashen (1974) established further that there is a common order of
morpho-syntax acquisition for adult L2 learners of English, again with no variations in order of
acquisition despite differences in L1, age of exposure, and type of exposure. A common route of L2
morph-syntactic development indicates that there is some involvement of a specialised language module
in SLA with little or no L1 transfer (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 2007).
This is the position of the theory of Organic Grammar (OG) (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 1994;
Young-Scholten and Ijuin 2006). OG holds that, in the initial stages of acquisition, transfer from L1
alone guides production. Only non-finite verbs and their complements are used, and make a verb phrase
(VP). The word order in the VP is that of the native language, not the target language. After the first
stage, a ‘tree’ of syntactic structures of the target language is built through the interaction of UG and
primary linguistic data (PLD). Each projection acquired includes lower projections, making the tree
increasingly complex until it resembles native speakers’.
Alternatively, Bley-Vroman (1990) and Schmidt (1993) believe that UG has no involvement in SLA,
rather there is a ‘critical period’ of access to UG that closes at the onset of puberty. It is highly unlikely
that anyone beyond this age will learn a language to native-like fluency (Penfield and Roberts 1959;
Lenneberg 1967). Additionally, observations of immigrant children and their parents show that although
children achieve native-like fluency in the language of the host country, their parents fail to do so
(Johnson and Newport 1989). There is, however, some contradictory evidence. For example, immigrant
children receive more input than immigrant adults (VanPatten 1988), and this could account for the
differences observed (Young-Scholten and Strom 2006). Additionally, Hawkins (2001) and White (2003)
argue that the inter-language of immigrant adults is constrained by the principles and parameters of UG,
suggesting that UG does influence adult inter-language.
Although generative linguists believe otherwise, Schwartz (1993) believes it would be incorrect to
attribute the source of all L2 knowledge to UG because L2 knowledge can also arise as a product of
general cognitive mechanisms. The effects of many general cognitive factors on adult SLA have been
researched thoroughly, for example, working memory capacity (Baddeley and Hitch 1974; Juffs and
Rodriguez 2008), gender (Sunderland 2000), attitude (Krashen 1982) and linguistic identity (Liebkind
1999). Also, learners who receive input in the form of instruction and correction can use general cognitive
mechanisms to build knowledge of the L2 (Schwartz 1993). This process results in ‘Learned Linguistic
Knowledge’ (LLK), a conscious, declarative knowledge of the target language (Schwartz 1993). It is
difficult to determine the source of knowledge an L2 learner is drawing on when using the L2 (Vainikka
and Young-Scholten 2007). Illiterate people, however, have limited access to L2 classroom instruction
and therefore opportunities to develop LLK are minimal (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 2007). Studying
SLA in this group there can offer new insights into the UG access debate in SLA theories.
The effect of literacy, as a general cognitive mechanism, on SLA, is relatively understudied (Bigelow et
al. 2006). Regarding the relationship between literacy and morph-syntax specifically, the evidence
presented here and elsewhere (Bigelow et al. 2006; Young-Scholten and Strom 2006) indicates that the
development of literacy in the L2 positively correlates with the development of L2 morpho-syntax,
though the direction of causation is still unclear. What follows is an investigation into how having low
levels of L1 and L2 literacy may influence SLA, particularly the acquisition of L2 morpho-syntax. To this
end, chapter 2 discusses the effect of becoming literate on phonological skills and chapter 3 the influence
that this has on L1 language processing firstly children and then in adults. Chapter 4 discusses how low
levels of literacy may effect L2 language processing and describes current theories and their associated
evidence, regarding literacy and adult acquisition of L2 morpho-syntax. Chapter 5 is a description of the
methodology of this research study, chapter 6 the results, and finally chapter 7 is a discussion of these
results and a conclusion.
2. Literacy and phonological awareness
Phonological awareness is the ‘insight into how spoken words are structured and composed of individual
sounds and combinations of sounds’ (Geudens 2006), and encompasses awareness of the word, syllable,
rhyme, onset and phoneme (Geudens 2006). The development of phonological awareness is known to cooccur with becoming literate (Goswami and Bryant 1990). For example, Hulme et al (2005) who showed
that low levels of phonological awareness predicts low literacy levels, and (Hatcher et al. 1994) showed
that extra tuition to improve phonological awareness also improves literacy level. However, there is much
evidence that awareness of the word, syllable, rhyme and onset may occur prior to reading (YoungScholten and Strom 2006), therefore phonemic awareness – awareness of the smallest unit of sound, the
phoneme – is discussed. In children, the co-occurrence of learning to read and the emergence of
phonological and phonemic awareness have been studied extensively (Young-Scholten and Strom 2006).
For example, Lieberman et al. (1974) investigated how phonological skills, developed by becoming
alphabetically literate, effect the way that children segment words. Using a tapping game, four-year-old
and six year old children were asked to tap in time to spoken phonemes, demonstrated firstly by the
experimenter. The four-year-old participants were unable to do this but 70% of the six-year-olds
managed. Tapping in time to syllables was found to be easier for both age groups, though again the six
year olds were more successful. Pre-literate children are not consciously aware of phonemes and cannot
segment speech into phonetic segments (Liberman et al. 1974). The authors suggest that children become
aware of speech segments in a hierarchical way, with awareness of the word emerging first (Gibson and
Levin 1975), followed by the syllable, and finally the phoneme.
Classic cognitive psychology studies have tested rigorously the parallel development of phonemic
awareness and literacy. Morais et al. (1979) were interested in the origins of the ‘explicit knowledge of
the phonetic structure of speech’, and operationalized literacy level as a predictor of this knowledge. They
studied 60 people from a poor region of Portugal; the majority of these were woman. These were
separated into two equal groups, the I group were illiterate, and the R group had become literate as adults.
These participants were asked to delete the first sound of an utterance provided by the researcher. The
sound to be deleted was one of three phonemes. The I group achieved only 22% accuracy, whereas the R
group achieved 80% accuracy. The authors concluded that the ability to manipulate phonemes does not
arise spontaneously. They demonstrate that these results are not the result of misunderstanding the task or
an inability to manipulate speech sounds in general by conparing the results with the result of another
experiment. Carried out by Cary and Morais (1979), the other experiment showed that illiterate
participants cannot reverse phonemes (eg. cha – ach) but they can reverse syllables (chave – vechá). The
authors conclude that it is ability to deal specifically with the phoneme that literacy aids.
Read et al. (1986) demonstrated that phonemic awareness is not than the result of literacy or education in
general, rather the result of associating a grapheme with a phoneme specifically. They compared the
phonemic skills of two groups of Chinese speakers, one group were literate in only Chinese characters
and the other group literate in Chinese characters and the Chinese alphabetic script, Hanyu Pinyin.
Logographic or syllabic scripts do not match graphemes with phonemes, and therefore associations
between these are not required. The participants were required to add or delete consonants from the start
of a syllable in both words and pseudo words. As expected, the alphabetically literate group achieved on
average 88% accuracy while the alphabetically illiterate group achieved only 29% accuracy. This
indicates that it is as a result of alphabetic literacy that phonemes can be manipulated consciously.
Lieberman believes that this occurs by being made aware through orthography that the letter <b>
represents the first sound in bat and bed the person can make a direct connection between the grapheme
and the phoneme. Chapter 3 now discusses how these abilities affect L1 processing
3. Literacy and language processing
3.1 Pre-literate child language processing
Pre-literate children do not appreciate that language consists of words (Olsen (2002) and assume that a
written word symbolises the meaning of the word, rather than the word as a label (BerthoudPapandropoulou 1978). When asked whether cupboard is a long word, a five year old replied ‘yes,
because it has a lot of things in it’ (Berthoud-Papandropoulou 1978). A word is interpreted semantically
rather than phonologically. These differences cannot be accounted for by mental maturation; literate, but
not illiterate, six year olds are unable to learn ‘Pig Latin’, a ‘secret language’ that requires the speaker to
consciously segment and manipulate speech sounds (Savin 1972). Literacy alone accounts for this
difference in language processing in children and acts through developing phonological awareness (Olson
2002). The next section further demonstrates that these changes that occur in early childhood are not the
result of mental maturation but the result of literacy acquisition by discussing illiterate adult language
3.2 Illiterate adult language processing
Similarly, illiterate adults process language in terms of semantics, rather than phonologically. Reis and
Castro-Caldas (1997) studied 20 illiterate and 10 literate Portuguese women matched on cultural
background, intelligence and pragmatic skills. The participants were asked to repeat a list of 24 highly
common words, followed by 24 pseudo words. The literate group performed equally highly on both tasks,
achieving on average a near ceiling score. The illiterate group achieved a near ceiling score when
repeating words but performed poorly when repeating pseudo words. Reis and Castro-Caldas (1997)
conclude that through developing phonological awareness, literacy allows for assigning visuo-graphic
meaning to linguistic segments smaller than the word. These can be input into working memory (WM)
and manipulated at will. The illiterate participants, unable to assign visuo-graphic meaning to pseudowords, were unable to input them into their WM. The participants also completed a semantic and
phonological fluency test, involving listing as many words as possible in a set time limit which, either a)
were names of animals (semantic fluency), or b) begin with phoneme /p/ (phonological fluency). Again,
the literate participants performed significantly better on both tasks that the illiterate participants, and as a
group they performed slightly better on the semantic fluency task than the phonological fluency task. The
same pattern was observed in the illiterate group, though here semantic fluency was much stronger than
phonological fluency. The authors postulate that the semantic system is the major system with which
language is processed, and the written word constitutes a secondary system. Literates use both systems in
parallel, which, according to Reis and Castro-Caldas (1997), accounts for their superior language
processing skills.
Differences between literate and illiterate language-processing has been further demonstrated using
positron emission topography scans (PET scans). Castro –Caldas et al. (1998) compared the brain activity
of literate and illiterate people when repeating words and pseudo-words. They found that literacy level
has no impact on brain activity when repeating words, though the brains of literate participants show
considerably more activity than those of illiterates when repeating pseudo words. This demonstrates that
literacy changes language processing brain networks (Petersson et al. 2000) and supports the notion of
parallel processing systems.
Inputting phonemes into WM is dependent on phonemic awareness that is developed through becoming
literate in an alphabetic script (Morais et al. 1979). Inputting phonemes into WM requires conscious
phonological processing (Reis and Castro-Caldas 1997) and allows for the conscious noticing of
phonemes (Schmidt and Frota 1986). It is through the process of linking graphemes with phonemes that
one becomes consciously aware of, and able to manipulate, phonemes. It seems clear then that literacy
changes the way that oral language is processed (Bigelow et al. 2006), and if literacy effects the
processing of one’s native language, it follows that literacy will also affect the processing of an L2
(Tarone and Bigelow 2007). Chapter 4 discusses how literacy may also effect L2 processing.
4. Literacy and L2 processing
Second language processing can be explored using oral corrective feedback, otherwise called recasts.
After an incorrect utterance, a recasts may be given by non-native and native speakers (Gass 1985), and
provide the learner with general information about form and meaning of a sentence (Chun et al. 1982).
This can be used by the learner to either confirm or disprove hypotheses about the target language
(Bigelow et al. 2006). This is not always effective because the learner may misinterpret the purpose of the
recast (Lyster 1998; Pica 1994) possibly because of proficiency levels or metalinguistic skills, or even due
to properties of the recast itself such as its length or complexity (Bigelow et al. 2006).
Bigelow et al. (2006) investigated whether literacy level was related to the ability to recall recasts of
varying lengths and complexities. In a partial replication of Philp’s (2003) study, eight young adult
Somali participants were divided into two groups, moderate level of literacy and low level of literacy
averaged over their L1 and L2. They were each assigned an oral proficiency level based on the ‘Speaking
Proficiency English Assessment Kit’ test (Educational Testing Service 1982). The aim was to elicit
question formations from the participants, if these were erroneous a recast would be provided and a recall
from the participant would be expected. Eliciting question formation involved casual conversation with
the participant, a story-completion and a spot-the-difference task. Data collection involved eliciting
question formations from the participants, and then knocking twice on the table before correcting an
erroneous question formation. The participants were then required to recall the recast. To classify the
complexity of corrected questions they used the 6 stages of acquisition of question formation in English a
proposed by Pienemann et al. (1988). All participants had reached high levels of L2 oral proficiency,
therefore all recasts were considered to be within the participants’ stage of acquisition. The recalls were
then classified as either correct, modified or no recall.
With regards to the correct recalls of all questions, the results indicate that the moderately literate group
were more successful, though not to a significant level. Also calculated were the correct and modified
recall rates amalgamated together, to assess the possibility of uptake, including that which did not lead to
correct recall. This demonstrated a significant positive correlation between literacy and uptake rates.
In terms of the length of the recast, the rate of uptake (i.e. the number of correct or modified recalls) was
not related to literacy level. These results contrast with those found in studies with literate participants;
the authors suggest this could be because, a) some of the participants found even the shortest of recasts
challenging, and b) illiteracy may have led to well-developed memory for oral data as a coping strategy.
The complexity of the recasts was found to be related to literacy level. The more complex recasts, those
with two or more changes, were more likely to elicit correct or modified recalls from the moderately
literate group than the low literacy group. Bigelow et al. (2006) believe that this difference originates in a
literates enhanced ability to ‘keep straight’ the changes made in in the recast to various grammatical
categories, by holding them in their WM. Low-literates are unable to do this. This amounts to a difference
in oral language processing strategies between moderately literates and low-literates; the strategies
required for conscious noticing are not available to low-literates (Bigelow et al. 2006), and explain their
poor performance. This they believe explains why and how literacy causes the development of morphosyntax.
However, the conclusions drawn are reliant on the assumption that a modified recall is evidence for
uptake. The participants were aware that they were required to recall only erroneous utterances, and
therefore any change to the original utterance would more likely be correct than repeating the original
utterance. Though a modified recall was classified here as evidence of uptake, it is unclear as to whether
any uptake really occurred. Assuming that a modified recall is evidence of uptake, these findings differ
entirely from those of Philp (2003) and highlight the importance of diversifying the study of SLA in terms
of research participants to include illiterate or low-literate participants (Bigelow et al. 2006). The authors
note that the low literate participants had relatively good L2 oral abilities, which suggests that conscious
noticing may not always be required in SLA; something that is not accounted for in the ‘Noticing
Hypothesis’ theory of SLA (Schmidt 1993; Schmidt 1995; Tarone and Bigelow 2005).
Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) studied 17 adult low-literate Somali and Vietnamese speakers. The
length of residence in the USA varied from 1 to 20 years, and the length of English as a second language
(ESL) instruction varied between two weeks and 20 years. Also nine of the participants had had between
two and five years primary education. The study consisted of a battery of tests, firstly the literacy tests.
The participants were placed at a stage (Ehri 1994) for comparison using single letter identification,
paragraph reading, and decoding of familiar words in isolation along with other measures. Secondly, they
were placed at a level of English morpho-syntax acquisition using Organic Grammar (OG) stages
(Vainikka and Young-Scholten 1994; Young-Scholten and Ijuin 2006) using a picture description task to
elicit speech. Finally, various tests were used to measure the awareness of linguistic segments - the word,
syllable, rhyme, onset and phoneme.
Similar Bigelow et al.’s (2006) results, Young-Scholten and Strom’s (2006) results showed that those
with lower literacy levels also have lower levels of L2 morpho-syntax. Additionally, those with the lowest
level of literacy received no primary education at all. This supports Bigelow et al.’s (2006) notion that
literacy changes the way that language is processed in such a way as to support the acquisition of L2
morpho-syntax. However, Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) suggest that literacy learning is supported
by morpho-syntax acquisition. The morpho-syntax level in all of the unschooled participants is
consistently higher than, or the same as, reading level. It seems that L2 morpho-syntax develops prior to
reading. One participant achieved the second highest level of reading which ‘can be seen as a
consequence’ of his near native level of morpho-syntactic competence. Of the nine participants who had
received some primary educations in their L1, five of them had achieved a higher level of reading than L2
morpho-syntax. This, the authors say, indicates that transferable L1 reading skills lower the morphosyntactic, or ‘linguistic competence’, threshold required to learn literacy.
When learning to read in a second language, a reader may either draw on knowledge of the second
language or on knowledge of reading skills, or these two knowledge bases may interact with each other
(Alderson 1984). For example, an L1 literate person with low level L2 proficiency may read L2 text
without comprehending it; having high linguistic skills lowers the level of L2 proficiency required to
read. In contrast, an illiterate learner with the same L2 proficiency level could neither read nor
comprehend the text. How the ‘linguistic threshold’ and the ‘language threshold’ affect L2 reading skill is
subject to debate (Carrell 1991; Alderson 1984). Illiterate learners have no L1 reading skills to draw on;
Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) argue that in this case ‘the notion of a threshold assumes greater
importance’. There is therefore a L2 proficiency level that illiterate readers are required to attain before
L2 reading may become possible.
The idea of a ‘linguistic competence’ threshold of reading in a second language implies knowledge of
vocabulary (Young-Scholten and Strom 2006). In literate SLA, vocabulary seems to accurately predict
attainment in L2 reading (Alderson 2000; Bossers 1991; Brisbois 1995), though linguistic competence in
terms of syntax can also be an important predictor of comprehension (Alderson 2000). Young-Scholten
and Strom (2006) believe that the phonology, morphology and syntax of the L2 must be deciphered by
the illiterate L2 learner before L2 reading comprehension is possible.
So, L2 morpho-syntax may be processed differently in the illiterate brain (Tarone and Bigelow 2005) in
such a way that literacy aids L2 morpho-syntactic development. In contrast Young-Scholten and Strom
(2006) suggest rather that L2 morpho-syntactic competence supports the development of reading. While
they accept that learning to read furthers L2 learners’ morpho-syntactic development, they suggest that
reading and reading instruction enhances the quality and quantity of input, thereby having an impact on
morpho-syntactic development and reading.
This study will further investigate the direction of causation between the development of L2 morphosyntax and the development of literacy.
5. The study
This study aims to investigate how learning to read interacts with the development English L2 morphosyntax. This study comprises of a battery of tests designed to measure reading ability and phonemic
awareness, and a qualitative analysis of participants’ utterances to determine morpho-syntactic
competence. It is a partial replication of Young-Scholten and Strom (2006).
a) Participants with more advanced reading ability will also display more awareness of phonemes.
b) Participants with more advanced reading ability will display more advanced morpho-syntactic
competence in English.
5.1 Participants
Data was collected from four male L1 Kurdish speakers from Iraq, aged between 24 and 38 years old. The
participants were not selected specifically; rather they were the only students attending the class when the
data was collected. They had lived in England for between 7 and 10 years, but none had received any
formal English as a second language (ESL) instruction or native language education. Despite this, they
had well developed oral communication skills, and could hold conversation on many subjects. Two had
been attending an English pre-entry level literacy class at ‘Streets Ahead for Information’ in
Middlesbrough for approximately three months prior to testing, one had been attending for approximately
two months, and one had had only two weeks literacy instruction at the time of testing. Table 1 below
summarises details of the participants.
Table 1. A summary of the participants’ details
Sex Age
Native language
0 years
0 years
0 years
0 years
0 years
0 years
0 years
0 years
English literacy
3 months
3 months
2 months
2 weeks
Length of residence
un the UK
8 years
8 years
7 years
10 years
5.2 Data collection
The participants were interviewed individually at ‘Streets Ahead for Information’ in a quiet room. The
participants were firstly briefed on the purpose and procedures of the study, the interviewer then read
aloud the consent form to the participant. All participants understood the contents of the consent form and
it was signed by the both interviewer and participant1. Each interview started with a brief interview to
establish the participants’ language background and educational history. None of the participants had any
schooling prior to the literacy class or any L1 literacy. During two sessions, one week apart, data relating
to literacy, phonemic awareness and morpho-syntactic competence was measured. The sub-sections
below describe this process in more detail.
Assessing Literacy
Following this, the literacy tests Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) used were administered starting with
single letter decoding. The participants were asked to name eight unordered letters varying in font (an
idea derived from the Woodcock Johnson Revised (1989) test). Secondly, 17 high frequency words
(mono- and bi- syllabic) were presented in isolation and the participants were asked to read as many as
they could (see appendix 1). All participants either struggled, or did not attempt, to decode the single
words in isolation, therefore it seemed inappropriate to present the final two literacy tests used by YoungScholten and Strom (2006), paragraph reading and fill-in-blanks. The scores of these tests were assumed
to be zero for all participants. Throughout these tests, the results were noted on tables (see appendix 2)
and erroneous answers were corrected.
Assessing phonemic awareness
Following the literacy tests, two tests were administered to assess phonological awareness. Partially
replicating Morais et al’s (1979) phoneme deletion task, the participants were asked to delete the first
phoneme of 12 English monosyllabic words (see appendix 1). This was demonstrated twice to each
participant to illustrate the rule, followed by 12 experimental trials. Erroneous answers were corrected by
the interviewer. Unlike Morais et al (1979) the participants were asked to delete various word-initial
phonemes rather than only <p> and <b>. Additionally, whereas Morais et al (1979) used the participants’
native language, here their L2 was used. The second task was a phonological fluency task. Each
participant was asked to list as many English words as possible beginning with phoneme /p/ in two
minutes (appendix 2).
The preserve the participants’ anonymity the consent forms haven’t been included in the appendix. They are,
however, available on request.
Assessing morpho-syntactic competence
Given the participants’ highly developed oral communication skills, morpho-syntactic competence was
using the abundant amount of oral data produced during the informal interviews. This data was recorded
on a dictaphone for later analysis. A list of each participant’s utterance can be found in appendix 3.
5.3 Data analysis
According to Ehri (1994), learning to read can be divided into stages. The participants’ reading stages
were assessed using the criteria shown in Table 2, an adaptation from Young-Scholten and Strom (2006).
Table 2. Criteria to assess the participants’ reading level
Single letter
Paragraph reading
0% +
0% +
no ability
75% +
0% +
no ability
75% +
20% +
20% +
sometimes accurate
80% +
mostly accurate
Source: Based on Young-Scholten and Strom 2006
Single word
0% +
0% +
20% +
20% +
60% +
In general the participants found identifying single letters least problematic, one participant correctly
identified all the letters presented though another did not attempt this task at all. In light of this, level 0
was added to the table first presented by Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) to accommodate this data.
Decoding single words was problematic for all participants, and two participants did not attempt this task.
None of the participants attempted the paragraph reading or fill-in-blanks tasks, therefore the lowest level
of performance was assumed for these tasks.
Phonemic awareness
Analysis of the phoneme deletion task involved comparing the number of correct responses given by each
participant. Similarly, the number of words provided by each participant in the phonological fluency task
was also compared.
Morpho-syntax was assessed using the stages of Organic Grammar (OG) (Vainikka and Young-Scholten
1994; Young-Scholten and Ijuin 2006). This framework draws on the general agreement that morph-
syntactic elements are acquired in a predictable order for both L1 and L2 acquisition, established by
Brown (1973) and Bailey et al (1974) respectively. OG divides acquisition into stages 1-5, and placing a
learner at a stage involves measuring the production of a particular inflectional morpheme in the correct
context (Vainikka and Young-Scholten 2007). Placing a learner at any one stage implies they must have
achieved proficiency at all the morpho-syntactic forms at the lower stages (Vainikka and Young-Scholten
1994). The criteria for placing a learner at a stage are outlined in the Table 3.
Table 3. OG criteria to assess the participants’ morpho-syntactic competence
Verb Type
Mains verbs
Copula is
Copula be
beyond is
Verbal inflection
Complex Syntax
Begin to emerge
Some tense and
aspect forms
Range or
Productive tense
Complex tense
New forms
More forms, but
can still be
Obligatory; there
and existential it
New uses there
and it
Formulation or intonation
based Qs
Conjoined clauses
Simple subordination; Qs,
but may still be un-inverted
Complex subordination; Qs
Source: Based on Young-Scholten & Ijuin 2006
Memorized chunks of speech were not included in the analysis because they may lead to an
overestimation of the learners’ morpho-syntactic competence (Myles 2004). A morpho-syntactic form
was judged ‘productive’ when it was used in more than one context or with more than one verb (YoungScholten & Ijuin, 2006).
6. Results
The tables used in the data collection may be found in appendix 2. A record of all the individual
participants’ utterances may be found in appendix 3.
Overall performance
Table 4 below is an overview of the findings. For clarity, length of English literacy instruction and length
of residency in the UK is also included.
Table 4. Summary of the findings
English literacy
3 months
3 months
2 months
2 weeks
Phonemic awareness
Phoneme deletion
Phonological fluency
(% target)
(no. of responses)
Morphosyntax level
The literacy score and the score on the phoneme deletion task correlate with each other. As literacy
improves, so does the ability to delete a word-initial phoneme. This result mirrors that of Morais et al
(1979). The results of the phonological fluency task are less clear-cut, though the two lower scoring
participants on the phoneme deletion were worse on the phonological fluency task. The level of morphosyntactic acquisition also positively correlates with literacy level and phonemic awareness. The length of
literacy instruction also correlates with literacy level and phonemic awareness, though this is not a
universal finding in low-literate second language research (Young-Scholten and Strom 2006). Finally, age
interacted with literacy level. The younger participants had more advanced morpho-syntax, literacy, and
phonemic awareness.
The next section provides a representative sketch of each participant’s utterances and an analysis of their
morpho-syntactic competence.
Analysis of utterances
Each of the participants’ utterances will be assessed in terms of verb type, verbal inflection, complexity of
syntax and pronoun use in turn.
Participant 1
Verb type: Copula be was always supplied in the appropriate context. Forms of copula be, beyond is,
were also produced, for example (1) and (2).
(1) Sometimes I am confused on the phone.
(2) I was stressed.
The varied forms of copula be fulfils requirements for OG stage 3, though this speaker did not produce
the range of auxiliaries required to fulfil the requirements of stage 4 verb types; verb type was therefore
assessed at OG stage 3.
Verbal inflection: Many tense and aspect forms were produced, see examples (3) and (4).
(3) I have smoked.
(4) I’ve been in hospital.
But this was not always productive:
(5) *I’m born in Arabic area.
The verbal inflection was therefore also assessed at OG stage 3.
Complex syntax: Conjoined and subordinate clauses were used productively, as in (6).
(6) Sometimes I don’t understand something that I watch on TV, and when people speak to me they
speak very fast, you know.
Again, this fulfils requirements for OG stage 3, though the requirements of OG stage 4 of complex syntax
was not reached because questions were always uninverted:
(7) It’s in here?
Therefore complex syntax was assessed at stage 3.
Pronouns: Example (6) also demonstrates the correct use of pronouns they, me, you and I; pronoun
acquisition is therefore also at stage 3.
Based on this evidence, participant 1 (henceforth P1) was assessed as being at OG stage 3 of acquisition.
Participant 2
Verb type: Copula be was always used in the correct context, for example (8) and (9).
(8) *He is doctor.
(9) *Her is his mum.
However there were no examples of copula be being used correctly in any other form. Acquisition of verb
types is at OG stage 2.
Verbal inflection: Occurred sporadically, as in (10).
(10) *And she thinks… she just look at which bread he wants.
Here 3rd per.sg -s appears on think and want, but not on look. (11) illustrates that progressive -ing was
used, though often incorrectly.
(11) *Learning how writing.
Verbal inflection was assessed at OG stage 2 of acquisition.
Complex syntax: Conjoined clauses were used productively:
(12) I go to some company or somewhere like this, and they say to me to fill the form.
Though questions were always intonation based:
(13) You are doing the same?
No subordinate clauses were used and therefore complex syntax acquisition was assessed at OG stage 3.
Pronouns: Used often, though not always productively, see (9). Example (14) illustrates the correct use
of both subject and object pronoun forms.
(14) But for us, we just learn.
However pronouns were not always present:
(15) *So I just put [it the] opposite way around.
Pronoun acquisition seems to be between OG stages 2 and 3.
This data does not fulfil the requirements of OG stage 3, though P2 exceeds the requirements for OG
stage 2. This data places participant 2 (henceforth P2) between stages 2 and 3, to reflect this P2 was
assigned OG stage 2+.
Participant 3
Verb type: Copula is was used, though only in its contracted form and only with pronoun it, as in (16).
(16) It’s alright now.
This use of copula is was judged as a memorised chunk, because it only appeared in this context. A
variety of main verbs were used such as come, try and think. The acquisition of verb types was therefore
at OG stage 1.
Verbal inflection: Progressive -ing was used productively occasionally, though most often incorrectly,
for example (17) and (18).
(17) It’s [someone] shopping.
(18) *I go to working.
There is therefore a small amount of verbal inflection though not enough to fulfil the requirements of OG
stage 2; verbal inflection is assigned stage 1+.
Pronouns: Used occasionally, see (19), but were also omitted, see (20).
(19) I speak to her.
(20) *I like [it].
Pronoun acquisition therefore fulfils requirements for OG stage 2.
Complex syntax: None. Acquisition of complex syntax was assessed at OG stage 1.
The use of pronouns and some verbal inflection indicate that competence is beyond stage 1, though the
complexity of syntax used and lack of copula be, mean that the requirements for stage 2 are not fulfilled.
Overall, participant 3 (henceforth P3) was assessed to be between OG stages 1 and 2, stage 1+.
Participant 4
Verb type: Used main verbs only, see (21) and (22).
(21) I watch TV.
(22) *She go in school.
Sentences (23) and (24) were produced but represent language competence far beyond what the data
indicates. These were judged to be memorised chunks because the verbs were only used in this context.
(23) I don’t copy.
(24) I don’t know.
Verb type acquisition was assessed at stage 1.
Verbal inflection: Only bare verbs were used. Verbal inflection was assessed to be at OG stage 1.
Pronouns: I and she were used as in (23) and (24), though any pronoun other than I was used only once.
Because of this, pronoun use was assessed at OG stage 1.
Complex syntax: None. Acquisition of complex syntax was assessed at OG stage 1.
Overall, this participant 4 (henceforth P4) was placed at OG stage 1 of acquisition.
The next chapter is a detailed discussion of these results.
7. Discussion
7.1 Phonemic awareness
The results of this small case study of four illiterate L2 learners of English literacy confirm previous
findings by Read et al. (1986) and Morais et al. (1979), who found that alphabetically illiterate people
lack phonemic awareness, and supports hypothesis a), that ‘participants with more advanced reading
ability will also display more awareness of phonemes’. This study provides further evidence (mirroring
those of Calfee et al. 1973) that the more literate a person is, the better their phonemic awareness. It
seems that phonemic awareness is not a precondition to reading, rather reading allows for phonemic
awareness to ‘manifest itself’ (Morais et al. 1979). Though there is a strong argument of this directionality
(Berthoud-Papandropoulou 1978; Morais et al. 1979; Olsen 2002), the present study cannot prove cause
and effect. Also, the present study provides a relatively narrow assessment of phonemic awareness, and
does not include assessments of awareness of other phonological constructs. Thompkins and Binder
(2003) assessed phonological awareness of functionally illiterate adults and children matched to the adults
using literacy level. Using a variety of phonological awareness tests, they established that the main causes
of the difference between (relatively) low level readers and (relatively) good readers are memory and
phonological skills. They propose that one cause of low literacy is poor phonological awareness. It may
be that higher literacy levels, in this case study, did not cause the development of phonemic awareness.
7.2 Morpho-syntax and literacy
Here, morpho-syntactic competence was found to positively correlate with literacy level, supporting
hypothesis b), that ‘participants with more advanced reading ability will display more advanced morphosyntactic competence in English’. This result echos those of Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) who also
found that in unschooled adults, morpho-syntactic competence was related to reading ability and Bigelow
et al. (2006), who found that less literate learners are poorer at processing oral corrective feedback.
The study of Somali teenagers by Bigelow et al. (2006) showed an interaction between literacy and the
processing of oral recasts where, as literacy improves, so does the ability to correctly recall a recast.
These researchers concluded that literacy changes the way that oral language is processed because it
allows the learner to notice elements of speech that would be unidentifiable to an illiterate learner. By
doing so, they can formulate more accurate hypotheses about the target language. Becoming literate helps
develop L2 morpho-syntax. Similarly, P1 and P2, by becoming partially literate may have been able to
notice elements of morpho-syntax used by competent speakers and reformulated hypotheses of English,
leading to further competence in morph-syntax. This causal relationship may explain the interaction in the
present study between literacy and morpho-syntactic competence.
Young-Scholten and Strom (2006) suggest alternatively that morpho-syntactic competence may effect,
rather than be affected by, literacy learning. They suggest that a hypothetical threshold of morpo-syntactic
competence must be achieved in order to support literacy learning. Participant S3 in Young-Scholten and
Strom’s (2006) research, a Somali male, aged 30, was found by to have achieved a high level of literacy
skills after only two week of instruction. The authors suggest that this was because of his extensive
morpho-syntactic competence. Potentially, P1 and P2 may have had higher morpho-syntactic competence
prior to literacy instruction than P3 and P4, and has led to their relative success at reading. Under this
suggestion, P4’s lack of literacy is an effect, not a cause, of poor morpho-syntactic competence. Certainly,
P4’s opportunities prior to the literacy class were extremely limited. With extended family in the local
area and little interaction with local community services, he had no reason or motivation to interact with
native speakers. This may have resulted in his slow L2 language learning impede his progress in literacy
learning. His low literacy level may be a result of poor morpho-syntactic competence, not a lack of
instruction. Unfortunately, the participants’ morpho-syntactic competence was not measured prior to
literacy instruction and therefore it is impossible to ascertain the influence of L2 morpho-syntactic
competence on literacy learning.
In the present study literacy level also correlates with the amount of literacy instruction received. Findings
of Condelli and Wrigley (2006), who carried out a much larger scale study, show the same interaction of
instruction and literacy level, validating the present results. It seems plausible therefore that the higher
literacy scores among the participants were a direct result of the instruction received. According to the
teacher, this literacy course had begun by building the learners phonological awareness using
phonological training tasks. Similar tasks were used by Hatcher et al. (1994) for experimentation and
shown to improve literacy level considerably. P1 and P2, who had attended the class from the beginning
of the course, had taken part in the phonological training. P3 joined the class after this training, but nonethe-less participated in the majority of the reading training. P4 joined the class much later, only two
weeks prior to testing, and therefore had received only a small amount of reading instruction at the time
of data collection. The data indicates that the amount of literacy instruction received is an accurate
predictor of literacy level - more instruction leads to better reading.
However, this is not a universal finding, as demonstrated by participant S3from Young-Scholten and
Strom (2006). These authors suggest that gaining L2 instruction, as well as providing phonological
awareness training and literacy instruction, improves the quality and quantity of L2 input. This results in
improvement in morpho-syntactic competence which, in turn, improves literacy level. If a learner is
exposed to high enough quality and quantity input outside the literacy classroom, literacy will develop
relatively quickly, as in the case of participant S2 in Young-Scholten and Strom (2006). In this case
study, the literacy classes attended by the four participants were conducted entirely in English despite the
students sharing a common language. The teacher encouraged the students to converse by setting group
challenges. This resulted in lively discussions, in English, between the students. Similar interactions
between interlocutors, whether native speakers or not, have been shown to improve L2 competence (Gass
1985). It seems probable therefore that attending the literacy class improves both language and literacy
skills. It is impossible to establish conclusively from this data which of these factors (instruction or
morpho-syntactic competence) is predominantly responsible for the differences in literacy level between,
for example, P1 and P4 because both of these factors have benefitted P1 and neither have benefitted P4.
Future research could measure morpho-syntactic competence prior to literacy instruction and assess the
progress of L2 language competence and reading skills in a longitudinal fashion. In doing so, the
influence of morpho-syntactic competence on learning to read, and vice versa, may be ascertained.
7.3 Age and SLA
The data was collected from participants with fairly advanced oral communication skills. This allowed for
naturalistic, spontaneous oral data to be collected and an in-depth analysis of their morpho-syntactic
competence. These circumstances also allowed qualitative information regarding individual aspects of
their lives and their experiences learning English language and literacy to be collected. In this data set,
age correlates with morpho-syntactic competence. Age, as a factor effecting SLA, is often studied in
reference to the Critical Period hypothesis, whereby SLA becomes more difficult after early adolescence
(Penfield and Roberts 1959; Lenneberg 1967). There are, however, effects of age beyond this period.
Moyer (2004), who studied 25 highly educated L2 learners of German, exposed to German for the first
time in late adolescence or beyond. She demonstrated that the age at which the learner was exposed to the
target language negatively correlates with L2 attainment, providing that ‘concomitant aspects of
maturation’ are also present. These aspects include social-psychological and experiential-interactive
factors. These will be discussed in turn, relative the four participants in this study.
Experiential-interactive factors
Firstly, Moyer (2004) found L2 learners exposed to the target language at a relatively later age engaged
less frequently with native speakers in the target language, and reached a lower level of attainment. My
results mirror exactly this finding. The younger participants, P1 and P2, were exposed to English at a
younger age and engaged with native speakers much more frequently. The youngest participant, P1, had
had extensive experience conversing with native English speakers. Having suffered poor health for the
duration of his time in the UK, he spoke of prolonged stays in hospital and contact with medical services.
He believed that this was instrumental to his success in learning English. Although this clearly was not an
active, or passive, decision to use English, he did take other opportunities to engage in conversation with
native speakers. For example, he sought one-on-one advice from a smoking cessation nurse and attended
smoking cessation support groups. P1 and P2 also had native speaking friends and acquaintances with
whom they spoke on a daily basis. P3 and P4 had no such frequent contact with native English speakers.
Opportunities to engage in conversation with native speakers and age correlate, and seem to be highly
influential on language attainment. Nonetheless, the direction of causation between these variables is
unclear. For example, P1 may have chosen to engage with native speakers because of his previous
experience using English with the medical services.
Social-psychological factors
Moyer (2004) found that those exposed to the target language at a relatively later age self-rated their
attainment lower and were more likely to be dissatisfied with their attainment. They were also less likely
to take measures to improve L2 skills, such as attend classes. Plausibly, lower self-rating and the resulting
dissatisfaction may reflect realistically L2 skills. However, Moyer (2004) notes that age and
dissatisfaction are also related to lack of opportunity or contact with native speakers, and suggests that
further consideration of the meaning of this correlation must be considered. P4 had the same opportunity
as participants P1, P2 and P3 to attend the literacy course from the beginning, but, after only one class,
decided to not attend and instead pursue employment. After approximately three months of unsuccessful
searching, he decided to attend the literacy course in order to improve employment prospects. Not
attending classes for three months indicates a lack of desire to improve skills; this was confirmed in the
interview by P1. It seems likely, in light of Moyer’s (2004) results, that P4 was dissatisfied with his
attainment. This could simply be a direct reflection of his poor attainment, or possibly that, as someone
exposed to English at a relatively late age, he had fewer opportunities to engage with native speakers and
led to general dissatisfaction with his language skills and disengagement with the local community.
Moyer (2004) also found that motivational intensity to improve L2 skills leads to higher levels of
attainment. Therefore, P1 and P2 may be expected to have more motivation to improve, leading to their
relative success. Motivation was demonstrated or spoken about by these participants on a number of
occasions. P2 had a particular interest in reading newspapers and would buy a newspaper on a daily basis.
He would bring in articles that he wanted to decipher, with help from the teacher. Additionally, he had
two young children, one of whom would start attending a local primary school imminently. He spoke of
his desire to learn to read to encourage his children in their education. These factors infer considerable
motivation to learn both L2 language and literacy. P1 had no family living nearby, and according to him,
this made him more determined to fit into the local community through learning English language and
literacy skills. Considerable personal motivation is shown by both P1 and P2, and directly cited by both to
be the reason behind regular attendance in class. P1 and P2, with a younger age of exposure to English,
may have a greater feeling of belonging in the community having had more opportunity to engage with
native speakers which enhanced their desire to improve their language and literacy skills. Paradoxically,
Moyer (2004) found the opposite. The learners with a later age of exposure (AOE) had more motivation
to improve their L2 language skills, possibly because the younger AOE learners, who generally had
higher levels of attainment, had already reached their L2 goals. Here, none of the participants had reached
their L2 goals, which could explain the differences between the participants in Moyer’s (2004) research
and the present study.
Differences in the design of the present study and that of Moyer (2004) mean that the results are not
directly comparable. Nonetheless, in both studies age interacts with social-psychological and experientialinteractive factors affecting SLA, and may explain the superior L2 competence of P1 and P2. With P1 and
P2 having similar age of exposure, length of literacy instruction and motivational intensity, they may be
expected to also have similar levels of L2 language and literacy attainment. However, this was not the
case; P1 had achieved higher levels of L2 language and literacy attainment than P2. The next section
explores a possible reason for this difference.
7.4 Bilingualism
Unlike P2, P1 was bilingual, speaking both Kurdish and Arabic. According to Cummins (1978),
bilinguals may also have heightened metalinguistic awareness, compared to their monolingual
counterparts. Bilingualism may ‘heighten one’s awareness of specific linguistic devices’ (Clark 1978);
this refers to metalinguistic awareness, including the awareness of phonemes (Clark 1978). Campbell and
Sais (1995) studied the performance of bilingual and monolingual pre-school children on four tasks
measuring metalinguistic awareness, one of which was a phoneme deletion task similar to the phoneme
deletion task used here. They found that the bilingual children had a significant advantage in the
phonological awareness tasks. As noted above, performance in phonemic awareness tasks are strong
predictors of reading level (Hulme et al. 2005) and that having better phonological skills improves
literacy (Hatcher et al. 1994). The data shows that P1 had superior phonemic awareness and this may
account for this higher literacy level. This idea is supported by Tunmer and Myhill (1984) who believe
that the more advances metalinguistic skill often demonstrated by bilinguals lead to higher reading levels.
According to Moyer (2004), bilinguals also have social and motivational advantage learning a new
language. Bilinguals tend to interact with native speakers more often and maintain a greater consistency
in their motivation to learn (Moyer 2004). This implies that P1 may have had an advantage over P2
acquiring English morpho-syntax because of heightened motivation and rates of interaction with native
English speakers. Potentially, he may have reached a higher OG stage prior to the literacy classes. His
relatively advanced reading skills may be a consequence of his higher OG attainment and may accounts
for the difference between morpho-syntax and reading attainment levels of P1 and P2. However, Moyer’s
(2004) research investigates only highly literate learners, which indicates that literate bilinguals have
advantages learning a new language. Further research may investigate whether these advantages are
shared by illiterate bilinguals. If they are, does this effect literacy learning?
The suggestion that P1 may have superior metalinguistic skills, particularly phonological awareness, is
based on evidence collected from bilingual children that Bialystok (2001) describes as ‘vague and
fragile’, generally due to small sample sizes and uncontrolled variables. Relevant further research in this
area may investigate potential differences in metalinguistic skills between monolingual and bilingual
illiterate adults, and if these differences influence learning to read for the first time in an L2. The evidence
from such research may indicate the likely reasons behind P1’s language and linguistic success. However,
without such evidence it is not clear if P1’s success in English morpho-syntax acquisition and reading
may be attributed to a) heightened metalinguistic skills or b) social and motivational advantages in
language acquisition, as a result of his bilingual upbringing. Furthermore, his relative success may not be
due to bilingualism at all, rather this result may be a consequence of the small sample size, which is not
representative of the population under investigation. The next section discusses one final unexpected
7.5 Reading materials
P2 was interested in learning to read newspapers and collected articles he wished to decipher; the other
students also demonstrate genuine interest in these articles. All the learners seemed interested in local
history and prominent political figures. This infers a genuine desire to integrate into the culture of the host
country, something that becoming literate, and reading for pleasure, supports (Dustmann and Van Soest
2002). Providing engaging material to read encourages reading as a recreational activity; and reading for
pleasure is an effective method to becoming a proficient reader (Krashen 1988). Reading also provides an
additional source of input (Wilkinson and Young-Scholten 2010), developing further L2 morpho-syntax
and vocabulary (Krashen 2004; Nation 1997). With this in mind, ‘Simply Cracking Good Stories’ is a
project set up at Newcastle University in order to produce age appropriate fiction books. This project aims
to help university students write linguistically accessible, engaging fiction books to encourage
recreational reading in the adult low-literate population (Young-Scholten and Maguire 2009; Wilkinson
and Young-Scholten 2010). The results of the present study suggest that non-fiction books, written with
the same linguistic and creative principles in mind, may also be engaging to many learners in the lowliterate adult population. Newspaper style texts, history books, or biographies of public figures would be
of particular interest to the participants in this study.
8. Conclusion
This case-study of four low-literate male learners of English literacy investigates the relationship between
literacy level, phonemic awareness and level of L2 English morpho-syntactic competence. As
hypothesised, both morpho-syntactic competence and phonemic awareness was more advanced in those
participants with higher reading scores; a result that mirrors those of earlier research. However, statistical
analysis or a quantitative interpretation of the results is not appropriate here because of the small sample
size. The strength of this research lies in the qualitative analysis of the learners’ utterances and aspects of
their lives that may have effected L2 language and literacy learning. All four participants could
communicate in English freely, allowing the participants to discuss and contemplate with the interviewer
aspects of their lives and how this may have had an effect on their own learning of English and literacy.
This rare opportunity has highlighted issues facing low-literate learners of a second language, such as: the
impact of increased age of exposure beyond late adolescence, and the associated changes in lifestyle, has
on L2 success; the importance of opportunities to engage in conversation native speakers of the target
language; the influence that heightened metalinguistic awareness may have on L2 language and literacy
learning; and finally types of literature that may encourage low-literate L2 adult readers to read for
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Acquisition of English morpho-syntax and the