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Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 July 2008

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT
Department of Education, Dartmouth College
Department of Psychology, University of Toronto
E-mail address:


How does age of first bilingual language exposure affect reading development in children learning to read in both of their languages? Is there a reading advantage for monolingual English children who are educated in bilingual schools? We studied children (grades 2–3, ages 7–9) in bilingual Spanish–English schools who were either from Spanish-speaking homes (new to English) or English-speaking homes (new to Spanish), as compared with English-speaking children in monolingual English schools. An early age of first bilingual language exposure had a positive effect on reading, phonological awareness, and language competence in both languages: early bilinguals (age of first exposure 0–3 years) outperformed other bilingual groups (age of first exposure 3–6 years). Remarkably, schooling in two languages afforded children from monolingual English homes an advantage in phoneme awareness skills. Early bilingual exposure is best for dual language reading development, and it may afford such a powerful positive impact on reading and language development that it may possibly ameliorate the negative effect of low SES on literacy. Further, age of first bilingual exposure provides a new tool for evaluating whether a young bilingual has a reading problem versus whether he or she is a typically-developing dual-language learner.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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We extend our warm thanks to the members of the Petitto Lab, particularly Matthew Dubins, Katherine White, Elizabeth Norton and Paola Peacock-Villada, as well as the schools and the families who participated in this study. We are grateful to the three anonymous reviewers and the editor, Dr. Ping Li, for all their insightful comments that helped us improve our paper. Funding was provided by grants to L. A. Petitto from the National Institute of Health (R01HD045822-01A2 “Neuroimaging and behavioral studies of bilingual reading”) and (R21 HD 050558-02 Infants' Neural Basis for Language Using New Near Infrared Spectroscopy) and The Spencer Foundation. For more information on related research see and


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