Children whose mother tongue is Russian and who acquired literacy in their home language before entering first grade received higher grades on reading skills tests than their peers who speak only Hebrew or those who speak Russian but have not learned how to read it. This was revealed in a study recently completed at the University of Haifa. The researcher, Dr. Mila Schwartz, pointed out that because of the linguistic complexity of the Russian language, it can be deduced that knowing how to read and write Russian will give children an advantage when learning to read other languages.
The research, which was conducted under the direction of Dr. Mark Leikin and Prof. David Share, evaluated 129 first graders that were divided into three groups: bilingual Hebrew and Russian speakers who had acquired literacy skills in Russian before being exposed to Hebrew reading skills; bilingual children who spoke but had not learned how to read Russian; and monolingual Hebrew speakers. The research involved administering tests which evaluated the children's language skills at the beginning of first grade and tests that evaluated their reading and writing skills at the end of first grade.
The results revealed that children who acquired Russian reading skills before learning to read Hebrew showed a distinct advantage over the other groups in their ability to distinguish between sounds and greater fluency and accuracy in reading. The research did not find any differences in the reading skills of monolingual Hebrew speakers and bilingual Hebrew and Russian speakers who did not read Russian. According to Dr. Schwartz, this result supports the existing theories that bilingualism alone does not enhance development of reading skills but that reading skill acquisition is easier when a child already knows how to read another language.
In addition, the research evaluated 107 fifth grade children, who were divided into the same three groups. In this part of the research the acquisition of English reading skills was evaluated. As in the first part of the study, a distinct advantage was recorded in reading acquisition among the group of children who had learned to read Russian first.
According to Dr. Schwartz, even those who learned how to read Russian but rarely use it showed increased abilities in reading acquisition. She also added that most of the research done in this field has evaluated knowing how to read English as being helpful in acquiring reading skills. However, as English is considered an "irregular language" in terms of the connection between letters and sounds, it was difficult to draw conclusions about knowing how to read English as being an aid when acquiring reading skills. Russian, on the other hand, is considered a unique language in terms of its linguistic structure and connection between letters and sounds and was therefore found to be helpful in later acquiring reading skills in other languages.