Literacy, foreign language learning and wider academic achievement

The relationship between literacy, foreign language learning and wider academic achievement

Literacy has a role in foreign language (FL) learning research from a range of perspectives.

Could FL pedagogy with a literacy emphasis support FL outcomes?
UK-based, primary school research presents a mixed picture:

> FL instruction with literacy did not improve FL (oracy) outcomes compared to FL instruction with less literacy (Graham et al., 2014)

> There was a relationship between FL oracy and FL literacy outcomes after a teaching programme in which French oracy was supported by systematic and explicit French literacy (Porter, 2014)

Can this be linked back to quality of pedagogy? Does it depend what kind of FL literacy teaching and learning is on offer?

See our related theme pages: pedagogy and teacher expertise and linguistic development and expectations.

L1 Literacy seems to predict FL proficiency

Research in the US found that FL proficiency in university could be predicted by L1 literacy scores e.g. L1 decoding and L1 spelling (Sparks et al., 2009). 

UK-based research in primary schools has found that L1 literacy skills seem to predict FL outcomes in both KS2 and KS3.

> National Curriculum literacy levels were a good indicator of FL oracy proficiency and FL self-efficacy (Courtney et al., 2015).

> National Curriculum literacy levels, L1 reading age and L1 spelling age showed strong relationships with FL general proficiency and FL literacy outcomes (Porter, 2014).

FL pedagogy has the potential to support English literacy skills

KS2 (Year 3) pupils showed improved English literacy skills (such as phonological awareness) after a period of either French or Italian FL instruction (Murphy et al., 2014).

Learning a FL has the potential to support achievement across the curriculum

Again, it’s a mixed picture but some research in the USA suggests that FL learning in elementary school (FLES) can slightly improve performance on some elementary education tests e.g Taylor-Wood, 2003).

> KS2 (Year 4) pupils showed potential cognitive benefits

  • Can the teaching and learning of a specific language facilitate the development of language learning aptitude and metalinguistic awareness? (Tellier & Roehr-Brackin, 2013).
  • Can young children’s metalinguistic awareness be enhanced to kick-start their ability for explicit learning, and result in improved L2 proficiency? (Tellier, 2015).

> Stakeholder interviews reported perceptions that FL learning could support learning and progression in English literacy, communication and knowledge about language (Cable et al., 2010: 49).


Examples of task sheets and reference cards in different languages used in research projects.

If you are interested in knowing more about the importance of literacy, foreign language learning and wider academic achievement in language teaching and learning in primary schools, and / or if you would like to join our network and contribute to the development of the pages on literacy and achievement, please contact Alison, who would very much welcome your input:

If you are interested in finding out about research that is being carried out in this area, click on the button to the right for one-page reader-friendly summaries.

Bibliography – literacy, foreign language learning and wider academic achievement


Cable, C., Driscoll, P., Mitchell, R., Sing, S., Cremin, T., Earl, J., Eyres, I., Holmes, B., Martin, C. & Heins, B. 2010. Primary Modern Languages: A Longitudinal Study of Language Learning at Key Stage 2. Department for Children, Schools & Families.

Courtney, L., Graham, S., Marinis, T. & Tonkyn, A. (2015). Individual differences in early language learning: A study of English learners of French. Applied Linguistics, 1-25. doi:10.1093/applin/amv071

Graham, S., Courtney, L., Marinis, T. & Tonkyn, A. (2014). Primary Modern Languages: The Impact of Teaching Approaches on Attainment and Preparedness for Secondary Language Learning. Nuffield Foundation.

Murphy, V., Macaro, E., Cipolla, A. & Elba, C. (2014). The influence of learning a second language in primary school on developing first language literacy skills’. Applied Psycholinguistics, 36, 5: 1133-1153.

Porter, A. (2014). An Early Start to French Literacy: Teaching the Spoken and Written Word simultaneously in English Primary School Classrooms. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Southampton: University of Southampton.

Sparks, R.L., Patton, J. & Ganschow, L. (2012). Profiles of more and less successful L2 learners: A cluster analysis study. Learning and Individual Differences, 22: 463-472.

Tellier, A., & Roehr-Brackin, K. (2013). The development of language learning aptitude and metalinguistic awareness in primary-school children: A classroom study. Essex Research Reports in Linguistics, 62. Abstract.

Tellier, A. (2015). Metalinguistic awareness and foreign language learning in primary school: A classroom study with children aged 8 to 9 years. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Essex: University of Essex. Abstract.

Taylor, C & Lafayette, R. (2010). Academic achievement through FLES: A case for promoting greater access to foreign language study among young learners. The Modern Language Journal, 94: i: 22-42.