Teaching Very Young Multilingual Children How to Read and Write in Their Languages?

by Corey · 7 comments

We have a 2.5 year old daughter and speak Turkish at home.  Recently we moved to Cheyenne Wyoming.  I’m feeling concerned a bit about the future. What I have observed in my friends who grew up here is that their use of oral language is perfect, but writing is almost always a problem.
I am curious about how to deal with  reading and writing. I know it’s too early, but I see that here children are already beginning to learn the alphabet. I’ve looked at homeschooling options, and I feel perplexed for two reasons: I don’t feel competent enough to do it and there are no resources in Turkish as far as I know (there is no homeschooling in Turkey). I was planning to have playdates but we seem to have moved to a city where there are no other Turks (which is unbelievable to me).

Thanks, Leman

Dear Leman,

Reading and writing are skills that you don’t learn unless you are specifically taught, like maths. This means two things: that these skills do not come naturally to people, and that you need to be mature enough to learn them.

For writing, children need to have developed the fine motor control allowing them to hold a writing instrument steadily in their hand and putting it to paper. For both writing and reading, children need the cognitive gear that enables awareness of the conventional association between printed marks and sounds, syllables or words in speech, depending on the script used for the language in question.

A 2.5-year-old child like yours is too young for either, so I agree with you that thinking about literacy skills at this age is (way) too early. You can of course teach toddlers to associate printed marks with speech but toddlers are too young to be taught to read and write. In Scandinavian countries, for example, literacy is taught first from age 7. Younger children have no need for this.

I cannot help you about the lack of Turkish resources where you live, unfortunately, but I may have a suggestion, in case you don’t want to feel left out of the circle of people you see alphabetising their children, as you say, for your sake, and just for fun, for your child’s sake. Can you get hold of a Turkish magnetic alphabet set, those plastic coloured letters that you can have on your fridge? An English set might do too, to which you can add/remove umlauts, cedillas and/or dots. You can play school, or play alphabet with your girl in this way, if you so wish. But do keep in mind that that’s all you’ll be doing: playing with letters.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 cm June 16, 2010 at 10:17 am

When the time comes, you might be able to find Turkish resources on the web.

I did a tiny bit of searching around and here’s what I found:

Google Turkish search for something I’m told means children’s stories: http://www.google.com.tr/search?hl=tr&source=hp&q='cocuk+hikayeleri'&btnG=Google'da+Ara&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

Amazon.com’s list of Turkish kid’s books: http://www.amazon.com/s/qid=1276708432/ref=sr_pg_1?ie=UTF8&keywords=turkish&bbn=4&rh=i:stripbooks,n:!1000,n:4,k:turkish&page=1

I haven’t found any workbooks, but you could probably create your own sheets, where you type or print a letter on a lined page and have her copy it. You could look at English workbooks and try to recreate them and make your own.


2 Corey June 22, 2010 at 10:02 pm

So wonderful to have some recommended resources! Thank you for taking the time to look those up. Excellent ideas about adapting workbooks in English. Not the same (my kids love the workbooks that are colorful and have lots of pictures) but better than nothing!


3 Leman June 16, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Thanks for the answer Madalena!
In Turkey, like Scandinavian countries, children learn to read and write at 7. I don’t plan to begin “teaching” her reading or writing till she’s ready, and to tell you the truth, I don’t care much about other children’s achievements in this matter:)
Like all kids her age, she pretends to read. Sometimes, when I’m reading her a book, she asks words or letters, like she would when she wants to learn the name of a certain object. I think she sees the letters/words as pictures. Anyway, that got me thinking and led to the question.
@CM, thanks for the comment. The grandparents are already piling up books 🙂 Hopefully in the next few years, there will be enough content on the web. Isn’t internet our best friend?


4 Corey June 22, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Thank you for sending in the question, Lemen! Stay tuned, I’ve been working on some posts about how to teach our multilingual children how to read and write in our second languages. We have a bunch of articles in Multilingual Living Magazine (www.multilingualliving.com/enjoy-multilingual-living-magazine/) by experts and more, if anyone is looking for something right away. 🙂


5 Farzin Hosseini June 22, 2010 at 12:42 am

I have 18 months old baby girl, she cannot speak yet! She has her own language. I am persian and her mother is Irish, I only speak persian and her mother speaks english with her. We can see the evidence that she understands both language. However, comparing her with the same age toddler in speaking skills, she is behind. Should I be concerned? She only can say three worlds that can be understandable, other than that it is her own vocabulary.


6 Corey June 22, 2010 at 7:44 am

Farzin, thank you for your comment. I would suggest that you start by having your daughter’s hearing checked. Get some direct analysis from your child’s doctor and possibly even a speech therapist if it is warranted. It is hard to know whether the fact that your daughter is not yet speaking has to do with an issue or not. Many children start speaking later than the norm, something which has nothing to do with multilingualism in particular. Note that if it is determined that your daughter does have a speech disorder, it is NOT necessary to switch to one language (even if a speech therapist suggests that it is necessary).


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