Can I Support My Bilingual Child’s Reading in Both Languages?

by expert · 4 comments

Every day, as our children are growing we have so many questions about how to continue raising them bilingually.  Lately, we have had an encounter with our 1st grader.  It is the issue of reading.

How can we help our our son learn to read in his second language but also help him with his English reading at the same time? It has been a challenge in both languages!


Dear Fatima,

From what you say, I understand that your son has just started his introduction to literacy skills (reading and writing) in school. This school training will make him aware that speech can be represented by means of printed symbols.

I also understand that he is being taught these skills in English only, in school. This means that he will learn one specific set of spelling conventions, those that associate letters of the Roman alphabet to sounds of English. You don’t say which other language it is that you want to teach him literacy in, or which alphabet/set of printed symbols it uses. If you (not the school) want to teach him reading and writing in another language, you may want to ask yourself why you wish to do this.

Your son may have use for literacy skills in another language, for example, or you may simply wish to take his budding awareness about what reading and writing are all about to generalise it to another language. Whichever your reasons are, he will have to learn that printed conventions differ from language to language. This is no problem, because he already knows that words, for example, also differ from language to language.

Even if you decide not to teach your son literacy in any other language than English, my guess is that he will sooner or later start asking you questions about this. There are bound to be books in different languages at your home, which will prompt his curiosity. For example, with two languages that use the same alphabet, he may start reading words of language X using the spelling conventions of language Y (and even make this a game), or wonder whether a particular letter is used in the same way in both languages. This is also a way for him to learn to read and write in another language, which leaves the initiative of doing so to him.

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:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christiane Williams July 16, 2010 at 12:01 am

We made a point so separate leading to read/write in the two languages, usually having an intensive reading session in the holidays and not mixing while the child is at school acquiring skills in the other language. Son No1 learned to read in the secondary German before learning English at school and Son No2 learned first to read English and then German as an afterthought in the holidays. I seems that the concept of merging phonics into a meaningful word is difficult, not matter which language you start with. Once that has clicked, the other language(s) will follow more easily.


2 Corey July 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

Thank you, Christiane, for this real-live example of how you are doing this at home! It is always fascinating and inspiring to learn how others deal with things like biliteracy, especially with school-age kids who need to use one language in school. I like how your experiences support the research which shows that once kids understand how reading works, they can apply it more easily to other languages. Danke for your comment!


3 fiona January 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

I have a problem..we live in Istanbul and my son has been bought up speaking english, then when he started kindergarten age 4 he started to learn and speak turkish, but it never became as strong as his english He started school 6 months ago where everything is in turkish and is still slow in his reading and to a lesser extent in his writing, his teacher has expressed a real concern.. am now panicking as I am english and dont speak turkish that well and my husband works late. My son already has 2 hours of homework every night and now the teacher says we need to do more to build up his reading skills… am panicking…any useful comments would be appreciated.


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