Bilingual Homeschooling: How We Got Here

by Maria · 19 comments

By Maria Hawkins
Photo credit: Erin Kohlenberg

About 5 years ago we were visiting my sister and brother-in-law and they asked if we would ever consider homeschooling (they were a few months from having their first baby and thinking perhaps it was a good option for them).  At the time my son was on the cusp of turning  two and I had been out of the classroom for as long. In retrospect I was a bit defensive about the question.  I felt strongly, as I remember, that only a teacher should be teaching and that in general it was a crazy idea.  I was, I think, slightly appalled.

My how my opinion has changed.

As my son began to grow and learn I realized that my most important role was exposing him to everything I could, and letting him lead the way.  I saw how important it was to provide a basic structure for our days, but how it was equally important to let him really drive the details.  I begin to see how formal schooling actually interrupted many of the things he did naturally that fit so well with the developmentally appropriate practices and early childhood theories I felt so strongly about.  I saw how at home I could let him sit and look at books for hours.  He could draw, then paint, then draw again for a two hour span.  We could decide to bake bread and then go for a walk.  We could investigate the pine cones we found and then do an art project and then read a related book before bed.

I saw how so many things that would be hard to make work in most classroom settings were so easy to make a reality at home when it was just him and I.  There was  none of the other “stuff” that is a reality of traditional schooling.  I saw how “teaching” just one child, (or even a couple as my daughters joined the equation) was very different compared with having a classroom of 30 kids.

And don’t get me started on the language portion of this journey. All of this amazing discovery was taking place in Spanish!

We live in the US and are an OPOL (One-Person-One-Language) English/Spanish family so I had no concerns for his English language acquisition.  However, as he was getting older and more aware of the world around us I saw more  and more it was going to take some serious work to keep Spanish in the mix.  Although in the back of my mind I kept in the idea of us moving a couple school districts away so that he could attend the dual language school there, more and more I saw the potential that learning at home had.

Here was a way for us to not only to continue our amazing educational journey together but also to ensure Spanish would remain part of how my son would learn and discover and explore the world.  Spanish could be part of the journey, not just something we would have to squeeze in after regular school hours.  We could work towards him being bilingual and biliterate at home, naturally, just as we had been doing thus far.

Homeschooling had an awful lot of positives once I really sat down and saw it for what it was and what it could be for us.

As you can see, my opinion has evolved dramatically. I still think that to teach in a traditional classroom setting you are going to be the most effective teacher if you have had some training and have a variety of tools at your disposal.  Although I don’t doubt that there are exceptions, I can say from experience, that in general most people need a few tools in their belt to walk into a room of 30 children with 30 sets of needs and wants and do a superior job of helping them all navigate the world of learning.

But where learning at home is concerned, I have come to the conclusion that the biggest requirement is the commitment of self.  You must be willing to own the responsibility you are taking on and commit to giving your time, energy and spirit to helping your child/children learn on a non-traditional path.  In doing so you must also acknowledge that you are embarking on a less common road for their education and as part of that, to help them negotiate that difference comfortably.  If you can do that, then I think you can do a superior job of “schooling” at home.

So, 5 years later I have come a long way from being appalled by the idea of homeschooling. Upon further introspection,  it turns out we have been happily “educando en casa” (educating at home) since before the question was first posed.

And by the way, my sister and brother-in-law eventually decided homeschooling wasn’t a good fit for them and now have their daughter in preschool.  Interesting how often you find your opinions changing as you travel down this parenting road. One step at a time we find the best fit for our families.


Maria Hawkins grew up in New Mexico immersed in both Spanish and English. She has her National Teacher Certification in early childhood education and has taught in both bilingual and monolingual public schools. She currently keeps busy homeschooling her three bilingual children, teaching weekly Spanish classes for kids, and leading a Spanish Playgroup to support local bilingual families.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria May 3, 2011 at 10:50 pm

This experience inspired me that I should spend my time better with my only son. I work long hours so I will try to find more time.

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2 Maria H May 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Maria, one thing that continues to amaze me about homeschooling is how much learning kids do just as part of a full life. So much for me has been redefining what my idea of learning is and seeing that so much can be shared at meals, while playing, talking in the car, getting ready for bed… I am so happy to hear that the article inspired you and I am confident you will be able to find a way to take advantage of the time you have with him outside your work hours.
Best of luck,
Maria Hawkins

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3 Katie Cashatt May 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Our bilingual daughter (also English/Spanish) will start kindergarten in the fall and the thought of homeschooling has crossed my mind more than once. Thanks for the perspective on homeschooling and incorporating another language! We are new to southern Nevada and would love to find more bilingual families – where do you teach your classes and have playgroup?

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4 Maria H May 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Katie,

Unfortunately we are in Washington, not Neveda so I can’t help you out personally! Obviously homeschooling is the route we choose to go and I would be happy to answer questions if you have any. As for groups I would encourage you to look around and see what groups are out there in your area. Libraries and even a quick google search might surprise you. And, I am a big advocate of starting a playgroup if you can’t find one. I’ve done so every time we’ve moved and although a bit intimidating at first and a bit of extra work on your part its been worth it to establish a network of bilingual families which I find to be invaluable on this journey. And lastly, never be afraid to strike up a conversation with another Spanish speaking parent you pass at the park or in a store. its another one of those things that seems crazy at first but we’ve made some great connections that way. Best of luck!

Maria Hawkins

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5 Asakura Tatiana August 11, 2011 at 6:36 am

Thank you!
you took the words off my tongue , literally, just in May I was trying to explain why i strictly oppose the idea of taking my 5 year old daughter to Dutch school full time.
They do not study there, they have fun!, I am told.
well, we do not need that much fun.
and neither we need that much study .
Basically our day is structured, but the kid is free to decide within the certain period of the day what she is interested in. She has time to stay bored, aha. Its a precious time to think, to create or analyse something, at this time she comes up with original questions and unusial creations, she never wastes this time destroying something at home as may the school lovers believe. She does not need all day “playing” to someone other`s rules. It will come later, there is no chance to miss it in one`s life, is there? Learning basic social skills come from sports club and playgrounds, from thefriends and their families. Yes, the foreight no us language aspect is missing, and we do regret it, I wish there was official homeschooling allowance and support available in this country. Homeschooling is fun, to the certain extend.

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6 Maria H August 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Asakura,

I am glad the article was well timed for you. Homeschool, like everything in life, has a level of balance to it. It is fun, but can also be difficult. I know many people are often frustrated by cost when homeschooling. I do believe there are ways to homeschool without spending lots of money, it may just take a little extra creativity and planning. For me the important thing to remember, especially for younger children, is that for them playing is how they learn. They are really one in the same. Best of luck as you find what works best for your family.

Maria

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7 Tatiana Asakura August 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm

For basic school I do not see yet much expence or anything over the regular budget for books and activities , but i know practically nothing about middle age programmes at home. I guess, there come the costs.

I do not quite understand here the definition of playing. If it is a structured and purposeful activity, it has learning effect. If it is a manipulation of objects or pretend game, it is rather a relaxation than learning. Playing all time may be as tiring as sitting and drilling math at table.
usually we have 3 definitely learning activities a day like music ( or crafts or drawing), language ( gramamar, reading, vocab) and math. The rest of the day is spread for different activities from shopping and feeding rabbits to playdates and story reading . Myself , I cannot just play with the kid, it is much better done with the peers, than an adult. Here the homeschooling embarrases me: most of the day the kids are at school not available for us.

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8 Maria H August 27, 2011 at 10:00 pm

Tatiana,

My kids have not yet reached middle school either so I can’t speak from experience to cost. What I know anecdotally is that no matter what age your children are there are ways to keep costs low, but I think it all depends on what works for your family.

When I referred to play I was actually talking about unstructured play where the children are choosing the activity. I think it is difficult to define play exactly, but I would say that manipulation of objects and pretend play are some of the most important learning activities a child can have. While it can be easy to feel like children only learn from very specific structured activities play is a way for children to combine a myriad of modalities and make gains in areas from fine and gross motor, creativity and social interactions to problem solving, language, thinking skills and the foundation for future learning. I appreciate your thoughts and will perhaps do a future article on the role of play in learning.

It sounds like you have found a balance that works for your family. Best of luck as you continue your journey.

best,
Maria

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9 Tatiana Asakura September 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

Maria, perhaps there is an idea for the next article about the unstructured play and its learning advantages ? in case of home and territorial isolation from the playmates, the actual playng time is quite limited.
When my kid is homeschooled, other kids of her age attend school, so we can either visit friends for a couple of hours or saturday school. In unstructured activity the other kids start using the dominant language of the country, and the unstructured play turns into running and screaming, bringing little profit.

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10 Maria H September 24, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Tatiana,

I will try to do an article on the importance of play soon. There are several issues which you have to address separately (play, social interaction, language use..) As for the idea of play one important thing to keep in mind is that unstructured does not necessarily mean unsupervised or without general guidelines. And it also often means altering your perspective of what learning looks like. Again, I will try to do a full article soon!

best,
Maria

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11 Ana Paula G. Mumy August 26, 2011 at 9:28 am

Dear Erica,

Thank you so much for sharing your experience about bilingual homeschooling. My daughter is turning 3 and I’m beginning to think about this challenging task ahead, which I have always wanted to do. As a trilingual speech/language pathologist and mother trying to raise bilingual kids (Portuguese/English), I’ve really enjoyed your articles!

Ana Paula G. (Souza) Mumy

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12 Maria H August 27, 2011 at 10:05 pm

Ana,
I’m so glad to hear you are enjoying the articles. One of my daughter’s is three and I know what a busy time that is. But, it is also a really exciting time for learning so I hope you and your daughter are already busy exploring the world. Although adding the bilingual element to homeschool can sometimes be an added challenge I continue to be very happy with our decision and look forward to our journey forward. I think knowing you plan to homeschool already really gives you time to find a good balance for your family and find what will work best for the two of you.

best of luck,
Maria

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13 Ana Paula G. Mumy August 31, 2011 at 6:13 pm

¡Gracias, Maria! If you by chance know of any reading/writing curricula in Portuguese available in the US, please share. Also, would like to hear ways you encourage and promote use of the minority language if/when English is competing all around. I have some “strategies” but am always looking for creative and motivating ways to promote my children’s Portuguese language use since other Portuguese speakers are not as readily accessible as Spanish speakers.

By the way, if you’re interested in an inexpensive set of leveled storybooks in Spanish/English with an emphasis on vocabulary growth and multiple language skills, visit http://www.thespeechstop.com/bilingual2.html and check out GROW! Language Development With Engaging Children’s Stories (¡CREZCA! El Desarrollo de Lenguaje Con Cuentos Infantiles Divertidos).

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14 Maria H September 5, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Ana,

Thanks for the ideas for future articles. A new baby in the house has slowed me down a bit but I hope to do more writing soon and will keep your requests in mind.

Thanks too for the link, I’ll take a look.

best,
Maria

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15 Fiona September 22, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Great article! We are a bilingual English/Danish speaking family and are toying with the idea of homeschooling. How do you approach teaching your children to read in 2 languages? I have started teaching my son the phonetic alphabet in English (we are a OPOL family), but it’s difficult as he knows many of the letters in Danish (we live in Denmark). Do you have any advice? My husband keeps reminding me to relax and not push him, but to be consistent :) Do you teach one language first before the other? Any advice is appreciated! Thank you, Fiona.

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16 Maria H September 24, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Fiona,

Hello and I am so glad you enjoyed the article. I my opinion your husband’s advice is right on! How old are your children? I actually wrote an article on how I approach reading and writing a few weeks ago that I think answers most of your questions. Let me know what you think.

http://www.multilingualliving.com/2011/06/28/bilingual-homeschooling-reading-and-writing-in-more-than-one-language/

best,
Maria

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17 Tatiana Asakura September 15, 2013 at 11:53 pm

We introduced three different systems of reading gradually, within 3 years time.
Now the kid is seven years old and reads and writes in Japanese, Russian, Dutch and began this summer in English.
First came syllabic Japanese kana. Singing and learning 2 times 54 symbols was the longest process, but wery playful with colourful and jolly materials
Mostly as drawing exercise, like drawing different flags and road signs. Atvthe age of4 to 5 kids love reading symbols.
Then using the same syllabic principle she learned Russian cyrillic alphabet, first for reading by syllables, then letters and theit combinations separately. Vowels, consonants, softness and voicelessness came around age of 6.

On the basis of cyrillic alphabet we learned how different are the Roman alphabet symbols. First she asked how this or that letter sounds, compared them with those in Russian looking for difference, then started reading words in the street, then came the books for firstgraders, then small graded readers in Dutch.
At around age seven English phonics came, and Oxford readers level 1-2

Now its time for kanji)))

We separate languages by place, person, time. In the same day we may use not more than 2 of the languages, and never “similar” ones together- English and Dutch.

Can be: Japanese- Dutch
Japanese- English
Russian – English
Russian- Japanese
Russian- Dutch
Separated by time of the day, usually as morning- afternoon.
Never two different books one after another, letting some time to adjust with warm- up game, chat or video.

Writing in English turnes to be the most complicated , slowest process and thus goes in a play and irregular form, no ” learning materials” yet.
Other languages are exercised with regular school books , age appropriate, for ” monolingual” kids.
In Japanese and Russian she writes small essays, when in Dutch still fills in words, or copies the sentence in proper order, no free combinations yet. The maximum was a three sentence letter to Sinter Klas with a gift request.

Usually in half year time the skills improve enough to use the original materials, but in case of English we will postpone it for one year.

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18 Ana Paula G. Mumy September 24, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Fiona,

I recently purchased the book “Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family” by Dr. Xiao-lei Wang (who raised her children in a trilingual environment), and it contains very helpful information. I like that it structures typical learning characteristics, selecting literacy materials, literacy activities, etc. in stages: early childhood (birth to 5), middle childhood (6-11), and adolescence (12-18).

Ana Paula

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19 Julissa Robles August 8, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Hi Maria!

I don’t know if you remember me but we used to participate in a Spanish play group you organized some years ago in Queen Anne. We have since moved and we lost touch.
I would love to reconnect! Please let me know how I can reach you.

With gratitude,

Julissa Robles
jrobles@alumni.nd.edu

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