Bilingual Homeschooling: How to Use Visual Dictionaries & Word Books for Language Learning

by Maria · 4 comments

By Maria Hawkin
Photo credit: Le Petit Poulailler

Once we started down the bilingual parenting road seven years ago (see my post on how we got started) I was energized and passionate and jumped in with both feet.  I was reconnecting with my Spanish language and culture that I had often ignored since college and thought it would be smooth sailing.  Then my son turned two and started wanting to know the name of every tractor and construction vehicle known to man and I was stumped, in both languages.

This was the first of many specialized vocabulary brick walls I would run into in this often bumpy road towards raising bilingual children. Enter dictionaries and word books, my favorite material in our homeschool journey so far.

At first I was hesitant and slightly embarrassed to have a need for a dictionary when I was supposed to be the one teaching him Spanish.  But then a wonderful thing happened.  The more I talked with Spanish speaking friends the more I realized that specialized vocabulary is a challenge for everyone, no matter what your language or how many languages your family is using.

So, rather than question whether we were doing my son a disservice by raising him bilingually I recognized that there were going to be times I didn’t know the answer and that was ok.  I went out and got a great Spanish dictionary and started what has now become a very large collection of word books and visual dictionaries to use with my kids.

There are many illustrated word books on the market for kids from simple board books with one item per page to 500+ page illustrated visual dictionaries.  I personally think you can not have enough of them in your house.  When my first child began to want to choose his own books one of his absolute favorites was My First Book of Spanish Words.

Like most word books it was divided by theme and this small board book has about 10-15 items on each page.  He would touch them one by one and I read the words to him over and over and over again.  At first I would name the items on each page as his interest allowed.  As he got older we would systematically read each word.  Eventually, I would have him find items on the page and he would point to them as I said the word and later still he would “read” the book to me; pointing to each picture and telling me what it was.  Our use of them evolved from there and we continued to add new word books to our collection.

We always read in Spanish but the beauty of this is that I have seen similar books in a myriad of languages and the truth is that if you really couldn’t find word books in your language you could buy them in English (which seem easy to find) and then go through and label them in your target language.  I can’t think of any multilingual house thiswouldn’t benefit from a few word books to support language.

We have moved on to the books with larger word collections as my son got older and are now onto the larger illustrated visual dictionaries rather than the simple “word books,” but we continue to do the same things as well as add other ways of “reading.”  In my opinion these books are very organic and can really be used in a plethora of ways depending on the child’s age and interest level.

Many people tell me they don’t like word books or visual dictionaries because they are boring and not as fun as reading stories.  I think they just don’t know how many ways there are to use them!

Here are a few of the things we do with word books and visual dictionaries:

  • Play many different versions of “I spy.”
  • Make up a story for the group of items on the play, or combine several stories.
  • Compare the labels of items from different books and talk about why they are different (different Spanish speaking countries often use different vocabulary words for the same item and in our family we enjoy learning them all even if we don’t necessarily use them all in our daily lives).
  • Use them as reference tools for early writing.
  • The more advanced writers use them for editing.
  • Use them to find words for items mom doesn’t already know (those specialized vocabularies like tools and tractors again…).

I have spent the last seven years reading word books with my children and using the dictionary myself when needed. These days my son uses the thick visual dictionaries to help him with his writing, my middle daughter likes to use the simple board books to practice reading and my youngest has a favorite word book she carries around and asks anyone she can to sit and to read it with her.

I’ve come a long way from thinking a dictionary was a sign of failure, now its my favorite resource.

Do you use a dictionary to help your language continue to grow? Do you feel embarrassed about referencing it? What about using visual dictionaries with your children – do you utilize them in your family?

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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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah @ Baby Bilingual May 26, 2011 at 6:40 am

Great explanation! I agree totally and especially love your first two activity suggestions. “I Spy” is a very valuable and engaging language game!


2 Maria H May 28, 2011 at 8:56 pm


Glad you liked the article. “I spy” games are so simple I think its easy to dismiss them as silly when they can be such fountains of learning. Thanks for the comment.



3 kacimi March 19, 2012 at 11:35 am

je t aime langue dictionnaira


4 Maria H March 28, 2012 at 10:39 pm

Yo tambien! Thanks for stopping by.



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