Biliteracy: Teach Your Bilingual Child to Read and Write in Your Language

by Corey · 22 comments

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver

School is finishing in many places around the world. Children are looking forward to lazy days on the grass, swimming under the hot sun and chasing sprinkler rainbows across the yard. Ah, the joys of childhood.

Summertime is also a time for reading – under trees, on the beach, lounging on the sofa, late a night in bed with a flashlight. The magic of a good book can transform an entire summer experience. But what about all of those books that your child is unable to read in your language? Wouldn’t you love to share memories of favorite books from your childhood with your child? Why not take some time out this summer to teach your child to read and write in your language? What do you have to lose?

Summer is a perfect opportunity to introduce your child to your language’s alphabet, pronunciation and more. There are no school studies to get in the way of you and your child taking the leap into biliteracy. Plus, teaching your child to read and write in your language can be done even while lounging on the grass in the back yard.

Not sure how to go about it? Unlike learning to speak in more than one language, learning to read and write in a second language is not necessarily something that your child will pick up just by being around you. This is something that you will most likely need to foster. The key, however, is to not push too hard. You don’t want your child to dislike reading and writing in your language. It is a delicate balancing act.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Multilingual Living will bring you a series of articles all about introducing your child to reading and writing in your language. We are also delighted to announce that we will be publishing excerpts from the book Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family by Xiao-lei Wang – a book all about how to make your household a biliterate one!

Here are some things to think about before you get started:

  • Does your child already know how to read? If your child already knows how to read in one language (from you or from school) then you won’t have to take the first step of introducing your child to the underlying principles of reading: how letters represent sounds, how those letters make words, and how those words make sentences. These can be difficult concepts for a child to understand but once they are grasped, then they can be applied to additional languages.
  • Does your home language consist of different letters/characters? If your language uses letters or characters that are different from the community language (or your child’s other languages), then you will have an additional step in the process of teaching your child to read and write in your language. This isn’t a problem, it is just something to keep in mind.
  • Does your child speak the language well? It is very difficult to enjoy reading books if we haven’t mastered the spoken elements of our languages. The greatest joy for a child in being able to read a book is that words which are understood verbally are now seen written on a page. If your child doesn’t know most of the vocabulary in a given book, then it is most likely going to be frustrating. There is no fun in reading books that we can’t understand!
  • Is your child ready? It is important that you not push your child into reading in your language before he/she is ready. You don’t want your child to end up disliking reading because you pushed too hard. You can always introduce reading and writing in your language to your child later, even after your child learns to read in school. Instead, read out loud a lot to your child and emphasize the letters and words every now and then. Make it so that your child will want to read since it is such an exciting experience!
  • What interests does your child have? Learning to read will go much more smoothly if you provide your child with reading materials in which your child is actually interested. My son was so motivated to read the information in Playmobil catalogs that he pretty much taught himself to read with those! Take some time to figure out what your child would be motivated to read and see if you can find books and materials about it in your language.
  • Patience, patience, patience. Be ready for your child to show a tremendous amount of interest initially and then flat-out refuse to have anything to do with reading a few days or weeks later. This is normal. Keep books and materials around and mention reading every now and then but don’t get pushy. Who knows, your child might be sneaking peeks at the books you put out without you knowing it!

There are no hard and fast rules to teaching a multilingual child how to read and write in his/her languages. Every child is different and is motivated by different things. That is the beauty of humanity!

You may start this process this summer and not continue it until next summer. Or perhaps your child will be so interested in reading and writing in your language that you’ll feel like you didn’t even have to do much of anything. It is always difficult to know ahead of time how things will go. Give it time, be patient and try not to have any assumptions about the process. Before you know it, your child will be reading up a storm.

This is an introductory post about how to teach our bilingual children to read and write in our language(s). Stay tuned for many more informative and inspirational articles all about this in the coming days and weeks. You won’t want to miss these!

Have you taught your child how to read and write in your language? What are some of your top tips and suggestions? What didn’t work well at all? How do you keep your child motivated to continue reading and writing in your language?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tatiana Asakura June 24, 2011 at 12:38 am

I have always thought that bilingualism equals biliteracy)))
Our Yulia is 4 years 10 months now. we are currently living in Netherlands. I intentionally have an official permission to keep her off school ( Dutch schools start at the age of 4), unless she goes to Japanese school in 2014. Our languages are Russian and Japanese, the kid is now reading in both languages, makes attempts of writing . Hiragana, katakana and basic kanji are easier for her than Russian phonetic alphabet and I’m in permanent search of resources that can let her apply her skills in one language to the other, like syllabic reading, kind of phonics , ets. When she reads in hiragana a page ( papa reads one page, she does the other usually), in Russian she manages words and 2-word combinations only. I do want her to manage basic reading and writing in Russian before she starts school in Japanese, because I suspect she would tend to avoid additional difficulties when has her homeworks and etc. Now it comes natural , by few minutes during other activities or at saturday school, there is no resistance or frustrating experience. Reading is a way to entertain herself and find some “hidden” information, planning of the day, shopping, sometimes learning lyrics of a song:
The problem is, I cannot find reasonably easy and interesting materials for her in Russian, when in Japanese there’s a whole industry of fun and easy learning, meanigful and at the same time appropriate for her age. Russian materials are mostly oriented at the age of 8-10, and it turns that when she is able to read, there is hardly anything interesting to find, and something really exciting is written in a very complicated style.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:35 am

Thanks for your comment, Tatiana! It is interesting to think about the different paths that bilingualism and biliteracy take! One can be practically absorbed from the air, the other is a bit more (or a lot) of a concerted effort. I know what you mean about having a hard time finding good reading materials in Russian. We had a hard time finding good materials in German until recently. I’m wondering if there are some reasonable materials online that you could print out and use? Definitely leave a comment in the Multilingual Living Forum and see if people there have suggestions! If it is anything like our situation with German materials, as soon as we started asking around, we were able to find some good items. Good luck!


3 Tatiana Asakura August 18, 2011 at 6:52 am

Thank you. For my case I have everything needed and can share the materials if necessary. In Russian the graded reading does not exist, like in most European schools. In German there are a lot of printed easy-reading materials which are a lot of fun. I have some books translated for our home use.
In my language one can count on an age-appropriate thema, but not on a selected vocabulary.
In Japanese there are lots of flash cards- easy to use for both parent and kid.
In Russian juuust appeared some “word-building”puzzles.
I wonder how foreigners manage this language .


4 Marie June 24, 2011 at 4:49 am

I am really motivated by your article. And decided to have a go at Arabic this summer. Hopefully my brother in law will come over and I hope he might be enthousiastic to teach my kids some arabic writting. As I have given up on my husband to do this…


5 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:30 am

Thank you for commenting, Marie! I am so glad that the article helped to motivate you and I do hope that you find some good resources to get your child(ren) exciting about reading and writing in Arabic. What a lovely, lovely language!


6 jeanne @soultravelers3 June 24, 2011 at 7:08 am

e) in the other language/s does take years of concentrated work.

Now at 10 she finds it easy to read/write/speak well in each of her languages every day. So we found it very much worth the effort!


7 jeanne @soultravelers3 June 24, 2011 at 7:22 am

Sorry, I don’t know what happened to my whole post. Ugh.

I loved the post and was saying that we are monolinguals raising a trilingual/triliterate child ( Mandarin/Spanish/English) from birth and now she is 10.

I’ve been writing a series about how we have raised her as far as language learning since we travel the world non-stop and have been for going on 6 years now ( 42 countries on 5 continents on $23 /per person).

( you can see her reading in Spanish at a toothless barely 7 on that post via youtube).

I’ve read that it is best to start reading in one’s most dominant language first and do it well before learning literacy in other languages, so we have done this.

We’ve been lucky that she taught herself to read at 2 and was reading Harry Potter at 4, so was a very good reader and writer before we began Spanish literacy at 6.

Learning language as the Spanish do in Spain ( for 4 winters) was a huge advantage as well:

We’ve also lucked out with an amazing Mandarin school in Asia, so she is learning just as the locals do with 1st and 2nd grade Chinese language curriculum this year and will do 3rd and 4th grade next year.

The Dean of Studies is also working with us 3 times a week as we travel over skype to help us out.

If one wants a high level of literacy in several languages ( enough to go to university or work in that language) it takes years of work, but it gets easier as the time passes.

I think the literacy immersion and cultural immersion is as important as the speaking or perhaps even more so.


8 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:29 am

Thank you for sharing your experiences and your fantastic links! I am so sorry that your previous comment disappeared – argh! I looked around on the backend here but don’t see it either. Either way, it is so wonderful to have other families sharing their experiences with their children becoming biliterate. I also agree that learning to read in the dominant language makes things so much easier for children. Once they understand the “what” of reading, then they can apply that understanding to other languages, even ones that aren’t so dominant. So glad you took the time to write!!


9 Annamari @MommyPlaysEnglish June 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm

I’m also interested in teaching reading to bilingual children (and reading this book) as my daughter is 6 now, and goes to school in September (a monolingual one, in her dominant language). She was first interested in letters (in both languages) at about the age of 3, and from that time on we regularly play with words and letters. She can recognize more and more words in English too, hopefully we’ll have time to go on with English besides her school. So I agree, patience and perseverance is very important. 🙂


10 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:24 am

Thanks for sharing, Annamari! You are so right about patience and perseverance. I am sure that things will change once your daughter enters school but knowing you, you will be able to make sure that her English stays alive. I think for many of us, we can’t help it. We love languages too much to not use them with our children.


11 Isabelle June 27, 2011 at 11:00 am

Flashcards are great. My boy is six, so is already reading at school. (French school). I place a flashcard on the table, could be for a week or so, then I “test” them on it. They have to read it , spell it and place it in a sentence. They get a reward if they get it right. Usually a “good job” sticker or something like that. The great thing is they stop me during storytime when they recognise the word they have learnt. We just have fun with it, no stress. I am using “Dr Fry’s Instant Words – Most common words for reading and spelling”. A bonus, my 4 year old wants to join in the fun. Thanks so much for this post because the timing is perfect!


12 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:17 am

Thanks for sharing your experiences with flash cards, Isabelle. I haven’t ever tried those so it is nice to hear how you incorporate them into learning to read and write. Great tips!


13 Pilar Manzanaro December 1, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I am Spanish, married to a Kiwi and living in London. I speak to our two kids (3 1/2 and 2 years old) in Spanish exclusively and my husband in English. The oldest is fluent in both languages and attends nursery in English where they are teaching her to recognise the alphabet (phonetically) and soon will start to link sounds as first step to reading, I am wondering if starting to teach her the basic Spanish sounds and the alphabet (in a phonetic way too) would interfere with her learning to read in English? Would it be best to wait until she can read in English before starting in Spanish just in case doign both at the same time confuses her? I am in two minds, I think she’ll be able to tell the two languages apart and differenciate their individual sounds just as she did when she was learning to speak it but really do not want to make a mistake…
Does any one have any experience/thoughts on this subject?
Thank you!!!!!!


14 Franck September 13, 2012 at 6:14 am

Great comments!

I am currently looking for fun games or activities, online or offline, to help my daughter learn to write in a second language. Would someone have any recommendations for learning to write?


15 Tatiana Asakura September 13, 2012 at 12:37 pm

It depends on how old your daughter is.
At the age of 4,5 to 5 , 5 we did shopping lists, lapbooks, hangman game, fill- ins, treasure hunts and postcards .
Closer to 6 e- mails became fun, kids kind of forum, where they tell of their hobbies and places of living.
Papa on business trips receives a mail regulary , too.
Dictations with some amusing information are also used as fun and grammar training.
Writing anywhere with anything: finger on the glass or on one’ s back, chalk on the driveway, glove on a dirty car, fountain pen, disappering ink, water chalks on the bathroom tiles… Whatever that brings fun and has some meaning.


16 Susan November 16, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Thanks for sharing this post. It is important to teach the kids how to read and write in one language but teaching them 2 or more languages may be quite a task. Thanks for sharing your tips and for reminding me that it really needs patience and perseverance.
I learned that when teaching the kids to read I have to point at the words as I read them aloud. Maybe the same tip applies to any other language, well except when the other language uses a different set of characters. Again, thanks!


17 Tatiana Asakura November 16, 2013 at 11:53 pm

Regarding perceiverance and regularity of exercise needed, I have a recent experience to share.
In case of latin alphabet used by three different grammatical systems the kid has to remember spelling of specific combinations by the same set of letters.
She distinguished English spelling from Dutch precisely to the moment when they begone to type on screen the Japanese words with romaji- latin based alphabet.
The programme transfers phonetically typed latin symbols into Japanese kana.
This phonetical approach killed all spelling in both English and Dutch in 2 months time, while I was sure that the girl has learned her basics properly.
The test showed just one properly spelled word out of 15, and that was a ” fout”- ” mistake”))))
Reading has not suffered that much, but it has been a reminder for me, that we have to exercise the same spelling patterns constantly, on a cyclic basis, as for the bilingual there exists no certain rule. It is much more difficult for them to see if the combination ” right”, or not.


18 Tatiana Asakura November 17, 2013 at 12:00 am

And here is me- making a spelling mistake. Thinking of perception and perseverance at the same time))), creating monsters


19 Marianne November 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Reading your comments, I am getting really worried. I am Austrian, married to an English guy. We live in the UK. My daughter just turned 6 and I have always spoken German to her and regularly go back to Austria. We watch a lot of German TV. But my daughter’s grammar is flawed in both languages. Although she understands everything I say and some sentences in German are correct, she is seriously struggling and mixes both languages in one sentence several times. I am repeating the sentence most of the time, asking her whether this is what she means. it is soooo frustrating. Has anyone else experienced something similar?


20 Marianne November 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Corey – could you let me know what German materials you found and would recommend?


21 Tatiana Asakura December 3, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Hi. My daughter is seven now.
Since her five I have been putting a significant effort in literacy and analysis of speech on different levels from word building to text stylistics.

Recntly the kid had a spelling test in Dutch, which is the weakest and not properly and regularly exercised. Out of 15 words the only properly spelled one was ” Fout”- ” a mistake”))))
She mixes two weak languages -English and Dutch. Beginning from word level and up. Thus , with the remedial teacher’s assistance we made a plan for the following half year. English is taught at school and not touched so far. Let it stay there. Dutch will be exercised at home, completely.
We have 3 hours a week free for it.
Three days.
Every week we use one picture book on certain thema. Every 2 weeks a new spelling rule.

Each day is structured by 15 minute units:
1.phonemic structures training ( RALFI style)- rows of similarly spelled words ( in German it also exists)
2. Vocab enrichment exercise( scanning reading, word trainers online)
3. spelling(using the school order of introduction by categories)
4.speaking. Specially oriented on correction speech model exercise:
Speech cards, materials for autistic kids, story cubes, cutting pictures from magazines and making own stories, doing school projects in Dutch parallel to other language.

In German there exist Loco games, which are amazing for grammar. Especially the old ones, from 80s.


22 Sarah February 17, 2019 at 8:40 am

My 7 y.o child is bilingual with English being her minority language. We live in Slovakia therefore her majority language is Slovak. I am curious as to whether I should teach her the English language including phonics, grammar and lexis when she has only just started learning about her majority language. Will it hinder her schooling in Slovak if I start teaching her English? Thanks in advance for your welcomed advice ☺


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