By Maria Hawkins
Photo credit: Neeta Lind
Let me share a secret with you. Reading and writing are just more complex ways of speaking and listening; they are just two more ways for you to communicate with the world around you. That is how I introduced my Kindergarten students to these ideas many moons ago.
Yet, despite this, as my eldest son got older and started to be more aware of environmental print and what letters symbolized I started to do a lot of thinking about how it would be best to approach reading and writing in our bilingual home and I got really stressed out. At the time my son was about three and we had not yet made to decision to homeschool officially (that was a couple years away) but I saw that he was ready to explore the world of reading and writing. I struggled at first for what I should do to support his curiosity.
My first thought was that I would just do everything in Spanish (since that is the language we spoke together) but then I worried that would be a disservice to his English. Then I thought I could do both, but that seemed like it would take away from our Spanish relationship at a time when I felt it was quite fragile.
When I really sat down and did some reflecting I realized the problem was thinking I had to do one or the other or that I would need to direct the learning at all. He was learning to speak and listen and communicate in Spanish and English without difficulty and I realized that it only made sense that as he explored the world of reading and writing he would approach it the same way.
When we were doing anything together our interaction was in Spanish and this included literacy related items like: reading together, putting labels on the toy bins, me taking dictation of stories for him, him scribbling letters or asking what sounds certain letters make. When we were with friends it was more often than not in Spanish as well so he had lots of oral Spanish input. When we were out in the community it was more often he was exposed to English: him asking what signs said, reading him what a receipt said, reading menus at a restaurants. And then reading and writing with dad was always English as well.
So what I slowly realized was that he had already begun his journey towards becoming biliterate, I just had to keep supporting him as he continued.
As he got older we just continued on this same meandering road and at 8 years old he now reads and writes in both languages fairly comfortably.
When we are together we communicate in Spanish, so we also read and write together in Spanish the majority of the time. If he chooses to read an English book when we are together I will help him with decoding words if needed, but any talking about the content we’ll do in Spanish. Same with writing. I will help him with his English writing , but my explanation is in Spanish. It is still his dad and the community at large that provides him with English input, yet it is more than enough to keep him fairly balanced at this point.
Perhaps my greatest discovery in our journey to biliteracy so far has been the idea that it did not have to be deliberate or linear. It was a great weight taken off my shoulders to come to the conclusion that my children didn’t need to reach reading and writing fluency in one language before learning to read and write in the other.
By opening my mind to the idea that their ever expanding bilingual journey could grow to include literacy without having to choose only one of our two languages to focus on I could be much more comfortable with them following their own interests, doing what felt most comfortable to them and not waste time worrying that I was somehow putting their future in jeoprody. Instead, I can enjoy our journey and use my energy to support thier growing literacy, in both languages.
Some tips I have taken away from our experience so far:
- Don’t feel pressured to provide “language balance” in reading and writing instruction. It will work just fine to stick to your language pattern and still support your child in becoming biliterate.
- Recongnize reading and writing as an extension of speaking and listening. Encourage communication in all forms and in all languages but make sure you continue to especially support the minority language in your house as that will be the one least supported in other ways.
- Know that like language acquisition in general, reading and writing may ebb and flow. My son felt that reading in Spanish was easier so at first he chose to read in Spanish independently more often. A few months later and he was choosing both languages equally, the basis of the choice becoming subject matter rather than language as he became a more fluent reader. I didn’t insist he do it in one language or the other and just let his interest be the guide.
Some general tips for encouraging reading and writing acquisition:
- Read to your child and with your child as often as you can and you will be laying the foundation for them to become independent readers and writers later on.
- Expose your child to multiple forms of print (signs, lists, newspapers, magazines, notes, letters, and books…they are all important).
- Let your child see you reading and writing. The more they see it as a natural way to communicate and function in the world the more it becomes a natural progression in their communication and less a skill to be learned.
- Don’t underestimate the value of dictation (for young children as well as older children). A beginning writer can be frustrated by the logistics of actually writing things down yet be filled with ideas. Even a child as young as two years old has a story to tell. Not being comfortable with the physical process of writing is a terrible reason to not have your story told. Write it down for them and read it back to them as often as they like! Becoming an author is very inspirational and can really jump start the desire to write.
- Give your children reasons to become readers and writers. Help them write letters to family and friends in other countries and states, wish lists before birthdays, notes to family members to slide under doors and leave in pockets and labels for the toy bins in their room. They can start with drawing pictures (with you writing the labels) and eventually move towards doing the writing themselves.
- Make books together in all shapes, sizes and styles…(search online for new ideas if you feel stuck in a rut).
- Remember through it all to focus on “process not product.” If the end goal is children that enjoy and embrace reading and writing in all their languages then don’t see it as a race to a skill-set but a journey towards a lifestyle. Enjoy the journey together every step of the way.
What have been your experiences helping your children read and write in more than one language? Are you a bilingual homeschooling family? What are your top tips for helping children learn to read and write?
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.