When Should We Start Teaching Our Bilingual Child to Read in Our Home Language?

by Madalena · 4 comments

Dear Madalena,

I am British, my husband is Spanish and we live in Spain. We have two boys (aged 5 and 3) who go to a Spanish speaking school. Since they were babies, I have always spoken English and my husband in Spanish, which seems to work very well as they both understand and speak both languages.

The oldest is now starting to read in Spanish at school. My question is when should start getting him to read/write in English. Should it be in parallel with the Spanish or should I let him master one language first followed by the other. In Spanish the reading is much easier as it is more phonetic and I don’t want to confuse him.

Thank you!


Dear Julie,

Learning to read and write is a specific skill that serves specific needs, so the short answer to your question is that your son should be introduced to English literacy when he has the need for it. This could be (most certainly will be!) for schooling purposes, and his need for it is the only timing that matters: it makes no difference to become literate in one language and then another, or in several at the same time.

Having said that, it is almost certain too that your boy will become interested in printed language in general, because of the new printed world that is opening for him through Spanish literacy. He is likely to start asking questions about English spelling, and likely to want to read English texts. If he does, just help him along whatever he asks and whatever he wants to do with his reading and writing. There is no reason for you to engage in formal teaching of English spelling just because he is being formally taught the spelling of another language.

Answering his questions will satisfy a need of his own. Your boy won’t get confused: he already knows that English and Spanish sound differently and are used in different ways, so he will naturally expect that the printed forms of the two languages will be different too.

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: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rossella July 2, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Good question! thanks for asking as I also had the same question and a very similar situation, but with English/Italian. Thanks for answering, this helps a lot.


2 Louise Jakobson July 4, 2011 at 11:14 am

I was brought up in an English-speaking household in Belgium. I received no formal instruction in English reading and writing (we were in French-speaking schools) until I was about 10 by which time I had been reading fluently in both languages for years. It worked for me. Good luck!


3 Jeanne @soultravelers3 July 19, 2011 at 3:28 am

Even with multi-lingual kids, usually one language is more dominant than the others as few have equal fluency in all their languages at the same time or in every way.

We were told that it was best to learn FIRST to read in the language the child was most fluent in and that worked well for us as luckily our child taught herself to read in English at a very early age ( 2 and was reading at a third grade level at 3).

So when we went to Spain when she was 5 and put her in a school there it was very easy for her to add reading and writing in Spanish and we are grateful that she learned it in school just as all kids in Spain do. BUT she continued to read and write in English as we homeschooled that to keep it up.

We did find MANY bilingual kids in Spain ( almost all from UK or Ireland) and even young adults from UK who were native English speakers who went to school in Spain …as VERY weak in written English and very poor readers in English. Sad. But the same thing happens with Spanish speakers in the USA. One does not automatically have equal reading and writing in languages. It takes conscious work and practice for many years if you want literacy at a native like level.

I know an American child who did all her schooling in Spain until 8th grade and then to a boarding school in Ireland and despite her English at home all her life and reading some English, she was FAR behind the same age kids in Ireland as far as written and reading English levels. This was a big surprise to her parents as they were bright, the child was very bright and they worked with her on it.

Often times Brits in Spain send their kids to Spanish schools for the early years, then British schools for the older grades.

I do think this is an area to be concerned with and takes many years of work. Having the child read daily and doing written work in all languages helps a lot. Always helping a child, even a teen, learn terms in both languages for things like maths, sciences etc is important.

If one wants their child to be able to read and write well like a native in more than one language, I think it takes concentrated effort or it will not happen. I have seen too many cases where bilingual speaking kids are VERY lacking in reading and writing skills in one of their languages.

If you want your child to be able to go to either countries Universities, or work in either country, then I think they must have formal training in both written languages and regular practice for many years.

My 10 year old can read and write in all 3 of her languages ( Mandarin. Spanish. English) but she would do all of her reading and writing in English unless we encouraged daily practice. Kids like the rest of us, do what is easiest for them and tend to spend most time in their dominant language and what is the dominant language in the culture they are in.

Spending extended time in places where the languages are dominant helps a lot ie the kids will dip into their English more in UK and their Spanish more in Spain etc. That is one reason why we are in Spain right now for the summer to re-immerse kidlet in her Spanish. So easier to interest them in Spanish books/writing in Spain etc and English books and writing in UK, USA etc. partly via peers.


4 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:10 am

Thank you for your great reply, Jeanne! You are so right about the link between spoken language fluency and ease of learning to read. If we don’t know the words in general, then when we go to read it is going to be hard to figure out what we are reading.

It totally agree about the need to encourage daily practice (which can be hard for families whose children have been in school all day and also have homework and after school activities). You and your family are really going about it the right way: living in different countries for extended periods of time. That really makes such a difference, doesn’t it? I could really use a German language bath myself! If only homeschooling were legal in German. 😉

Thanks for taking the time to comment! It is always a delight to hear from you!


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