Biliteracy: Reading and Writing Starts with the Words Around Us

by Corey · 2 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Erica Olsen

Long before our bilingual children learn to read and write, they will have been exposed to the written word in many different formats. They see words on signs, in books, on computers, and plastered across billboards. In fact, it is difficult to get through the day without being exposed to a written word.

It may not seem like it, but being surrounded by words in this way is the first step in becoming literate. Before we can truly master anything, we need to become comfortable with it, we need to get familiar with it.

As Maria points out in her post Bilingual Homeschooling: Reading and Writing in More Than one Language, the power of biliteracy in bilingual children begins with noticing our literacy. They watch us as we read books, newspapers, magazines, signs, personal letters, emails, subtitles, instructions to a game. They see how important words are in our lives and they become filled with a sense of curiosity, fascinating and wonder. They also sense the power that literacy has in our lives.

Here are some suggestions for how to start the process of home biliteracy:

  • Fill your home with quality reading materials in your language. You do not need truck-loads of books in your language, just aim for a variety of books that are interesting to your child. If your child wants to hear you read the same book over and over again, that is a good sign that the book has captivated your child’s interest.
  • Point to words when you read them. Without asking your child to read anything, just point to the words as you read them. You can find words of things that your child likes and emphasize them. For example, if your child likes cats and the word cat is in a sentence then say, “Look! This is the word cat!” Then read the whole sentence pointing to each word until you come to the word cat. Stop there, give your child a big smile, and then continue. Your child may want you to do that again and again since it is so much fun.
  • Let your child point out words while walking or driving. Your child will most likely see signs and billboards while you are out and about. These are great opportunities for spontaneous fun with reading! For example, think about how many times your child has seen a stop sign. Your child will most likely have figured out that the word on the sign is “stop” even though he doesn’t know what the letters are or how to pronounce them. Make sure to encourage this!
    You can also have fun with a number of different games that involve learning to read. For example, let your child find signs along the road and your job is to read them out loud. Or you can play another game where you emphasize the sounds at the beginning of each word and you and your child think of other words that start with that sound. Or instead, find other signs that start with that same letter/sound.
  • Don’t worry when your child says she is reading. Some parents get worried when their child says that she can read a book but really she is just making up a story, paraphrasing the real story, or has memorized the story and is just repeating it back. This is actually part of the process! Your child is showing you what a great time she is having with words. She has enjoyed you reading stories to her and now she wants to start giving it a try. She is getting used to what it feels like to be the reader. Respond with enjoyment and she will feel even more confident in her role as reader.
  • Spell out words whenever your child asks. If your child asks you to say what the letters are in a word, you can either say the names of the letters or you can say how the letters sound. It is easier for a child to learn to read if you teach the sounds of the letters first so that your child won’t confuse the name of the letter with its sound. However, ultimately it is up to you to do what feels most comfortable to you. My children learned both the names of the letters followed by the sounds (in both languages) and they did just fine. You might want to find out how your child’s school will be doing it and follow that, simply to help your child feel comfortable with the process ahead of time.
    If you decide to teach your child the names of the letters, just explain that each letter has a name as well as its own sound(s). Keep things simple, fun and easy at this point. In our next post, we will talk more about how to do this when the letters in each language look the same but sound different.
  • Let your child be the driving force. Make sure you don’t push your child into taking steps that are moving too quickly. Let your child be the motivating force. Your child may even lose interest for a while. That is fine! Just keep showing your interest in literacy by continuing to read books and other materials out loud to your child. Eventually your child will come back around and may even have taken the next step of reading some words all on her own. Learning to read takes time and patience so get ready for a long, enjoyable ride.

As with everything, it is all about balance. We want to help our children enjoy the process that literacy has to offer but we have to be careful that we don’t get so excited that we end up pushing them to go too fast. Pushing too hard in learning to read can make a child feel anxious and nervous rather than excited and joyful. When children feel that they are in control of their literacy, they will feel more motivated and empowered by it. This is a feeling that can stick with them for a lifetime!

The process of learning to read is an emotional one. It is about being ready to take a leap into something that feels unknown yet exciting, daunting yet exhilarating. Reading can feel magical and powerful to a young child if we don’t frustrate them into believing it is hard and something intimidating. If we can help our children maintain this joy and wonder all along the way, then we will have helped our children become truly literate on a very deep level.

Stay tuned for the next post in our learning to read & write series. It will be about how to introduce letters to your bilingual child in more than one language.

Is your child showing interest in words and letters? How do you support your child’s interest in reading? What gets your child most excited about learning to read?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tarik Hussein July 16, 2011 at 7:13 pm

A good way for us as adults to re-live that experience of exhiliration and discovery, but also of struggling with something wholly unfamiliar, is for us to learn to read in a new alphabet.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:12 am

You are so right, Tarik! We so easily forget what it is like to struggle with something like learning to read. It was so long ago that we first learned. But to be exposed to a new alphabet can take us right back there! Thank you for that reminder!


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