Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 4

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What bilingual or multilingual family is not at least curious about how to raise biliterate and multiliterate children? Yet it can seem like a daunting task. Helping our children speak another language may already be a challenge, how can we even begin to think about teaching our children to read and write in additional languages?

Here are some common questions from parents and caregivers:

  • How do I go about helping my child learn to read and write in our home language?
  • Should I teach my child to read in our home language before she starts school?
  • Is it better for a child to learn how to read and write in one language before introducing this in additional languages?
  • What about a child learning to read and write in languages with different written letters and scripts?

Lucky for bilingual and multilingual families around the world, Dr. Xiao-lei Wang has written a book just for us titled Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family which is even available for the Amazon Kindle Reader! Multilingual Living is excited to have the opportunity to publish excerpts from this informative book for the world to enjoy.It will give families around the world numerous insights into how they can help their children become biliterate and multiliterate.

You may want to start by reading excerpts from the first few chapters:

Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Introduction.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 2.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 3.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 4: Infancy and Childhood (Birth – 5 Years):

Multiliteracy Development Focus

It was once thought that literacy activities should not begin until children were formally schooled. It is now widely endorsed by educators and researchers that the literacy process begins at birth and continues throughout children’s lives. In the case of a child who is exposed to more than one language, the early start of the multilingual literacy development process may be beneficial.

Based on infants and young children’s learning characteristics that I have just discussed, the home literacy focus during this period needs to be on helping children build emergent literacy skills and beginning multimedia literacy skills. Although most children at this stage will not have developed conventional reading and writing competencies in any language, they can begin to construct meaning from the multilingual prints that they encounter in their surroundings and begin to accumulate knowledge about them. For example, even though 3-year-old Ommar does not know how to read Arabic and English, he has developed his knowledge to distinguish the two different scripts; thus, when his father asked him to fetch the Arabic newspaper, Ommar successfully accomplished the task without confusing the English newspaper with the Arabic one. Similarly, most children at this stage will not have developed the ability to use multimedia literacy independently, such as surfing the internet or using e-mails. They can, however, develop the concept of multimedia literacy by observing their parents and older siblings. For example, 4-year-old Ayati often observed her mother downloading pictures from the internet. One day, she requested her mother to print a picture from the computer (the internet) of a dish served in the Indian Diwali celebration, for her ‘Show and Tell’ in her English nursery school.

However, the emergence of literacy and multimedia skills during infancy and early childhood may be characterised by spurts, plateaus and even regression, because development is often not smoothly uniform and cumulative, but asynchronous (not at the same time) and non-linear. Nevertheless, the print and multimedia concept as well as the metalinguistic abilities (e.g. the ability to notice the differences between scripts) developed during this early period will most definitely pave the way for children’s future multiliteracy advancement.

Thus, when planning the home literacy activities for this period in the home environment, the focus should be on helping young children develop emergent multilingual literacy and multimedia literacy skills, for example how symbols (such as letters) and sounds are related in different languages, how word order differs in different languages, how text layouts differ in different languages and how the printed text form differs from the multimedia text form.

Environmental Print

The literacy materials used to help children start their heritage language literacy is not necessarily always from good quality children’s literature. They can be from unexpected sources such as number plates, clothing labels, cereal boxes, road signs, shop windows or birthday cards. This kind of print is called environmental print because it is present in children’s daily surroundings. Environmental print is usually contextualised, and children are able to use the clues from the print to derive meaning and learn the purpose associated with it. For example, each time 3-year-old Lori sees the GAP store sign, she would call out GAP! She associated the letters G-A-P with the clothing store because she had been in the store with her mom on many occasions. Her experience with the store helped Lori understand that the symbol ‘GAP’ represents the name of the store. Research shows that environmental print helps infants and young children decipher the meaning of the printed word in their everyday lives.

Heritage environmental print is often lacking in heritage language learning children’s environment. However, with some creativity, it is possible for parents to use it to help infants and young children start the heritage language literacy process. For example, Mrs Shokhirev from Connecticut wants to give her 10-month-old son an early start with his heritage language Russian. When she gives her son breakfast in the morning, she often points at the Russian words that she purposefully glues onto the infant cereal boxes and playfully sounds out the letters. Similarly, Mrs Minami from New Jersey asks her 5-year-old daughter to help her shelve groceries with Japanese on the packages after each trip back from the Japanese supermarket. Likewise, Mrs Xu from New York labelled many of her household objects in Chinese for her 4-year-old son. What these mothers do in common is that they creatively use environmental print to draw their young children’s attention to heritage language print in a meaningful context.

In fact, researchers have found that many immigrant parents in Canada, the UK and the USA are successful in using heritage language environmental print, such as newspapers, television programme guides, magazines and catalogues to help their young children begin the heritage language literacy learning process.

Stay tuned for chapter 5 of Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, by Xiao-lei Wang. We will also be sharing many more posts the next few weeks about how to help your children learn to read and write in more than one language!

Dr. Xiao-lei Wang received her doctoral degree from the University of Chicago. She is a full professor in the School of Education at Pace University in New York. Dr. Wang is an interdisciplinary scholar. Her research covers a wide range of topics such as cultural parenting styles, effects of nonverbal communication in teaching and learning, multilingual development, and moral development. She is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences on child development and parenting issues, and has published extensively in academic journals. Her recent book Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven focuses on the challenges and strategies of raising multilingual children.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anneke Forzani July 27, 2011 at 7:10 am

It is wonderful to have resources such as this book which provide support in raising children who can speak, read and write their heritage languages. Thank you for sharing so much information about this book!


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Thank you for your comment, Anneke! I agree: It is always so exciting when a book like this comes along!


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