Biliteracy: Teaching Bilingual Children to Read and Write in More Than One Alphabet

by Corey · 15 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Henry Scott

As you have already read in Bilingual Homeschooling: Reading and Writing in More Than one Language and Biliteracy: Reading and Writing Starts with the Words Around Us, helping our children to learn to read and write in more than one language is 1 part teaching and 9 parts inspiration and support.

At one point or another, children become fascinated and excited with the idea of being able to read. However, they may also feel a little nervous and intimidated about the whole thing. Our job as parent-teachers is to harness our children’s interest and excitement about learning to read while at the same time helping their literacy continue to grow and develop.

Unlike monolingual families, bilingual families have the added hurdle of having to manage more than one alphabet. Even if both alphabets include the same letters, often they have very different sounds (or sounds that are the same but refer to different letters). How does a family juggle all of this? It isn’t as difficult as it sounds. It just takes a little bit of creativity (which bilinguals are good at, right?)!

One, Two or More?

Families often wonder whether they should start by teaching their children how to read in one language and then transferring this knowledge over to the other language(s) or whether they should start with both/all languages at once. Either approach is fine. The answer really comes down to what makes most sense for the parent and child.

The process of learning how to read, regardless of which language, is a step unto itself. Using symbols to represent the sounds of speech can take a while for a child to fully grasp. This is one reason why many parents prefer to stick with one language while this process is taking place. Other parents don’t feel that it is necessary to place an artificial distinction between reading in one language over another and so they approach the process with both languages at the same time. In One Parent One Language households, each parent can be involved in the teaching process by utilizing the language that they speak with the child.

Decide on the approach that you believe would work best for you and your child and give it a try. For a child (or parent) who feels overwhelmed with learning to read in more than one language at the same time, it is best to just switch over to one language for a while. There will be time to add in the next language later. If, on the other hand, your child (and you) is doing fine with more than one language at the same time, then just go for it. Don’t worry! As with learning to speak more than one language at the same time, you won’t confuse your child by child teaching her to read in more than one language. Any initial confusion will work itself out over time.

Should We Start with the Minority Language?

Many families choose to only focus on the minority language when teaching their children to read. They feel that if they start with the minority language then their children will have a good grasp of this language before they learn to read in the community language. For families who are choosing to help their children to read in one language before introducing additional languages, this is definitely the way to go.

Another benefit to teaching only the minority language is that children will eventually be taught to read in the community language in school (unless you homeschool) and so you  won’t need to spend time on that language. Focusing on learning to read the minority language at home will also help establish a habit while your children are still young.

Different Letters Sound the Same!

Often alphabets will have the same letters but the names of the letters will overlap in different ways. For example, in English the name of the letter E is the same as the name of the letter I in German. The name of the letter E in German is the same as the name of the letter A in English. This can get confusing when talking about letters with your child!

The key to getting around this issue is to have different ways of distinguishing the letters with your child. For example, in our family, we refer to the German letter I as “eee with a dot” and we refer to it’s English variant as “eye with a dot.” For the letter E in German, we say, “eh with three lines” and the English letter E as “eee with three lines.”

You and your children can come up with other fun ideas and tricks on how to distinguish letters between languages. You should also feel free to refer to letters based on the sound they make rather than their name. For example, instead of referring to the letter T as “emm” you can refer to it as “mmm.”  For some languages, this might actually make things more confusing since single letters may have multiple sounds for the same letter. For example, the letter C in English can have a K or S sound depending on the word.

Another tip is to spell out a word for your children in the language that the word is written. For example, when providing the spelling for a word in English, say the English names for the letters. When providing the spelling for a Spanish word, say the names of the letters in the Spanish way.

Getting Started

For children learning to read in a phonetic language, start with the sounds of the individual letters and then continue by making up two letter words that your child can sound out. For example, help your child learn the sound for the letter T and then add vowels after the letter T to make up new words: TE, TA, TO, TU, TI.

Spend time finding these letters and letter combinations wherever you can: in books and magazines at home, at the grocery story, driving on the highway, visiting friends, billboards around town, etc. This will give your child the chance to get used to the whole idea of reading while also having a wonderful time.

Once your child is feeling comfortable with letters and 2-letter combinations, start adding words with more letter combinations: BAT, BOT, TOT. Making up nonsense words is also a fun thing to do with a child who is just learning to read.

There are numerous websites online that give tips and suggestions for how to make learning to read fun and engaging. Check them out to find tips and suggestions that work best for you and your child. I highly recommend Colorín Colorado. It is primarily aimed at English Language Learners but the majority of tips and suggestions will work for families who speak any language!

Different Scripts or Characters

What about languages that have a completely different script, like Arabic, or are comprised of characters, like Chinese? The process of learning to read is actually very similar, regardless of alphabet and/or characters. The downside is that your child won’t be able to utilize familiarity gained with one alphabet to apply to another alphabet.

In her book Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family (page 28), Prof. Xiao-lei Wang has the following to say about this:

Some researchers believe that the more characteristics two orthographic systems have in common, the greater or more immediate the potential for transfer of reading skills or strategies (even though other researchers may disagree). In my own trilingual childrearing experience (my children are simultaneous trilinguals in English, French and Chinese), I have noticed that the different orthographic systems do impede and facilitate my children’s literacy progress in these languages. My kids tend to have more ease in learning to read and write in French than in Chinese because their main stream language, English, shares more linguistic features with French than with Chinese.

It is important that families give their children the time they need to understand the differences between each written form. Even though the process is similar, it can be daunting for a child who is already struggling to understand what reading itself is all about. However, parents should not be worried that learning more than one written form at the same time is too difficult for a child. Children around the world do this every day!

The actual approach of teaching your child to read in your language’s written form will be something that you will need research independently. Contact local or international language schools for tips on how to go about this. Or ask family and friends overseas how their local schools go about teaching children to learn to read. Meet with other parents in your area to find out how what they recommend.

Oral Language Skills and Literacy

It is important that your child continues to be exposed to as much oral input as possible. Engage your child in conversations which incorporate new vocabulary words. Read out loud to your child every day from books that fill your child with wonder and ever increasingly difficult sentence structure and vocabulary. This is essential for your child’s later enjoyment. As Prof. Xiao-lei Wang states in Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family (page 28):

Research has provided ample evidence to establish the close link between a child’s oral language skills and the child’s later reading and writing competence. Children with higher levels of oral proficiency and more elaborated vocabulary can read more easily than their less proficient peers. For example, research suggests that the property of spoken words such as stress (in English), syllables (in French) and morae (in Japanese) is closely associated with written language processing.

It is also important for your children to know without a doubt that you will not stop reading out loud to them once they learn to read for themselves. Make sure that bedtime stories and other forms of conversation and literacy continue as before. Your children should see learning to read as a wonderful addition to their lives, not one that causes them to lose their closeness with you.

How have you tackled the issue of letters that look the same but sound different in each language? Have you taught your children to read and write in more than one alphabet? What are your tips for other families?

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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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tatiana Asakura August 11, 2011 at 2:00 am

I agree that minority language should go first, before school starts.
So, we have Russian phonetic alphabet and Japanese Hiragana-Katakana 2 syllabic alphabets.
What really happened is that the syllabic structure is easier and learnt faster, singing and learning syllabic charts of 54+ syllables each is no problenm at all!
I envy the child’s memory.
So, when we faced a difficulty with phonetic alphabet creating a syllable out of 2 sounds ( not to tell that the letters themselves have their certain “names” , when [EM] sounds [M]), I applied the same syllabic method as for Japanese: charts with syllables.
And that works better than the classical monolingual method I was taught with.
AND NO PICTURE-LETTER pairs ( like A for Apple). Just the image of the letter or syllable itself.

Parallel to that at saturday school my daughter has been learning to divide the words into syllables, noticing stress and rhytm, rhyme, softness and hardness of sounds, vocals-consonants-voiced and unvoiced sounds.

anything, that does not exist in Japanese.

So, she makes no mistakes, but when in Russian she can read words, in Japanese she started chatting in internet. But , well, we still have 2 years before school and as they say: practice makes perfect.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:42 am

Thank you for your comment, Tatiana! What a great explanation of how you are going about things with your daughter! It is amazing how much fun the process of biliteracy with children can be when we have patience and take things one step at a time. I find that each of my children learned how to read in a very different way. My job was to facilitate things but not to force them. Who cares if my daughter wants to do things differently from her brother! Luckily there are no hard, set rules other than the joy of learning to read.


3 natalia January 6, 2013 at 10:40 am

I’m glad I found this post! I was feeling pretty lost actually, my girl is six years old and she’ll start school in one month here in Brasil, I speak spanish and my husband french, she is doing allright with the three languages so far… only, reading and writing feels like a nightmare to her, no way! she doesn’t want to learn how to read and write, we had tried in our languages my husband and I but we cannot make it happen, we have books from France and Spain but… nothing.
i know she ‘ll eventually read and write, of course so I don’t worry, I just feel I’m doing something wrong… she’s going to start school with a constructivism method but at home we cannot find our method yet… if you have some tips, please!!!
thank you very much!!!


4 Corey January 7, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Tatiana has some great suggestions! I agree that you shouldn’t worry about this too much. The most important is that you help introduce reading in natural and fun ways as much as you can. You can start by singing songs that have words that rhyme (just sing them to yourself when your daughter is around) and then say to her, “Wow, mom just made some words that rhyme! Look here, and then write them down.” Don’t expect her to learn anything from it, just show her that language is fun! Then later you can point out the words in a book that you are reading to her out loud: “Oh my goodness, there is one of those words that I wrote down earlier! How funny! Here it is again!”

Another fun thing to do is to point out letters while driving. Say to her: “Let’s see what letters we can find. Maybe we can find the whole alphabet. Let’ see… do you see a letter that looks like two lines put together like this?” – you can write letters on a piece of paper or show with your fingers (like the letter T).

Those are just some fun ways to make learning about letters (and ultimately reading) fun. The key is that she enjoys reading in any language! If that can come about, then helping her to find things in the home language will be much easier!

Enjoy the process! Remember: we only learn to read once! 🙂


5 Tatiana Asakura January 7, 2013 at 12:47 am

I find the constructivist method very apropriate for a bilingual kid.
But to start with, to create a scheme, the kid should have some basic information ready.
In case of literacy the kid should have some experience with reading and writing! A paradox? Maybe. But what reading is? Encoding by nature: behind this symbol there is some sound hidden, behind the sound- a certain meaning, the meaning hides an attractive object…
round age of five kids become very excited about meanings and hidden ” truth”.
We began with .. Road signs. The pictograms on the walls, then drawing own pics.
Then creating sentences and notes with them.
When the kid said: Mom! Look, there is ” R” written on the ground! , that was the time to explain the letters of Latin and Cyrillic alphabet. In Russian coding it is ” R”, in latin” P” for parking! It has no meaning in Russian, but a certain one in Dutch and English: we ll place our car here.
Thus, the kid felt some sence in letters. Started looking for familiar ones, asking others and learning really quick. Then the phase of combinations came, the brain is ready for them after five usually. In fact, from five to nine.
Concious, motivated learning comes from experience, nearest and meaningful environment, not from charts or phonics books.
They have their time, later.


6 Lovinglanguage January 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I used to teach Russian to my kids. One of the main things we did was read stories in Russian every evening. They went to Russian school once a week, too. They learned the alphabet pretty quick. But since I’m not native, my kids didn’t progress to age-appropriate books. We were stuck on the same fairy tales for years. We kind of gave up.


7 Fiona Gallagher February 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Corey thanks for a very informative article.
I have two kids – a 6 and 4 yr-old – who are bilingual in Turkish (community and father’s language) and English (my language) and attending a school that teaches French. My 6-yr old is in 1st grade and has been learning to read in Turkish since Sept – nearly there now, as its phonetically regular so fairly easy to learn. For that reason I have been holding off on English so that I only have to add the phonetically irregularities of English on top of the basic foundation that Turkish will have given.I was hesitant to start on English at the same time as Turkish was hard enough going for him. At the same time I have been worrying whether I am late and also stressing about how to go about it ( I will have to do the teaching since school is French – they will introduce reading and writing in 2nd grade) so I was delighted to chance upon this website and have found it very helpful. We will have a 3-month summer break so I hope to have him reading in English by the end of it.

Best regards,

Fiona Gallagher


8 Ines October 16, 2014 at 6:22 am

Hello, I have a 4 year old who speaks english (community and father’s language) and portuguese (minority language, only spoken by me). Since he started pre-school his command of the English language has increased and he is starting to sometimes refuse to sperak to me in portuguese (he says he can hear me talking to his dad in English so he doesn’t understand why he can’t). I try to make it as fun as possible and never get upset when he refuses to think of the portuguese word he can’t remember.
He has just started learning letters and sounds at school and I am not sure whether to introduce the sounds of the letters in portuguese or not.
My question regarding biliteracy is the following: shoudl we stick to the OPOL for that as well? Or should I feel ok about helping him with his letters in English as well?


9 Tatiana Asakura October 17, 2014 at 12:31 am

My daughter does not allow me to help her with Japanese- I am always ” wrong” to tell things appropriately. I speak ” like a villain”)))
Thus, it is her father’s duty to check the homework and help with writing.
OPOL works in our case, but she accepts my assistance and explanation in “third line” languages: English and Dutch.
I do not think that OPOL is a certain rule to be followed once and forever. It is a matter of trust.
Our French /Japanese friends teach their kids in English, the kids attend international school. And the parents ‘ involvement is full.


10 Tatiana Asakura October 17, 2014 at 12:14 am

Hi, Ines
To my humble opinion, you should not give up speaking portugese only to your son, but provide as many hours as 18 per week of exposition to Portugese, equal by means of meaningful activities to English. In English he plays games, listens to books, learns new things, quarrels with peers and makes friendships.
He is developing his social skills- that makes him feel English is more important.

I see in our international school that parents of grades Pre-K to 5 keep talking with their kids in their native language, despite the environment.
Kids retell what happened during the day, share their achievements and concerns.
And immediately switch to English with peers.

Regarding learning to read… You are lucky that the alphabet is practically the same, and the school will do most of the job of basic learning.
When they start reading and writing small phonic words, it may be a good time to tell the difference, learn the same in Portugese, pointing out the similarities and differences.
If you want him to be fully literate in minority language, you should count on hours of precise spelling and reading exercise.
My daughter is 8 now, she goes to japanese school, grade 2 in its last trimester; by 27th October she is supposed to complete full test for Russian grade 1: six subjects, in written form. In May she will do Grade 2 test. Grade one material was spread not for one, but two years of home study, going in slower pace to give her time for developing stronger competence in reading and writing.
She is not yet eager to read boks for herself in Russian. It may be because of the slow speed of reading, which does not allow to see the ” moving picture” behind the text. She says, when I read to her she closes her eyes and sees it)))
I put more effort in comprehension than technical skills of reading, the speed will be gained later.
It is different from how the school teaches, they gain speed before comprehension.
But it works.
I am using school materials to teach her, but they are just a frame where we place our own creations, depending on her momentarily needs.
We needed a lot of logopedic materials, remedial teaching and materials for kids with language delay. A lot of singing, play and hand work. Literally feeling every step.
We needed to return to the same rules again and again, and vary the circumstances where she had to apply the skill.
If the school of major language provided the basics for minor language, life would be much easier)))
Recently I found a wonderful book : a tale in Russian with some words replaced by japanese kanji taken from her school programme. The reading of it let her integrate the skills: a dosen pages reading in Russian, remembering the meanings of kanji , transforming the images and meanings in grammattically appropriate way- translation.
Translation is a separate, special skill , and is a lot of fun.
Sometimes it provides additional motivation to look up for words and expressions in other language.
At the age of 4 it is important to grow the idea that there are more than one languages to learn things in, and things may have different meanings. The ways we express them may vary, and we have the key to solution. The more the kid undertands , the bigger is the chance that he will learn reading and writing to learn new things and entertain oneself.


11 Ellen Rouyer May 5, 2016 at 9:24 pm

My kids are growing up trilingual in Taiwan. I never actively tried to teach them how to read, in any language. I read bedtime stories to them – in French as much as possible, sometimes in English – but they learnt how to read when they started first grade (both Chinese and English). I got them lots of books, kept up the bedtime stories for a long time, and then, when they were about 8-9, proficient readers in Chinese (even though they keep learning new characters all the time) and in English, I got them started in French (their super minority language as i am the only one who speaks it to them). They go the hang of it in about a week.
As a bilingual kid myself, I first learnt how to read and write in French, then, when i was about 9, spending the summer at my grandparent’s place in London, my granny taught me how to read in English. Same thing: one week, done.
So my advice is: don’t sweat it. If the kid is fluent in both languages, even though one may be better than the other (as is usually the case) once the child knows how to read well, reading in the other language is no big deal. I studied Ancient Greek at school for two years (grade 8-9) – two weeks to memorise / learn the alphabet, then i could read.
So as long as the language is an alphabetical language, once the child reads well, it is not difficult to pick up a language he or she already speaks. Chinese is another story.


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