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.
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?
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