Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 5

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

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 5: Middle Childhood (6 – 11 Years):

This chapter briefly addresses the learning characteristics of middle childhood and identifies the focus of heritage language literacy development during this period. Various suggestions are made to assist you in selecting home language literacy materials and conducting learning activities that complement your children’s school literacy experience. The assessment priority is identified for this period and methods are introduced to help you monitor your children’s progress. At the end of each section, opportunities are provided to practise the recommended strategies and reflect on how to incorporate these strategies to fit your personal circumstances.

Creating Heritage Language Books

Encouraging your children to create their own versions of home language reading materials or books is an interesting way to engage your children in home language literacy learning. Children can create their own reading materials and books by cutting out pictures from advertisements, magazines and newspapers or printing them from the internet. You can work together with your children to label pictures and photos or you can help your children write about the materials they collect. This is an innovative way to engage your children in heritage language literacy learning.

Self-made reading materials can increase children’s motivation to read the materials. Karl from Germany, who now lives in Shanghai, has helped his 7-year-old son create his own German books by cutting out pictures from the German magazines he receives monthly. According to Karl, his son is very interested in making his version of German Bu ̈cher (books). The boy has begun to learn to read and write German through these self-made books.

In case you just cannot find good children’s literature in your heritage language, you can try to write your own books for your children. To some parents, this may sound quite challenging. However, Karen, who lives in London, found that she enjoys writing books for her three kids in Swahili. Over the years, she, her husband and her children have made many Swahili books with attractive illustrations, family photos and interesting texts. Her children enjoy reading these homemade books immensely. They are a vivid record of her children’s heritage language learning journey.

With the advancement in computer software, it is now easier for you to create books in your heritage language. When writing your books in your heritage language, you may want to follow these guidelines:

  • Use vocabulary and grammatical structures that are frequent in your conventional heritage language use.
  • Use easily readable fonts (in your word processor) or handwriting. Compose interesting texts.
  • Include interesting clip art or illustrations.
  • Follow the conventions of your heritage language writing.

You can also try to translate some good mainstream children’s literature into your heritage language. There are at least two advantages of doing so. First, your children may be familiar with the story. It is likely that they have heard of it in their mainstream language. Second, these books are probably written for a specific age group. Therefore, the content is suitable for your children. However, when translating books from mainstream language to heritage language, you may want to be mindful of not injecting one culture’s convention into the other because the major point in learning a heritage language is also learning the heritage culture.

Stay tuned for an excerpt from chapter 6 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.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Silke July 30, 2011 at 5:26 pm

I had that dilemma, I didn’t know when to start teaching my son to read in Spanish, so I just waited for him to learn to read in his primary language an when he was still excited and happy because he was reading “everything”, I gave him an easy book in Spanish, he did a wonderful job reading in Spanish for the firt time! he needs help with the pronunciation of some words but to do that we use flashcards, that helps 🙂


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

This is wonderful, Silke! What parents forget is that the process of learning *how* to read is a step unto itself. Once children figure that part out, then they can apply it to other languages. Whether a child learns *how* to read in one language or the other, it doesn’t really matter. The key is exactly what you said: be ready with some interesting books and materials when our children are at the height of their excitement and they will gobble them up with glee! Thank you for sharing!


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