When Is the Best Time to Teach Bilingual Children to Write in Their Languages?

by Madalena · 4 comments

Dear Madalena,

I read so much about bilingualism, but it all focuses on the “oral” part.

I have many questions about the written part: Is it better to learn one language in writing first and then the other? After how many years can you add the writing of the second/third language? Or can you do it all in parallel? Do you know whether there is any research on this topic?

Thank you,


Dear Barbara,

Questions about when to introduce literacy (reading/writing) in one or more languages have a similar answer to questions about when to introduce spoken or sign languages: when the need arises. What matters is the need, not the timing.

Literacy typically serves schooling needs, and associated needs. School policies may specify preferences about introducing literacy simultaneously or sequentially, and children will accordingly adapt to this schooling need.

Policies are of course one thing, and what interests (little) human beings, as well as what we all are capable of achieving, is quite another. It is, for example, natural for a multilingual child who is being introduced to literacy in one language to start wondering about literacy in other languages. If this is the case for your children, just play along with whatever questions and puzzles they may have for you.

There is no need for you to either worry about “neglecting” one language whose printed form is not being taught to your child, or to delay introducing literacy in another, whose printed form may not be taught in school. Your children will become literate in the languages for which literacy is of use to them.

You can check out research on this topic in Professor Viv Edwards’ book, Learning to be Literate: Multilingual Perspectives.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia August 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

Magdalena you say at the end of your answer to Barbara’s question – “Your children will become literate in the languages for which literacy is of use to them.” Do you mean we shouldn’t actively teach or encourage our children to be literate in their 2nd or 3rd language? I believe that it is preferable for a bilingual child/adult to be able to read, write and speak the language/s they know. Not being able to read or write in a language that you speak closes the doors on so many aspects of the culture pertaining to that language. I don’t believe it’s just a question of whether being literate in that language is ‘of use’ to them. No-one else is going to teach or encourage my child to read and write in Spanish. She herself is not old enough to have the self-motivation to do it herself. I am not sitting back and waiting to see if it is of use to her! By the time it is it will be too late!
Maybe you mean that if she wants to read a comic strip in Spanish she will try to puzzle it out for herself. That is true to some extent but it depends on the child’s age and level whether they can sustain an interest in something that is not AS useful as their first language.


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:57 am

Thank you for your comment, Antonia! Great question/points! My understanding of what Madalena is saying is that yes, we should definitely offer opportunities for our children to become biliterate. However, if we expect that our children will want to learn to read (and put in the effort) just because we tell them so, then it most likely will turn into a power struggle.

As human beings we tend to do things that make sense to us, have a purpose, give us enjoyment, etc. To help our children learn to read and write in their languages, we need to provide them with real opportunities where they can use their skills, opportunities where our children want to learn to read to accomplish something that demands that they be able to read or write. Your example of the comic strip is great: it isn’t that we just sit back and watch our children struggle why trying to read something. What Madalena means is that when we see our children wanting to read the comic strip, that is when we can/should offer help – it is a “real” situation that will naturally lend itself to learning to read. This is an example of “literacy being of use to them.” To know how to read is very useful in wanting to understand a comic strip and thus our children see the benefit to the whole thing.

Compare that with us pulling out a learning-to-read book that is totally uninteresting to our children but we tell them that they need to learn to read it because it will be good for them to learn to read. In the first instance (comic strip) our children want to read so that they can gain and understanding of what the comic is about. In the second instance, they are totally unmotivated and have no “need” to learn to read. Sure, we can force them, perhaps, but our children will still not feel that it is of use in any way, shape or form.

The ideal situations for motivating our children is helping to put things in their paths that encourage them to want to use our language(s). As soon as our children see the “use” of our language(s) they will start to motivate themselves to become language masters and we can be there to help them right along.


3 PragmaticMom August 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I always felt that written was roughly the same as their first language assuming that the child is learning the second language at the same pace as primary language. If the child’s exposure to second language is not immersion, then the written would also lag behind.

My kids are learning languages and the written and spoken are very, very slowly being absorbed via games and songs.


4 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:44 am

That is a wonderful way of helping your children learn to write and speak! It is funny how much children enjoy mixing everything together – speaking, reading, writing. None of my children have taken any kind of liner process through each of those. They were writing before they could read words (asked me to tell them the letters) because they wanted to write signs and whatnot. It wasn’t until later that they could read things other than what they wrote. I love it!

Thank you for sharing!


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