By Corey Heller
Use the Hieroglyphic Typewriter to decode the image above.
The interesting thing about teaching our bilingual children to read is that we are often more worried about the details than they are. We furrow our brow and tense up our muscles when we think about how to explain to our children that the letter C sometimes sounds like K and other times sounds like S. Won’t our children get confused and become frustrated?
Being that one language seems hard enough, what about helping children to read and write in two (or more) languages! How are we supposed to go about explaining that the letter W sounds like “wuh” in English but in German it sounds the same as the letter V in English? Just thinking about it can cause us to break out in a cold sweat.
The truth is, this need not be as excruciating as it seems. We do not need to prepare for every little linguistic nuance and phonetic rule. In fact, preparing too much can cause more stress and anxiety for everyone involved!
Learning to read isn’t a linear process. It’s a meandering path through the wilderness, not a single-lane highway through the flat-lands. Many detours and pit-stops will be part of the journey so we need to prepare ourselves to enjoy the long journey for what it is.
Many people talk about their language being a “phonetic language” which means that letters and words are pronounced exactly as written. Although very few languages have exactly one sound for each letter, some languages are definitely easier to learn to read because letter combinations tend to always be pronounced the same. This makes sounding out the words more straightforward.
English is not considered a phonetic language which can be more challenging when helping bilingual children learn to read. For example, many words in English have the spelling of “ough,” yet this letter combination can be pronounced very differently depending on the word. See this list with pronunciations from wikipedia:
/oʊ/ as in “though” (cf. toe).
/uː/ as in “through” (cf. true).
/ʌf/ as in “rough” (cf. ruffian).
/ɒf/ as in “cough” (cf. coffin).
/ɔː/ as in “thought” (cf. taut).
/aʊ/ as in “bough” (cf. to bow).
Most native English speakers don’t even know that there are this many ways to pronounce “ough” so how in the world can we teach our bilingual children all of these different pronunciations?
The answer is: Don’t.
Just Get Started
There is no reason to start by teaching our bilingual children a multitude of pronunciations. Just start with the basics and take one step at a time. Start with the sound for A and B and C and go from there. Start with the words around you, the ones that your child is excited about and asks about. Read Maria Hawkins’ post about helping children to learn to read in more than one language at the same time – she reminds us about how fun it can be!
If you can’t find any learning-to-read books in your language (we had a very hard time finding these in German) then just make your own! Cut out pictures from magazines and write sentences that have short words: “Cat sat” for a picture of a sitting cat. Don’t worry about which words your child should be learning first or which are the easiest words. Just get started. Have fun. Get your child involved.
By the time your child can read words like “cat” and “sat” she will already be on her way to understanding how reading works. And when the time comes for reading words with things like “ough” your child will already be reading up a storm and will figure it out (or will ask you). Over time your child’s vocabulary will grow bit by bit – organically.
The truth is, we learn a lot about the words on a page from context: the words and sentences that come before and those that come after. This is what helps us to know how “through” versus “though” is pronounced. It wouldn’t make sense for a sentence to say, “He went though the door,” would it? We already know that the word should be “through” and (and thus, how to pronounce it) since we know what the sentence is saying. Context helps us to read more quickly, so that we don’t have to focus on each word on the page!
As you have noticed, many children’s early reading books have a lot of pictures. Part of the reason for this is to give children the context of the story. On left side of the page, your child sees a cat standing on a green lawn. On the right side of the page your child sees a rat standing under a tall tree. The sentence below the pictures says, “The big cat saw the big rat.”
Not only does the picture make your child more interested in wanting to read what is written on the page, it also provides context to help your child figure out the sentence. This is a good thing. Learning to use context is very important in this world of ours! Down the road your child will learn to use the context of other words and sentences to figure out new words.
Going back to the “ough” words above, rather than teaching our children all of the arbitrary rules of pronunciation, after they ask you how to pronounce a word a few times, they will start to figure it out. When you correct them a few times, they may ask you questions about the pronunciation. That is when you can talk about how there are different ways to pronounce the same letter combinations. Your child will be interested and fascinated and it will be a truly enjoyable learning moment.
Self-Motivation is the Best
As I write these posts, my 6 year-old daughter, Marie, is learning to read. She has been dabbling in this for the past few months but now has decided on her own take it more seriously. She is motivated by the fact that if she knows how to read short sentences then she will be able to do the Moving Beyond the Page homeschooling curriculum for 6-8 year-olds (and gosh darn it, she wants that curriculum for homeschooling in the fall and will learn to read if it is the last thing she does!). There is nothing like a child being self-motivated when it comes to reading!
Below are two videos from yesterday. They are of my daughter just after she started learning to read her first Bob Books:
Learning to read with “The Sad Cat”
Learning to read with “Rub-A-Dub”
Read all of our posts so far on how to help our children learn to read and write in more than one language!
Were you able to decipher the hieroglyphic message at the beginning of this post?
Are your children motivated to learn to read? How have you been able to get your children motivated to learn to read in your language? Has it been a struggle or a fun learning process? Share your knowledge and tips with us!