Biliteracy: Bilingual Children Can Learn to Read in Any Language

by Corey · 9 comments

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.

Phonetic Languages

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!

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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 April August 13, 2011 at 3:28 am

Hi !

I am wondering if you had any tips to help me to motivate my almost 7 year old son to speak his second language (my mother language).

I have been speaking and reading to him in my mother language most of the time since he was born. He understands almost everything I say unless I go into deeper subjects and can read in his second language but speaks to me only in English. He speaks his second language with my parents when they come over to stay with us for a couple of months so I know he can speak. But he translates from English. I am trying to encourage him to speak to me as well so it gets easier for him. I explained him that it is a “cool” and “clever” thing to be able to speak 2 languages, and that I want him to be able to speak his second language because it is where I am from. I noticed that he was struggling with the fact that his second language was not perfect. I told him that he should not expect his second language to be as good as his English and that it is perfectly allright to make mistakes and we could make a game to see if I could understand him correctly. That worked once when we were in the car and he spoke to me for a couple of minutes. But since then he is again refusing to speak his second language. I tried to understand what is holding him back, he says ” he doesn’t feel like it and he only wants to speak it when he is in that country and with his grandparents”. I told him if he practices now with me 5 minutes everyday, it will be much easier for him to speak it when he is with his grandparents and he might event forget what he know if he continues not talking to me. But no success ! He is just not comfortable with it.

Any suggestions to help me encourage him to speak his second language? He is usually a reserved and self conscious boy so I am planning to just let it go but I am concerned he will forget a lot of what he knows instead of building on it.

Many thanks in advance !


2 Corey August 18, 2011 at 3:32 am

Great comment, April! I know exactly what you are talking about. One of my three children is similar to how you describe your son. I find it extremely difficult to find the right balance so that my children will feel motivated by something I suggest and not annoyed.

What works for my children is when I am just doing something “for myself” and not to get them to do it. It sounds like your son doesn’t want to feel as if he is being manipulated into speaking your language – and no matter what you do he tends to see it this way. My suggestion is not that you stop providing him with a rich language environment but to see if you can find situations where he simply has to use your language to do what needs to be done – like playing a game, reading a book, talking with family via Skype, etc. See if you can think of some situations where it would feel natural for him to use his language and put those into place.

Another suggestion is to explain to your son how much YOU love the language and why you love it so much to chat with him in the language. That takes the pressure off him. When you say to him that practicing 5 minutes would help his language skills might actually make him feel that there is a kind of expectation on him. Turn things around and explain how much it would help you, be fun for you, be so nice for you.

Your son is still young so there is plenty of time for him to choose to use his language. The most important is that you continue to speak it, reading to your son out loud in it, etc. Harriet Cannon gave a talk a while back about how children tend to come around when they are a bit older (ages 12 and up) and actually start wanting to speak the language more. Be patient, the time will most certainly come.


3 April August 19, 2011 at 2:40 am

Thank you Corey ! Your comment is really helpfull. I especially liked the idea of explaining how I love the language and why I love it and so taking the pressure off him.. He likes reading so I could encourage him to read to me because he is the only person in the house who can read in my language :-))


4 Omma September 7, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Thanks for this, it is one of those things I tend to stress about, so it’s great to read a post that says ‘relax’ 🙂 Very cute to see your daughter reading too!


5 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Omma! You are so right about all of us needing more things to remind us to relax and enjoy the ride! Our children are growing so quickly – we can’t afford to miss this amazing time in their (and our) lives with too much worry and concern. At least that is what I remind myself all of the time!

Thanks for the kind comments about Marie. She really likes those Bob books (as you can see)! 😉


6 Giovanna September 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm


I’m mum of a 6 year old boy and I’ve started to teach him how to read and write in Italian last summer, at the seaside, on the beach…. everyday we did one page of a good book I had found for him and at the end of our holiday he could read his first book!! I’m so proud of him and now he’s starting the primary school in Dutch (my husband’s language) and he is doing fine so far…. I don’t really have the impression that he is mixing up, on the contrary, his previous knowledge of literacy is helping him and he finds everything so easy….

I think that motivation is crucial for everything, and our motivation, as parents, is maybe the first step. Sometimes we wonder why our children refuse something, but we are not aware of the fact that our motivation is not strong enough. The secret is really to transmit our love for our culture and tell them all the positive and wonderful aspects of our country of origin, so that they will be proud of being part of it! The rest will come by itself (with a lot of work from our site, of course….;))!!!

P.S. I’m a big supporter of the principle one person -one language and I’m persuaded that this is the most efficient way to get good result. I might be wrong, of course, but in our case it’s working really good!


7 Corey January 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Thank you for your comment, Giovanna! You are so right about our motivation being the absolutely most important. If we are just doing out thing and enjoying it, our children can’t help but notice our enjoyment and at least be interested in what we are doing/speaking. At the very least, we will continue to be a good example.

I too am a big fan of One-Person-One-Language as well as minority-language-at-home. They are both fantastic ways to provide children with clear language models.


8 Giovanna January 16, 2012 at 2:55 am

Hi! I’m mum of 2 bilingual children and Italian is their minority language. They speak it fluently and usually it is their playing language among eachother. My boy, 6, is learning to read and write in Italian and Dutch (his school language) at the same time and it works perfectly!

I’m justa taken aback when he asks me why he should learn to read and write also in Italian… I try to let him see the positive side, like “you can read Italian books”, or “what will you say if someone asks you to read or write something in Italian and you cannot”, I’m trying to raise his awareness about his identity, “since you are also Italian you should know how to read and write…” but all these topics don’t sound very convincing to myself neither…

Any suggestion?

Thanks in advance


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