Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 7 (Final Chapter)

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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.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 5.
Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family: Chapter 6.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7: Parents’ Practices, Voices and Concluding Remarks:

This chapter revisits some multilingual literacy home teaching practices demonstrated by the parents featured in this book. Through analysing the strategies and reflections of these parents, the key areas of their successes and distinct differences are discussed. The chapter concludes by briefly recapitulating the main points conveyed throughout the book, leaving you with a positive message: Although multilingual literacy development in the home environment is challenging, it is possible with support, dedication and effective strategies.

Differences Among Parents

Although all the parents featured in this book shared the common goal of raising multilingual and multiliterate children, they did not hold the same beliefs about the purpose of literacy. In addition, we also noticed that not all the parents used the same methods to teach their children.

Differences in parental beliefs

It is interesting to see that some of the parents from the Confucian traditional cultures, such as Mrs Kim (Chapter 2), Mrs Xu (Chapter 4), Mrs Lee (Chapter 6), Mrs Wei (Chapter 6), Mrs Xie (Chapter 5), Mrs Gong (Chapter 6), Mrs Minami (Chapter 4), Mrs Yamamoto (Chapter 5), Mrs Zhang (Chapter 4) and Mrs Cho (Chapters 2 and 5) all believed that the main purpose of heritage language literacy learning (in their separate cases, Chinese, Japanese and Korean) was to help children build skills for future academic and professional success in addition to maintaining their heritage culture. They all believed that reading and writing should be taught systematically and explicitly. They all shared the same view as Tony’s grandfather (see Chapter 2: Eve Gregory’s study) that reading or writing was a form of serious work. They all regarded the explicit teaching of heritage language reading and writing skills as the key to success. They all believed that heritage language learning would bring their children academic and economic success in their future. For example, Mrs Wei said:

If my child wants to become fluent in his Chinese, he needs to work hard on it. I have told him many stories about how ancient Chinese scholars pushed themselves to achieve the best results. Success in anything needs dedication and diligence. I think there will be no gain if there is no pain.

By contrast, the parents of European and North American cultural backgrounds, such as Julie (Chapter 6), Sonia (Chapter 4), Karl (Chapter 5), Mrs Edwards (Chapter 5), Aaleigha (Chapter 6), Marian (Chapter 5), Hanna (Chapter 4) and Jeremy (Chapter 6) believed that their children’s home language literacy learning should be based on children’s needs and wants. Home language reading and writing should be fun and interesting. Parents should not force their children to read or write if the children resisted. All these parents agreed that heritage language learning would be beneficial to their children, intellectually and culturally. As Sonia commented, ‘I try to make my son’s Dutch development an enjoyable activity. I talk to him, I read interesting books to him and I play with him’. Other parents featured in the book, such as Mohamed (Chapter 6), Isha (Chapter 5), Ommar’s father (Chapter 4), Semahat (Chapter 6), Mitra’s mother (Chapter 6), Eddie’s mother (Chapter 4) and Ayati’s mother (Chapter 4) believed that the most important purpose of teaching their children their heritage language reading and writing skills was to help their children study and understand their religion. Many of them believed that repetition and memorisation was a good method to learn religious texts. For example, Ommar’s father revealed that ‘I want my son to know Arabic so that he can read religious texts. To remember what he learned, he has to repeat, repeat and repeat until he knows the texts by heart… Repetition is a form of learning’.

Finally, parents such as Christina (Chapter 6), Silvija (Chapter 6), Polina (Chapter 5), Mrs Shokhirev (Chapter 4) and Mrs Belinsky (Chapter 5) stood between the parents mentioned above with regard to their beliefs on home language literacy teaching and learning. On the one hand, they agreed with the idea that literacy was work, but on the other hand, they also believed children should enjoy what they read and write. Mrs Belinsky commented, ‘It’s really a matter of balance. I think both hard work and enjoyment should be considered’.

Differences in literacy teaching methods

Many parents featured in the book were creative and innovative in their teaching. They used different methods to help their children learn heritage language literacy. There seems to be no one method that was more effective than another. Instead, what worked for their children was the best method in their situation. For example, Eddie’s mother (Chapter 4) read books to her son in English and discussed them in Arabic. Mrs Cho (Chapter 5) asked her daughter to read a variety of genres weekly. Diya’s parents (Chapter 5) provided wedding and greeting cards for their daughter, who, for example, learned and recited beautiful verses and poems from a wedding invitation card in Hindi. Marian (Chapter 5) played magnetic word games after dinner with her son, making silly and funny sentences. Jeremy (Chapter 6) used pop-culture materials to help his twin daughters read in their heritage language English. Mrs Gong (Chapter 6) read classical Chinese poems to her daughter. Mrs Xu (Chapter 4) labelled household objects in Chinese. Mrs Minami (Chapter 4) asked her 5-year-old daughter to help shelve groceries with Japanese labels after each trip back from the Japanese supermarket. Hanna (Chapter 4) intentionally read her German newspaper aloud and drew her 3-year-old son’s attention to the interesting photos and captions. Ommar’s father (Chapter 4) asked him to fetch his Arabic and English newspapers.

We also noticed that some parents’ home literacy teaching resembled school teaching. For example, Mrs Edwards (Chapter 5) used the language experience approach (LEA) to teach her son how to write. Other parents’ teaching was casual. For example, Mrs Lek (Chapter 4) used everyday circumstances to teach her daughter heritage language literacy by asking her child to match her Thai shopping lists to the labels of items when shopping in the Thai grocery store.

Moreover, we found that parents conducted their heritage language literacy activities with different emphases. For example, Mrs Cho and Mrs Yamamoto incorporated their children’s heritage language learning into academic learning. Mohamed cultivated his children’s heritage learning focusing on religious observance. Aaleigha helped her child’s heritage language learning by attending to his psychological needs. Mrs Gong concentrated on helping her child’s literacy development by reading classical literature. Christina and her husband Feliks (Chapter 6) paid attention to their son’s critical thinking ability by discussing news from Polish politics and multimedia reading materials.

It is an Advantage to Know More

As now you are finishing this book, it is always positive to think about what you have invested or will invest in your children’s learning. As the bilingual expert Ellen Bialystok put it, ‘Knowing more has never been a disadvantage when compared to knowing less’.6 Ultimately, the children who are immersed in multilingual and multiliterate worlds will learn to call on a greater wealth of metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies.

I have heard so many laments from people who have missed the opportunity to become multilingual and multiliterate. They genuinely wished their parents had helped them. So, do not let your children say this about you!

This was the final chapter from Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, by Xiao-lei Wang. Click here to read more excerpts from this and other fantastic books about mutilingualism!

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 Karen Guerra August 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I am a bilingual speech-language pathologist who’s been working with monolingual (Spanish) and/or bilingual (Spanish/English) for the past 11 years. I am currently working in the Atlanta, GA with children 12 months to 12 years of age (but mostly toddlers, preschool, and some school age). I’d like to find out more information on any research supporting dual language acquisition for children with neurologic disorders (Autism, PDD). I have several cases where I have observed these children blossom in 2 or more languages but many pediatricians and other professioanls advise otherwise (i.e. stick to one language). p.s. Love your website


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thank you so much for your comment, Karen! As you mention: it is amazing that so many pediatricians and other professionals are still suggesting that families should switch to one language – as if that will solve the underlying problems. I can imagine that switching to one language might make things easier for the pediatrician or professional but at such a great cost to the family! It is so hard to switch back to two languages after someone we respect and trust suggests that our multiple languages might be the cause of our child’s issue.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write and to share details about you and your work. It means a lot to us here to hear from professionals in the field like you who understand the issues we write about here first hand!


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