By Xiao-lei Wang, Pace University
Photo credit: Lance Shields
As our world becomes increasingly globalized and mobile, more and more parents are now motivated not only to speak their heritage language to their children, but also to teach them to read and write it. Compared to oral language development, the process of learning to read and write is a more onerous task and requires substantial effort.
For those children who are in contact with more than one linguistic system, the task of developing multiliteracy skills becomes even more challenging, especially when home teaching is the major source of exposure to the writing system that is not used outside the home. Given the difficulties involved in teaching heritage literacy in the home environment, effective strategies must be employed to ensure the successful attainment of heritage literacy skills.
The purpose of this short article is to make some recommendations for home literacy instruction, in particular, in teaching more than one writing system. Below are some practical strategies for you to consider.
Make a Decision
If you use more than one heritage language in your household (for example, in our family, our two children are exposed to two heritage languages at home: French from the father and Chinese from the mother in addition to English in the community because we reside in the New York area), the first thing that you may want to contemplate before you begin to teach your children to read and write your heritage language(s) is to make a decision on how many writing systems you plan to teach them and the sequence.
There are no rules with regard to how many writing systems a child can learn at once. Human learning capacity is highly adaptable. In general, children certainly have the capacity to learn more than one writing system. However, practically you may want to mull over several factors that will affect your children’s multiliteracy progress: For example, your own literacy competence, your availability, your support, and your children’s developmental characteristics.
I have observed parents teaching their children successfully in two writing systems in the home environment and I have also witnessed parents failing in teaching one writing system. The ultimate measure to influence your decision is your children’s reaction and progress, which can clearly tell you how many writing systems are suitable for them to learn in their particular situation.
There are also no fixed rules on whether you can teach your children different writing systems simultaneously or consecutively. Depending on your specific situation, you can either choose to expose them to more than one writing system simultaneously or one at a time. Similarly, there are no rules on whether heritage literacy should be introduced simultaneously with the school (mainstream) language, before or after it.
However, if you choose to introduce your heritage literacy simultaneously with the school literacy (i.e., when your children begin schooling in their mainstream language), be aware that the support that the school environment provides will be much stronger. As a result, your children will tend to make faster progress in their school literacy than in their heritage literacy, and they may feel discouraged and less motivated in learning their heritage literacy and you in teaching it.
Nevertheless, the skills your children develop in learning their school literacy will definitely benefit their heritage literacy. Such benefits can be direct or indirect. If the school literacy is relatively closer to the heritage literacy (such as English and French), the school literacy skills can be directly transferred to the heritage literacy. For example, I observed our two children learning to read French with ease, benefiting from their school language (English).
Even when the school literacy and the heritage literacy are not closed related, your children can still profit from their school literacy instruction such as the phonological awareness (the ability to understand the sound structure of spoken words; it is an important predictor of children’s later reading ability), metalinguistic awareness (the ability to transfer linguistic knowledge across languages), and the reading and writing strategies (such as figuring out the meaning by looking at the whole sentence instead of just individual words). For example, even though there is no direct transfer from my children’s school language (English) to one of their other home languages (Chinese), they did benefit from the strategies they developed in learning to read English and used them in their Chinese learning.
Based on my personal child-rearing experience and research, I cautiously recommend introducing heritage language literacy (beginning with its emergent literacy form) as early as you can. By doing so, you will likely avoid the “competition” between the school literacy and heritage literacy (as I mentioned, chances are school literacy will be stronger). Moreover, the ability your children will have developed in heritage literacy will most certainly benefit their school literacy when they start school.
All in all, some sort of planning and decision need to be made before you begin your home literacy teaching. The experiences of many parents suggest that the crucial step in teaching heritage literacy successfully at home is that you have to have a plan in place before you start, although you can change or modify your plan any time if it does not work.>
Begin with Oracy
There is a direct relationship between children’s listening comprehension and their oral language production. These skills are referred to as “oracy” in the research literature. Oracy lays the groundwork for the emergence of reading and writing, and that is why some researchers call it the “reading potential.” Children with strong oracy skills are more likely to develop robust literacy skills. Therefore, the important task when beginning to teach your children heritage literacy is to help them develop oracy.
You can help your children develop the heritage language oracy, for example, by talking with them in your heritage language about their daily environment, by drawing their attention to heritage language print such as newspaper headlines and words on the food packaging, by reading heritage language books to them, by telling them stories, and by playing games with them. All these activities are essentially a process of learning to associate the spoken form, the visual form, and the meaning in the printed word or the digital word.
Even when your children have well developed into the heritage literacy process, oracy remains an integral part of their continued heritage literacy development. Given the challenges in the heritage literacy-learning environment (e.g., the time constraint and the competition of literacy learning with other activities), oracy development seems to be an effective means for heritage literacy development.
Tackle the Less Transparent Script
Research suggests that the writing system of a language affects children’s literacy acquisition because each system is based on a different set of symbolic relations and requires different set of cognitive skills.Writing systems can be roughly divided into alphabetic (such as English) and non-alphabetic (such as Chinese). Alphabetic writing system can be further divided into different scripts such as Roman scripts (e.g., Spanish) and Semitic scripts (e.g., Hebrew). Overall, the alphabetic system tends to have more phonology (sound)-orthography (scrip) mapping than a non-alphabetic system. In other words, the alphabetic writing system is relatively more transparent than the non-alphabetic one. For instance, Finnish is a more transparent language than Chinese. Using the word “cat” as an example, the sound [kisa] and the script “Kissa” in Finnish correspond closely to each other, whereas, the sound [mao] and the script “猫” in Chinese are not pellucid. Thus, it takes different information processing skills for children to learn these different orthographies.
Moreover, even within the alphabetic writing system, different languages vary in their degree of transparency. English, for instance, is known to be less transparent than Turkish, Czech, Welsh, French, and German. Cross-lingusitic studies have shown that English-speaking children consistently perform less well than those children from the relatively more transparent writing systems (such as Welsh and Turkish). Children learning the relatively transparent writing systems appear to learn not only the basic phonological spelling more quickly, but also demonstrate more advanced conventional spelling skills than those learning English.
Therefore, when teaching your children to read and write different orthographies, you may want to spend some time studying the linguistic characteristics of your heritage language and allocate more time and effort in tackling those linguistic areas that require more intentional instruction. For example, when teaching English orthography, more attention need to be paid to those areas where the sound and spelling are not consistent, such as the relationship between the sound [f] and their spelling “gh” as in “cough” and “laugh.”
It is important to keep in mind that your children may make slower progress in a language that is less transparent and more progress in one that is transparent or closer to the mainstream language in their environment. For example, despite enormous effort and time spent learning Chinese, our two children’s skills in Chinese literacy remain less proficient than their French, because they have an easy ride in French, profiting perhaps from their mainstream language English or from the relatively more transparent aspect of the language.
Focus on Language Specific Features
It is also very important to identify and focus attention and effort on the difficult linguistic features in your heritage language writing system. Using Chinese language as an example, the basic unit of the Chinese writing system is the character (e.g., 助/help). Each character is constructed with strokes (the smallest building parts for characters. For example, there are seven strokes in 助), and strokes then form radicals that are the basic components of Chinese characters (e.g., there are two radicals in 助，且 and力). There are about 541 radicals in Chinese, about half of which are single characters on their own with their pronunciations and meanings. The other half of radicals do not form characters on their own. In addition, the characters have two categories: simple characters that cannot be further divided into distinct radical components such as 且 and 力 and compound characters that contain two or more distinct radical components such as 助. More than 80% of Chinese characters are compound characters.
Given the structural complexity of Chinese language, intentional efforts need to be made in helping children learn and understand the strokes (such as stroke types, their orders, and stroke positional relationships in characters). In addition, attention needs to be paid to the compound characters that have a more complex visual-orthographic structure than simple characters because compound characters pose more of a challenge for the beginning learners than simple characters.
Thus, you may want to study your heritage language and identify those features that need intentional instruction. Once these basic or important linguistic features are taught to your children, they can build on them and make faster progress.
Develop Skills That Facilitate Future Literacy Development
Because heritage literacy developed in the home environment is challenging, it is likely that your children may not attain the same heritage literacy competence as those children who reside in the heritage country. However, you should not be disappointed with this prospective. Instead, rest assured that you can help them lay the most important foundation for their future heritage literacy development. With the fundamental literacy skills, your children’s heritage literacy skills will be developed further when future opportunities arise (e.g., work or live in the heritage language speaking environment).
Therefore, you might want to focus on helping your children develop the abilities that are essential to function in your heritage language. For instance, although knowing how to spell words correctly is important, comprehending them is far more crucial. Similarly, teaching your children how to look up an unknown word in a dictionary or thesaurus is far more useful than drilling them on the correct spelling. In my research and personal experience, this kind of seemingly “watered-down” version of home literacy teaching can take the stress away from both parents and children and make teaching home literacy more doable and more effective.
Ultimately, the most important thing to ensure your children’s heritage literacy development is to provide them with opportunities to use literacy and to find relevance. The more frequently print matters in the heritage language appear in children’s everyday life, the more likely the children will feel the need to learn and apply the skills. Finding reading materials that are engaging and relevant to your children’s lives is the key.
Popular media texts can be seen as a valuable resource for learning to read and write various types of texts in your heritage language. Films, video games, comic books, and other popular media provide a familiar territory for your children learn heritage literacy. For example, research has indicated that reading comic books (despite many parents’ rejection of such a media) is an effective way of increasing reading comprehension and teaching comprehension strategies. Because comics are highly visual, they allow readers to access the text’s meaning through the visual mode. At the same time, comic books are engaging and motivating, and they can provide opportunities to write, think, and discuss texts as the children learn new literacy practices. With proper parental guidance, comic books can be very effective in helping your children develop heritage literacy skills.
The above strategies are suggested as provisional references for you. Use and modify them when suitable. Because the nature of multilingual teaching is complex, I encourage you to explore methods that are deemed workable in your particular situation. I look forward to hearing from you about your multilingual child-rearing experiences (both successful and unsuccessful stories). By sharing our multilingual parenting experiences, our children will benefit. With this intent in mind, I invite you to read my recent book Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. 
Best wishes for your multilingual childrearing!
 See Wang, X.-L. (2008). Growing up in three languages: Birth to eleven. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
 For more information, please refer to Chapter 3 in Wang, X.-L. (2011). Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
 Emergent literacy is concerned with the earliest phases of literacy development, the period between birth and the time when children read and write conventionally. Emergent literacy focuses on the process of becoming literate in their everyday interactions with print (including digital print).
 For more information about the planning process, please see Chapter 3 in Wang, X.-L. (2011). Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
 Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to English language Learners: Insights from linguistics. New York: The Guilford Press.
 Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 Wang, X.-L. (forthcoming). The role of oracy in the development of heritage literacy in the home environment.
 Bialystok, E., Luk. G., & Kwan, E. (2005). Bilingualism, biliteracy, and learning to read: Interactions among languages and writing systems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9(1), 43-61.
Coulmas, F. (1989). The writing systems of the world. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
 Huang, H. & Hanley, R. (1994). Phonological awareness and visual skills in learning to read Chinese and English. Cognition, 54, 73-98.
 Caravolas, M. (2004). Spelling development in alphabetic writing systems: A cross-linguistic perspective. European Psychologist, 9(1), 3-14.
 Wang, M., Perfetti, C. A., & Liu, Y. (2003). Alphabetic readers quickly acquire orthographic structure in learning to read Chinese. Scientific Studies of Reading, 7(2), 183-208.
 Ranker, J. (2007). Using comic books as read alouds: Insight on reading instruction from an English as a second language classroom. The Reading Teacher, 6(14), 296-305.
 Wang, X.-L. (2011). Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Win a FREE language learning DVD set for your child!
Spanish, French, Portuguese, German - over 40 languages available.
Click here to to try a free lesson!