Teaching Children to Read and Write in More Than One Orthography: Tips for Parents

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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[1]), 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.[2]

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[3]) 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.[4]>

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.[5] 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[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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.

Live literacy

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.[12] 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.

Concluding Remarks

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. [13]

Best wishes for your multilingual childrearing!


[1] See Wang, X.-L. (2008). Growing up in three languages: Birth to eleven. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.

[5] Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2010). Teaching reading to English language Learners: Insights from linguistics. New York: The Guilford Press.

[6] Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[7] Wang, X.-L. (forthcoming). The role of oracy in the development of heritage literacy in the home environment.

[8] 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.

[9] Huang, H. & Hanley, R. (1994). Phonological awareness and visual skills in learning to read Chinese and English. Cognition, 54, 73-98.

[10] Caravolas, M. (2004). Spelling development in alphabetic writing systems: A cross-linguistic perspective. European Psychologist, 9(1), 3-14.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] Wang, X.-L. (2011). Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

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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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Beth Ortuno September 27, 2011 at 8:59 am

This is really helpful information.
Our son is bilingual Spanish-English from birth and I have been planning to enroll him in classes to learn another language such as Mandarin or Arabic that uses a different kind of writing system as soon as I can find a class that will take him at his age.
As I am reading this post it is becoming more clear to me that if Mom also works toward learning this language it will be much better for him.


2 Corey September 28, 2011 at 11:00 pm

You are so right, Beth! The better you know the language the more support you can offer. What fun for you and your son to be working on a language together! Let us know how it goes with adding an additional script to your bilingual mix!


3 Karen Nemeth September 28, 2011 at 7:26 am

This is wonderful! I am sharing it via my social media venues. Thanks for sharing your expertise with families.


4 Corey September 28, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Thank you for your comment, Karen, and for sharing Prof. Wang’s article with your social media friends and colleagues. I totally agree about how wonderful it is to have her share her expertise with all of us. I really enjoyed having an article from her that encapsulates the idea of her book – it gives such a great leaping off point for getting biliteracy going in any setting. But most of all, it is so exciting that we can all connect via these different platforms to share this kind of information and research!


5 Shirley September 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Excellent post and greatly helpful tips that come at exactly the right time for me. Our multi-lingual child isn’t in at our home yet (we’re adopting internationally), but we have the opportunity now to set up a plan for our multilingual family like the author suggests. I feel fortunate that the Korean language writing system is similar to English with its own intuitive and unique characters so the concept of learning the alphabet and the corresponding sounds is similar. I’m sure the reading/writing skill will be somewhat transferrable. But, if/when we get to Mandarin….that is truly a whole ‘nother ballgame. What a challenge!!!
I do plan to share this article on my blog, where I am trying to explore and gather resources for korean-english multi-lingual development: konglishbaby.blogspot.com.


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Congratulations on your adoption!! And wonderful that you are starting already to prepare language plans for your family before your child arrives in your home! That is fantastic! So many of us kind of “fall” into it and are surprised by all of the factors that come into play.

You are right about Korean – just because the writing system looks different doesn’t mean that the concepts aren’t similar to English. I too would be nervous about introducing Mandarine – all those characters and the different concepts for how written language is organized. However, from reading Prof. Wang’s book, I realize how truly adaptable our children can be when we give the time and dedication to language learning. Amazing!

Please let us know how things go after your child arrives home (even if reading and writing aren’t yet on the table)! What an exciting time in your lives!


7 Alexandra May 15, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Hi, this is a great post. I’ve been teaching my kids to read and write in both languages and it’s a real struggle. We are both Czech, they were born in Britain and we now live in Oz. I started very simple way before they even got to school hoping to anchor at least some basic concept in their heads before ENglish comes in. English for them comes more natural, as they know it better. For my native language, I’ve been using books just as kids are learning from at schools. Very soon I realised they are not working as very often they don’t know the meaning of some of the words. I scrapped them and I’ve been using just my intuition, making my own work for them as I go along. We often write letters and emails to grandmas and friends just so that we can practise the ‘other’ language. We read to them on skype too, just so that they have immediate feedback and sense of what they are learning is real. It’s a really hard work though. But I know I cannot give up. Thank you for this post, gave me a lot of insight and guidance for future.


8 Dani Rren December 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

The conscious decision of a parent to open up the learning world to their kid is the top most idea in the learning of kids. My take is that parents should read often to their kids as early as they can listen. http://educationalplay.info

Dani Rren


9 coffee maker October 21, 2014 at 7:14 am

When someone writes an article he/she retains the thought of a user in his/her brain that how a user can know it.
So that’s why this paragraph is amazing. Thanks!


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