Bilingual Homeschooling: Baby Steps to Biliteracy

by Maria · 21 comments

By Maria Hawkins
Photo credit: ThomasLife

A few days ago a parent in my youngest daughter’s soccer class asked my advice on teaching her daughter to read.  I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts before I answered.  Her daughter had just turned three.

The world of reading and writing opens so many doors for our children, yet I often feel like there is an unnecessary pressure to kick them open before its time.  If we just wait and encourage and fill their environment with literacy, I feel like the majority of kids will open the door on their own, or at least walk through with you, no kicking necessary.

Really your baby’s introduction to literacy begins with you talking to her and reading to her while she is still in the womb.  Missed that window already?  No worries! Just start reading and talking lots now.  Whether your baby is a few weeks old or a few years old she will benefit immensely from being read to as often as possible and being surrounded by language.  You can fill her world with language (or languages, as the case may be) knowing that you are setting the stage for literacy down the road.

Our 4th baby just turned four months old and believe it or not he is already on his way to biliteracy.  Every time he goos and coos his father, me or one of his siblings are quick to answer and engage him in conversation.  As he sits in his sling throughout the day I narrate what we are doing and where we are going.  He listens as I help one of his siblings through a math problem, reading a book, putting together a puzzle, singing a song.

Believe it or not, all this language is paving the way for his later literacy!  He is building receptive vocabulary, learning the cadence of the two languages in our house, finding how conversation works and practicing making the sounds that make up the two languages we speak in our family. Before we know it he will start contributing more than smiles and coos to the equation.

If you have a baby or young child at home, know that with little extra effort you can help him or her build the scaffolding for later biliteracy. And trust me, it will come. While it is possible to teach your three year old to decode and read, I would ask yourself what exactly that adds to their three year old life, and what the time spent on learning how to decode takes away.  There is little doubt they will learn to read and write at some point, but there is no way to guarantee they will like it or choose to do it.

I think if the early years are experienced as a journey through a wonderous biliterate or multiliterate environment, the chances will be high that your child will be asking for help to figure out how to read and write.  They may even do the bulk of the work themselves, with you only needing to help with the details. And with that, so are the chances much higher that they will be choosing to willingly and happily read and write for years to come.

Below are some ideas for how to begin or boost your “baby literacy” at home:

  1. Read lots of books following your language pattern.  We are OPOL so I always read in Spanish and my husband in English.  Since for us Spanish is the minority language I am pretty strict about only reading in Spanish but sometimes my husband reads in Spanish as well.  Do what works for you as long as you read lots and lots!
  2. Verbally label everything, all the time.  As you go about your day talk to your baby about what you are doing. Use the names of the objects you are using, things you are doing, things and people you see, signs you pass, vehicles on the road…  You are building her personal vocabulary.
  3. Use complex and varied language.  While the tone and cadence you use with babies and young children may have its own rhythm, you don’t need to always simplify the language.  Know that the use of new and interesting vocabulary is helping prepare your child for using that vocabulary later on. If you say something your child doesn’t understand her or she\ will be quick to ask for an explanation – that is just another literacy moment waiting to happen.
  4. Talk with your baby/child, not just to them.  Its important that children learn how language works, and part of that is understanding the taking turns of normal conversation.  Even with those early goos and coos you can engage in a conversation with baby which will eventually become complex conversations with your child.  Respond to your baby as if he or she were talking to you. There are no wrong ways to do this, just make sure you pause and give your baby/child a turn.  Imagine that coo was a question or comment: listen attentively, and respond in kind.  Have fun!
  5. Play with language.  Songs, poems, rhymes and riddles are a great way to puzzle out the complexities of language and always a hit for kids.  If you don’t know any “kid songs and rhymes” in your language, a quick trip to the local library or an online search can at the very least get you started.  And if “kids stuff” isn’t your thing, by all means feel free to share any rhymes and poems you enjoy that are not “kid centric”! Do what works for you.
  6. Join in your baby/child’s play.  Playing and talking with your 6 month old while she is putting a ball into a box over and over again or playing make-believe with your young child is a wonderful opportunity to enrich their language.  Put aside your worries and just immerse yourself in their play as often as you can knowing you are spending valuable time on your child’s budding biliteracy.  (By the way, this is a great time to add complex vocabulary to the interaction and introduce words they might not use on their own.)
  7. Stick to your language pattern.  Don’t feel pressured to provide “balance” when giving input.  Stick to the language pattern you have chosen for your family and trust that they will develop proficiency in all languages – just make sure that all the input is rich and varied and consistent.  Know they may ebb and flow with proficiency in each language depending on your pattern but don’t let that scare you into changing a pattern that works for your family.
  8. Point out environmental print in your world.  As you drive around and go out in the community, talk about the signs and newspapers and other things you see.  Talk through making the grocery list or writing an email.  Show them literacy is all around.
  9. Encourage them to write and draw.  Once they are old enough put something in their reach, cover the table with paper and let them go crazy.  (I like to use small pieces of large crayons or “crayon rocks” to encourage natural use of the pencil grasp.)  Encourage their scribbles and let them explore making marks on the paper.  Those marks will eventually turn into shapes and letters and numbers.  Don’t stress over their formation.  Let them experiment and enjoy over these next few years.  Trust that they will learn the correct formation eventually and know that what you are cultivating now is love of language and love of writing.

How do you boost literacy in your household? Do you read to your bilingual children every day? Do you fill your bilingual children’s lives with a variety of literacy? Please share what works best in your household!


Maria Hawkins grew up in New Mexico immersed in both Spanish and English. She has her National Teacher Certification in early childhood education and has taught in both bilingual and monolingual public schools. She currently keeps busy homeschooling her three bilingual children, teaching weekly Spanish classes for kids, and leading a Spanish Playgroup to support local bilingual families.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Becky November 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Love your post! We are raising our 4 kids to be bilingual (Spanish-English) with a bit of Mandarin thrown in. We definitely read every day, some in English and some in Spanish. I am teaching my 6 and 7 year old right now to read in Spanish (since they kind-of “get it” in English now) and it is going surprisingly well. I’m not sure if it is coming so fast because 1) they already know what reading is in English and are transferring their skills or 2) Spanish is so phonetic that it is just easier to catch on. Either way, sweet success!:)

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2 Maria H December 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

Becky,

thanks for stopping by, always nice to know others out there on this journey. My guess is that reading in Spanish is going well because of both 1 and 2 and I would add 3- they want to read in Spanish too! Congratulations on your success and I hope it continues.
best,
Maria

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3 Eduardo Moreno January 27, 2012 at 4:03 am

A truly encouraging article. We are a Korean-Spanish couple. Spanish is the minority language, and it’s quite difficult for me to find inspiration. Your article came at the right time. Thanks.

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4 Maria H February 9, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Eduardo,

So glad you stumbled on this when you needed it. Spanish is the minority language for us too and in the last 8 1/2 years I have had many moments when I needed some inspiration to keep going. Hang in there and know you can do it! ¡Buena suerte!
Maria

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5 Mi daddy January 27, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Great post! And better blog!!

We read in English every night and they (my 3 Spanish kids) love it. They always say: “I want a very lonnnnnnnggggg story”

Gracias por compartir tu experiencia!!

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6 Maria H February 9, 2012 at 8:40 pm

I never tire of hearing about families that have built reading into their everyday routine. I think stories before bed are a great way to foster a love of reading. Wonderful your kids are enjoying their time reading English (as I assume it is the minority language)

Glad you enjoyed the post. Hopefully I will get some more out soon.

saludos,
Maria

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7 Gemma January 27, 2012 at 6:42 pm

We have many Italian and Japanese books at home and we read them to our daughters regularly. Unfortunately, we don’t manage to read them every day anymore, but we do our best to read them as often as possible. We have a 3.5 and a 2 yrs old children and we started reading to them in both languages when they were 3 months old using the OPOL. We also have posters with both alphabet and my eldest started to recognise the different alphabet from around 2,5 (maybe even before, but didn’t have the vocabulary to say it).
My 3.5 yrs old daughter would love to be able to write and read right now and keeps asking me questions about it.
Little machines that say the sound loud when the child presses it are great. My eldest one can already read part of the Japanese alphabet thanks to one of those machines!
I also use the Montessori method for writing and literacy and thanks to this my daughter can “write” a few words (on a computer – so “type” would be a better word, but it’s still “writing”)

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8 Maria H February 9, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Gemma,

Thanks for sharing your story. I hope that you can continue to try and find moments to squeeze in some reading every day. I my opinion there is no greater tool to helping your children become readers and writers than being read to as often as possible.

How exciting that your daughter is asking questions and starting her journey to literacy and writing her first words. Best of luck as you move forward.

best,
Maria

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9 Chris January 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Hi Maria – Great post! I’m going to share this with my wife who is homeschooling our bilingual (spanish/english) kids. Encourage you husband to work on his spanish; we’re working towards spanish only in our house which we think will increase our kids exposure to the language. Looking forward to more great articles!

Gracias por todo,
Chris

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10 Fiona V. January 28, 2012 at 7:19 am

I believe, you should engage with your child as much as possible using the language so that the child will get used to the patterns. It’s also nice to play or use some cards to depict pictures relating to some words or phrases for better memory retention. How long do you have to spend time with your child in a day to teach the language?

Thanks for the tips above! Really helpful.

-Fiona

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11 Maria H February 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Fiona,

Glad to hear some of the ideas were helpful to you. I agree that being surrounded by rich and varied language is an essential part of children learning to read and write. Pictures can be helpful but I would say actually narrating as you play and interact with your child can be even more so.

best,
Maria

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12 gina December 29, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Hi Maria, I’m thinking about homeschooling my son who will star kinder next year my question is : I have always spoken to him in Spanish but in homeschooling him I would be speaking in English would that make him want to now speak to me in English or what is the best method to keep spanish strong. Thanks.

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13 maria December 30, 2012 at 11:43 pm

Gina,

I think K is a great time to try out homeschooling. Best case it works great for your family and you keep going. Worst case you decide it doesn’t work and its an easy transition into 1st grade in a school.

I’m sure there are many opinions on how to go about this, but I can share what has worked for my family. I speak to my kids in Spanish all the time, their dad speaks English (OPOL). I have four kids, the oldest is 9 and the youngest is 18 months. What I have done for K is stick to our language pattern (which is speaking only in Spanish) even once we started homeschooling. This means I still did all our reading in Spanish and all our activities in Spanish, really everything in Spanish, even once I “officially” started K. I don’t know the details of what the majority language is where you live or if you kids get English from any other sources, but for us (dad speaks English to them and English is the majority language where we live) there is enough English input that it has been pretty easy for them to transfer what we learned in Spanish over to English. If/when there was specific vocabulary that I wanted to make sure they got in English I would either ask their dad to chat with them about it or get us into a situation out in the community where they would be exposed to it. I have found it is fairly easy to find books and resources in Spanish and so have had no trouble doing all that we wanted to do while staying pretty much in Spanish the majority of the time. As the kids have gotten beyond K there are some times that we need to cover a topic or area in English either because I can’t find the info in Spanish or its just easier and so we might use an English text or resources but then our conversation together is still always in Spanish. In the same way as they started to read and write they did so in both languages and so I would provide resources for them in both but our interactions are always in Spanish even if we were talking about an English text. Since for us maintaining Spanish is such a challenge since there is so little exposure in our community it was a priority for me to keep it as we starting homeschool. So far they are bilingual and biliterate using this model so it has worked well for us.

Depending on what your situation is as far as English (and assuming that your child gets input from other people) I would think about just keeping your current model and knowing that the English will keep up even without you “teaching” in English.

best of luck and feel free to write if you have more questions.

Maria

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14 gina December 31, 2012 at 6:37 am

Hi Maria and thank you so much for your detailed response It is like a map to follow!:) Since we live in California you would think we hear a lot of Spanish but sadly even in Spanish comunity second generations seems that Spanish is not being encoraged so it has been hard for me to keep minority language strong. My husband speaks English and is trying to learn Spanish but mainly his conversations with our son is in English. Your story and response is very encouranging! Thank you again.

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15 maria January 6, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Gina,

My husband is an English speaker as well and we currently live in an area where finding other families is a challenge so I understand your frustration. I encourage you to start a playgroup if you haven’t found one already. Even finding one or two other families could make all the difference for both the kids and you!

Hang in there!

Maria

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16 Lydia Hubbell May 17, 2013 at 5:59 am

Excellent advice. I have 3 children and they have all been early readers. I think many parents underestimate how important it is to speak A LOT to the children and when they can speak, it is important to listen to them and encourage them to use their language. My youngest child is the only one I have made any real effort to help to be bilingual, but it has been a miserable failure so far because even though her father is Turkish, he has always spoken to her in English except for a few words thrown in here and there. When we spent time together, I would encourage him to help us learn some words and phrases in Turkish, but we don’t spend time together anymore so I am trying to learn Turkish on my own and I teach my 4 year old as I go along.

I have a very limited budget but her father has offered to buy some early readers in Turkish for our daughter, but I cannot find what I am looking for. I really would love to make contact with other parents with Turkish/American families who have taught their children to speak and read in Turkish.

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17 maria June 5, 2013 at 9:31 pm

Lydia,
Good for you making the effort to teach your daughter Turkish. You are really showing her it means a lot when you are learning along with her.
I don’t know of any resources for Turkish personally but you might go to the MLL forums and see if you can’t connect with other Turkish families there.

best of luck,
Maria

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18 Melissa January 10, 2014 at 1:43 am

I have been homeschooling my children in English. French is my second language and I am trying to switch over to OPOL with me being the French speaker and my husband being the English speaker. Along with this, I would like to slowly switch all my curriculum over to French. My 9 year old is a strong reader and I feel comfortable starting to teach him to read in French. I was thinking of having my husband continue reading with him daily in English, while I start in French. My 6 year old is a beginner reader in English. He is reading at a grade 1 level, but it is not his strongest subject. Would it be wise to introduce reading in French with him at this point? Or should I wait until his English reading improves?
Thanks Melissa

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19 Maria January 10, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Melissa,

Good for you for wanting to start down this road. Really, in my opinion, the most important part of this plan is that you are ready to do the work to interact with your children in your non-native language all of time, including with academics. I don’t say that to talk you out of it, but to stress that I think it will be hardest for you so I want to make sure you are ok with the commitment. I actually wrote an article on this very subject awhile back http://www.multilingualliving.com/2011/06/28/bilingual-homeschooling-reading-and-writing-in-more-than-one-language/ Hopefully that will help a bit for general info. I would say jump in once you feel like everyone feels comfortable with things. You don’t say what you current language pattern is so I’m not sure how much French the kids speak now. I would say make the transition slowly, keep taking stock, know all transitions are hard, and hang in there! You are not alone and hopefully at some point soon you will see it pay off.

best,
Maria

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20 Marien February 15, 2014 at 1:28 am

Hi MAria,
Another great post.
I’m also homeschooling my children in our minority language (Spanish) in an ENglish speaking community. The oldest is 5 and has been learning how to read in Spanish, which is going well. However I find very difficult to find good resources and good read aloud books in Spanish and as he enjoys choosing books from our local library we have been also reading aloud in English. But as yourself, our discussions and explanations are only in Spanish as it is the only way we communicate.
I understand your approach in your homeschooling and I would do the same if finding resources in Spanish wasn’t so time consuming and hard here.
I have read in most sites that teaching a child to read in 2 languages at the same time can be confusing (and I can see sometimes how my son can get a bit confused with the sound of letters) however when I explain the difference in the languages he seems to understands it.
What is your personal opinion in teaching to read a child in 2 languages simultaneously? many thanks,

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