By Ana Paula G. Mumy
Photo Credit: David D
The thought of homeschooling bilingually was initially overwhelming to me. I knew I wanted my children to read and write in both Portuguese and English, but I had no idea how I would accomplish that. I feared I would confuse my kids or make the process of learning to read more difficult by presenting two “phonics” systems.
Most consonants are the same in the two languages, but the vowels and diphthongs differ in many ways, so I had no idea where to begin. Should I present each language individually and sequentially or should I teach both systems simultaneously, beginning with the similarities?
I researched books and articles to find answers, and the first decision I made was that I would begin with Portuguese. Because we live in a predominantly English-speaking community, I felt that if I taught English first, my kids would lose interest in learning to read in Portuguese.
I began with my daughter who is older, and we started strictly in Portuguese. I followed an excellent “alfabetização” (literacy) program that I purchased in Brazil, and within 4 months, she was progressing very well. I still had not decided how or when I would introduce the English sound system, and after more research, I finally opted for an online charter school. The English lessons would be presented virtually so the bulk of the teaching in English would not be coming from me, which I thought would lessen any potential confusion, but I would make sure that she was grasping the information presented.
It is important for me to clarify here that I do everything in my power to speak as little English to my children as feasibly possible, thus my excitement for English lessons that would not be directly taught by me, keeping me from being forced to increase my English language use with my children.
I also liked the differentiation that mommy is still the “Portuguese teacher” and the online teacher (or teaching system) would be the primary “English teacher,” with mommy being secondary.
So back to introducing English. The online charter school system requires benchmark testing to take place at regular intervals in order to gauge how students are progressing along in their skills. I wasn’t sure where my daughter would fall since up to the point of enrollment, we were still focusing only on Portuguese.
As a speech-language pathologist working with culturally and linguistically diverse populations, I am aware that the transfer of learned skills occurs across languages, but it was intriguing to see that take place right before my eyes with my daughter. When given minimal lessons about English vowel sounds, she was able to immediately read English consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words and short sentences based on her knowledge of Portuguese consonants.
She was also able to demonstrate phonological awareness skills in English based on her ability, in Portuguese, to recognize and generate rhyming words, to understand syllabication (dividing words into syllables), to identify beginning and ending sounds in words, and so on.
Within 3 months of introducing English, as a kindergartener, my daughter tested at a beginning-of-second-grade level in reading (the test was only in English and included print awareness, phonological awareness, reading, and reading/listening comprehension).
I was thrilled to see firsthand the transfer of learned skills across languages, and I’m seeing the same transfer of skills in math. One additional byproduct of teaching her to read in Portuguese first has been that her Portuguese vocabulary has increased as well as her motivation to speak to me in Portuguese, which always brings me much delight (and validation!).
So if you’re considering biliteracy for your children, I say do your research and go for it! Though it’s been hard work, I don’t regret it one bit!
Ana Paula G. Mumy is a mother of two bilingual children and a trilingual speech-language pathologist. She’s also the author of various multilingual leveled storybooks and a parent guide for raising bilingual children. She has provided school-based and private services for 15 years and thoroughly enjoys providing resources for SLPs, educators and parents on her website The Speech Stop (www.thespeechstop.com).