Teaching My Children to Read in Two Languages

by contributor · 17 comments

Teach Multilingual Children Read in Two Language

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).

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Faby April 8, 2015 at 7:16 pm

Thank you so much for your article. My older girl is starting first grade this year and we have decided to homeschool her. She speaks both English and Spanish well since we did preschool at home before se started going to a montessori kindergarten. I would like her to continue in the montessori school but it is costly and only English of course. So my husband suggested we home school (public school was not an option for me bc our school system is awful here, specially for bilingual children). I have had many worries and doubts since we made the decision, but you gave answers to many questions I had with this article and I feel much more confident to start teaching her again. Thank you!!!


2 Ana Paula G. Mumy April 9, 2015 at 5:46 am

Faby – I’m glad you were encouraged by it! I do have a section on bilingual homeschooling in my parent guide that might be helpful to you – “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children” (available at http://thespeechstop.com/index.php?page=bilingualism).


3 Galina / Trilingual Children April 9, 2015 at 4:11 am

It is interesting to read about your experience, Ana Paula! I started teaching my children reading in minority language first, and I could also see how fast they grasped the rules and transfered the reading skills into the community language. I would advice parents to start developing child’s phonemic awareness early and teach letter sounds in a playful manner. My two children, who are 3 and 5 years old, learned how to read without even realizing it. If someone is interested, I share my experience and tips in this article: http://www.trilingualchildren.com/2014/04/7-principles-teaching-child-to-read.html


4 Ana Paula G. Mumy April 9, 2015 at 5:54 am

Galina – I enjoyed your article and l like that you gave very practical tips. You have a much harder job because you’re dealing with two different writing systems…whew!


5 Patricia April 9, 2015 at 10:03 am

Hi Ana,
Thanks for sharing. Can you please tell me what “alfabetização” (literacy) program you purchased? My daughter is 4 and fluent in Portuguese also, but I’d like to teach her more. Thanks.


6 Ana Paula G. Mumy April 9, 2015 at 2:44 pm

Patricia – I use Lea Dupret’s “Brincando e Aprendendo” curriculum which you can view here: http://www.alfabetizacao.com.br. I don’t follow the method exactly with my daughter who is 6, and I’ve made some modifications because she has progressed more quickly and has picked up many concepts indirectly, but with my son who is 4, I will probably have to follow the method more closely because his letter/sound awareness and identification has taken a bit longer. If you contact me via my website contact page, I can email you some samples. 🙂


7 Rebeccah Rothwell April 9, 2015 at 10:34 am

I would be interested to know what online charter school system you used for reading in English. My daughter is older (10) and can read in 3 languages but she is bored in her English classes at school (she is required to do 4 hours of classes which are EFL classes designed for Catalan children who cannot speak English). So far I have been using the Letts materials which are designed for native speakers, but it would be interesting to know of any other material available which would encourage her improve her reading and writing in English.


8 Christine J April 9, 2015 at 3:09 pm

This interests me also – I have never heard of online charter? I like the idea testing regularly and someone other than Mum is pushing them along too.


9 Ana Paula G. Mumy April 9, 2015 at 5:27 pm

The online charter school I enrolled my kids in is specific to my state so non-residents of Oklahoma are not eligible, however, there are online/virtual schools available all over the United States.

Some are public charter schools (free), some are tied to local school districts that offer online classes (also free), some are international virtual schools, some are private virtual schools, so there are many options to investigate. Some offer Pre-K through 12th grade curricula and some only offer middle school/high school programs. The other difference is that some provide lessons or teaching modules that are pre-recorded and/or animated while some provide live sessions or a combination. In most cases, the parent is the primary “facilitator” or “coach” for the online learning experience, but students also have access to certified teachers, both virtual and local. Some require that students have their own computer and high speed internet connection, but some schools will issue the student a leased computer and/or help with obtaining internet service. So I would encourage you to look for options in your state by doing a google search…you’ll be surprised at how many there are!


10 silvana April 12, 2015 at 7:50 am

Wonderfully said! I am a dual language teacher by degree and I agree 100% with you. Currently, I am raising and homeschooling my two kids bilingually. We are Spanish-English household in Illinois. We started reading in Spanish as it is the minority language. We use the reading program Letrilandia by Aurora Usero Alijarde combined with Montessori methodology. It has been fun to learn to read by with lovely characters, stories, and games. My kids (ages 4 and 5) are reading in both languages. It is so nice to hear about other moms working hard to provide a bilingual and bi-cultural upbringing for their children.
I document the activities we do in my blog: http://www.duallearninghomeschool.com


11 Ana Paula G. Mumy April 12, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Silvana – I like your blog! The hardest challenge for me is finding suitable materials for my children in Brazilian Portuguese. It would be easier if we were Spanish-speaking…ha! I normally have to make large purchases when in Brazil, so if I need something new or fresh right away, it’s usually not possible, or if it’s available, the prices are outrageous because of importation costs, shipping, etc. There are also not many free downloads from educational blogs, etc. like there are in English or Spanish. If anyone reading this has found a viable source for Portuguese readers, short stories, etc. in the U.S. (must be Brazilian Portuguese), please let me know! 🙂


12 silvana April 12, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Ana Paula,
I hear you! I have a hard time finding Spanish materials that are not translations. Translations always miss a bit, and off course, lack the cultural part. I dislike bilingual books and prefer to find authentic Spanish speaking writers. If I want something written by an English writer, I prefer to read it in English.
Our reading program is from Spain. I love it! I admire the author for her creativity, and passion.
Have you tried bookdepository.com? I learned about it from an Russian-English homeschooler (https://sunflowerous.wordpress.com/) under “find book” button you can do an advance search for Portuguese.
I read your post, and because I was looking for items with the letter X, I started thinking about Xuxa. I used to be one of her biggest fans… ilari larie o o o… ilari larie o o o … Now I have the song stuck in my head. 🙂


13 All Graduates | Italian Translation Service May 10, 2015 at 7:28 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience, Ana. It’s very heartwarming to read success stories of moms doing everything that they can to help raise bilingual kids. Starting kids early on language learnign is easier as they are more receptive and accepting to feed of information that you give them. This will certainly inspire parents to teach their kids their native tongue for better communication as well as mental development.


14 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 11, 2015 at 9:13 pm

Thank you for the positive feedback!


15 Sophia June 30, 2015 at 4:05 pm

why stop at 2? Teach them a third language along with English and Portuguese!


16 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 30, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Sophia – I do intend to introduce Spanish eventually but right now I feel the need to focus my efforts on Portuguese and English. My philosophy is that more is only better if I have the time, energy, commitment, and resources to provide consistent and quality input in a third language!


17 gail July 4, 2015 at 5:32 am

I think it’s good to teach kids to speak multi languages because kids learn faster than adults


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