Learning how to read and write in two languages

A message to parents on developing children's bi-literacy

Janice Nakamura

If you are the parent of a child who grows up hearing two languages at home, you'll probably want your child not only to speak both languages, but read and write them, too! Your child will learn to read and write one of the languages at school. But what about the other one, the non-school language? You may wonder whether you should teach your child to read and write the non-school language at home. If you decide to do that, you may ask whether teaching should take place before or after your child starts learning to read and write the school language, or at the same time.

Literacy skills are important for ensuring that your child continues to develop the non-school language. Being able to read in the non-school language will allow your child to learn many new words and the cultural knowledge that goes with the non-school language.

It is hard to say when you should start teaching your child to read or write the non-school language. Every child develops differently. Some children are more eager and ready than others to jump into literacy. If your child is ready and willing, it's fine to start teaching her or him to read and write in the non-school language before the start of formal schooling. This will give your child a head start in school. That is because some of the literacy skills your child acquired in the non-school language can be transferred to the school language. Research has shown that is the case even for languages with different writing systems such as Chinese and English. Literacy development in the non-school language likely reinforces literacy learning in the school language and the other way round.

You may wonder how you can teach a child to read and write. Just reading books with your child in the non-school language will already be a foundation. You can start with that when your baby can't even sit yet! When your child is a toddler and preschooler you can encourage her or him to read with you or identify letters and words. Doing that fosters your child's literacy skills in the non-school language.

Once your child starts school and is learning to read and write in the school language, she or he may be less motivated to read and write in the non-school language as well. Here are some tips that may help.

  • Read aloud to your child. This is not an activity only for young children. Even when your child can read independently, continue to spend time reading together. This is particularly useful for reluctant readers. Reading aloud chapter books can be a fun activity for both yourself and your child. Only stop when your child resists and would rather read on her own.
  • Set a fixed time and place for literacy activities in the non-school language. Decide on a daily goal, e.g., a page of writing activity in the morning before leaving for school or 15 minutes of bedtime reading. Keep these activities short but regular. Start these literacy routines early so that your child will enjoy them and accept them as part of his daily activities.
  • Join a weekend literacy class. It is great for children to meet bilingual children like themselves. Parents can also share resources (e.g., book swaps), exchange ideas on teaching literacy, and give each other moral support. You can get valuable advice from parents with older children who have already tried and tested ways to develop literacy in the non-school language. Learn from their experience. If there are no weekend literacy classes where you live, start one with a few other parents. Do it at home or find a community center where you can rent a room for a reasonable price. Try to get an experienced and qualified teacher who is enthusiastic about bilingualism and can give advice to parents on literacy activities to do at home during the week. Find out what the teacher is teaching every weekend and reinforce your child's learning at home.
  • Equip yourself with information and expertise in teaching literacy in the non-school language. Unlike speaking to your child (which comes naturally), teaching how to read and write takes some know-how. Get in touch with experienced teachers and get advice on the best materials and methods.
  • Reward your child for hard work. For example, prepare a small gift for completing a workbook or for reading an entire book independently. A reading log or a sticker chart with a reward plan may be useful.

These tips all relate to the non-school language. You may worry that you are not doing enough to help your child with the school language. Schools may ask you to help your child with homework. If so, it is best to delegate homework supervision to the parent who speaks the school language at home. If that is not possible, do what the school requires from you as a parent, but do not go beyond what is necessary. Try not to let homework supervision take over the time you have set aside for literacy activities in the non-school language.

Remember, your child only gets to learn to read and write in the non-school language from YOU, at home.

About the Author

Janice Nakamura is a HaBilNet supporting member and consultant. She is a bilingualism researcher located in Japan and the mother of an English-Japanese bilingual and bi-literate teen. Her child acquired English reading and writing abilities at home and through attending a parent-run weekend English school in Tokyo.

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