Learning to Read and Write in Two Or More Languages

This is a massive topic! There’s so much debate about methods and strategies and timing for learning to read and write. I’m not going to try and cover everything in this post or we’d be here forever! I’m just going to look at when and the how for multilingual children who are at school.

When to start reading in two or more languages

When speech and language therapists think about language we think about understanding, speaking, reading, and writing. Oral language, understanding and speaking, sets the scene for learning to read and write.  Vocabulary and story-telling ability are importnant for learning to read. So, the easiest way to help with reading and writing is to focus on having quality conversations with your child from when they’re babies. Different countries have different policies and practices for introducing reading and writing at school. But the journey to literacy begins early and there’s lots you can do to help.

What does the research say about learning to read in two or more languages? I just got Colin Baker and Wayne Wright’s book: Foundations of Bilingual Education & Bilingualism. It’s the most recent edition so it’s hot off the press. Here are some key points from the chapter on literacy:

  • Some bilingual children learn to read and write in both languages at the same time
  • Other bilingual children learn to read in home languages first and then in a different language at school
  • Other children learn to read in the school language first and then in the home language
  • All of these approaches will tend to result in what they call ‘successful biliteracy’

Main message? Don’t stress about the timing.

Let’s have a look at some options:

How to help your child learn to read in all of their languages

One of my favourite books about children is John Holt’s How Children Learn. It’s 50th anniversary is this year so it’s been around a while. There’s one key point that stands the test of time when it comes to learning to read. Drawing your child’s attention to print in everyday situations. Opportunities are everywhere once you start to look. When you are reading together, you can point out things about the font size. I remember doing this with my daughter when she was four years old. We were reading a book which was a version of Cinderella but with bees as the characters. And when someone was upset, the font was bigger for their talk. So I would draw her attention to that and say something like ‘See how the writing is bigger to show that she’s upset?’. Other places are cereal boxes, letters and cards that you get, street signs and billboards when you are out walking or driving. For older children who have started reading, you can point out words that don’t sound how they look , like enough in English. Think of examples in all of your languages and talk about them. Have conversations about the languages and how they are similar and different. So barn means child in Swedish, a farm building in English, and isn’t a word in Italian. There’s a different word in Italian.

Another thing you can focus on in a fun way with younger children is letter names and the sounds they make. I remember seeing a little boy at two and half years of age for a speech assessment and he knew all the names of the letters in the English alphabet and the sounds they made. Very impressive! We also had a gorgeous alphabet jigsaw in the shape of a crocodile and you can get lovely jigsaws with the letter and an example of words that start with the sound the letter makes. It might be difficult to get these in all of your languages, depending on what those languages are.  Also, for younger children where English is one of their languages, Sesame Street videos on YouTube are great for early literacy skills. Or Barney videos. The idea is that you watch these watch them together with your child and talk about what you’re watching and learning. You can talk about what you’re learning in the video about English using your home language if that works for you. That way you’re building connections between the languages. And you’re building metalinguistic awareness. That’s just a fancy term for being able to talk about languages using languages. And being able to reflect on what your languages are like.

How about sending postcards or cards to friends and family in the different languages? That way you get to weave in spoken and written language in a natural way. Your child can dictate the message to you and you can talk about what you’re writing and spell the words aloud for example. And you’ll be practicing reading when you get replies. As their own skills improve, they can do the reading and writing. Making their own book using free apps like Book Creator is a great way to support literacy and creativity with language.

Other important foundations for learning to are having a good vocabulary and story-telling ability. You can also focus on these without worrying about how to go about teaching your child to read like the teacher does in school. How do you focus on story-telling? There’s an approach called dialogic book reading where you use reading to together to build your child’s language. I’ve written two blog posts showing you how to do this and you can find them here and here.You can do this in your home languages. And here’s a post about developing your child’s vocabulary. Both of these will support your child learning to read in all of their languages.

Following their interest is important too. So, when my daughter was about three we had these magnetic letters and used to play a game where we’d get the letters and she would put random combinations together and I would try to pronounce them. She thought this was hilarious. It was great fun and it was teaching her about letters and sounds and what goes together or not. When children are learning to talk, they are learning the codes of their languages in spoken form. They’re working out which sounds belong to which language and which sounds go together to make syllables and words. Where words begin and end. How to combine words into phrases and sentences. You get the idea! When it comes to learning to read and write, our children are learning the written code. How to produce the words while reading aloud and writing.

Understanding what you read is a key component of learning to read. For example, I can ‘read’ Swedish, Italian, Spanish, French, Maori, Swahili, and Irish but my understanding of what I can ‘read’ varies wildly across those languages! So, at a surface level, I can decode the words and pronounce them properly but that’s only part of the story. I lack the vocabulary to understand much of what I could read. Learning to read takes time and every child is different. My daughter could read with clear evidence that she could understand what she was reading from about four years of age. So, she had the skills. But until our first lockdown in 2020, she was totally resistant to reading by herself. ‘It’s boring,’ she’d declare! I despaired of her ever loving to read and settled for being happy that she loved me reading to her and that she frequently saw me with my head stuck in a book! During lockdown, we found a Heidi that I had as a child and that was the start of her loving to read by herself. Following your child’s lead when it comes to nurturing reading means letting them pick the book, let them turn the pages, focus on talking about the book rather than on reading each and every word. During lockdown, my daughter and her friend had a story club where they met once a week via Zoom to read stories and poems that they had written during the week. Then they switched to reading to each other: a chapter of a book each. And then they sent voice recordings of themselves reading. All of these activities help literacy development.

Baker and Wright (2021) also make a key distinction between a skills approach to literacy and a critical literacy approach. So the skills approach is all about things like being able to read words (sometimes with understanding and sometimes not understanding what you’re reading), spelling words correctly, filling in worksheets, giving correct answers on spelling tests and so on. The critical literacy approach perspective is much broader and includes things like seeing yourself as an active reader and writer, enjoying reading, learning about the world through reading, reflecting on what you’ve read and the insights you’ve developed. That’s where I’d put my energy. Reading together and talking about what you’re reading. To encourage my daughter to read, I said I would read whatever she read so now I have a backlog of Judy Moody and Enid Blyton next to my bed! But we have great chats about characters and plots and what we liked and didn’t like about the books. And for younger children, drawing their attention to things like the font size, punctuation, and so on in a natural, ‘Isn’t that interesting?’ or ‘Did you notice that?’ kind of a way. You can also pay attention to how they’re being taught to read at school and see if there are any tips you can use in your chats about books in your home languages. Wordless picture books are useful when it’s hard to find books in your home languages. Here’s a list of 100 wordless picture books to give you inspiration.

I’ve been talking with a friend and colleague who works with children who struggle to read. We’re putting together more tips and you can read them in my next post. Later, I’ll go back to the research and see what else is there that might help.

If you liked this post, please share it with your friends!

Let’s get talking,











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