We only learn how to read once. This is true for all of us: monolingual, bilingual or multilingual. Once we figure out how literacy works, it is with us forever.
The best part about bilingual children learning to read is that once they figure it out in one language, they can transfer their literacy to their other language(s)! It is a feat that can be mastered in leaps and bounds in any of a number of languages once the process is underway.
As we know, the key to literacy is language. For those first “ah ha” moments of literacy to occur, bilingual children need to know what the words are that they are reading. Sounding out a word on the page is useless if in the end the student still doesn’t know what the word actually means. This is an important reason why bilingual children should be encouraged to work on their literacy skills in their stronger language, which, for most children, is the language spoken at home.
Bilingual books are wonderful tools for helping bilingual children take their first steps into literacy. The home language is side-by-side on the page with English and thereby provides students with a variety of literacy opportunities. It shows students that the written word comes in many different forms, all of which are important and valued. The bilingual child who is learning to read is encouraged to explore both languages with interest and fascination.
Here are some tips on how to help children explore literacy with bilingual books:
- Leave books lying around: When children don’t feel that they have to read a book, they are more inclined to pick one up and start looking through it. They may start with the pictures and then try out a few words. They will most likely put the book aside and then come back to it again later. Books that are just lying around don’t feel threatening to a child learning to read, so make sure bilingual books are spread out around the classroom.
- Pick books with quality illustrations/pictures: The pictures and illustrations in children’s books are essential and are integral parts of the stories. In fact, children will often make an extra effort to read a book simply because of the appealing pictures and/or illustrations. Make sure to have a variety of books with different kinds of illustrations since children are interested in different artistic styles, themes and elements.
- Introduce the written word: Use bilingual books to illustrate letters and words written in different languages. The focus should be on the differences in the written word, not necessarily on how to read or pronounce the letters (unless the students ask about this specifically). This gives students the chance to get familiar with the written word without feeling that they have to engage with it directly. The more familiar students feel with literacy in general, the more inclined they will be to want to start reading all on their own.
- Provide books with universal familiarity: Even before children can read stories themselves, they will delight in seeing books that are about their favorite stories and songs. For example, a child who knows the song Row, Row, Row Your Boat will have an instant sense of familiarity with a book about that song, regardless of which language the book is written in. It will make a child more eager to learn to read the book him/herself. The same is true of books that have a universal appeal, such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
- Read the books out loud: To help children become excited about literacy, read bilingual books out loud as much as possible. Each time the book is read out loud, students will start to make sense of the spoken and written words. Send the books home with your students so that parents can read the same stories in the home language. It is fine if bilingual students start to memorize the stories. During the early stages of literacy, it is fun for children to be able to recite the stories before they can actually read them. Some students will even pretend that they are reading while reciting the story from memory. However, soon these students will start putting together the words that they memorized with the words on the page. What an exciting moment that is! For tips on bilingual storytimes, please see the blog post Bilingual Storytimes: 5 Different Types.
Ideally children will be eager to read by the time they take their first steps into the world of literacy. Providing students with books in their home language can make all the difference in this experience. Not only does it reiterate the teacher’s acceptance and support of the home language, it provides bilingual students with the opportunity to feel an emotional connection with what they are reading.
We all should have the opportunity to learn to read in a language that is most comfortable to us. Let’s help make sure it is an experience of joy, delight and comfort for all children.
Photo credit: Tegan Nicholle
Do you think it is important for children to learn to read in a language that is most comfortable? Do you have resources available to help your students learn to read in their home language?