English Language Learners / Dual Language Learners / Multicultural Education Support – Language Lizard Blog


photo credit: Mary Ann @ flickr.com

“Come here, little huggy bear!”
“Are you ready for bed, my little coconut candy?”
“Let’s put your coat on, my flea!”

If you’ve ever used any of these terms of endearment with a child, English probably isn’t your first language! And if English is your first language, you probably can’t imagine calling your baby a “tiny elephant”, like they do in Thailand, or “breadcrumb”, which is popular in Finland. Whether you are used to calling your loved ones “pumpkin”, “honey”, “babydoll” or “sweetie”, you will certainly understand what the unfamiliar phrases mean: love for a child.

No two cultures do things in exactly the same way, and there’s no right way or wrong way. That’s why the recently-published findings about the lack of “book-sharing” within immigrant families is a bit misleading. The study, completed by the Stanford University School of Medicine, shows that “parents in Hispanic or Asian immigrant families in California were less likely to read…with their young children than non-Hispanic white parents.” It goes on to point out that there may be many reasons for this difference, such as cultural practices and parents working more than one job who therefore have less time overall to spend with their children.

Of course, “’early reading enlarges vocabulary and becomes a tool for many other kinds of learning later on in school’”, as Dr Mendoza mentions in a Reuters article about the study’s results. And it stands to reason that children whose parents and carers never read with them could be at a disadvantage – but does this study show the whole picture?

There are many ways of sharing the content of books. Just because a parent doesn’t sit down in the family’s extensive library with his child and read every word of a book they’ve chosen together, complete with silly voices and long digressions about what’s going on in the illustrations, doesn’t mean that the family isn’t “book-sharing” in their own way.

Different cultures have different ways of teaching and nurturing their children. For instance, some parents prefer to tell stories, rather than read them. What better way to respond to your child’s environment and enrich his or her vocabulary with practical, useful words than to spontaneously break into a tale that fits what he or she is interested in at that moment? No searching for the perfect book, no worries about finding a perfect spot to plonk down and read: just you, your child, and the magic of a story. Of course, having a varied library of books you’ve shared in the past might help fuel your imagination as you spin your yarn or relate a story passed down through generations, but telling a story without the physical pages of a book will still support your child’s language and literacy development. Singing songs and sharing rhymes will help accomplish the same goal.

Most educators would agree that it is beneficial for educators to make a classroom library available with bilingual children’s books in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other languages represented in the classroom, allowing children to take the books home to read with their parents. That said, supporting parents to build on their own interests and to make use of their own skill set is a way of getting them more involved in home literacy activities, rather than trying to get all parents to do things the same way.

Wordless picture books that children can borrow from the class library are a good way to start, and there are lots of interesting ways to use them (www.colorincolorado.org has some great ones!). Think about taking a few of these ideas and putting them onto a (bilingual) sheet which could be stuck into the inside covers of all of your classroom’s wordless picture books. There’s no reason to force the view that all families should read together in the way that we are accustomed; rather, wordless storybooks might give some families another option for book-sharing in their own way with their loved ones.

For families in which parents simply work too much to be able to sit and read with their children, making recording equipment available to them at the beginning or end of the school day could really help get them involved. Creating a cd or mp3 of a parent reading their child’s favorite book (in any language!) would only take five minutes and could be quickly accomplished at pick-up time. At home, the child could listen to the recording while looking through the book as the parent rushes out the door to work or cooks dinner – and it would still promote his or her literacy and language skills, besides strengthening a parent-child bond even when the parent can’t actually be present!

Some parents may merely need to be introduced to the special bond reading with their child creates, and they’ll want to bring the practice into the home. If it’s something they never experienced with their parents, they may not be aware of how wonderful it can be! Preschool teachers can make parents reading with their children a fun and comfortable prospect by creating a special Parent-Child Reading Corner somewhere in your classroom. Fill it with your students’ favorite choices, fun posters, comfy cushions, and maybe even some snacks and drinks. Then encourage parents on the school run to take five minutes to relax with their child and share the books that have caught their interest that day. It’ll be infectious and will soon turn up in the homes of many more of your students.

Despite what some surveys suggest, we all know that every culture is effective at supporting, nurturing and showing love for children. While it’s wonderful to promote at-home reading, it’s important to consider cultural aspects and promote alternative approaches to building literacy skills as well. After all, what would America be if our founding fathers had just decided to keep doing things the English way?

We’d love to hear about your experiences on this topic – feel free to comment below!


  1. I have struggled with ways to increase reading at home among my ELL students. The parents care about the childrens education but they are so busy often working more than one job. We convinced our local library to host some bilingual storytimes and made flyers which we handed out to parents and encouraged the children to talk to the parents about going. One of our bilingual teachers read the books and we had good turnout for the first two storytimes (which we did last year). we will try a few times this year also. The library also advertised the event.

  2. Reading bilingual books at home is very essential. It’s a skill and hobby that one should get into and get the children involved in. Truly, if we do not practice our languages at home, we would lose it. Unfortunately, many parents get frustrated when their children travel overseas and find it difficult to communicate very well with their extended family members.
    Charity, they say, begins at home, and never ends there.
    Yes, most children speak only English at home and that’s okay because that’s the main language of instruction in most schools. But nothing stops us from having a language festival right in our living room, or make it bigger by hosting a language party with parents from diverse countries. Truly, bilingualism is a blessing that we often take for granted.

    I have books in English, Yoruba, Arabic, French, and Spanish at home. I speak basic Urdu to my friends who hail from India and Pakistan. My Indonesian, Malaysian, and Singaporean friends feel so excited when I say “Terima Kasih” (which means “thank you”) to them after they gift me with something. My children know that I love to call my Somali friends, “Hoyos” (which means “mothers”) whenever I meet up with them.

    We live in a global community and it is high time, we changed the global perspectives of ourselves and our children.

    Children are our carbon copies. They follow suit with whatever they see or hear from us.


  3. When I see parents talking to their children in languages other than English I always compliment them.
    Then I ask if they read to their little ones on a regular basis. Often the answer it “I don’t read English.” Whereupon I mention the great children’s books available in a rich variety of languages. I’m always surprised when people seem not to know these titles are available.
    Imagine the boring world we would have if children’s classics were only printed in one language!

  4. My daughter-in-law is Russian and I was surprised by the lack of terms of endearment I hear from her family and friends. One of her friends told me that Russians don’t use them. Then I talked to her mother and she said many people don’t, but she is a wise woman. When she wants something from her husband she sweetly says “мили” which means “cutie”. She understands how the world works.

  5. I am very excited to find this website and the opportunity to find literary sources and ideas I can share with the families of my kinder-bears. Our school has over 85% of our families where English is not the home-language. I always regret I do not have more bilingual literary sources available for my families. I encourage parents to read to their kindergarten students in their home language, but I would love to build my classroom library so I can send home copies of books we read in class for the families to share.

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