Bilingual to Biliterate - What Happens When your Little Linguist Learns to Read?

Language teacher Jason Kucker talks about how to start reading with your bilingual children

Katia Sand

Written by Katia Sand Published on 11.03.2013 15:30:54 (updated on 11.03.2013) Reading time: 5 minutes

Bilingual to Biliterate - What Happens When your Little Linguist Learns to Read?

For most expats, living in the Czech Republic is a wonderful opportunity to raise your children bilingually. Research tells us that bilinguals often have better multi-tasking and problem-solving skills, and perhaps even more resilient brain function, and there is plenty of encouragement out there for parents who want to start down this road. For tips on how to give your kids the best chance at bilingualism, see our article “10 Tips for Raising your Bilingual Child – Better”.

Despite this encouragement, however, the right way to go about the common tasks of parenthood are daunting even without the added conundrum of how to throw in a second language, especially when it comes to one of the most important aspects of early parenting: reading. Various studies have shown that reading to and with your children from birth equips them not only with better communication skills and language mastery later on, but also with enhanced concentration and discipline and more logical thinking skills. If you are raising your children bilingually, how then to go about helping your kids develop early reading skills without sacrificing either language?

Jason Kucker, EAL (English as Additional Language) Leader at the English International School of Prague, says that the strategies you take for encouraging biliteracy in your kids will depend on the linguistic structure of your household. If each parent has a different mother tongue, and the strategy you are taking for raising your bilingual children is the ‘one parent, one language’ approach, then it can be relatively easy to continue this into the sphere of reading: “When it comes to choosing a book or a story for reading time, each parent will read in their own native language, and kids will associate reading in both languages with the comfort, warmth and encouragement that comes from enjoying books together with their parents.”

Families who speak a minority language at home (e.g. English) and plan to place their kids in an education system in a different language (e.g. Czech) usually read only in the minority language at home, and let the school teach literacy in the other language. “The good news,” says Kucker, “is that if a bilingual child is taught to read often, even if only in one language, he or she should be able to transfer the ability to read in that language to reading in the other.”


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One of Kucker’s students, Marina Zhukova, is an example of the latter approach. She is 17 years old and completely biliterate: she is just as comfortable reading and writing in Russian as she is in English. Both of Marina’s parents are Russian, and when she was a child they read to her exclusively in Russian, and still continue to make sure that she reads in Russian at home by exposing her to books she will find interesting in their native language. By the time she started at a Russian kindergarten she had already started to read on her own in Russian, and upon starting at an Anglophone school for first grade, she learnt to read in English with no extra trouble. When asked if she has ever felt at a disadvantage reading and writing in English compared to her monolingual classmates Marina replied, “not at all.”

Kucker does warn, however, that transferring literacy skills may be easier from some languages than from others. For example, learning to read and write in English first, and then learning to read and write in Czech may be relatively seamless. English is a non-phonetic language, and learning how to recognize and spell words in English first can make writing in any other language comparatively easy, especially in a language such as Czech, where you can rely on the pronunciation of words to indicate their spelling. Doing it the other way around, from a phonetic language to a non-phonetic language, can lead to spelling difficulties.  

In addition, Kucker cautions, if you repeatedly hop between two languages when talking to your kids, it could also lead to them confusing the languages when they write. So if you have a home strategy for raising your children bilingually, make sure that you stick to it, and continue this strategy when it comes to reading to them. For example, if you are taking the ‘one parent, one language’ approach, then make sure each of you read to the kids in your chosen language. If you speak a different language at home from the one your child speaks at school, then read exclusively in your native language pre-kindergarten and continue to encourage reading in the first language alongside homework assignments in the second once school has started.

“School can make the biggest difference,” says Kucker with regard to whether kids develop a dominant language for reading and writing. If children are only exposed to learning to read in one language, then that language will become the dominant one. This can, however, change with repeated exposure to the non-dominant language, so here are some tips for getting started at home early:

1.    Make reading what your family does. If the adults in your household do not read for pleasure then you’ve got to change that. Kids do what their parents do, so let your kids see you reading. Read to them at every opportunity and always have books on hand in either or both languages.

2.    Talk to your child using whole sentences in each language. The more words your child hears and the more words your child uses, the easier it will be for him or her to learn to read alone.

3.    Let your child read in bed. In the quiet time before sleep, children repeat the stories they love to themselves and start to make the connection between the print on the page and the words in their heads.

Ultimately, Kucker says, the most important factor is simply to encourage a love of reading in general and to find books that inspire interest in both languages. There is a wonderful amount of early reading material for pre-kindergarteners in English, such as The Jolly Postman by Allan Ahlberg, Thomas the Tank Engine by W. Awdry etc., and Czech also has a few gems like Honzíkova cesta and its sequel O letadélku Káněti by Bohumil Říha and Helena Zmatlíková. If you are successful, reading will become such a pleasure that your kids will love doing it in both languages.

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