Jan 222015


We are raising our three kids (4,6,7) bilingually as well and I’m informing other parents about this.

Now I have a question for you, as I don’t find a lot of information on the web about this: how should we deal with learning to read and write in both languages? When should we start teaching our kids? Did you find studies on this topic?

Thank you in advance!

With best wishes,


Dear Jeanette,

Many thanks for your question. I am sure many parents are wondering as well about the right time to teach their children to read and write in the various languages they are using at home.

I would be interested to know which languages you are using at home to give you a very accurate answer. My first answer would be to start when you feel that your children are ready. There is not one single strategy. It all depends on the languages which are in the home and the way the children are managing them and how ready both parents and children feel into entering this new stage in the acquisition of the languages.

There is no need to force it on them and then they may reject it. However, if – when you are reading to them in the various languages they have at home – you are following with your finger the words you are reading, your children are already learning to read as they follow your finger. Unconsciously, they create pictures of the words in their heads. If they have a great interest in books, they may start reading by themselves. Once they have pictures of the words into their heads, it is easier then to start on trying to read similar words and then try to reproduce them in writing.

Another strategy which could be more demanding, is to wait until your children have learned to read and write in the language used at school. They would then be familiar with the letters and their sounds. Then you can use what they have learned at school and try and apply it to the other languages. It is easy enough, if the various languages are using the same alphabet and a similar way of reading (from left to right and not from top to bottom or right to left).

You can also suggest to your children to write postcards to their grand-parents and cousins. In copying what they would have dictated to you, they will learn to read and write. There is no set method. I personally do not know of any studies on the topic.

Do not forget that it will be very demanding on you and your husband and once you have started, it is going to be a long process as learning to read and write is even quite long in the language used at school. You will also need a lot of patience as sometimes in some languages, words are pronounced in a similar manner, but are written differently (I think for example at the word “surfer” in English would have the same pronunciation than in French, but would then be written: “surfeur”). If you ask me about grammar, then, I think you can explain it as you come across some points, or you can ignore it and hope your children will get it as they read…
I do not think there is a simple answer to that question and I wished I could give you one.

I wish you all the best and would be very happy to hear from you and how your children are enjoying being able to read and write in all the languages they master.

All the best


  3 Responses to “Q&A: When to start teaching bilingual children to read and write”

  1. A very tough question. Teaching reading and writing is very time intensive and, as Isabelle mentioned, often depends on the languages the children are learning.

    Many parents often worry that learning two or more writing systems would be confusing. I disagree with this. Learning reading and writing is no different than learning to listen and speak. There will be some confusion at first, but children will quickly separate them out. Remember, in Japan, children learn 3 writing systems from the get-go and most Chinese speakers learn two these days – pinyin and characters. They all learn just fine.

    The real key is understanding the language yourself or finding someone who does. Their are specific techniques in each language. For example, in English, phonics should be taught before letter names, usually starting with satpin, and the most common sight words should be taught along simple sounds. It’s best to seek out specific teaching resources from teachers for your language in question as to how to introduce what and when it’s introduced. Finding graded readers in your target language will also be very important to keep the level just right.

  2. Rita, May I share my experience here as parents with small children can benefit from it

    I started teaching my children to read in the minority language early and I found the whole process to be stress free. I was able to turn learning into a play. My 3 and 5 years old kids can read now. Here are the 7 principles I followed: http://www.trilingualchildren.com/2014/04/7-principles-teaching-child-to-read.html

    Independently from what parents decide to do ( teach their child to read before school or not) they should prepare their child for reading by developing early phonemic awareness by using language play.

    With older children, as in Jeanette’s case: I would teach them letters during daily readings. “Good morning” short messages, that can be read together before starting with breakfast, could also work well.

  3. My son the as adopted at 16 m and we all began to learn his original language when he was 3.5 and he is now almost 5. He learned to read korean this winter -BEFORE a he learned to read in English! I was so pleased. He had a strong phonics base in English before I began to teach the korean alphabet. We connected his new knowledge to the sounds that were similar in the english language. It’s been a lot of fun watching him learn and watching his pride in learning! He proud that although he is behind his peers who have korean speaking parents in vocabulary and speaking/listening skills, he is advanced in reading and writing.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>