Literacy in different languages: How to teach reading in similar languages?



I have been recently thinking how and when to teach my girl letters / reading. I find it a little bit difficult or think that it can be confusing for my girl.

My girl is Polish / English bilingual kid. For example English word: Octopus. Letter: “O” in English we say like: “A” ([ˈɑːktəˌpʊs]), In polish however “O” is just: ([o]). How should I teach her reading letters? In English I can do it, but when her mum would like to teach reading polish books the things are different. Will she know that when reading in English that letter is pronounce differently than in Polish language?

I have no idea how and when to teach her these letters and when to do it with my wife? Maybe you remember English is not my native language. Me and my wife are Polish native speakers.

Thanks for help in advance!


Hi Wojtek,

The debate on when children should start learning to read is heavy and fierce, so you will find no simple answer. There’s an accessible article over at Huffington Post worth checking out.

My personal advice, lacking a strong scientific backing, is to introduce reading as much as the child enjoys and is interested by it. Usually starting with letters, phonemes, and things like having children follow your finger as you read can start by age three. Before that, simply reading to your child is actually a great pre-literacy activity.

As for the difference between languages, don’t worry about it. Does “o” even sound the same in English? No, it changes very much based on the letters around it and children have no trouble decoding its various forms with practice. I would recommend not intermingling the two languages during instruction at first. Have mom teach one and you teach the other for example. That’ll help with any confusion. You’ll see some mixing at first, but, just like with spoken language, you’ll see that quickly disappear. Also, Polish being largely phonetic, it will be much much easier to keep straight than the English.

Another important point is that learning to read will be critical for true language fluency down the road in the minority language. It is simply the only way to expose children to the wide variety of topics and vocabulary they need to truly master it. It’s great that your family is recognizing this and starting to strategize about how best to accomplish it.

Definitely do some research as well. Different languages need to be taught differently in terms of literacy. You wouldn’t introduce Polish literacy the same way you would English if you want to achieve the best results. Do a bit of Internet research on how to teach reading and writing to children in the respective languages. You don’t need to be an expert by any means, but it’s important to have a rough idea of at least where to start.

Kind Regards,

Nick Jaworski

NickNick Jaworski has been in the field of language teaching and early childhood education for over 10 years. He has trained teachers internationally in six different countries and helped build foreign language schools in Turkey, China, and now the US. His expertise lies in helping schools build multicultural teams, design and deliver extremely effective language learning programming, and establish clear communication channels in today's quickly evolving technological landscape. He and his wife are currently working to raise their daughter to be quadri-lingual in Chinese, Turkish, English, and Spanish. He feels there is simply no greater gift that you can give to your child than the gift of language, and very much enjoys helping other families on their multilingual journeys. You can follow their multilingual journey on Nick's blog Where are We Going, Dad?  Nick also owns and operates a digital marketing agency, Circle Social Inc., focused on delivering results for social impact and educational organizations.