From bilingual to biliterate – learning to read and write

by | Feb 4, 2015 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Literacy, Practical advice | 4 comments

From bilingual to biliterate - learning to read and write

I don’t remember teaching my elder daughter to read … because I never did. I do however remember when a carer at her nursery told me that my 5-year-old used to read Finnish story books to other children. They found that she loved reading aloud to others and was able to do it better than the carers – who were all bilingual but most of them had Swedish as mother tongue. In Finland children start school when they turn seven, so she had not yet had any formal tuition.

So how did this happen? The answer is in the picture – she was about two when she was given the alphabet puzzle and she absolutely adored it. She would hold up a letter and wait for me to say the sound before placing the piece in the puzzle. This way she little by little learnt all the sounds, and then she started recognising the letters in books I read to her. Next she noticed that she could decipher words by herself and this is how she started reading.

Of course, this is not a “method” that can be used in every, or even most languages, so why tell it? The reason I want to highlight the story is that there is not one right way to teach your child to read, the best method is the one that works for you and your child.

There are some aspects you do need to take into consideration when teaching your child to read and write at home. First of all, your child needs to be ready for this phase – the readiness shows as an interest in letters and text and wanting to write something, often the own name. It is important not to put pressure on your child to start before he or she is ready.

What you can do as a parent to nurture this interest is being a great role model for literacy. Read lots of books to (and later with) your child. Following the words with your finger while reading allows your child to make the connection between the sounds, letters and words. Write notes, cards and letters. If you have nothing else to write on a day, make writing the shopping list something that you do together.

Your role as a parent is also to be there to motivate, encourage and help your child discover the world of written text and to learn to master it. Make the experience more fun by providing different materials to aid the learning. If your child prefers colourful pens to start the writing, make sure there are plenty of these, along with a lot of paper available. Some children love white boards or others want to start with building blocks or puzzles, like my daughter. Have a lot of books in the home with bright interesting pictures and clear text.

Keep in mind that normally you would have to spend a fair amount of time with your child to teach him or her to read and write. If you think you may not be able to spare this time, ask if others – such as grandparents or other relatives – could be of help. Remember that your children can always become biliterate later in life: both of my daughters learnt to write Punjabi at school and during weekend classes once we came to England. After they moved away from home, emails and text messages became a great way to keep up the skill of writing Swedish.

Letter ÖSo the alphabet puzzle came to play a big role in my daughters language learning, as did Pricken, the Swedish-speaking kitten, and if you take a closer a look at the smaller picture you will see these two combined in the distinct teeth marks on the letter Ö.

Want to read more on the topic? Xiao-lei Wang has written a very informative book called “Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family”.

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  1. Kim Flewelling

    Thank you for the information in this newsletter~
    Strong connections between oral language and literacy!
    I will share~

    SLP and Children’s Author:)

    • Rita

      Thank you for your kind comment, Kim!

  2. Andrew James

    Interesting, Rita, especially the part about Finnish being phonetic. So, too, Hungarian, as I’m sure you know. In fact, I once guessed that I was listening to Finnish, because I knew about the double consonants, as in the Hungarian inni and enni (drink and eat), in-ni and en-ni as pronounced. Of course, with English, children can only learn to read through word and sentence recognition, as there are over a hundred sound and spelling variations in English, but only 26 letters (Hungarian has 44 letters and equivalent sounds). So, native-speakers of English start learning to read and write at 4, when most begin in reception class, or in nursery before that. The formal teaching is done with simple phonics, then whole word recognition. In Hungary, children don’t learn to read and write in Hungarian until they are 7. This meant that, for us, my eldest son (24), born in Hungary, never learnt to read and write formally in Hungarian, as we moved back to the UK when he was six. Then, despite the fact that I had read all manner of English books to him from an early age, he struggled to catch up with the two years of formal reading and writing he had ‘missed’. Whereas our youngest son (11) learn to read and write fluently by the age of 7 (beginning of Key Stage 2 in the British curriculum), and, when we moved back to Hungary, was able to fit into his school here and learn all four skills very quickly. Now he is no different from other mother-tongue speakers in his class, although he was only previously exposed to Hungarian when visiting relatives. Our experience suggests that if one of the child’s languages from birth is English, it is better that s/he learns all four skills in this first, because it is not phonetic and therefore takes longer, whereas the (more) phonetic language can be learnt (more) quickly, consecutively. This is an important observation for parents who often imbibe the popular notion that ‘there’s so much English out there, s/he’ll pick it up, anyway’. Fine, if that’s all s/he needs, but not if you’re thinking of English-medium education for them at some point in their teens. My experience of working with bilingual teenagers of all nationalities is that the ones who struggle most to get into universities in Britain or the US are those who have had little or no formal English-medium teaching from early years. Parents are misguided if they think they can substitute for teachers in these years. So, if you can, spend the child’s early years in an English-speaking environment with English-medium early years provision. This doesn’t just apply to English. In Wales, the decline of the Welsh language has largely been halted by children attending Welsh-medium nursery schools. It seems like ‘total immersion’ is the key if you want full bilingualism.

    • Rita

      Thank you for your valuable insight, Andrew!

      English is definitely one of the more challenging languages to learn – indeed, phonetic languages like Finnish and Hungarian will take a lot less effort. I can see that in a scenario where a child learns English and another, phonetically easier language to learn to write, there needs to be more emphasis on learning to write English. I could also see the need for this if the aim is for the child to enter into further education in English. However, if the other language is also one which is more difficult to learn and perhaps in a different script, the choice is not as straightforward.

      Most parents are not teachers and it is a very high expectation to put on yourself to try to teach your child to become a fluent writer without having any formal support for it, so it is also important to be realistic about what you can do.



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