Back to {Bilingual} School

{Photo by: John-Morgan}

Editor’s note: We’re dedicating this whole week to Back to {Bilingual} School. We have a variety of posts that we hope will make the transition easier regardless of what your kids’ schooling situation is. We hope you come back all week to read the posts by our amazing guests and to enter the awesome giveaways we’ve put together for you!

I have always joked that I was born with a book in my hands, but this wasn’t my choice. Someone had to have put it there. That someone, for those of use who were lucky enough to be exposed to reading at a young age, was a parent. Now that we are the parents and are taking on the incredible challenge of raising bilingual or multilingual children, we are responsible for whether our little ones will devour books for a lifetime, or someday use them as coasters.

There is no better time to discuss reading than right now, at the start of a new school year. Sending the little ones off to school can be a test of our linguistic goals if they are being flooded with English; even if our kids are attending dual-language or immersion schools, their language input is different than it is at home. So, how do we make up for and supplement what the school environment can provide? One technique is better than all the rest: READ.

Back to {Bilingual} SchoolAccording to the National Literacy Panel’s research on English Language Learners , literacy in a native language is a huge plus when one is learning to read in a second language. Factors such as phonological awareness – an understanding of the sounds of a particular language – play a large part in the level of success a child achieves in reading that language. Perhaps the most important part of the NLP’s findings, though, is that a lack of background/cultural knowledge is a significant barrier to achieving literacy.

The Multilingual Children’s Association confirms that “frequent book reading leads to more advanced language skills.” It is not just the type of books, the level, or even the language in which they are written that matters. Literacy is a result of frequency; the old “practice makes perfect” adage is nowhere more appropriate than in a discussion of learning to read and write.

Speaking of writing, it is an essential life tool tied to reading. Writing skill is directly proportional to reading ability, and focusing on one can push the other to a higher level. The Alliance for Excellent Education and others agree that good writers become academically successful. We have a responsibility to give our children this other piece of literacy en español so that they can be personally fulfilled in both languages, in life and in school.

So what does all this research mean for you on a daily basis? Other than making a concerted effort to open up a Spanish book with your children as often as possible, you can promote early and sustained literacy with the following tips:

- Encourage an interest in your native culture, not just the words on a page. Use a book from La Tiendita to supplement a holiday or event, such as your child’s birthday, and parallel American traditions with your own. If your child is consistently intrigued by the traditions associated with the Spanish language, he or she will be more apt to read about them.

- Place special emphasis on the letters and sounds that differ in English and Spanish: vowels and sounds like that of the “eñe.” With my son, I play school at home and trace and pronounce the alphabet one letter at a time, in both languages. That way, he hears the contrast while seeing that the visual representation of the letter does not change.

- Have your children come up with a Spanish story every week by creating a sentence a day. Have them tell you what they want to add to the story each day, and write each week’s growing story on a large writing tablet or chalkboard. In this way, your children get to be the authors AND the readers, and will make the connection that someone came up with their favorite stories in the same way. This is the road to raising good writers – and readers – in any language.

- Read this great post from Corey Heller, of Multilingual Living, about the process of becoming “biliterate,” and take her advice: relax and watch your children find their way to literacy.

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