Bilingual is Better

reading in spanish

When my eldest daughter and son began to read in kindergarten a couple of years ago — in English— I was ecstatic. I love books, and had been reading to them in both Spanish and English since they were little. And then, it hit me. When would they begin to read in Spanish?

Being able to read in Spanish is not just an advantage during travel in Latin America or Spain. It’s so much more! Reading (and writing) in Spanish means our kids can send emails to their cousins, or write Christmas cards to their abuelitos — actively maintaining relationships (and their language skills) when school life is full of English. Being biliterate gives our children the opportunity to fully participate in Latin culture, by mastering the nuances of the language and appreciating children’s literature in its original form (not through translations!). Reading is an extremely efficient way to expand vocabulary and familiarity with spelling and the written language. Furthermore, as our children read more in Spanish, they will be exposed to styles and varieties of the language that they might not hear otherwise, and books offer them access to words and syntax that are different from what they might hear at home.

During graduate school, I had read numerous times that children who can read in one language can normally transfer their reading (decoding) skills to the second language without much difficulty — as long as the languages use the same alphabet, of course. While some parents begin to practice flashcards of Spanish words with their toddlers, a slightly easier route is to wait until the child can read in the majority language (or in our case, English) before reading in their weaker language (in our case, Spanish).

The summer after kindergarten I was confident that my kids had mastered the basics of reading: they knew we read left to right, they understood that the letters represented sounds, sound chunks put together would form words, words had meanings…. I armed myself with numerous “beginning to read” books that I had bought in Mexico, and we began our journey towards biliteracy.

We began to read even more in Spanish. As I read, I let my children follow the text with their fingers. We requested books in Spanish from the library that covered topics my kids were interested in: animals, princesses, soccer.  As I read, I point out phonetic differences “No pronuncies la ‘h’ en español.” “See how an e at the end of the word is not silent in Spanish?”

The more a child reads (in any language), the more likely she is to reach a reasonable level of writing and spelling. We played word games in Spanish, like hangman, Scrabble, and Scattergories. I call out words while I’m cooking, and they spell them with magnetic letters or practice writing with dry erase markers on our placemats. Using Discovery’s Puzzlemaker, I make up Spanish crossword puzzles or wordfinds. Now that they are becoming more proficient in reading Spanish, they can read the easier books to my younger children.

Once your child begins to read in Spanish — don’t stop reading to them! It may take a while before their reading fluency is at a level to pay more attention to the story than just the language. Find stories written by Spanish-speaking authors, such as acclaimed children’s author Jaime Alfonso Sandoval, from Mexico. Choose stories to read aloud that challenge their language and might be too difficult for them to read themselves. Although originally written in English, this summer we are tackling Harry Potter in Spanish. My kids are so excited and motivated to get to the next chapter, they are the ones reminding me to read books before bed.

This summer, immerse your family in children’s literature in Spanish, and witness your children emerging as biliterate readers and writers.

{Images courtesy of Becky Morales}

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