Bilingual is Better

Activating Prior Knowledge

Mom, don’t read to me in Spanish. I don’t understand anything. Read to me ONLY in English!

The words came from Emilie’s mouth last winter. My 8-year-old daughter didn’t want to listen to stories en español anymore. As a mother who has been raising Emilie bilingual and taking her to Peru, my native country, every year since she was a baby, I got worried.

The first thought that came to my mind was the contradiction I was experiencing.

There I was, studying hard to become a certified bilingual school teacher in Texas and realizing that, between my training, my part time job, family life, Emilie’s activities and household chores, I practically have stopped reading to my daughter in Spanish. After several months of breaking such an essential literacy habit, these were the consequences.

Emilie, a voracious and proficient reader in English, was now struggling to understand books at school grade level in her second language. Her vocabulary was not growing, the scarcity of images in the chapter books made reading tedious, and the complex structure of the sentences felt like high walls to climb.

Reading to her in Spanish quickly returned to the top of my ‘to do list’.

Every other week I visited the public library and borrowed several books: picture books, science related books, books about cooking, American presidents’ bios, short stories and also chapter books (our biggest challenge). I had books for very young readers and books for second and third grade students. It was a mixed selection that helped me reconquer Emilie’s curiosity and self confidence to read in the language spoken by Mom and abuelitos.

The road still had bumps until something magical happened.

My selection included several translations of the stories written by Roald Dahl, the beloved children’s author. My  teacher has his books too, Emilie told me one night. Immediately, I noticed a smile in her face and realized that, without planning it, we had established a positive connection between reading in Spanish and a familiar experience: the classroom library organized by her school teacher.

Within days we started reading Charlie y la Fábrica de Chocolate, the famous novel for children whose movie version, the one with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, is one of my daughter’s favorite films.

I knew that Dahl’s chocolate universe had captured Emilie’s imagination, so I decided to use her prior knowledge about the story as a trampoline to reach a big “bilingual literacy” goal: read aloud to her an almost 200-page book completely written in Spanish.

We finished the book recently and what I remember the most is how, every night, Emilie begged me to continue reading. Even though she didn’t understand each word she heard, she easily made sense of the text because of her vivid memories connected to the film. She remembered the moment when Charlie finds the golden ticket to enter Willy Wonka’s factory. She knew the tiny Oompa-Loompas and she also knew what transformed Violet Beauregarde into a giant blueberry. Her rejection of Spanish evaporated.

As some of the research in bilingualism reveals about second language acquisition, Emilie was transferring knowledge gained first in English to her learning process of Spanish. Engaging with her interest and positive attitude, I taught her new words (like arándano/blueberry and hinchado/swollen) and explained to her concepts related to sentence structure as well as grammar. We discussed the temperament of some characters, compared the movie with the book and she frequently shared with me little clues about what would happen next. It was her previous knowledge and fascination with Charlie’s chocolate adventures what helped her make sense of a book that otherwise would have been difficult to grasp.

The experience, as a Mom, has been rewarding. And as a future certified bilingual teacher it has been enlightening. I saw first hand how a key strategy to increase reading comprehension and learn new content, activating prior knowledge, became alive and made a child’s frustration disappear.

There are several ways you could activate prior knowledge in order to make learning a second language a journey that is pleasant and successful. Movies, picture books and visual aids connected to the content you would like to introduce, are great tools. You can also provide basic vocabulary before reading a new book so your child doesn’t spend too much time decoding words and focuses on the story. You could ask your child what it is that he would like to know about a theme or a character you want to present to him.

Try asking what he thinks could happen next in a chapter book. Find fascinating facts about the author and share them with him. The idea is to help your child make connections between his experiences, knowledge or interests and the learning process of a second language. When new content somehow feels familiar to us, we are better equipped to learn. When the feeling of being lost is replaced by a sense of connection with a character, a story, a word, a topic or a new language, the journey of learning feels fun, inviting and, sometimes, irresistible. Exactly like the fantastic adventures of Charlie inside Mr. Wonka’s chocolate factory.

PAOCAIROPaola Cairo is a journalist and educator born in Lima. She was a reporter for El Comercio, the leading newspaper in Peru, for seven years and since 2001 continued writing as a freelance from Argentina, Canada and the U.S. She lives in Houston with her family and is currently completing training to become a certified bilingual teacher in Texas. 

{Image by Phil Dowsing Creative}

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