Bilingual is Better

“My son is in the third grade at a public language immersion school. He is at or above grade level in all subjects in English. He is below grade level in Spanish reading and comprehension. We are English speakers and try to work with him in his Spanish reading and comprehension but it is very difficult when we do not speak/comprehend Spanish. He refuses to read in Spanish for us. I don’t want to discourage his love of reading in English but how can I encourage a love of reading in Spanish? Thanks!”

Dear Dina,

The research base on second language acquisition demonstrates that it takes approximately five to seven years to be fully proficient in a second language, so it is to be expected that your son is not meeting grade level standards in Spanish at the third grade level. If he is meeting grade level standards in English reading, he will more than likely be able to master grade level standards in Spanish given a few more years and extensive exposure to grade level text and academic language in Spanish.

The first thing that I recommend is to determine the exact area of concern in his Spanish reading. Some questions that you might want to find out are: Is he unable to decode, or accurately read words? (If he is at or above grade level in English reading, it is probably more than likely that he is not having difficulty with decoding in Spanish). Does he have difficulty with reading narrative/fictional text and summarizing or retelling what he read?
Does he have difficulty with higher order and critical thinking skills? Is it a challenge for him to identify main ideas and details in expository or nonfiction text? Does he need to increase his academic language in Spanish?

The best thing that English-speaking parents in dual language programs can do is to work on reading comprehension and literacy at home in English with students who are experiencing difficulties. Considering that your son is making appropriate progress in English, you should continue to focus on improving his reading comprehension at a more advanced level in English, which will eventually assist him with reading comprehension in Spanish. In addition, you should focus on increasing the amount of reading material that he has at home in Spanish so that he is able to increase his academic language in Spanish. One of the best things to improve reading comprehension in any language is to read, read, and read more!

Find out the topics that interest your son and purchase materials in the form of books and computer software in both languages for him to use at home. Some children in dual language programs tend to gravitate towards English reading as the grade levels increase, so it is important for parents to ensure that children have plenty of engaging materials to read at home in Spanish. Nonfiction texts about real life topics (i.e., animals, biographies, science, etc) tend to have highly complex vocabulary and sentence structure so it is also important to ensure that he has plenty of nonfiction materials in Spanish. If there is a particular topic that he is highly interested in, you might want to purchase books about that topic exclusively in Spanish.

The most important thing to take into consideration when trying to improve his reading comprehension in Spanish is that he needs extensive exposure to interesting reading materials. It’s therefore important to find out what topics motivate him and purchase materials in Spanish about that topic. If it’s not fun for him, he won’t want to read! Take a step back from the formal reading comprehension activities in Spanish at home and just try to show him that reading about topics that interest us can be fun!

Melanie McGrath.-- is a coordinator of Dual Immersion and transitional bilingual education programs in Southern California. She provides professional development training and assistance to parents, bilingual teachers and administrators in the areas of biliteracy development, bilingual program design and English language development. Melanie can also be found blogging on Multilingual Mania. Click here to read her answers.

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