How to teach a child bilingual reading

How to teach a child bilingual reading

When it comes to reading, parents of multilingual children often worry about how/when to start teaching their children how to read. Should they start by teaching their children how to read in one language and then transfer this knowledge over to the other language or is it better start with both languages at once? Either approach is fine! The key is really to give children the time they need to understand the differences (and similarities) between each written form.

Parents should not be worried that learning more than one written language form at the same time is too difficult for a child. Some children might find it daunting at first but children around the world do this every day. Studies actually suggest that dual-language reading could in fact be a facilitator for learning how to read in some cases. (

When bilingual children learn how to read, whether it’s simultaneously or in sequence, they realise that we can name the same thing but it will be written in two different ways. They see that these two different languages have two different codes, they might even notice different shapes, different symbols etc… As well as those differences, children will notice similarities (sounds, characters, punctuation etc.). This constant comparing of the two codes, which will be done naturally by the learner is actually going to help them understand both languages more in depth.

“With two written forms, children are constantly doing grammar in their heads.” (Jean Duverger, translated by me)The knowledge your child has in one language will help him understand their other language and vice versa.

Two alphabets might result in some mixing up between the two. For example, in French the name of the letter ‘I’ is the same as the name of the letter ‘E’ in English. This can get confusing at first, but as long as these mistakes are identified and corrected, your child will soon learn not to mix them up.

Just remember, whether you decide to teach the two languages simultaneously or in a sequence doesn’t really matter. What counts is to give your child the necessary time to learn.

How to teach a child bilingual reading

If you are a parent raising a bilingual child, you will most likely come across a few challenges along the way. Learning a language is a skill. And, as with any other skill such as learning to play an instrument or a sport, practice is vital.

As a mother who speaks one of my children’s minority languages, it is important that I make sure that they receive enough exposure to my native language, English, and they have enough time to practice it. We live in Italy after all, and their Italian exposure is extensive. They also have exposure to Spanish a few afternoons per week. While they are bilingual in English and Italian, and speak Spanish quite well for their ages, there is always room for improvement.

Raising bilingual children is a lifelong journey. Providing our children ways to boost their language skills on a daily basis will give them the support they need to become proficient speakers in all of their languages.

1. Create the Need

If there is a need to use a language, then children will use it. Creating that need is key. For bilingual parents this can sometimes be a struggle, especially for the parent speaking the minority language. If your child knows you speak a second language, they may realise they don’t “need” to speak the other one for you to understand them.

If you are following a particular language strategy such as OPOL or Minority Language at Home, try to be consistent as much as possible. This will create expectations for your little ones and they will know which language to speak when. Consistency is key with creating a need.

How to teach a child bilingual reading

2. Read to and with Your Bilingual Children Every Day

As parents, we should read to our children every day. With bilingual kids, it is even more important, especially to improve the minority language. Reading books to our children gives them exposure to vocabulary that they may not otherwise hear on a daily basis in normal conversation. The more words they hear, the larger their vocabulary becomes.

Having a variety of books in your home library, especially in the minority language, will keep them motivated to read, and help to encourage their language development. Take note of their interests, and provide your child with books and materials that you know they will enjoy.

There is no need to stop reading to our children once they start reading to themselves. No matter how old a child is, they can always benefit from parents reading aloud to them.

3. Play Music and Sing Songs

Many children are able to sing songs before they can even speak. Using music to learn a language or improve your bilingual children’s language skills is a powerful too. By singing songs together, your child will hear a range of vocabulary, which can be easily memorised to a melody. There is something about music that motivates children to learn without realising it. Children naturally love to dance around and sing. Playing songs in the target language will allow your child to learn while having fun.

How to teach a child bilingual reading

4. Cook Together

Cooking is a fun activity that the whole family can enjoy. There are so many skills that children can learn through cooking, and it is a great way to learn new vocabulary. Try reading a recipe in the target language, and following the instructions. Cook a foreign dish and taste different types of ingredients. Working together on a task is a great opportunity to encourage conversation and practice a language. It is amazing how much conversation can happen while preparing a dish together.

How to teach a child bilingual reading

5. Use Language Apps

Whether you are introducing a new language, or would just like to add exposure to the minority language, apps can be a great help to bilingual children. There are a whole range of language learning apps, both educational and fun, that can help children with their language skills and give them a little more exposure.

While apps won’t teach your child a language, they can certainly introduce new vocabulary and improve a language if your child already has a good grasp of it. In a generation growing up in a world filled with technology, we need to learn to use screen time to our advantage.

6. Travel (if you can!)

Immersing your child in a language is one of the best ways to improve their fluency. By traveling to places where your target language is spoken, your children will get to practice the language in the most natural way possible. They will also be able to experience the culture that goes with it.

How to teach a child bilingual reading

7. Make it Fun

We all know children learn the most when having fun. When children are motivated, they absorb and remember more information. Simply spending time together doing activities that you know your child will enjoy will improve your bilingual children’s language skills with very little effort. Let your child take the lead and show you what they like to do, and make it into a learning experience.

Chontelle Bonfiglio is a certified ESL teacher, writer, and creator of Bilingual Kidspot, a website offering practical advice for parents raising bilingual or multilingual children. She is also a mother of two bilingual children. You can follow her on Facebook for more information on Bilingual Parenting.