Teaching a multilingual child to read and write

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Why I am teaching my 4-year old to read and write

When to teach your child to read is definitely a hard decision. I have heard arguments on both sides of the spectrum (“They’re not ready until they’re around 7 years old” vs. ”You should start as early as possible otherwise they won’t learn it properly and will hate reading”). I used to lean towards the “let them be kids first” side, and I still think it’s just good to wait until your child is ready.

So it came as a great surprise when my then 1,5 year old daughter came to me and asked me what’s that on my T-shirt. “That’s an “O”- I explained. The “O” was shortly followed by “A”, “E”, and generally other vowels.

Be led by the child

She wanted to know more and more letters, and we shortly considered how to do this. She speaks three languages, but with letters, she would be confused. For example, she would point to the letter “T” and say “tata”-Polish for daddy, and then show my husband the same letter and say “papa”! So we devised a list of words that would start with the same letter in both our languages. Names were the easiest, but we figured out some more words- for example we had “K is for Klara”, J was for Julia”, “M was for mama”, and “T was for tiger” (tygrys in Polish, Tiger in German), and so on.

We started teaching her numbers, too. Letters took more time, but she could count to 10 in Polish before I knew it, and then she learned the same in German with my husband. She also learned to count to 10 in Dutch at daycare.

Even though I was worried at first (she’s supposed to be playing! And be a child!), I actually enjoyed doing this. I found myself spending a lot of quality time with her, and her vocabulary increased, to finally explode around 3 years of age. Her interest in letters came and went, to surface back at the same time.

An aid to pronunciation

But there was another reason behind our decision to teach our daughter to read and write. Her speech wasn’t as clear as it should have been. I hoped that recognising the sounds separately from each other rather than mixed together as words and sentences would help her pronunciation. And it did.

I started reading about the different methods of learning to read, for example the global method. I found arts and crafts connected to learning letters, and tried to do them with her. It was fun, but it was always short-lived, for both of us. I am no crafter, so I turned to technology. My father gave me his old tablet, and I downloaded lots of fun apps and games in Polish. She loves them! With the iPad, her interest in reading and writing has increased. I also let her type on my computer. She can read and type (and write) several words, including her name, her sister’s name, “mama”, “papa” and “tata”. If I tell her how to spell something, by telling her the letters (M-I-L-K), she can write that, too. She has recently “written” her name in colourful blocks-each letter had a different colour, and she remembered to use white for the two A’s in her name. Whatever I’m doing, it seems to be working.

For my 2-year old, it started with the same t-shirt, and I didn’t even hesitate. She plays with her older sister on the iPad, and also knows several letters. She is also learning to count. Having a big sister is great help, too! I don’t expect them to read and write just now and that’s OK. This can wait. I just want them to have fun and learn at their own pace.

However, I believe that all parents have their reasons to introduce certain activities at a certain age and these are mine. What about you? Did you start teaching to read and write early, or did you wait? What were your reasons behind your decision?

By Olga Mecking

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  1. Pingback: Dear daughter, don’t slow down | BLUNTmoms
  2. There are so many variables in the equation of when to start teaching a child to read that there can not possibly be one answer that would be the right one for every child. First of all the language itself – I am just thinking of the differences between Finnish and English – in Finnish every sound is represented by one letter and each letter is always pronounced the same (with only very few exceptions). Don’t start me on English – everyone knows how difficult English spelling is. My eldest daughter learnt to speak Finnish early and was very curious about letters. We had an alphabet puzzle that she loved, and she enjoyed showing me the different letters and hearing me say different sounds. It didn’t take her long to learn all the sounds and from there it was a very short step to putting the sounds together and starting to read. I must say, i don’t even remember teaching her, she just asked for some help now and then and started to read on her own when she was about four. At five years of age she was reading stories to her friends at nursery. Could or should I have stopped her? No, I can’t see why I should have. Would the situation have been the same if our language had been English? Probably not. Then there is the child’s personality. My daughter liked quiet play and loved books long before she could read, she would just sit and look at the pictures. Would the situation been the same had she been a more lively child always on the move? Probably not. She was also very patient and could concentrate on tasks early on – again, a shorter attention span would probably have meant that she would have started to read later. My second daughter learnt to speak considerably later and I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to teach her to read before she went to school. Today both of them are bilinguals and avid readers.
    I definitely believe in letting your child lead you. We also have to remember that research results about children learning to read are the average of the findings from many different children – and there might not even be a child that learns the “average” way.

  3. I started around 4 months with simple YouTube videos (kidstv123) and being a first time mum, didn’t expect or know much. However by the time he was 18 months he could point to letters and numbers. His speech took a little longer, could be a boy thing. It when he did start to talk, it was as clear as anything. Multilingual children absorb languages fast and ( Here comes the English teacher) so no parent should worry about speech and language delay until the age of 6. A child who can speak different languages is uses lots more of his/her brain and the delay or hesitation is the thinking part taking over. The brain is literally translating the words into two or three languages to ensure meaning. My little one is now 3, he is learning to read but it is all at his own pace.

    The YouTube videos were just a way to get a hot coffee or do a quick chore, it was never meant to be pushy mum. I have recommend it to all my other new mums friends and they too can report they have enjoyed a hot cuppa.

  4. Olga, I like your approach to early learning. I didn’t do this with my children, not to that extent. I didn’t “teach” them the letters, the sounds, also because they are exposed to three (sometimes four) different languages and the sounds don’t sound all the same… At their school they’re introducing sounds very early (around 3-4 years old) in a playing way: singing and imitating the sounds etc. and this seemed to me the best way to make them realize the differences (i.e. between “t” and “d”: that is not so big and significant in German as it is in Italian, English etc.). As we did always read stories in all the languages to them, they also started to ask “why is that word written like that?”. They realized pretty fast that the in “Schule” (German), “School” (Dutch) and “school” (English) is written the same way, but pronounced differently… I made lists with those “soundchains” for them, but we didn’t really “study” them or I didn’t “teach” it to them. I only explained them that “mum says Schule”, “Mrs. x says school” and “L. says School”. At that stage – around 4-5 years – this was more logical for me than to sit down and really teach them the single sounds, letters.
    When they started reading, first in English, then in Dutch and German (almost simultaneously) this all came very naturally.
    The same with the counting: the English differs from the Dutch and German, as you know. And my children still get confused sometimes when they have to write down quickly a number I’m telling them in German, it’s the wrong way round. They’re teached Maths in English, so we usually talk English now that the equations etc. are more complex. In the beginning I did talk German to them to make sure that they did understand everything, but I soon realized that they did memorize the concepts in their school-language and this was ok for me. As long as they can explain it with their own words and their own paste (!) if they need it in the other languages, I’m fine with this.

  5. This is something I’ve really struggled with. For a long time I just didn’t feel my daughter was showing any signs of being ready. Now she seems to be but she gets frustrated so easily. It doesn’t help that the french “i” is the same sound as the english “e”. I’ve thought about just teaching her to read in one language but we alternate days and letters just come up in both so it would be difficult to avoid it.

    Another thing that seems to be difficult for her is the concept of ‘consonant sound’ say like p-sound + vowel. It feels like that is something that eventually clicks vs just repetition. Sort of how the puzzle pieces go together. Also she also really struggles with similar letters that are reflections or upside down. I’ve had her write her name completely backwards – I could hold it in front of a mirror to read without even realising there was something wrong with it. I hear that is developmental and she should grow out of it but she is nearly six.

    Personally I am quite happy to wait, but sometimes the pressure around me, particularly from friends who have kids in British system schools where they start reading really early sometimes wears me down and makes me wonder if I should be pushing more. And now her younger sister seems to be approaching reading readiness much earlier.

    One last thing, I’ve wanted to avoid technology/ipad and stuff for teaching reading but I am starting to reconsider. If anyone has any good recommendations for apps in English/French and even Spanish, I’d be all ears. She knows her letters so we are really at the next phase of sounds and sounding stuff out.

  6. This is a great read as we are going through something similar. We didn’t have any real plan to teach our 2.5-year-old son to read, but he was so enthusiastic about the letters in his name we had to let him lead. He can now type his name and whenever he sees any of the letters from his name on a t-shirt or a sign he shouts them out at the top of his voice. We’re going to let him decide what he wants to do next, but he has already shown an interest in some apps I have downloaded as well as some letter stickers we had knocking about the house.

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