I’m going to the British School of Amsterdam tomorrow, to do a workshop on literacy strategies with the Early Years’ teachers. So, today I have literacy on my mind.
All children need to learn to read and write, in at least one language. That said, should all bilingual children learn to read and write in all the languages they speak, and if so, how?
Generally speaking, it’s best for a child to learn to read and write in the home language first, as it is usually the strongest language. However, in cases where the children are going to school in a second language, they should learn to read and write in the school language first. Many schools these days introduce literacy very early – before some/most children are cognitively ready to learn to read and write. With the push towards early academics, kids are now learning to read and write in what used to be kindergarten. This means that they have a hard job already, and it’s made harder if they are learning in a language they don’t master. While many children can handle the demands of becoming literate in two languages at once, there is no real research evidence that this option offers significant benefits to the child. On the flip side, there are no demonstrated negative effects to learning to read first in one language and then in the next. For this reason, I usually advise parents who have children becoming literate in the school language to wait until their children are confident readers before introducing literacy in the home language.
This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t read to their children in the home language, or respond to requests for information about reading/writing in the home language, it just means that they don’t need to sit them down every day and do reading/writing exercises in the home language.
Generally, once a child is a successful reader in one language, they will begin to read in the other on their own. The act of reading is the same in languages that share reading/writing conventions, so all the child needs to learn is how sounds work. My older daughter began to read at school in French, and within six months she was choosing to read in English. I didn’t need to help her with her reading skills at all, but I do need to help her with her English spelling now!