Bilingual = Biliterate?


If bilingualism is the ability to be able to use two or more languages, is literacy a necessary part of this? Do you need to be able to read and write a language to qualify as “bilingual”? And if you would like your children to be literate in two or more languages, how do you get there?

The answer to the first question – Is literacy necessary for bilingualism – is “not really”. People all over the world speak two or more languages, and are literate in only one, or even none. It is not necessary to be literate to be bilingual. However, literacy does make it easier to maintain a language, especially if you live outside a community of practice. Literacy brings you access to a host of ways to gather passive input (reading) and use a language (writing) that may not be available to you if you are not surrounded by speakers of this language. Reading is also one of the best ways to grow vocabulary in a language, so if a child has little daily exposure (in form of oral input) to a language, being able to read will help them acquire a better vocabulary, and therefore be able to use the language better.
So for parents raising bilingual children, literacy is always a good goal for at least two of their languages. That said, is there a “best practice” way to get there? The answer to this question is “not really”. There are many routes to biliteracy, and which one is right for your child depends on the languages in question, your situation, and of course, your child. One important point to remember is that there is no evidence that *simultaneous* biliteracy (learning to read in two or more languages at the same time) is better than sequential biliteracy. Children can and do learn to read in the second (or subsequent) language any time from months to years after learning to read and write in the first language. So, there is no need to pressure or overload a child to achieve literacy in both languages early on in schooling. In my opinion, if there are no clear benefits to simultaneous biliteracy, then it is (generally) better to wait until the child is comfortably literate in the school language before formally beginning literacy training in the second language.
Why? Simply because if they don’t need to work that hard, why make them? Once a child has gained literacy skills in one language, presuming the alphabets are the same, literacy in the other language comes quite easily. Even if alphabets are different, a lot of the basics of literacy are the same, so the second will still come more easily. My kids are in a school where they are learning to read in the class language (English) in the same year, and at the same time as they are learning to read in their registered “mother tongue” (French). I watch them go through this process, and compare it to my older daughter, who learned to read in the school language first (French) and then one day picked up a book and read it in English. The whole process was so much easier for my older daughter. Despite the fact that my twins *are* doing it – learning to read in two languages at the same time – I think it is harder than it needs to be.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Cummins about this (notice the linguistic-geek name-dropping… 🙂 ) and his opinion (which I respect greatly) is that it is fine for kids to learn to read in the school language and mother tongue at the same time. But as hard as I try, I can’t equate “fine”, with “the right thing”. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean they should have to – it makes that critical first year of schooling so much harder. For parents with children in an early-literacy school system (literacy before the age of six) this is an even more important point. Children work very hard to learn to read and write, even when it is taught at the “right” age (6-7 years old). Why make our kids work so much harder than necessary, and in the meantime impact their enjoyment of school and learning, for no good reason? Because if we go back to the bottom line, learning to read in the second language later leads to the same academic outcomes – not better, not worse!

So my top points for parents who want to achieve biliteracy for their children are these:

1. Prioritize actual literacy in the school language first.
2. Do lots of literacy-type activities in the other language(s) – reading out loud, alphabet/writing system play, writing play.
3. Have a plan for how you will help your child become literate in the other language.
4. Remember that reading and writing should be fun for kids – they need to learn in a positive way, when they are cognitively ready.
5. Don’t tell Jim Cummins I disagree with him…

6 thoughts on “Bilingual = Biliterate?

  1. Marnie de Koning says:

    I have a question about literacy. Does being bilingual have an effect on the level of reading comprehension a child can achieve in one or both languages? I have heard that bilingual children score at the elementary school level generally lower scores in reading comprehension tests then monolingual kids. Jasper reads like crazy but still struggles to get top marks on Dutch reading comprehension tests. We are now trying to decide if he should go to a tto school (english-dutch) for high school or a regular dutch one and I am worried that if he chooses tto that he might later struggle more with reading comprehension in complex dutch texts since he will be practicing less. Any advice?

    • eacrisfield says:

      Hi Marnie! I don’t know of any convincing research that shows a persistent delay in reading comprehension. Younger bilinguals often have differentiated vocabulary in their two languages which can be linked to reading issues, but Jasper should be past that by now. Have you had him work with a reading tutor? Some kids (strangely, often kids who love to read) need to be taught to slow down and read accurately, not just quickly.
      In terms of schools, TTO is often a great choice for kids like Jasper, if your goal is for them to be able to eventually work/study in both languages. In the early years when the curriculum is mainly in English he could have a lag in Dutch skills (depending on what the school does with Dutch, and what you do at home), but his English will improve greatly. So really, you have to consider what your long-term goals are for his languages, and then which school would be the best fit. Happy to chat about it if you have time for a tea!

      • Marnie de Koning says:

        Thanks Eowyn! Good to know. Its a tough decision that we are going to make together with Jasper’s input since, of course, he is the one who is going to have to live with this decision for the next 6 years. I can see the advantages but now that I teach Dutch kids in English (most of whom have just done a havo diploma in Dutch) it is amazing to see how good their English is – mostly from watching films, playing video games and listening to music! So I don’t think I have to worry too much if he chooses for the Dutch only school. But it would be nice to be able to help him with his homework for a change (if he chooses TTO!)

  2. Michelle says:

    In our case in France where schools teach literacy late, i.e. after 6 yrs of age, it was definitely best to start reading in the mother tongue (English) first. My daughter was ready to start when she was 4yrs old, so we did English flashcards, then easy reading books and she is now reading fluently in English….and French and Breton (her school language) as a result. She will only officially be taught to read at school in September when she is 6.5. I hope to be able to do the same for my son who is just approaching 4yrs old, he is just showing interest in rhyming words and learning his letter sounds. We have never pushed them and I’m confident we’ll be able to do the same with him as he still has 2.5yrs before he starts learning to read at school.

  3. Dalia says:

    Thank you for the post! It’s excellent! I am sure Jim Cummins can appreciate this perspective 🙂

    My son learned to read in Russian first when he was five (based on his extra-curriculum school’s recommendation, which sounds a bit pushy to me now). Russian is a very phonetic language, so once he acquired the blending principle, he was well on his way. One day a few months later he surprised my reading a sentence in English without having had any explicit reading instruction in his regular American school. What a great example of transferring his literacy skills from one language to another!


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