A. It depends!

One of the key factors in successful bilingualism-for-life is being able to read and write a language. Parents pass down a language mainly orally, which is a natural pattern of language use in a family. Trying to teach your children to read and write in your language is not always easy, and not always a good idea! Many parents turn to “Saturday schools” (or Sunday) in order to provide their children with formal tuition in their language, especially to learn to read and write. But these schools, although with the best motivations in the world, often do more to turn children off using their language and than to tune them in. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. Inappropriate curriculum and materials: The most common source of teaching materials for these classes is materials that are imported from the home country of the language, and are designed to be used with children who are living and being educated in the language full time. For children living outside the country and being schooled in other languages, they are simply setting the bar too high. It’s very unlikely that these children will have the same vocabulary level as monolingual native speakers, and they won’t have the same amount of exposure to academic language either. Using these materials to support children who are growing up as bilinguals requires careful selection, adaptation and differentiation, and the level of language and needs of each child in the class will be different.
  2. Pedagogical style: This is especially the case for children who are being schooled in international schools. The goal of many of these Saturday schools is to get as much into the 2-3 hour lesson as possible, and is often focused on teacher delivery and student practice. In particular, languages with a different script or a strong literary tradition tend to be taught in very form-focused ways, which is different from the child-centred learning in many international schools. This difference in pedagogy can cause children to not want to attend or to associate their home language with “boring” ways to spend a weekend day.

There are no clear and easy answers for how to provide a solid basis in home language literacy in a once a week class. From my perspective, the most important role of a Saturday school is to expose children to peers that speak their language and share their cultures. If they can instill a love of the language and an interest in the stories, this is an important first step. Reading aloud, and engaging in the language through storytelling will show children that their home language can be interesting and engaging, without being boring. A strong programme built on reading, first by the teachers and then eventually, by students, will help build their vocabulary and their sense of the written structures of the language. Each child should be allowed to progress at their own pace, with the understanding that the children who are learning to read and write in the school language are already working hard! Opportunities to play in the language across different contexts and with a focus on school-type topics will allow the children to develop their vocabulary as well, which is key to successful literacy.

The bottom line is that literacy doesn’t have to be fully acquired at the same age it would be at “home”; it’s a journey for children that will take perhaps longer but can lead to the same results in the end. At all points, the main goal is that the children enjoy their Saturday (or Sunday) classes and feel comfortable and at home in their language.