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Are Your Bilingual Kids Writing Letters in the Minority Language?

May 14, 2014

Are Your Bilingual Kids Writing Letters in the Minority Language?

I’ll admit it: my kids have a love-hate relationship with writing letters. They love receiving them, but they hate writing them. I wish this wasn’t the case—it would make my life a lot easier if I didn’t have to expend so much energy getting them to produce these letters for grandparents and others—but I suppose it isn’t realistic to think that the average child under the age of ten would be any more enthusiastic about it. I mean, they love their grandparents in the United States, but producing a decent handwritten letter is hard work for a small child.

Still, I persist, and have persisted in this practice since they were even smaller because I view writing letters as an important part of their language and literacy development. Given the fact that they attend a Japanese public school (our majority language), which makes opportunities to write in English (our minority language) pretty limited, these letter exchanges are pivotal, really, to sustain their progress. (They do a little writing as part of our homework routine each day, which forms the core of our work on literacy, but this wouldn’t be enough by itself.)

The merits of writing letters

Letter-writing not only has the virtue of nurturing literacy in the minority language, it promotes broader awareness of the world and richer relationships with family members and friends. Communicating via other means, such as Skype, is certainly valuable in this respect, and as a way to stretch oral skills (see 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents and A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language), but only a letter-writing exchange will directly impact literacy development and generate a boxful of precious keepsakes: the letters received and saved for years to come. (I don’t know about you, but we aren’t in the habit of recording our Skype calls! :mrgreen: )

Also, I think there’s a key difference between the kinds of ties that can be created orally and through writing. For instance, when children exchange letters with grandparents, they can explore more thoughtful topics that don’t typically arise in conversation, such as the grandparents’ memories of their own childhood. (I encourage my kids to pose such questions to their grandparents, particularly in connection with experiences in their own young lives. They recently began taking piano lessons, for example, so expressing curiosity toward their grandparents’ early encounters with music is only natural.) In this way, children—and, particularly, children who don’t often have the chance to see their grandparents in person (like us, I’m afraid)—can learn more about their family roots and even receive hard-won wisdom from their elders.

Let me add one more important aspect of writing letters, at least from my personal point of view. The truth is, writing and receiving handwritten letters was a huge, heartfelt part of my childhood and my youth—it was a major factor in my own literacy development, too—and I think it’s a great shame that email and other forms of electronic communication have basically killed off this experience for us all. I have no illusions that letter-writing will hold such a central place in the lives of my kids, but I’d like them to at least taste its pleasures and become reasonably competent at crafting one.

Lord Byron on letter writing

Our current exchanges

Currently, our most active letter-writing exchanges are with family members: my father, my mother, and my nephew (their cousin, who’s the same age as Lulu and whose letters also serve as a helpful barometer of the writing level we seek).

At the same time, we’ve managed to maintain, with less regularity, exchanges with three other families: two of these families are friends with children of similar ages, and the other—actually, our very first exchange, with Lulu from age five—was born when I saw a family’s appeal for a pen-pal for their daughter in a Yahoo list. They live in the United States, but were looking for an English-speaking pen-pal who lives in Japan. (Though the girls no longer write to each other as regularly as they once did, they still send little packages of gifts from time to time, like at birthdays and at Christmas. Don’t underestimate the power of presents when it comes to motivating kids to pick up their pencils and keep writing!)

So far, the richest, most reliable exchanges have involved grandparents and other family members. Grandparents, especially, have a vested interest in writing regularly (they love their grandchildren and are eager to get letters from them!) and thus make ideal partners for an exchange. In our case, my parents are good about writing back promptly, and I try to stay pretty timely on this end, too, which means that my kids are writing letters to them (separately, since they live in different locations) every four to six weeks.

The letter-writing process

As with so much of the bilingual journey, the task of writing letters involves matching your efforts as effectively as you can to your particular circumstances and your individual children. The only “right way” is the way that works best for you and your kids.

Here, though, is what I’ve done to date. Perhaps my example will serve as a useful model that can be shaped to your own situation and needs.

If you begin the practice of letter-writing early—say around age five—it becomes easier to maintain through the rest of childhood because the habit is then set for both you and your children. (I make the same argument about the habit of daily homework in the minority language in Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine.)

The exchange doesn’t even have to begin with much language: when the child is still small, the first step might involve drawing pictures. You can then elicit a description or story to accompany the picture and write the child’s ideas on the back or on a separate sheet of paper.

When the child is also able to write some words, have her label the picture. Simply write down the words she needs, and ask her to copy them.

As the child gains more ability, and endurance, shift the emphasis from drawing to writing. Have her dictate a short letter to you (while coaching her through the content), then ask her to copy the letter onto a fresh sheet of paper. (At this stage, I use children’s “handwriting practice paper,” with wide lines, to help with penmanship. Just search the term for your target language, and you’ll no doubt find something suitable to download and print out.) After the letter is ready, the child can add illustrations in empty parts of the paper.

When the child seems capable of writing more independently, gently try weaning her away from dictation. Ask her, instead, to produce a rough first draft on her own. Have her read the letter from the exchange partner, make a numbered list of the things she’d like to include in her reply (starting with the greeting and ending with the closing), and then write freely, without feeling overly concerned about mechanics at that point. (With my daughter, I stress effort, not perfection.)

Once the child has written the letter, and proofread it for errors she might catch on her own, sit down with her and rewrite it in your own hand, editing and expanding as you go. As at younger ages, then have the child copy this letter over for the final draft, but this time on real stationery.

For a child, this transition to writing an independent first draft can feel daunting. Because it takes considerably more effort than before, she may resist and demand that you continue taking dictation for her. My daughter (age eight at the time) put up several tearful fights over this before finally accepting the fact that she would now have to write these first drafts on her own. If resistance occurs in your case, too, be patient but persevering.

Your support for the letter-writing process should involve a gradual evolution toward independence, in line with the child’s growing age and ability. In another year or two, for example, I expect that Lulu will be capable of writing and rewriting the letters by herself, with my guidance. And when she’s a teen, I hope she can continue these exchanges entirely on her own. But during the younger years, I think strategic uses of “scaffolding” (like dictating and copying) are needed.

I know some may disagree about the extent to which I use copying, but I believe (especially given the limited amount of time we have for writing practice) that the drafts I help prepare for my kids serve as useful models for teaching form and usage. At the same time, this sort of procedure makes it easier for them to produce the letters, which enables us to sustain the letter-writing habit over its longer-term evolution toward increasing independence.

Along with sharing recent events and experiences, children should be encouraged to respond to questions and pose questions of their own. The use of questions is one of the best ways of creating meaningful interaction and, when it comes to grandparents, learning about their youthful experiences. (In fact, through the letters fluttering back and forth between my kids and their grandparents, I’ve even discovered things about my own parents that I hadn’t known before!)

To motivate the letter-writing task, I try to remind my kids how happy the recipients will feel when they get these letters. Since my children feel this way themselves, when they receive mail, I think it helps them appreciate the value of their work and bear the effort required. (And, when necessary, the promise of a little treat when the letter is finished can be motivating, too!)

Finding pen-pals

Because our pen-pals mostly consist of family and friends, I’m afraid I can’t offer much advice for finding pen-pals through other avenues. However, I mentioned that our first pen-pal came as a result of a connection made through a Yahoo list, so perhaps you could try a similar appeal through an appropriate community.

You would be welcome, too, to make your appeal for a pen-pal in a comment below, specifying the gender and age of your child, and the target language for a letter-writing exchange. Parents with this desire would then be free to reply to your comment, expressing their interest. Although direct messages can’t be sent through this site, I would be glad to play matchmaker behind the scenes and help put families in touch. (In case you’re wondering, I should add that we won’t be able to begin any new exchanges of our own at the moment. We have our hands full just maintaining our current exchanges!)

Keeping a letter-writing exchange alive definitely takes effort, from both parents and children, but I believe the payoff in stronger language development, broader awareness of the world, and richer relationships makes the investment of time and energy well worth it. Happy writing! :mrgreen:

How about you? Is letter-writing a regular part of your family’s lifestyle? If not, would it be beneficial to establish one or more exchanges (starting with grandparents or other extended family members, if this is a possibility)?

1 Melissa May 18, 2014 at 2:53 am

Hello, we would be interested in finding pen pals whose majority language is French. My children are English speaking, and trying to learn French. They LOVE writing letters. I have a boy (age 10), boy (age 7), Girl (age 4) and a girl (age 3). I am bilingual French and English. Thank you.

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2 Adam May 19, 2014 at 10:57 am

If anyone out there is interested in some eager pen-pals in French, just leave a reply here for Melissa and I can put you in touch! (Melissa, I would welcome any tips for getting my kids to enjoy writing letters more! Is it just a difference of personality, or do you somehow handle letter-writing differently with your children, which makes them feel more positively toward it?)

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3 Melissa May 19, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Hi Adam,

I’m not sure why they enjoy letter writing so much. We treat it as “craft time”. I pull out the stickers, markers, crayons, fancy paper. But other than that, they have to copy the words that I write out (for the younger ones) and try to sound out the words/sentences for the older ones. I haven’t tried doing drafts yet, that is a good idea I will try for my older children. I also encourage them to ask and answer questions in their letters and to express their feelings.

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4 Adam May 20, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Melissa, thanks for sharing more about your letter-writing time. I think I need to try harder to make the process more enjoyable for my kids, and bringing in new tools and materials could be one way to liven up a pretty dry routine. In any event, writing the post, and this exchange, has helped me see that I should give some careful thought to this so they can come to view letter-writing in a more positive light.

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5 Alice May 19, 2014 at 2:35 am

Adam, this is a great post that promotes literacy. We’ve used letter writing (especially postcards) as part of our routines. It’s one solid and tangible way to maintain relationships with extended family when living abroad.

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6 Adam May 19, 2014 at 11:10 am

Thank you for your comment, Alice. Yes, postcards are something I should probably make better use of with my own kids. Given the limited time we have for letters, and their reluctance at this larger challenge, postcards could be one way to address these conditions and keep them writing, even more regularly.

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7 Emilia May 19, 2014 at 8:18 am

Dear Adam,

This is so true, letter writing is just a great practice for a child. However my little one is only 10 months but trust me, letter writing in order to keep in touch with family abroad will be on the agenda. My little angel will grow up to be trilingual (Polish, Urdu & English). So please keep sharing your great ideas and practices.

Also before I forget I wanted to thank you for the list of books about how to bring up trilingual child that you have mentioned in one of your posts. I have managed to get them from amazon and I’m currently scanning through them. I’m already collecting resources in my languages as it’s never too early to start.

Regards,

Emilia

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8 Adam May 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

Emilia, with your good efforts, I expect your little one will grow to become an accomplished letter writer in three languages! (But about that post with a list of books about raising trilingual children, I’m not sure which one you mean… Was this on my blog, or maybe it was another blog? If it’s mine, I’m afraid I’ll have to blame my poor memory on my aging brain! :mrgreen: )

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9 Peter May 19, 2014 at 5:19 pm

Hi Adam,

As always, I very much enjoyed reading your latest post. Thanks again for your great advice and inspiration. I have very fond memories myself of receiving letters from my German pen-pal when I was younger, it just made language learning more enjoyable and indeed useful for me growing up in an English speaking country.

Bringing up my bilingual children in France, and despite the enormous advantages of language learning in our Digital Age, I believe that the power of writing is infinite. Whenever an unexpected postcard or birthday invitation is delivered in the post my kids go crazy with excitement.

I’m not sure if it’s the same in other countries but here in France school children keep a “cahier de vie” or activity diary in which they can write about what they did during school hours and also during the weekend or school holidays. It’s a great way of improving writing skills and of course reporting to school friends the great things you got up to at home! So writing to a pen-pal in the minority language (English for my children) would be an ideal benefit for them to continue what they regularly write already. My girls are 7 and 5 and are bilingual French and English.

Keep up the good work Adam, have a great week.

Peter

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10 Adam May 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Peter, I always appreciate your kind and helpful comments.

Writing well in the second language is the “final frontier” of the bilingual journey, and though reading in that language has a great deal to do with developing writing skill, it’s still necessary to get them picking up a pencil regularly to practice. I wish we had more time for this, because I’m not really satisfied with the amount of writing we do, but I’m not sure it’s possible for us to write “enough” in the minority language as long as they attend a majority language school. Nevertheless, I’ll continue doing what I realistically can, given our current constraints, and I know progress will still be made, little by little, over time.

Cheers to you and your girls!

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11 Maria Babin (Trilingual Mama) June 5, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Excellent tips!

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12 Adam June 6, 2014 at 5:53 am

Thank you, Maria! I hope all is well at trilingualmama.com!

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13 Nancy July 5, 2014 at 6:34 am

Thanks for another great post!

It also brought back memories of my beloved pen pals when I was a child. My mum was the one encouraging us to keep in touch with children around the world in order to practice writing in English.

Thirty years later I find myself encouraging my own children 4 and 7 to do the same thing, this time in a trilingual household. We mainly speak Spanish at home, my husband speaks Arabic to them but we live in England. Recently my son’s best friend went back to his country, South Africa, and it’s encouraging to see that he wants to keep in touch through letters, postcards and through sending little gifts. For the Spanish practice we are lucky to have a special friend in Peru whose education we support through a sponsorship programme. He is around the same age as my son and we get to exchange letters and drawings every couple of months. My son knows this little boy wouldn’t understand English so he knows he has to make an effort to communicate his adventures in Spanish as he is also curious about the adventures (more like an update) that comes back to us when we get mail in Spanish from him. Arabic will be coming soon in September when both my children will be starting Arabic Saturday school. I hope they like it! Though writing in Arabic will probably be their biggest challenge yet!

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14 Adam July 5, 2014 at 8:21 am

Nancy, it sounds like letter-writing is an integral part of your family’s lifestyle. Good for you! (And good wishes for continuing success with the three languages!)

Also, your comment serves as a helpful reminder for me because in the back of my mind I’ve been wanting to connect my kids with a child in need somewhere in the world. So thanks for putting this in the front of my mind! :mrgreen:

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