Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Reading

What strategies can you use to nurture strong reading skills and a love for literacy? These posts offer helpful ideas!

Look How Far We've Come On Our Bilingual Journey (And How Far You Can Go, Too)

Now that my daughter is in junior high school, and nearly a teen, I’d like to offer you a special peek at the progress my kids have made to date in their minority language. (For those who need a bit more context, we live in Hiroshima, Japan and my kids attend local Japanese schools, which means that Japanese is our majority language and English is our minority language.)

The idea for this post arose the other day when we bought a new desk for Lulu (to encourage her to study hard in junior high!) and had to overhaul the room that, until now, had always been our “play room.” After revamping it, and removing old toys and books—Roy inherited Lulu’s old desk and will get to choose his own new desk when he enters junior high, too—we rechristened this space the “study room.”

In fact, among the things I relocated from this room was a huge stack of workbooks and journals that have been part of our long-running homework routine to nurture literacy—and overall proficiency—in the minority language.

The full details on our daily homework routine can be found in Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1 and Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2 so I won’t go over that ground again here. Instead, I’d simply like to share samples of my children’s work—scanned right from these workbooks and journals—so you can see, very concretely, how far their language ability has progressed over the years as a result of the ranging efforts I describe at this blog and in my book.

I hope these images will help convey the crucial point that success on the bilingual journey is a function of daily diligence and long-term perseverance—and that this outcome can be realized by any determined family that makes the bilingual aim a top priority.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Today is World Read Aloud Day! To mark this occasion, Gabriela Simmons has written a lively guest post which stresses the importance of reading aloud and shares useful ideas for this practice. In my case, reading aloud has been at the very heart of my efforts for 20 years, with both my students and my own children, and I’ve experienced the power of this daily routine first-hand. Gaby, thank you for shining a spotlight on one of my favorite topics! :mrgreen:

How to Make the Most of Reading Aloud to Your Kids in Two or More Languages

Gabriela Simmons is the mother of two active, sometimes nerve-wracking, but always amazing trilingual pre-teens (German, English, and Spanish). She was born and raised in Peru then moved to the United States for the last two years of high school and university. She later met her German husband in France while earning her masters degree. They have been living in Hong Kong for nearly 10 years.

Gaby is the co-founder of TimTimTom, an online book publisher that has launched its first bilingual storybook: a personalized book printed in the two languages of your choice. For more information on this unique bilingual book, see https://timtimtom.com.

Gabriela SimmonsIn our home, we have a rule: “One more book, bought or borrowed, is always okay.” Things like clothes and candy, they have their limits, but when it comes to books, we can never have too many.

Reading aloud to children is extremely important for their language development, and this is even more true when the child is growing up in a bilingual family and needs ample input in the minority language. In daily conversation, we tend to use the same limited range of vocabulary over and over. Because of this fact, books are an incredibly helpful tool when it comes to building a broader vocabulary.

But reading aloud is not only about expanding vocabulary and fueling language development. There are also important psychological and emotional benefits for you and your child. This aspect should not be underestimated.

Think of the read aloud experience: You and your child are snuggled up together as you read a colorful book and describe the illustrations. The child has questions and you pause to explain. The story sparks new ideas in the child’s mind, and may prompt a stream of comments or a wave of laughter. It might even enable you to talk about your cultural heritage and foster pride in your family’s roots.

All these elements of the experience strengthen the bond between you and your child while promoting their progress in the target language.

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How I Got My Bilingual Daughter to Eagerly Do Her Homework in the Minority Language

This post is my promised update on the contest I held last month, and I’ll now reveal the tactic I used to address my 12-year-old daughter’s reluctance to using our minority language dictionary when doing her daily homework. (The contest yielded two winning guesses, from Lauren in the U.S. and Heidi in Germany, who will each receive a surprise package of little prizes from Hiroshima, Japan.)

In case you missed my post about the contest, here again is the background behind it, and the problem I posed…


The background

Basically, the contest posed the same problem I recently experienced with my 12-year-old daughter. The challenge, in this case, was her reluctance to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary, despite being able to use it.

Here’s the thing: The bilingual journey is a continuous stream of challenges like this, throughout the length of childhood, and our greater success depends on how effectively we’re able to address them. While there are times it’s fine to force the outcome we desire (like if I simply continued to insist that Lulu open the dictionary), I suggest that the more effective move, whenever possible, involves a more thoughtful approach, a more creative tactic.

For example, ideally, I don’t just want Lulu to use the dictionary because I tell her to, I want her to actually feel some internal motivation to use it. In other words, when faced with challenges like this, the better objective in considering our course of action is twofold: we want to produce the desired outcome, yes, but moreover, we want the child to genuinely feel engaged and positive about the experience itself. Because when the child feels this way, our efforts are more effective not only for the immediate challenge, but in fact fortify our longer-term success by making her more engaged and positive, overall, about the minority language.

This is why I persistently stress the idea of staying playful and creative in our efforts, at least to the degree we reasonably can, and I try to offer lots of ideas in this direction. Not only does this make the process more fun and joyful for both the child and the parent, day by day, it actually enables us to be more effective and more successful over the whole length of the bilingual journey.

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ADAM’S NOTE: Have you ever wondered about the value of bilingual books? This is a common question, and one that I’m so glad to have author Delia Berlin respond to in this guest post. From her thoughtful perspective, she gracefully explains the many ways bilingual books can be beneficial in the home and classroom. Thank you, Delia, for your insight—this is a post that I will now point to whenever this question is asked.

A Writer’s Perspective on the Value of Bilingual Books for Children, Families, and Schools

Delia Berlin grew up in Argentina and Brazil, but spent her adult life in the U.S. state of Connecticut. Her professional career focused on education and administration. With graduate degrees in both Physics and Family Studies, she also worked in early intervention and taught child development at the college level. While living in three countries, Delia’s world view was influenced by the need to navigate different cultures. Throughout her life, friendships with animals also shaped her learning and understanding of nature. For more information, visit www.deliaberlin.com or www.amazon.com/author/deliaberlin.

Delia BerlinInfancy and early childhood are critical periods for language development. During these periods, all children have their highest potential to learn multiple languages without special effort. When families have speakers of different languages, they have the opportunity to easily gift their children with a highly valued and useful competency. For these families and their children, bilingual books are very helpful tools to succeed in this effort.

Benefits for families

Reading to children from early infancy provides permanent benefits, both for children and for those who read to them. When a child enjoys that special interaction with a parent, the parent is rewarded, strengthening the long-term bond that raising a successful person will require. With children, early investment has the highest return. Lots of social stimulation and broad experiences in early childhood will increase curiosity, develop self-confidence, and make future learning easier.

Current research has confirmed that bilingual children learn faster, and that learning languages even supports other types of learning. The cognitive effects of bilingualism are positive through the entire lifespan, and even include protection against some forms of dementia in old age.

But most bilingual or multilingual families have some members who don’t speak all the languages in play. Different relatives will remain limited to communicating only in the languages they can speak. Accordingly, they will be able to read to children only in those languages.

Since books should be part of a child’s environment from infancy, finding enough of them at the appropriate levels in all the desired languages presents a challenge. In infancy, pictionaries are ideal for learning single words bilingually. These books can be used by anyone in the family, regardless of their own language. Since infants can’t read, they focus on the pictures and the accompanying sounds that adults make. Pictionaries are the perfect starting point for teaching labels in more than one language.

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The Larger Arc of Captive Reading—and Our Lives As Human Beings

For nearly a decade, I’ve pursued a strategy I call “captive reading” and this tactic has made a tremendous contribution to my children’s language and literacy development. At this point, as my children are getting a bit older (they’re now 12 and 9) and their ability in the minority language has reached a fairly advanced level, I’ve now taken what is probably the final step in my captive reading efforts, one I’ll try to sustain through the rest of their childhood.

But before I share that final step, let’s look back at the larger arc of this strategy since my daughter was 3. Obviously, from age 3 to age 12 there has been great growth in her language development and, in line with this growth, I’ve used a progression of captive reading forms and materials over the years.

Below is the broad chronology of my efforts, based on the main blog posts that have described these ideas. For full details, please turn to the original posts.

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A Fish in Foreign Waters

As parents of bilingual kids, one of our most important aims is nurturing a positive attitude toward the minority language. When a child feels that this language has value, that it benefits his or her life, our efforts to promote its growth can be far more effective. The reverse, I’m afraid, is also true, and if the child doesn’t feel much value in learning or using this language, the road ahead will be more difficult and less productive.

It’s like swimming with the current, or against it. (A fitting metaphor for the book I’m sharing today! :mrgreen: )

I’ve written several posts which involve this idea of instilling a sense of value in the minority language. You may want to return to these links after reading through this post (and entering the giveaway!)…

Getting a Bilingual Child to Feel the Value of the Minority Language

A Powerful Way to Inspire a Positive Attitude in Your Bilingual Child

The Power of Using the Minority Language to Help Others

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18 Ways to Get Bilingual Kids Using the Minority Language More in Your Car

In my last post, I shared a trip that we took to an old silver mining town in Japan, offering a number of photos and an important message about raising bilingual kids. (See Make History. Raise a Bilingual Child.)

As we were driving along, and playing little games in our minority language, it occurred to me that this might make a useful post:

What activities can parents pursue in the car to promote use of the target language and stretch language development?

Here, then, are 18 ideas that I hope will be helpful to your efforts. Some of the games can be played competitively, if you prefer, but I generally stick to non-competitive versions. (My kids have a tendency to break into warfare very quickly, and this is no fun at all inside a cramped car.)

1. Play Music
This is an obvious suggestion, but it’s worth pondering for a moment. Do you really have enough suitable music in the minority language? And do you play it regularly, in the car as well as at home? At the same time, are you consciously limiting the amount of music you play in the majority language? In my case, the only music we play in the car (and generally at home) is in English, our minority language. (If English is your target language, too, see Great Music for Kids and Great Christmas Music.)

2. Sing Songs
Of course, you can sing along with the music that you play. You can also sing songs to your kids and have them sing with you, when they’re able. (And no excuses about you sounding like a frog.) On our recent trip, I tried singing some rounds with my kids (like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) and, though giggling became a big part of it, it was time well spent.

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The "Home Run Book": A Key Idea for Promoting a Child’s Language Development

One of the recurrent themes of this blog has been my ongoing quest to inspire my bilingual daughter, now 11, to read more frequently in English, her minority language. Although it’s true that her free time is limited, due to long days at our local Japanese elementary school and heavy loads of homework, the deeper challenge is that she simply isn’t, by nature, as hungry a bookworm as her 8-year-old brother.

Still, because I adamantly believe that children who read more develop not only stronger literacy skills but stronger overall language ability, I’ve been determined, all along, to bring out whatever degree of hunger she feels for reading in English. It may be too much to expect that Lulu will become as avid a reader as Roy—and if that’s the case, I accept that—but it’s certainly possible to encourage and elevate this interest in strategic ways.

In previous posts, I’ve described my efforts to promote Lulu’s interest in reading independently, and the amount of time she spends with books and other texts:

These actions and others (in particular, our daily routines of reading aloud and doing homework in the minority language), have had a productive impact over the years: Lulu’s English level, in all skill areas, is on par with monolingual English children who attend English-speaking schools. (I don’t view this competitively, but since my aim for the minority language is native-like ability, the level of monolingual peers serves as our yardstick.)

Although maintaining this parity may be difficult beyond elementary school, assuming Lulu receives no formal schooling in English through junior high and high school, the fact that she’s now a competent reader is the key to achieving even higher levels of language proficiency. In other words, if I can just keep her reading as much as possible, I expect her English level will continue to grow well, despite the busy teen years in which her days will be devoted mostly to activities in Japanese.

And at the heart of all this is my endless search for “home run books.”

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The peppy puppy the prince presented the princess produced piles of poop in the palace.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t challenge my kids to repeat a tongue twister that emerges naturally from our interactions. The truth is, because tongue twisters are such a fun and effective form of engagement in the target language, my ears are continuously pricked for this opportunity.

22 Funny Tongue Twisters for KidsTwo examples, one older and one more recent…

1. When my son entered first grade, he chose a black backpack for school. Of course, it was hard to overlook the wonderful tongue-twisting appeal of “black backpack” and this has since become a familiar refrain over the past two years as he gets ready to leave the house in the morning.

2. The other day he was wearing a snazzy new soccer shirt and I pointed to it and said “Sharp shirt!” I wasn’t aiming for a tongue twister when I said this, but I jumped on it just the same: “Okay, say that ten times fast!” Roy, Lulu, and I gave it an enthusiastic try and failed miserably (Lulu’s attempts sounded more like “shup shup, shup shup”)…but these two little words successfully served their purpose by promoting laugh-filled engagement in the minority language.

And now, like “black backpack,” I expect that every time Roy wears it, his “shup shup” (sorry, “sharp shirt”) will become a little trigger for language play. (Go ahead, give them a try yourself, if you haven’t already. Ten times fast, “black backpack” then “sharp shirt”!)

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New Research Shows Reading Aloud Promotes Brain Activity and Language Development

The first scientific study of its kind has yielded findings which indicate that reading aloud to children has a measurable impact on brain activity and language development.

In a study of preschoolers which used fMRI whole-brain imaging to explore the benefits of parents reading to young children, Dr. John Hutton and his colleagues at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found significant differences in brain activity between children who are read to regularly in the home and those that receive less cognitive stimulation. For this experiment, children underwent a brain scan while listening to age-appropriate stories on headphones.

Dr. Hutton presented his findings in a lecture titled “Parent-Child Reading Increases Activation of Brain Networks Supporting Emergent Literacy in 3-5 Year-Old Children: An fMRI Study” at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in April.

In a press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Hutton said, “We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child’s brain processes stories and may help predict reading success.”

The press release goes on to report that “greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.”

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Adam Beck Goes Bonkers in Interview, Reveals “Crazy Secret” for Bilingual Success

I’ve written a lot of words at this blog about raising bilingual children. But I think this short video of me being interviewed by my kids will demonstrate, better than words ever could, the important sense of playfulness that I’ve described in Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both. and other posts.

I hesitate to call this a “method” because it’s simply my nature when I’m around kids. At the same time, I’m quite conscious of its impact on language development because this sort of silly playfulness is highly effective at engaging children in the use of the minority language. And so, though I’m not this nutty all the time, I do express my wild side pretty continuously with my children and my students, and I actively incorporate this playful quality in my ideas for language exposure.

Whatever success I’ve had in working with bilingual children over the years, this penchant for play is at the heart of it all because my actions appeal to the child’s own playful spirit. And when you match the child’s natural instinct for play, you create more effective conditions for exposure and engagement in the minority language, day after day, which, over time, leads to greater heights of bilingual ability.

In other words, this isn’t just frivolous stuff: to my mind, “serious silliness” is not only fun (and thus creates a closer parent-child bond), it’s the very foundation for maximizing a child’s development in the minority language.

This, as the video conveys, is the “crazy secret” for bilingual success.

Click to watch me go bonkers →