Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Writing

What strategies can help nurture your child’s writing ability? Find ideas in these posts!

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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I recently tried a new activity that worked so well, I want to share the full details with you. In fact, below you’ll even find scans of the actual stories produced by my kids and their grandmother. I hit upon this idea while reflecting on the serial stories I’ve written, as a form of captive reading, that feature my children in starring roles in order to strengthen their engagement in the minority language (for us, that’s English).

Let’s call this new activity “Story Exchange” and the basic idea involves having the child write a story in the target language that features a partner—like a grandparent—as the main character. The partner, in turn, writes a story that puts the child in a starring role.

The idea is quite simple, but it’s very effective, and in a variety of ways…

  • It provides a creative change of pace from writing letters.
  • The idea of writing a story about a family member or friend is inherently engaging.
  • When creating their stories, children practice and stretch their writing ability in the minority language.
  • After receiving the stories written for them, children feel genuinely motivated to read the text. (Who doesn’t want to read a story that stars you?)
  • Children can also exercise their drawing ability by adding an illustration to accompany the story.
  • The stories themselves become special keepsakes that could last a lifetime.

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My son is 9 and the other day I gave him a simple writing task, as part of our daily homework routine, to help stretch his ability in English, our minority language.

But as it turns out, I found the results quite revealing in terms of our entire bilingual journey together.

The simple task involved making a list of things of a certain color; in this case, a list of 10 things that are black.

That was all. I offered no further direction or guidance.

And here’s what Roy wrote…

Make a list of 10 things that are black.

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Last Wednesday was my birthday.

In hamster years, I’m now 1080.

In human time, though, I turned 54.

As the years continue to hurtle past, my birthdays, I admit, are starting to get me a bit down. When I look back, it feels like I’ve done quite a lot in my lifetime…but I also wonder how much of this activity has really been of significance.

I guess I was seeking some confirmation of my worth in the world when I set the homework for my kids that afternoon. Along with other tasks, I made an unfinished list for them to complete: “7 Things I Like About Daddy.”

Of course, my kids groaned when they saw it, but they couldn’t really refuse when I whined, “Come on, guys! It’s my birthday!” (That’s certainly one good thing about birthdays: They serve as your trump card for getting people to carry out your needy requests.)

And, so prodded by guilt, my children went to work.

Click to see their actual lists →

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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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 →

Adam and his bilingual monkeys

I suppose you’ve noticed: Animals often appear in my posts, and I’m not just talking about my two monkeys. :mrgreen:

In fact, in my last post, Adam’s Fables for Raising Bilingual Kids, I used animals to create little analogies about issues involving bilingualism and children.

I even made an earlier post, called Bilingual Kids and the Animal Kingdom, where I shared my life-long love of animals and offered a list of links to many of the posts where animals make an appearance.

In that post, I also explained why my dream of becoming a veterinarian was derailed by an “F” I got in Biology in 7th grade. (Hint: It has something to do with the fact that I don’t like killing insects…though I do make an exception for mosquitoes.)

Today, then, let me offer 50 ideas for activities featuring animals. By leaning on this theme, a powerful favorite of children everywhere, we can effectively engage our kids in the use of their minority language. Some of these ideas will be familiar, but I hope you’ll find a few new suggestions on this list to try at home. Modify them to suit your needs, and pursue them as playfully as you can.

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Success-On-Your-Bilingual-Journey

Last year I wrote a post titled Want to Supercharge Your Success at Raising Bilingual Children? and mentioned a special project that I called “a game changer for parents who are serious about raising bilingual kids, but want to get even more serious—and more successful—at this challenge.”

Although I didn’t reveal full details of the project then, and I finally set it aside—at least for the time being—when I ran into some technical issues and other considerations, I wanted to now follow up and share the basic nature of that idea. While the project was intended to be a group endeavor—because I think it would have a unique impact within a group of committed parents—the idea can still be pursued by individuals on their own and will provide many of the same powerful benefits.

So you needn’t wait any longer for the group version—here’s the individual version, and it remains a game changer for greater success.

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Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2

Eighteen months ago, when my kids were 8 and 5, I offered a detailed look at our daily homework routine in the minority language, which began (gently) when they were around the age of 3. In that post—Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1—I discuss the value of a homework routine for nurturing literacy and overall language development, and I provide a range of strategies and resources that I’ve found useful to my own efforts. (Many of these resources, of course, are for supporting English, our minority language.)

If you haven’t yet read that post, I encourage you to start there, then return here, in order to view the bigger picture of our homework routine to date.

Now that Lulu is 10 and Roy is 7, and the strategies and resources involved in our homework routine have naturally evolved over time, I thought I would bring you up to date by sharing the “secrets” of our current routine.

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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.)

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