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

February 16, 2017

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.

Our own read aloud adventures

When our children were small, we were living in Germany. Because my mother tongue is Spanish, I tried to find books that had been published in both Spanish and German, or were actually bilingual books. This wasn’t easy, though, so I would read aloud their favorite German books and simultaneously translate them into Spanish. I remember one time, at the end of a book, my daughter was very direct: “Mommy, the German writer did a great job, but the Spanish writer is pretty bad, don’t you think?” Kids can be harsh!

My German-speaking husband, on the other hand, took a different approach. When he read aloud their favorite Spanish book, he would simply follow the pictures in the book and invent a completely new story in German. The kids didn’t really care if the story was any good; they just thought it was hilarious and they loved adding to my husband’s tale.

Reading aloud brings benefits at any age

As bilingual children get older, there is a tendency for them to prefer one of their languages. This preference is often determined by the language they are exposed to most in their environment. When they start to read by themselves, they will routinely choose books in their preferred language (the majority language, usually), which strengthens this language further.

However, even after children start to read on their own, they will still enjoy being read to. Thus, reading aloud becomes an important way of continuing to advance their ability in the minority language.

As they grow, children will naturally want to read more challenging books, too. However, such books in their “weaker” language might be too difficult. By taking advantage of their higher listening level, and reading aloud to them, you enable your children to access these books, to understand and enjoy them. This practice not only continues to nurture their knowledge of that language, it paves the way for them to eventually read such books on their own.

No matter how old your children are, reading aloud brings many benefits. But how do you make the most of this activity?

Reading aloud brings benefits at any age.

10 tips to make reading aloud fun

Most importantly, have fun! If reading aloud is fun for you, chances are it will be fun for your children, too, and become a time they look forward to. What sort of things do your children enjoy? If they like “farting” or other “rude” noises (as most kids do), try adding some silly sounds to the story. They’ll probably be on the floor laughing and begging for more. And “childish behavior” like this won’t cause any long-term damage—just the opposite, it will probably bring you even closer together!

Here are some tips to make reading aloud more fun for both you and your children, in any language…

  1. Read anything and everything they’re interested in, even a LEGO catalog. Make reading aloud a regular habit throughout the day.
  2. Replace the main character’s name with your own child’s name. Younger children love being the star of the story.
  3. Along with making silly sounds, use your voice in other expressive ways. Vary the volume, too, from quiet to loud.
  4. Use different voices for the different characters.
  5. Make use of the illustrations to talk about the page you’re about to read or have just read. Seek out new things to describe, and encourage the child to search for things in the pictures.
  6. Ask questions like “What do you think this book will be about?”; “What do you think the characters were doing before the story started?”; “What will they do after we close the book?”; “What was your favorite part of the story?; “Which character was your favorite?”.
  7. Respond to the child’s answers with further questions, like “Why was the fish your favorite character?”
  8. Clarify doubts and explain words. Ask if you think your child might not have understood a word or a situation in the story.
  9. When you are reading the same book for the thousandth time, read it with the same energy and enjoyment that you gave to the first time you read it. That book will be one of those memorable things you look back on together when the child is a teen.
  10. Turn a rhyming book into a song and sing it out loud. Don’t worry, your children won’t be judging your “performance”!

Remember, reading aloud shouldn’t be seen as a chore. Take your time and make the most of it, for the benefit of both your children’s language development and your relationship with them.

Happy reading!

Elena and the Dolphin

Need further encouragement for your own read aloud routine? See Challenge #1: Read to Your Children Every Day at The Bilingual Zoo.

How about you? Are you reading aloud to your children (almost) every day? Could you do something to strengthen this routine?

1 MS February 17, 2017 at 5:43 am

Lovely article, offering useful and not-so-obvious tips. I’ll remember it!

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2 Gabriela Simmons February 17, 2017 at 11:09 am

Hi MS,

Thank you so much! :)

Reading aloud can be such a fun “family time” for everyone involved, at any age. We often find ourselves, all four cuddled up in our bed (and it isn’t a king size I might add), each reading a book and taking turns reading out the funny passages.

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3 Rebecca February 17, 2017 at 6:21 pm

Great article! Really good ideas!

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4 Gabriela Simmons February 18, 2017 at 11:00 am

Thanks, Rebecca!

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5 Tracey February 17, 2017 at 8:36 pm

I always try to read aloud to my kids every night although I feel like I don’t read aloud to my youngest like I did with his sister. Usually I read to them in English and my husband reads to my daughter in Spanish. Great tips and will definitely put them into practice to make our bedtime stories more fun!!

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6 Gabriela Simmons February 18, 2017 at 10:59 am

Hi Tracey,
We had the same, I was also much better at reading aloud to my first born and definitely she is more of a bookworm than my son is. Having said that, he just turned 10 and suddenly has picked up reading with great joy. Funnily, he asked to be read out loud to much more than my daughter did between 7-9. Also his vocabulary has only now seen a total jump in all three languages. Good luck with the bilingual rollercoaster ride! :)

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7 Ulrike February 19, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Dear Gabriela,

Great article. I was wondering: Can you share a bit about your own trilingual (or more) routine? We are doing German/Italian/English (with English being the ML), and it can be hard to fit in reading in all languages, especially with three kids (4, 6, 8 yrs old). I have started trying to copy Adam’s approach of reading over breakfast. Hope to get back to it when we return from vacation. Still, especially with them having to do ML reading in English for their schools, I am struggling…

Thanks a lot,

Ulrike

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8 Gabriela Simmons February 20, 2017 at 10:28 am

Hi Ulrike,

Thanks! This will be a long answer, but I hope it helps. :) In our case we are “lucky” that German is mainly done through school and school friends. We actually specifically decided to school the kids in German, as I am not a mother tongue German speaker and had trouble myself with German while growing up. Furthermore, out of the three languages (Spanish, English, German) my feeling was that the most complicated of the three was German.

Living in Hong Kong, English comes naturally and funnily enough both my kids prefer reading in English, not so much because they are better in English than in German; in our case they find English books more interesting than German ones. And I have to admit every translated book we have tried reading in German, for example Percy Jackson, really did not do the trick. Funnily enough when they were smaller and therefore were reading easier books like Geronimo Stilton or Magic Tree House they did not mind reading in any of the three languages.

Spanish is mainly our holiday language and you really notice that when they come back from Easter or summer holidays, where we try going to a Spanish-speaking country and their Spanish improves incredibly. There they go to some type of a day camp, usually sports related, where there are only Spanish-speaking kids and it is survival of the fittest after all, they have no way out than to speak Spanish. Having said that, when they write in Spanish, their spelling is really bad. However, since my 12-year-old now got her first mobile the Spanish spell check is helping her to learn how to write the words properly, so there are some benefits in using these gadgets.

Some things we do:
1) They are allowed to watch a movie the first time in the original language, afterwards for us usually in Spanish, if it is available.
2) Grandma comes over for a few weeks at a time and is told to only speak in Spanish with the kids. The problem there is that the kids know that she speaks perfect German, hence they use the path of least resistance.
3) We have subscriptions to magazines in German and Spanish that arrive in their name once a month.
4) The books we choose in Spanish are funny ones, so they are more interested in reading them.

I hope this helps, but you can contact me at gaby@timtimtom.com if I can be any further help.

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