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Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?

Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my biggest challenges—and frustrations—has been getting my daughter, now 10, to read more in English, our minority language. Because my aim for my kids is high—I’m hoping to sustain native-level proficiency in all skill areas—this is made difficult due to the fact that they attend our local Japanese elementary school and don’t really have much time each day for reading and writing in English.

I’ve done everything I can think of to turn her into a more eager reader: reading aloud every day, from birth; building a large library of appealing books; reading with her, taking turns; assigning her pages to read on her own; making continual use of “captive reading”; subscribing to children’s magazines; and providing a steady stream of graphic novels (comic books). And yet it’s clear that Lulu just isn’t a natural bookworm like her 7-year-old brother. She would much rather dance about with a book on her head than sit down and quietly read it.

The upshot of all this effort over the past 10 years is that Lulu can read well for her age (though not as carefully as I’d prefer), but she still won’t naturally gravitate toward reading books in English—particularly books of straight text, without illustrations—on her own. And without more independent reading over the next decade, it will be hard for her to maintain progress that’s roughly on par with English-speaking peers. (I’m viewing this practically, not competitively: not only will stronger reading and writing ability be more helpful to her future, if one day she enters an English-medium school, the transition will be much smoother if her literacy level is roughly the same as her classmates.)

The onus is on us

Although it’s true that I’ve felt ongoing frustration over this, I’ve never blamed Lulu for not being as eager to read as her father would like. In fact, first as a teacher and now as a parent, I live by the principle:

If a child I’m working with isn’t eager to read, it’s not the child’s fault, it’s mine.

Of course, some children are natural bookworms, and that’s a very fortunate thing for language development. (It also makes life easier for teachers and parents!) But other children just aren’t readers to the same degree (at least at this stage of their lives), and this makes the process of advancing the target language more challenging. Nevertheless, the onus is on the teacher or parent to find the means and the resources that will motivate the child to read more eagerly. It may not be possible to instantly turn such a child into a bookworm, but it’s always possible to get a child reading more in the minority language with efforts that are well matched to that particular child’s nature and needs.

Let me illustrate these thoughts with a clear example.

A tale of two students

Two years ago I was teaching private lessons to two 15-year-old boys. Both were students at Hiroshima International School and had been in international schools all their lives. In many respects they were very similar, but in one fundamental way they were profoundly different and this difference accounted for the stark contrast in their literacy level: one was a bookworm, the other was not.

And this difference was extreme: the bookworm was a voracious reader, consuming a book a week, while the other boy would only read in connection with assignments for school—and even then, he did the bare minimum to get by. He spent most of his time playing video games. He would never pick up a book on his own.

The truth is, the first boy didn’t really need my support. Because he was such an eager reader, his literacy level, and overall proficiency in English, was quite high for his age. And because he was a reader, he was basically advancing his own language ability.

But the other boy… Well, I’ll admit that this was a large challenge for me as a teacher. If I couldn’t somehow motivate him to read more, his literacy level would remain low and he would continue to do poorly in school.

The power of comic books

As I discuss in detail in How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers, for many children (including me in my youth), comics are an accessible gateway into literacy that can lead to more enthusiasm for reading, stronger reading skills, and a growing interest in other types of reading material. And so, after quizzing this boy on his interests and getting a good feel for the types of comic books that he might enjoy, I started placing orders.

My first few choices missed the mark, but then I handed him Bad Island, a graphic novel by Doug TenNapel. The next week he returned for his lesson and told me it was the best book he had ever read and that, in fact, he had read it six times! So I quickly got him more books by this author—which he read eagerly—and then found the brilliant Bone series by Jeff Smith, books that he also read multiple times. (See Recommended Resources: Captivating Comic Books for English Learners for further information on these titles, and many others.)

Finding the right materials

This experience with an extreme version of a reluctant reader reinforced my belief that every child can be motivated to read more eagerly: it just takes time and effort to find the right reading materials for that particular child. In other words, for most languages, the materials are out there—you just have to keep looking for them.

These were my thoughts as I was shopping for Christmas presents for Lulu. If I found books that were a better match for her, maybe I could motivate her to read more in English?

Up to that point, it had become clear to me that fiction did not hold as much appeal for her as it does with many other children. Although she enjoys hearing stories read aloud, I think there are two reasons she doesn’t naturally pick up works of fiction on her own:

1. She’s more interested in engaging with the world as it is—in other words, nonfiction. (To be fair to Lulu, she does show flashes of being a bookworm at times. In Japanese, she eagerly read a whole series of child-friendly biographies of famous people.)

2. Because she’s not a careful reader—in general, her mind isn’t naturally precise—I think she sometimes struggles to follow the storyline. And when you lose the storyline, you lose interest.

Nonfiction, then, would seem to be the right direction, but I hadn’t had much success here, either. Like any child, Lulu has interests, but with her, they aren’t really passions. She likes dance, for example, but the big book about dance that I got for her just sits on the shelf. Compare this to Roy and his passion for Lego: he has several books about Lego and opens them often.

My challenge, as I saw it, was this: What sort of nonfiction book, consisting of short reading passages, would enable Lulu to engage with the world in some way? In this case, reading would be a means to a larger end, like pursuing a meaningful task. If she was interested in accomplishing the task, she would naturally feel motivated to read the text.

Avocado and honey

My first thought was a cookbook, and I got one for her. However, I also knew that this was something she would need her mother’s help with (I’m a sorry cook) and probably wouldn’t be opened regularly. I needed something that would appeal to her growing “girl side” but contained tasks that she could pursue largely on her own.

The Girls' Book: How to Be the Best at EverythingThat’s when I stumbled upon a series of small hardcover books that include The Girls’ Book: How to Be the Best at Everything.

Despite the competitive ring to the title, the book is simply a collection of fun (sometimes farcical) activities, like “How to Make Your Own Luxury Bubble Bath,” “How to Whistle Really Loudly,” and “How to Cope if Zombies Attack,” all explained in short, reader-friendly passages. On Christmas morning, when Lulu opened the package that held this book (and The Girls’ Book of Friendship: How to Be the Best Friend Ever), she immediately began browsing through it. A good sign!

Lulu reads on Christmas morning.Not long after, she started to read the book more closely, and even stuck a dozen post-it notes to the pages she found most appealing. Thrilled to see Lulu reading so eagerly, I told her, “Just let me know if you need any help with those activities.”

That afternoon I gave her a few coins and she ran to the local market to buy an avocado: she wanted to make a “beauty mask” for her and her mother with mashed-up avocado and honey! After she returned, she read the directions in English and translated them into Japanese for my wife. Not only was she reading in English, she was translating between the two languages! The book was quickly proving to be doubly effective for her bilingual development!

Lulu and her mother then took turns cheerfully smearing this mixture of avocado and honey on each other’s faces. (I don’t know if it made their skin any softer, but they sure smelled sweet for the rest of the day!)

Lulu and her mother apply the "beauty mask."

A huge step forward

It’s too early to say whether Lulu’s initial enthusiasm for this book, and the other books in the series (she asked me to order another one, and I gladly did), will be a lasting breakthrough. But I’ll keep encouraging her to try her favorite activities (even if I have to be a guinea pig, too) and I suspect these little books will continue to fuel a greater degree of independent reading.

And now I know—though it took some stumbling to get here—how to kindle my daughter’s motivation more effectively with well-matched materials. And that, in itself, is a huge step forward when it comes to getting her to read more, and more eagerly, in our minority language.

How about you? What are your thoughts after reading this article? What other ideas can you offer for motivating reluctant readers?


21 Responses

  1. Awesome turnout! 🙂
    I am going to tell my story.
    My parents never read to me. Since I could read for myself, why they should bother…???!!! And I always was pushed by them to read: you are not going to do this and that if you won’t finish this article. Or, “now, tell me about what you read in the book.” So, I hated reading and was destroying all the books I had! One day, at the age of 13(!), (and I never had read a book before) I was in my uncle’s house full of books. I took “Three Musketeers” and got so excited. In vain my uncle was trying to prove to me(!) that I began the reading with the second volume… I was such a mule! Of course, I gave up after a while and began the book from Volume I. Ever since, I just love to read.
    The moral of the story: we all have inside us hidden, magical, “trigger points”. Either we will discover by ourselves what could interest us or we’ll need a hand from people who love books. 🙂

    1. Tatiana, thank you for sharing your story. The truth is, I was a reluctant reader myself and read very little throughout junior high and high school. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I started reading again eagerly. So I empathize with reluctant readers and I’m determined to do what I can to help these children experience the joy and inspiration that books and reading bring to our lives.

  2. For so many years I have in my head my mother’s voice: “Never tell anyone at which age you read your first book. It is a big shame!” Adam, now you made my heart feel such a relief that somebody else started quite late to discover the joy of reading. Thank you for your openness. 🙂

  3. For most of my life, I hated reading. Maybe “hate” isn’t the right word — one of my favorite places in the world has always been the library, and the other — the bookstore. I’ve always loved buying books, browsing books in the library, and I can’t count how many books I started to read but didn’t finish. In high school, as I began to fall deeply in love with classical music (I was really obsessed), I began checking out composer biographies from the library — but never finishing them. All through college, I would eagerly check out books on music, my passion, from the library — but I’d only get through a few pages, or a chapter, and never finish them. In fact, from the time I entered high school until the day I graduated college, I don’t think I ever finished reading a single book; that includes assignments for school. In high school, I took AP English, American Literature, and British Literature — and I don’t think I ever finished a single assigned book.

    I never understood it, and neither did my parents. My parents loved to read. They often read themselves, often encouraged us children to read, got us involved in reading competitions at the local library, filled our house with books, etc. In fact, now that I think of it, it was only really in middle school that I started to lose my interest in reading, because before that I was an eager reader, but maybe that’s something to ponder another time. But starting around middle school, I just lost the ability to finish books — even books about my deep passion, classical music.

    So I graduated college with honors, met a girl, and moved to New York City, where I began to teach elementary and middle school Hebrew, while also trying to learn half a dozen other languages. And yet, despite this self-motivated interest in language – lots of languages – I didn’t really like to read. As before, I’d start reading lots of books, but then stop after a few pages or maybe – if I was lucky – a few chapters. Short stories weren’t any easier. And even though I dreamed of writing my own stories and novels, I never even got far with my own writing.

    And then suddenly, about 4 years ago, that all changed. I remember it vividly — I was walking down Broadway, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, thinking to myself about how much I hate reading. “Just accept it,” I told myself. “I don’t like reading. It’s a fact. It’s a shame! I wish I liked reading. I don’t like the fact that I don’t like reading, but it’s a fact: I simply don’t like reading, and I just need to accept that.”

    But I couldn’t accept that. I began to think: what’s wrong with me? And then I remembered a book that I had loved reading as an 8th grader — a fantasy book about dragons and magic and mystery, but I couldn’t remember what it was called. I wished I could remember the title; but the more I thought about it, the more I remembered how much I had once upon a time loved fantasy books, movies, games, toys, etc, and how I hadn’t read any fantasy books since middle school. So I went to the library and checked out a random fantasy book, one that had a fun-looking cover/title: “The Furies of Calderon” by Jim Butcher.

    I didn’t finish it, of course. But I loved it. It reminded me just how much I had once loved fantasy literature, and it inspired me — as a 25-year-old — to start reading the Harry Potter series. Within a few months, I had read all seven Harry Potter books and was craving more! That’s thousands of pages! I even stayed up an entire night to finish the final book! Then, while visiting my parents, I decided to look through my old childhood books for that one fantasy book I had remembered loving, but whose title I couldn’t remember — and there it was: “Dragon Wing” by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I read it so quickly, and I immediately moved on to the other novels in the same series. Within a few months, I’d read the entire 7-book series. Then I began to read fantasy literature in other languages as well, especially Yiddish — and I’m convinced that that’s why I learned Yiddish so quickly and so well.

    Now I’m busy reading all the Hans Christian Andersen stories I can find (in Yiddish translation), some of them multiple times. I’ve turned into quite a bookworm! Who would have imagined it! Although, I still don’t quite understand my relationship with reading. I’m a PhD student of history; naturally, I have a huge desire to read and write non-fiction – my career depends on it – and yet, I just can’t get myself to read non-fiction the way that I can get myself to read fantasy.

    So I guess the moral of this twisted, winding, stream-of-consciousness-style response is that yes, finding the right kind of book is a huge part of inspiring people to read. It wasn’t until I re-discovered my love for fantasy that I turned into a total bookworm. And yet, at least for me, it has never just been about finding something I’m interested in, because there have always been plenty of non-fantasy books that I’m deeply interested in reading, and yet I can’t get myself to read them voraciously the way that I can with fantasy. Maybe, somehow, there’s a difference between stuff we love reading about and stuff we love thinking about. Or stuff we love reading about and stuff we *want* to love reading about. Or maybe I’m just weird. Either way, it’s probably time for me to stop rambling… but thanks for a thought-provoking blog post.

    1. Sam, I really enjoyed this glimpse into your experience. Thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us. In some ways, I think our stories are very similar. As I mentioned in a previous reply, I didn’t really become a bookworm myself until I was a young adult. Although I had read some as a child, I lost the habit through my teenage years. I even took a perverse pride in the fact that I could complete book reports and other written assignments by just skimming the contents and writing a bunch of digestible baloney.

      Like the rest of our aptitudes and interests, becoming an eager reader is a blend of nature and nurture. Some people are, temperamentally, more likely to be bookworms from an early age and remain that way throughout their lives. Of course, the odds of this happening are much higher when parents and teachers provide positive nurturing toward this end. Still, it’s also true that even children who don’t receive such nurturing, yet feel a natural passion for reading, will become bookworms just the same. And children who may not be as self-motivated to read will surely feel more moved to crack open a book if a caring adult offers firm support and appealing resources.

      In my case, I wasn’t really a natural bookworm as a child—like my daughter, I much preferred active play. At the same time, my parents, despite the fact that they were both quite literate themselves, weren’t terribly conscious or proactive about supporting the literacy development of their children. They didn’t read aloud to us past the preschool years nor did they regularly give or suggest books that they thought we would have enjoyed. I can’t even recall having a bookcase in my bedroom! So it’s not surprising, really, that my interest in reading largely dried up beyond elementary school: both nature and nurture were lacking.

      At some point, when I feel a bit braver, I’d like to write a post about how I finally became a reader when I was in my early 20s. The truth is, books and reading saved my life during a troubled time—and I mean that quite literally. So my passion for reading—and my desire to share that passion with children and inspire them to read more themselves—goes straight down to my soul.

  4. I have had to do something similar with my 8 year-old daughter. She is not really a reluctant reader, but she is not a bookworm either. Since she is a very girly girl, and loves ballet, fairies and princesses, I was buying her books about these things. However she was never really interested in reading them. I hit the jackpot when I bought her some second hand Roald Dahl books. She loved The Twits! She read it all in English and then in Italian, giggling all the way through! Now I know what kind of books appeal to her.

    1. Good for you, Melanie! And good for your daughter! Roald Dahl is a favorite in our house, too. And because he’s written quite a few books, hopefully they can keep your daughter reading for many months to come!

  5. So wonderful to see the fun in reading and in action from your daughter, Adam! Great find! I have been doing a very similar search for books for my kids as well. My son loves comics and my daughter loves cooking so here we are reading funny comics or cooking books in Chinese together. Love your story!

    1. Amanda, thanks! Our circumstances and languages may be different, but our strategies sound very similar! I wish you and your kids continued success on your bilingual journey!

  6. I am in New Zealand right now cruising second hand book stores for books to hook my second child (boy, 10yo) on reading. My eldest has always been the bookworm type, and it has made such a difference to her vocabulary. She is always using words and phrases that I know I have never used with her. I really think reading is the “secret weapon” bilingual kids need to make up for lack of exposure to the minority language, but some kids are just not bookworms! Adam’s suggestion in one of his past articles about graphic novels has helped, but we are still looking for that final push to hook my son. Maybe (like Lulu) it is non-fiction. He certainly loves his animal encyclopedias, and the sports section of the (Japanese) newspaper. He will probably never become a bookworm, but he may well become a well-read bilingual athlete or zoologist one day.

    The second part of the dilemma is the weight limit of our suitcases… But there’s not much we can do about that…

    1. Peter, I agree completely: reading is the “secret weapon” to promoting the minority language of a bilingual children, right from birth and continuing throughout childhood. This becomes more challenging when the child isn’t a natural bookworm, but nevertheless, the more efforts we can make in this direction, the more progress our children will make in their language and literacy development while young. (Also see How Many Books Do You Have in Your Home?)

      And I can empathize with the problem of heavy suitcases! See this story for my own troubles with a suitcase that was over the weight limit! :mrgreen:

      Enjoy the rest of your time in New Zealand!

  7. Hello, Adam! Maybe it is the wrong topic where I can ask my question, but it is really actual to me, and maybe you could help me. You are raising bilingual kids and they read books in their minority language. When did you start teaching them reading in minority language? Before or after they started to read Japanese books?

        1. Adam, I also wanted to ask you about the strategy you used to teach your kids to read. Was it sight reading or phonics? At what age is it better to start?

          1. Guliya, I think a combination of the two often works well, but I tend to emphasize a “whole language” approach, meaning that, with enough exposure to the written word, literacy can occur quite naturally, without the need for intensive phonics work. Although my kids were exposed to books and reading from the time they were born, through our daily read-aloud sessions, I used an excellent series of beginning readers, called Now I’m Reading!, to support the process of actually learning to read, around the age of 3 or 4.

  8. Fantastic and interesting article. I fear that I’m going to have a similar problem with my daughter about reading as we are having a struggle with just teaching her to read and she doesn’t appear to be very motivated in either language. I have written about our struggles recently in a blog post but despite all my efforts I feel we are going nowhere fast. I feel like we (me, my husband, school) are forcing and obliging her and it’s just making her hate reading! I guess I have to keep trying different books till I stumble across something that engages her (although she does love being read to…most of the time!) I think I’ll be buying the book The Girl Book: How to Be the Best at Everything when she’s a bit older because I think my daughter might enjoy it too. I also have to give comics a try!

    1. Tracey, I stopped by your site and read your blog post. I think you’re making a variety of good efforts so don’t feel too discouraged about this process. The fact is, it requires considerable amounts of both persistence and patience. Since your daughter is, at least at this age, chafing at anything that resembles “homework,” I would encourage you to give even more emphasis to playful activities that could create more natural and genuine engagement.

      My daughter is now 12, and has become a very competent reader and even a bit more enthusiastic about reading than when she was younger. (Actually, just last night she was reading, purely on her own, another girl-type book that she chose to order with an Amazon gift card she received for Christmas.)

      In her case, these are the main things that I think contributed, over time, to the larger positive arc of her capability and interest in reading (and writing)…

      1. I’ve read to her (and her younger brother) every day from birth, a wide variety of engaging fiction and non-fiction.

      2. I’ve made use of “captive reading” from the time she was small. I think this tactic could be a very helpful component of your efforts. For all the details, see this post and the many links you’ll find within it.

      3. Comic books have indeed been a key resource for motivating my kids to read. I highly recommend sustaining a steady stream of suitable comic books into your home throughout childhood, and particularly during the younger years. See this post for the rationale behind their use and this post for suggested English titles.

      4. I’ve also maintained subscriptions to a variety of colorful children’s magazines. See this post for some suggestions.

      5. And finally, I’ve kept up a daily homework routine, to nurture reading and writing skills, from the time they were small. This has been invaluable, but I began this routine with gentle tasks so it wouldn’t feel too much like “work.” See this post for Part 1 on our homework routine and this post for Part 2.

      Tracey, keep up your playful efforts! I guarantee a gradual payoff will result from your perseverance and your daughter’s growing maturity!

      1. Thank you so much for all your advice! I will definitely be checking out all the posts mentioned and will be blogging about her progress. I’m sure, as you say, perseverance will pay off in the end!

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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