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.
In 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?
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…
- Read anything and everything they’re interested in, even a LEGO catalog. Make reading aloud a regular habit throughout the day.
- Replace the main character’s name with your own child’s name. Younger children love being the star of the story.
- Along with making silly sounds, use your voice in other expressive ways. Vary the volume, too, from quiet to loud.
- Use different voices for the different characters.
- 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.
- 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?”.
- Respond to the child’s answers with further questions, like “Why was the fish your favorite character?”
- Clarify doubts and explain words. Ask if you think your child might not have understood a word or a situation in the story.
- 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.
- 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.