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.
Day in and day out
First, I should stress—as I’ve mentioned in What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children and Watch Out for the Tough “Second Stage” of Bilingual Development—that maintaining our homework routine in the minority language is becoming more challenging as the children grow older. Although they’re now capable of doing much of the work on their own (I assign the tasks, they complete them, then we check them together afterward), it’s also true that longer school days and heavier loads of Japanese homework mean that time and energy for homework in English is being squeezed badly.
Still, because I feel that this routine is central to advancing their literacy level and broader language ability, I’m very persistent about assigning them a manageable amount of work each day—10 minutes by themselves, then 10 minutes with me. And we do this day in and day out, with as few exceptions as possible.
Other steady approaches
At the same time, I should mention that my current efforts to promote their literacy in English also involve two other steady approaches, which give my kids additional exposure to print but aren’t technically part of our homework routine. (I also continue to read aloud to them each morning at breakfast, a daily practice that has long formed the bedrock of my activities, as I describe in The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child. The other day I finished reading the wonderful trilogy by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor about a dog named Shiloh.)
1. Captive Reading
I continue to make use of “captive reading,” a tactic I’ve pursued day after day, in various forms, since my children were small. I’ve written a number of posts about this powerful strategy—starting with What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?—but basically, it involves posting suitable print in the bathroom or other “captive location” so that children will “automatically” read the target language on a regular basis.
Right now I’m using a book called One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science, which are perfect for my purpose: each story is short, just one page, for easy copying and reading; the language level is a good challenge (but not too challenging) for my kids; the stories are mysteries, which children find appealing; and each story has some connection to science, which I’m trying harder to promote (see Making Science a Bigger Part of a Bilingual Child’s Life and Language Development).
2. Comic Books
As I discuss in How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers, I’m now making an effort to keep a steady stream of graphic novels (comic books) flowing into our home. This isn’t easy—because my kids consume them so quickly (and the costs are adding up)—but I’m pleased that the aim is being achieved: these graphic novels are getting them to read more, and more eagerly, in the minority language.
In addition to the graphic novels I list in Captivating Comic Books for English Learners (which they reread when there’s nothing new), I’ve since added other winning titles to our library, such as the Mal and Chad books, Smile, and the graphic novel versions of the The Baby-Sitters Club.
Our current activities
Along with these ongoing efforts—reading aloud each morning; posting new “captive reading” material in the bathroom (every other day or so); and bringing fresh comic books into the house—I continue to maintain our daily homework routine by focusing on a balance of reading and writing tasks. Again, due to limited time and energy these days, I don’t expect my kids to complete much more than about 10 minutes of homework in the minority language (plus another 10 minutes with me afterward), but even short periods of time add up, and pay off, over the years of childhood. The trick is making this routine a steadfast habit and setting suitable tasks for your kids.
Currently, I’m using a series of reading comprehension workbooks called Daily Warm-Ups: Reading. (The Grade 4 book for Lulu and the Grade 3 book for Roy.) Like the series I describe in this review of “Daily Reading Comprehension” Workbooks, these materials are essentially large collections of one-page passages, with several comprehension questions. (I wanted to continue using the “Daily Reading Comprehension” books, but I was unable to order them easily the last time I tried, and so I switched to a similar series.)
Although I think such workbooks are a useful supplement to a child’s diet of reading in the minority language, I would prefer comprehension questions that aren’t simply multiple choice, that include more questions where a written answer is required. (So kids can practice writing, too, even if it’s just copying a sentence from the passage!)
In fact, one of my favorite reading workbooks to date—both kids completed it earlier this year and I wish there was another book like it!—is called The Complete Book of Animals, which consists of colorful one-page passages about individual creatures, followed by questions which call for a written response. It’s not only a good book for reading comprehension, it builds background knowledge of the animal kingdom, too!
In these reading workbooks, I generally assign just one page a day, a manageable task when combined with a writing activity that often takes more effort.
I’ve moved away from writing workbooks, which my kids and I haven’t enjoyed much, and instead I’m now pursuing a simple activity that involves “topic writing” in a blank notebook. Here’s how it works: I give my kids three topics, they choose one, and then they write freely, whatever comes to mind, producing a prescribed number of full sentences (like 5 or 10 sentences). It’s basically the written version of the speaking activity I describe in A Terrific Way to Get Your Bilingual Kids Talking (and Build a Closer Bond).
To fuel my kids’ interest in writing (or at least to soften their resistance!), I try to offer topics that will hold some personal appeal (for example, the topics might be DOGS, CATS, and RABBITS or BIRTHDAYS, CHRISTMAS, AND HALLOWEEN). Even though the amount of writing they produce is modest, by getting them to write in the minority language for about 5 minutes every day—and then I review the writing with them, to guide their development—substantial progress can be made, incrementally, over time.
These days, I’m afraid I’m not doing as much translation practice as I’d like: having them translate a short text from Japanese into English. This is something that I’ve tried in the past—and I think has great potential as a regular task—but I haven’t yet prepared the sort of material needed to implement it. (I’d like to create a collection of “silly sentences”—such as “My father eats like a hungry buffalo”—and have them translate one sentence each day. I think they would enjoy it, and this sort of regular translation practice would help sharpen both their languages.)
Variety in the tasks
While I believe that consistency in the routine is important, it helps, too, to inject variety in the tasks from time to time. Toward this end, I sometimes veer from the reading workbook and writing notebook and make use of other reading and writing activities. Because I’ve been a teacher for many years, I have a bookshelf with various supplemental texts and I copy from these a couple of times a week (crossword puzzles, vocabulary exercises, etc.).
Also, one regular task for my kids is writing letters to family and friends. Pen-pals are a valuable resource for promoting literacy, and I describe this process fully in Are Your Bilingual Kids Writing Letters in the Minority Language?
Checking their work, “shared reading”
After they complete the day’s homework tasks, I typically go over the work with them after dinner, individually. We first check the reading workbook and writing notebook (or other task, as the case may be), and I try to guide them in correcting their own errors, when this is possible.
Then we read together, at least several pages of children’s literature. The practice of “shared reading” simply involves taking turns, page by page. In this way, the child is encouraged to read, but isn’t daunted by the demand of being the sole reader, and the pages read by the parent serve as a useful model for more mature and expressive reading.
Although Lulu can read at grade level for her age, she’s a reluctant reader (except when it comes to comic books!) and so I make an effort to find books that will appeal to her. The series we’re currently reading together—Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew—is rather easy for her, but she enjoys it, and for the larger arc of her literacy development, I think it’s important that I emphasize her enjoyment of books and reading.
Roy, on the other hand, is a pretty voracious reader, and because he reads more in English than Lulu, despite the age difference of nearly three years, his reading ability is now almost at the same level. He and I are reading a series of chapter books called Beast Quest, which appeals to his interest in “scary” adventures and stretches his reading level with some sophisticated language.
For a helpful list of other children’s books that come in a series—for reading aloud, shared reading, and independent reading, too—see How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books.
Be serious, but be playful
Finally, let me stress that a homework routine must combine the two qualities headlined in Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both. In other words, this balance between being serious and being playful is vital to sustaining an effective routine. If you’re just serious, you become the sort of overbearing parent your kids don’t want you to be—and you probably don’t want to be, either.
My kids, for example, don’t necessarily like doing their daily homework in English—especially on top of all their homework in Japanese—but I think it’s easier for them to swallow this expectation because I keep the tasks manageable and I make an effort to infuse the work with a kind of play. (That idea for using “silly sentences” in translation practice is a good example of how work and play can be combined.)
Although I don’t think it’s possible (or even preferable) to make every task fun—children must also develop stamina for completing tasks that aren’t fun—a strong sense of playfulness, alongside a serious commitment, is needed to maintain a healthy homework routine—one that you and your kids will continue to pursue each day. The trick, remember (as I emphasize in Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1), is to do a little bit daily, because a little bit daily becomes a lot over time.