One important challenge that parents of bilingual kids face, once the children have attained a basic level of reading competence in the minority language, is encouraging independent reading so they can reach higher and higher levels of language ability.
It’s vital, of course, to find regular time to read aloud to your children, and read alongside them, taking turns, but the more a child can be persuaded to read on his own, too, the more progress he will make in overall proficiency. As the linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen points out in The Power of Reading:
When children read for pleasure…they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: They will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.
Because Lulu and Roy are now pretty competent readers, and because I’m convinced that independent reading is ultimately the number one way to reach sophisticated levels of language proficiency, my highest priority these days is increasing the amount of time they read on their own. (Meanwhile, we continue our daily diet of chapter books, with me reading aloud to them at breakfast, and them reading with me later in the day.)
Well, over the past few weeks I seem to have stumbled upon an idea that makes my kids so eager to read, they’re often pleading with me for more material. In fact, at breakfast the other day, when I told them some new material was available, they literally ran from the kitchen to read it.
How’s that for eager?
I realize this sounds like hyperbole, but it’s the honest truth. And you can get your own children just as enthusiastic about reading with the same simple strategy.
Captive reading, the next stage
Because this strategy is based on the idea of “captive reading,” if you haven’t already seen my posts on that idea, you might want to read these two articles first:
- What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?
- Why You Must Put a Whiteboard in the Bathroom
Just to recap my use of captive reading up to this point:
Starting a couple of years ago, when my kids were first learning to read, I put a whiteboard in the bathroom and scribbled daily riddles and messages; the next step involved short stories posted on paper, including my versions of well-known fairy tales and fables; and now, this current strategy of…
What are serial stories?
A serial story is a story written, and read, in installments. The first serial story I wrote for my kids consisted of eight parts, while the current story is already up to 11 parts, with no end yet in sight.
Each part consists of one page. After I write it, I simply print it out and post it on the inside of the bathroom door. Then my kids race to the bathroom.
A day or two later, I write the next part of the story and put that one on the door. The old one then goes on the bathroom wall, along with the others that have come before it. In this way, the story continues, page by page, until we arrive at the end.
What makes these stories so engaging?
There are four factors, I think, that make serial stories engaging for my kids:
- The captive reading idea works. This has been demonstrated to me since the day I put that whiteboard in the bathroom. When a child is able to read, he will automatically read any comprehensible text that he comes across. (This is true for adults, too, of course. Once you’re a reader, it seems impossible to stop yourself from reading any words that fall under your gaze.)
- The stories feature familiar people, things, and settings. The main characters are my own kids; other characters are my wife and I, relatives, friends, etc. By making my kids the main characters—the heroes—I think they’re instantly hooked. After all, wouldn’t you want to read a story that was about you, especially if it was staring you in the face? At the same time, familiar things (toys, pets, etc.) and settings (our house, the neighborhood, etc.) draw them in further.
- The stories combine familiar elements with outrageous plots. The characters, things, and settings of the stories may be familiar—and this is what helps “ground” them for the child—but my plots are completely silly and outrageous. For example, the current tale has Lulu and Roy, along with a character called Super Poop (yes, he’s a poop), seeking treasure on a mountain top not far from our house. As they climb through the forest, a wild boar* attacks. Super Poop, who has arms and legs made of Lego, leaps in and helps drive off the boar, but is thrashed to pieces. (Don’t worry, Roy puts him back together.)
*We do have wild boars in that forest.
- Each part of the story ends on a “cliffhanger.” A “cliffhanger,” of course, is a sentence or two that creates excitement and expectation for what comes next. The use of cliffhangers at the end of each part, each page, stirs intense curiosity in children and practically compels them to continue reading the next installment to discover what happens. For instance, before the wild boar attacked, in part 9, this was the cliffhanger that ended part 8:
Moments later, there was a loud snorting sound not far from the path. The band of treasure hunters suddenly froze in their tracks, staring at one another with wide, frightened eyes.
How do I go about writing my own serial story?
Just follow these 10 steps and you’ll join the likes of A.A. Milne, whose Pooh books were serial stories about his son, Christopher Robin, the boy’s stuffed animals, and the forest they would stroll together. (Adapt as needed for your own minority language.)
- Fire up your favorite word processor and choose the font “Comic Sans”—it’s a clear, friendly font for kids. I make my titles 24 points (“The Treasure Hunters, Part 9: Watch Out!”) and my text 16 points. This is a good size for the eye and will result in a page with roughly 250 words—a suitable length for young readers.
- Make the main characters your own children and send them on a “dangerous” adventure in a familiar setting. A forest is always a good choice, as it inherently provides suspense and opportunities for unexpected encounters. (Feel free to steal my wild boar attack.)
- You needn’t—and shouldn’t—try plotting the whole thing out before you start. Just jump into that first page and write freely, making it up as you go along. You’ll probably never start writing it at all if you seek the plot first. And, actually, serial stories are a lot more fun to write when you don’t really know what’s going to happen yourself. Just proceed part by part, page by page.
- Write, of course, at your child’s reading level. Keep the sentences fairly short and controlled, with short paragraphs, plenty of dialogue, and ample white space.
- At the end of each part, focus on creating a cliffhanger of some kind to stir suspense for the next part. (If you get stuck, just resort to “Suddenly,” and then suggest a potential threat, like my “loud snorting sound not far from the path.”) Remember, cliffhangers are key to building momentum and sustaining interest.
- After completing your cliffhanger, return to the beginning and revise the page carefully: add details, new ideas, whatever changes might make it stronger. (And be sure to correct any errors or typos!)
- Make it fit on one page. If it spills over onto a second page, try tightening the line breaks between paragraphs (instead of 16 points, make each line break 12 points, for example). If this doesn’t work, it’s better to cut some text from that page than to make the text a smaller size.
- After the page is revised and proofread, print it out and post it on the back of the bathroom door (or in another “captive location” in your house, if you prefer). I like Blu-Tack, but tape is fine. (I would avoid glue. )
- If possible, try to watch your kids when they read it. (Mine are still small, so I don’t feel so creepy about peeking in on them if the bathroom door is ajar.) It’s fun to observe their reactions, and then ask them about their “favorite parts.” (This information can be useful, too, as you proceed with the story.)
- Continue writing the story, part after part, until you get to the end, however long that may take. When a new part is ready, put that page on the door and shift the old page to the wall. Page by page, the whole story will slowly take shape, like literate wallpaper. Remember, too, that it’s best to produce the next part regularly, every other day or so. When I do it less frequently than that, some momentum is lost.
True, writing serial stories takes a little effort, but it’s also great fun—for both the parent and the child—as well as a highly effective strategy for getting children to read independently, and eagerly, in the target language.
My Favorite Way to Get a Bilingual Child Reading More in the Minority Language
Great idea! Thanks. My little one is still way too young to read, but that means I can start making a bank of stories now! Perhaps the best motivation to put pen to paper!
Michael, I’m glad the idea appeals to you! You might even find that the stories you write have a life beyond the bathroom wall. I’ve been filing them in a clear binder and my kids continue to giggle over them. (And one day, far into the future, I bet they’ll look at these nutty stories with deep nostalgia.) Best of luck!
Fantastic idea, Adam, and thanks so much for the helpful practical tips too! My son is a great reader in English but I am finding it a bit of a struggle to get him to read independently in his ml – we have plenty of great books, but for some reason these are all printed in tiny letters, with not a lot of white space or pictures – so he is not that keen on actually reading them himself. I will definitely give your method a go!
Orsi, you’re very welcome! The whole notion of captive reading has been a big part of my efforts to encourage my kids to read independently, and “serial series” have been especially fun and effective.
I’m now also making use of poetry as captive reading material. See How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability for all the details!
Such a great idea! I will be copying this for my son, who is j-u-s-t starting to read by himself. As for my daughter, I almost have the opposite problem and have to beg her to stop reading so she can cross the road, brush her teeth etc!!!
Tallulah, have fun with this! I bet you can come up with some exciting adventures featuring your family on roller skates! (That’s a cute photo on your blog!)
I think serial stories are cool and probably enjoyable for the kids, but I think if the parent is a non-native speaker of English (or any other minority language), like me, I am not so sure I can make a fantastic story that uses correct grammar, rich words to make the story exciting to reach its goal as an effective learning tool and make little bookworms!
I want to give it a try but I really don’t have the confidence that you had!
I will look for your materials later! I am really so excited to see your shared material! Thanks a lot, Adam!
Raira, I understand that writing serial stories might be beyond the ability of non-native speakers. Still, I would encourage the practice of captive reading through the use of stories and other texts that can be copied from books or printed from online sources. The captive reading strategy has been an invaluable part of my success in promoting the minority side of my children’s bilingual ability.
Thanks, Adam! I will take your advice! I’ll probably re-read your captive reading article! I will do my best!
You’ve got soooooooop many great ideas!
I stumbled upon your site the other day and didn’t have time to read as much. Today I stumbled upon one of your posts through my facebook feed and I keep seeing articles and references I will sure be checking 😉 There’s so much value in your site, Adam. After briefly scanning some of your posts I will have to time myself to digest all your material. For now, captive reading is definitely on my agenda. Thanks and keep up the great work!
Nancy, welcome! Thanks for your kind comment. I’m glad you’re finding my site useful. Best of luck with your captive reading efforts. It’s a powerful tactic, and can have a significant impact over time. Just keep at it, day by day!
If you haven’t already subscribed to my (free) weekly newsletter, that may be a source of support, too.
It’s quite helpful. I can try this with my own kids and students as well. It’s tough to make them learn second language when you don’t get support from the surroundings.
Anila, I’m glad this idea appeals to you. Have fun with your kids and students!
Wow, this is phenomenal. Thank you!
My son doesn’t speak Japanese and can never remember the Japanese words the boy tries to teach him. So although the father is speaking for the puppet, the son always speaks English when the puppet is out.
I thought it was a really good idea and a good tool for those whose kids already know they speak the majority language.
Adam, this idea is brilliant! My child is almost 5, so it’s time to put your method into practice. English is the second language for him. Is your method applicable for children who mastered sound blending and are able to read primitive words like ‘cat’, ‘mat’? How did you introduce this idea when the children were at the early stage? Thank you for you feedback!
Kate, I hope you have fun with it! At this point, I’ve written a number of these serial stories (download one in its entirety at this page) and I’ve even found that they have a “second life” because my kids continue reading them, from time to time, with the clear file that contains all the pages.
If your son is still an early reader, I would try a very simple story (like at a Cat in the Hat level) that features him as the hero and involves as much silliness as you can create, given a limited range of words. This is actually a challenge to write, since the vocabulary must be thoughtfully controlled, but just jump in and you’ll learn what works by producing your first story.
Best of luck, Kate! Come back and tell me what happens!