“AAAAAH ha ha ha ha!!”
I was woken up by my sons laughing while reading Super Chien (the French version of Dog Man by Dav Pilkey). Most nights, I’m the one reading a bedtime story to my sons…and I also tend to fall asleep while doing so! But now, my eldest reads French (our minority language, along with Korean) quite fluently, so he takes over whenever I end up falling asleep.
We are just at the beginning of our literacy journey that started slightly over a year ago. But what does it take to raise a multi-literate child?
Before going onto this point, I would like to share a bit about the reasons it’s so important for me that my sons (now 7 and 5) learn to read and write in all their languages: English (school/community language), Korean (mummy’s language), and French (Daddy’s language).
The importance of multi-literacy
I grew up bilingual French-Japanese in France, and learned to read and write in Japanese by attending a supplementary school, and then an international school where I had 6 hours a week of literature, history, and geography in Japanese. To cut a long story short, it had not been too difficult to speak Japanese at a good (enough!) level as I’ve always had family and friends who were Japanese speakers around me. However, reading and writing has been a tedious process and I didn’t feel like it would be so useful. I saw it as a “nice-to-have skill”, but living in France, it didn’t appear necessary to go through the pain of learning. With my studies getting more difficult, I had to pick my battles. And Japanese was not what I prioritised.
Around 16, it started to weigh on my sense of identity: “Can I really call myself Japanese if I can’t even read properly in that language?” My lack of ability to read and write has also limited me in the amount of vocabulary I had.
So learning to read and write in the home language represents for me both skills that provide independence, AND a sense of identity.
This is why I now do my best for my sons so that they benefit from all the advantages of being fully literate in all their languages.
So what does it take to raise a multi-literate child?
Here are a few reminders and pointers that you will hopefully find useful if you’re on a similar journey.
1. Make the journey ENJOYABLE
Learning to decipher and copy words can be mastered relatively quickly. But perfecting these skills takes years! In French, the language I was schooled in, I was bad at spelling until it finally clicked at…15! (There is, of course, a lot more than spelling in literacy.) Unfortunately, traditionally we were/are taught in “stressful” conditions with tests, marks taken away for each wrong answer or missing information (rather than being rewarded for a correct one – at least, this is the case in France).
But learning to read and write is a long journey! So especially when it’s a home language that might not be valued in the country/area we live in, it’s very important to make it attractive, fun, and stay away from the “stressful” conditions we might see as the only way to learn! We need to enjoy the journey!
2. Spend quality time as a family
Teaching my sons to read and write in our home languages is definitely important. But more important than that is the quality of the time we spend together! As a parent working full-time, I don’t have much time to spend at home with them. Whatever moments we get are therefore very precious! When I started to teach my eldest to read in French (he was 6), I realised quickly that sitting down at a desk was not the best way to do it. Although we were playing games, it created frustration…on both sides! The focus was too much on literacy, and I was putting myself in the position of a teacher.
The solution that I found was to stay a dad and just have fun! Literacy simply became what helped us have fun in SOME of the games we were playing. As a CONSEQUENCE, my sons learned to read in French and in Korean.
This approach helped us kill two birds with one stone! Spending quality time + learning to read and write at the same time.
This is the idea that guided my book The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children: How to be a parent (not a teacher) and teach your child to read and write in your home languages while having fun!
3. Make it purposeful
The big advantage of the majority language is that it’s very obvious that being able to read and write in this language is going to be useful. But this is not the case for the home language. This is why it’s important to make the use of the written language purposeful.
If you play the “memory game”, and instead of finding two identical pictures, you have to find the matching pair of picture and word, being able to read the word becomes straight away purposeful!
We are lazy creatures! So if we make literacy a way to access fun, our children will WANT to read and write.
4. Make it EASY for you, too
Yes, WE are lazy creatures! So it’s difficult to always find the motivation (or the time) to work on literacy. We found that the best way to keep going is to have effortless routines. This helps us include daily practice for our sons, and enables my wife and I to stay consistent. For us, there are two things that we do daily:
Morning messages: Every morning our sons find a little note on the table that they can read (if they want to!). Providing something compelling enough for our children to read is our role. And if they want to read it, great! If not, never mind.
Bedtime stories: We read stories in any language: French, Korean, but also English – the community language. The aim is to show them that being able to read enables access to fun and interesting things. We also have to remember that literacy skills are transferable from one language to another.
5. Make reading and writing a way to access fun
Learning to read and write is NOT the goal. The goal is everything these skills enables us to access.
When I was a child, reading and writing in Japanese was 95% done in school or as part of my homework. This didn’t make it appealing as it was always linked to test-like judgement. This is why, although our sons attend a supplementary school for Korean, we still help them practise in a more relaxed way, by making sure they see it as part of their daily lives.
We want our sons to have access to more fun due to the literacy skills they are developing. We keep in mind that the end goal is that being able to read and write in all their languages will enable them to access more fun (and later on be more independent).
6. Help your child LOVE reading (in ANY language)
To get our sons to read in our home languages, it made sense to give them the taste of reading books, to show them how fun it is to read books. Since our sons were very little, we have read books to them. And when they were babies, we used books as toys i.e. as a way to have fun together. So the language in which it was written didn’t matter, especially if they were rhyming books.
I remember lying down next to my son, holding Elmer’s Friends above our heads, and meeting each animal one rhyme at a time. ‘K’ (that meant ‘snake’) was one of the first words he said!
Later on, my wife would spend entire mornings reading book after book to our eldest and his baby brother before going to nursery.
Therefore, books have always been very present in our sons lives and were synonymous with entertainment. Once a child loves books, learning to decipher the words (no matter the language) becomes a challenge worth overcoming to get to the FUN. Consequently, learning to read in their different languages becomes a way to access more fun!
One main problem with books is that it’s often difficult and/or expensive to get some in the home languages. This is why using books in the community language is also important. (They are generally easily accessible through local libraries.) Various online “buy and sell” groups, and being in contact with your community locally can be of great benefit for getting your hands on books in your home language cheaply. (See below how absorbed our sons were while discovering all the books a Korean friend who has older children gave us. We probably now have close to 400 Korean books and are struggling to find space to store them!)
Helping Other Families
Growing up bilingual and having faced difficulties in learning to read and write in Japanese myself, I have quite a good idea of the obstacles that a child can face in this process. But what helped me the most in successfully teaching my sons to read and write in our home languages is my experience as a teacher. It first guided me with the do’s and don’ts of teaching/learning. But it also helped me see how differently I acted when I was teaching my sons, and when I was just playing with them. This showed me that by being a dad I was able to teach them far better than by trying to be a teacher to them.
This is one of the reasons that pushed me to write my book The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children. I have seen so many friends and heard from so many parents giving up on the idea of teaching their children to read and write in their languages, either because they didn’t know how to do it, or because it was a frustrating experience.
Through my book, I wanted to show that:
YES, even if you are NOT a teacher, you can teach your child. (Even if your children attend a supplementary school, it’s a good idea to work/play with literacy at home, too. And if there are no supplementary schools around, you can still give the gift of literacy to your children.)
YES, it can be a fun moment spent together (that will even consolidate your relationship).
YES, you can do it even if you are very busy (it just takes consistency).
In The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children, I cover all the points that are useful for any parent embarking on this journey to know:
*How different is it to learn to read and write in a home language compared to the community language.
*Teaching do’s and don’ts.
*70+ activities to help your child learn to read and write in a fun, engaging, and purposeful way.
Available in paperback and e-book at Amazon. The first chapter can be downloaded for free here.