How I Promote Bilingual Literacy at Home

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When I was in college in Minnesota, about five to seven years ago, I majored in Spanish Education with a minor in Teaching English as a Second Language. During my last semester, in 2015, I fell in love with my now husband and left the state. I was passionate about my studies and loved what I was learning. Now, I live it. Promoting literacy at home is essential in raising strong readers, and bilingual speakers have more success when literacy is valued and practiced in both languages. Literacy is a skill in itself, but for today I want to focus on the little ways you can increase your child’s awareness of and familiarity with letters and words, books and pencils, and whichever combination of languages you choose.

I dropped out of college and don’t have a degree, but I kept many of the textbooks and continue to conduct my own research. I observe my son closely and try new things. This is how I promote reading at any age, and in any two languages.

First of all, we speak two languages at home. We speak two languages in front of our children, to our children, and practice our second languages with our children. We talk about the importance of speaking, writing, and reading in two languages. We turn our Netflix shows on Spanish, watch movies in Spanish, and read to each other in Spanish. One of my favorite authors is Gabriél García Marquez and I let my children see me struggle to read his work in his native tongue. I ask my husband if he understands the vocabulary. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. We are always talking in and about different languages. We find bilingualism and literacy important. Our children listen and hear this.

I like to write and can do so in Spanish because I have a good understanding of the vocabulary and am able to write well in English. My husband, who had a different childhood, does not like to write or read very much. He works hard and has little energy to spend on words. He likes me to read to him and I acquiesce. My preferred way of writing is to use pen and paper. I do this often, writing anything, and Sergio likes to copy me. I give him paper and pencil and he writes as well.

All parents have been told to read to their children. It is important. Reading is fun for children, and requires that you show them how to do it well. Ask questions, make guesses, summarize past plot events, point at the pictures, talk about the title, etc. If you and your family are bilingual, don’t just read in English. Even my husband has begun to read to my son, finding Spanish children’s books in our library one night. Try to ask questions and make guesses in your second language as well. If your level of proficiency at your second language is not high, read anyway, it can only help you, too.

It is also important to show your little ones that you like to read as well. Establish a respect for reading as a valuable past time and skill. Create a library in your home, no matter the size or style, and keep books around you. When a child is curious and plays with a book, they are becoming familiar with pages, letters, and words. They may not know what the writing says, but they begin to understand that it does speak. I often find my son in his room, playing with his books (many of which are from my own childhood), and pretending to read aloud to himself. Reading before bedtime is an important routine that we try hard to follow but it can occur at any time of the day.

Taking trips to the local library is also critical. The library is a good place to find books that may be written in your family’s second language. These books are free, as long as you bring them back! The library also inspires a love and awe of the books lined up all around you. Like-minded families can be found there as well. A bookstore is another great trip to take when your son or daughter is ready for it because the value of money and books can be discussed at once.

Cultural relevancy is important also, so don’t read a book about riding a bike if your little one can barely walk. Don’t read books about crafts if your family is more into outdoor adventures. If you live in the city, read about other people who live in cities. If cooking is a love of the family, peruse cookbooks in either language. It is also a good idea to read books that talk about the culture of your second language: where it’s spoken, who speaks it, how these people live and think.

This book is full of songs native to the Latin-American culture. Its pictures are beautiful.

There are many other ways to promote literacy as well: graphic novels, picture books, some video games (not those that are violent), music, and certainly, art. I love to promote literacy through art: using words and letters as part of the aesthetic. We like to create art around the alphabet, both the English and Spanish version.

Some quick and easy art involving letters.

If you and your little ones would like to start your own library at home, here are some of our favorite English and Spanish books.

I like to have books in hand, but there are ways to download books or listen to them now. If you are still learning Spanish, some of the above books are great for learning vocabulary and practicing comprehension in another language.

Continue to read with your children as they grow, in any language. There are many creative ways to get older children involved, such as book clubs at home, prizes for books read, writing and binding your own book, or creating artwork based on their favorite books. However you choose to promote literacy and include another language in your home, it is an ambitious but worthwhile goal. If one language is more your style, that’s okay too, as long as literacy is valued.