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Bilingual Advantage:  Why Learning to Read in a More Phonetic Language Helps Kids Learn to Read in English 

Today we are super excited to introduce our new series: Bilingual Advantage.

Kids that grow up bilingual often have a head start in many areas of life. Just ask any monolingual adult who has struggled to navigate a foreign country! Life with just one language can feel awfully limiting at times! In our series, Bilingual Advantage, we’ll be looking more in-depth at all the positive effects of learning a second language can bring your child.

In today’s Bilingual Advantage we want to focus on why learning to read in a more phonetic language can help your kids when learning to read in English.

When my kids learned to read they attended a bilingual German/English school (with focus on German) and the school was adamant that the kids should first learn to read in German. They absolutely refused to teach the kids to read in English at all! The English teachers were not allowed to teach reading skills until children first mastered German. I will be honest, I was quite taken aback at first. I thought it was strange and did not understand why.  I even judged and believe this to be a bit old-fashioned. But I was soon proven wrong!

First, the kids were “already” 6 years old. I say “already” because in many countries kids start reading much earlier. Not so in Germany.  The philosophy there is that kids should be free to explore and learn through play until age six. Only then do they focus on academic skills like reading.

What surprised me is that even though my children were being taught how to read in German, they started being very curious about reading in general—in all of our languages. At home, we continued with our Spanish bedtime stories every night. They were more receptive than usual, and to my surprise, they both actually ventured into reading their first words before too long!

I was ecstatic, but initially a little confused. They hadn’t received any instruction on how to read in Spanish, yet here they were, sounding out the words like it was no big deal! I soon realized I could credit their German reading teachers for the progress.

Why? Because of the three languages we spoke at home, German, English, and Spanish, Spanish was the easiest, most phonetic of the bunch. Unlike English, Spanish words are spelled as they sound. You pronounce every letter—no bizarre “rules” like i before e except after c… My kids’ first “reading ego-boost” happened in Spanish, without ever really trying.

German soon followed, and within 6 months they were reading in all 3 languages.  English was the hardest, but because they had mastered reading in the other languages, they were able to quickly decode the phonetically inconsistent words in their English language books.

Take, for example, this sentence from our Underwater Adventure book: “Turtle is saved, Charlotte is the hero of the day.” They would read it phonetically and it would sound something like: “t-ou-rt-le is saa-vee-d, Charlotte is te hi-ro of te daa-i” but they were able to use the images, context clues, and prior knowledge to read it correctly the next time.

The Bilingual Advantage: Learning to Read in a Phonetic Language eases your kids journey into learning to read in English

Witnessing this happen with my own children made me wonder: What does the research say about which language is “easiest” to learn. If you’re lucky enough to have the choice between teaching your kids to read in English vs. another language like Spanish, which should you tackle first? Let’s dive into the details!

It’s True: Learning to Read in English Is Not Easy

Learning to read in English can be intimidating to many kids. The difficulty in terms of learning to read can be boiled down to one main feature: English isn’t phonetically consistent. You can’t rely on the spelling of a word to tell you what the pronunciation should be.

Conversely, phonetic languages look the way they sound. Spanish is phonetic for example, so los gatos sounds like it’s spelled, with the final s being pronounced in both instances. Contrast that with French, a notoriously inconsistent language when it comes to phonetics. The word les chats, for example, has a silent s and ts in the written form. Most final letters are silent, in fact.

English Doesn’t Sound Like It’s Spelled!

Have you ever tried to explain to your child why dough and cough have the same ending but sound completely different? It’s a frustrating conversation to have with our tiny readers because, frankly, there isn’t a good answer for it.

The English language is packed with phonetic frustrations just like this. Take read and read as an example. You probably said the pronunciations as “reed” and “red” right? That’s because you’ve spent years and countless hours practicing English and learning all of these rules. But for someone just starting out, it can be discouraging to think you’ve identified a pattern, only to encounter yet another exception.

That’s why phonetics can make all the difference when learning to read. When words are spelled how they sound, it’s easier to master the art of reading. Your child gains confidence in themselves and their abilities, which makes them want to keep learning! On the other hand, if they are constantly making errors and finding new exceptions, their confidence suffers. Realizing this made me all the more thankful for my kids’ German school! Because they were taught to read in German first, they strengthened their confidence muscles, equipping them to tackle the frustrations of English with little difficulty.

So to all the parents out there trying to raise Bilingual Kids, if you can use this Bilingual Advantage when your kids are learning to read, it will not only give them a little ego-boost, they will learn with less fuss and trouble and become more confident readers.

As bilingual children are learning to read, they gain a really awesome ability to take what they know from one language and use it in the other. This is known as cross-language transfer.

A common way to understand this is to think of words that are spelled and pronounced similarly, such as perfect and perfecto. Words like this are known as cognates, meaning they are very similar in multiple languages. Understanding these cognates help children develop their decoding skills, meaning they can recognize the word and correctly apply the meaning. Positive transfers build up their vocabulary and reading ability in both languages.

Teaching your child to read and write in a second language isn’t all that different from teaching them the first language. It shouldn’t feel forced, and it should be an enjoyable experience. My number one rule? Relax! It will all come in time. When you try to force things like literacy skills, it usually backfires, so just focus on enjoying life with your little ones. Still, there are some tips to keep in mind as your kiddos begin to grow their reading ability.

Print Immersion

Promote print immersion by surrounding your child with printed materials. Books, magazines, posters, etc. Anything that has written words for your child to see is worthwhile! Create a designated reading area where you can go to relax and browse through books.

Place the books so that your child can reach and choose whatever book she would like to read. Make it easy for your child to find his favorite books. We had them categorized by the colour of the binding. This way, it was easy for them to search for the books most familiar to them.

Take trips to the library and pick out books in multiple languages to take home and read together. Make reading a part of your daily activity that everyone looks forward to. Instead of family TV time, have a “reading hour” where everyone reads a book to themselves. Kids love to copy what parents do, so when they see you reading for enjoyment, they’ll want to do the same!

Phonemic Awareness

Instead of teaching letter names, focus on their sounds. Phonemic awareness is one of the most important skills to master before a child can begin to read. To build phonemic awareness, help your child identify phonemes, which are the individual sounds in a word. Play games, make up songs, rhyme sounds, and listen to the different sounds to increase awareness of phonemes.

Build Vocabulary

The more words your child is exposed to, the better off they are! A varied vocabulary increases fluency and literacy skills in both languages. When they have a large vocabulary, children can use those decoding skills we talked about earlier to apply it to their second language. They can connect similar sounds, words, and phrases to help them distinguish between the languages as they are learning to read.

Discuss Readings

Don’t just read the words on the page, elaborate on the ideas behind them! Talking about the book opens up a new level of understanding for your child. They’re able to tie in concepts and pictures to the words on the page. Ask questions, discuss specific points, make comparisons to real life. All of that will bring abstract meanings and written words together for your children. It encourages them to actually understand what they are reading instead of memorizing or imitating it.

If you or your child already knows a more phonetic language, take advantage of it! Use that language to instill basic reading skills in your child. This knowledge will build cognitive skills and abilities for your child and make it easier to read in English.

Have you taught your child to read in another language before English? Let us know in the comments below!


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