You probably already know the benefits of speaking more than one language and raising bilingual children.
But, what about when it comes to bilingual reading and bilingual storytime?
Reading being such an integral part in a child’s language development, it’s something all parents of bilingual children must consider. It may be true that ‘kids are like sponges’, as I’m sure you’ve heard many times, but it would be overly optimistic to expect them to just absorb everything they see or hear. Bilingual children need constant language input, and their language skills, vocabulary, and grammar only grow with continuous exposure to the language(s). This is true for monolingual, bilingual and/or multilingual kids.
When it comes to bi-literacy a helpful tool for parents and kids is bilingual books. These allow children to work on two languages in parallel and become more confident in both languages.
So, what are bilingual books?
Bilingual books, also known as ‘Dual-Language Books’ or ‘Side-by-Side Books’ are a great resource for language and vocabulary input. They will typically have both languages side-by-side on one double-page, so you can decide which language you prefer using for storytime. A difficulty bilingual parents often face is finding ways to go beyond the daily language used, as this can become repetitive and impede the child’s language advancement. To combat this, we can use bilingual books to “spice-up” the language we use with our children. If you use two languages within your family, then bilingual books are an incredible aid in promoting both languages while cuddling and reading.
But, how should you use bilingual books?
Let’s first start with a big misconception for both monolingual and bilingual books:
Storytime is about reading the whole book – NOT TRUE
Storytime is about creating opportunities for language and emotional interaction with your kids. Who cares if you manage to finish the book or not! Who cares if you even get to read the book! No kid is the same, each child has different attention spans, interests and daily moods. Your main goal should be to grab their attention, keep them babbling or talking, and describing, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. In fact, you can read full stories to your baby, and not only ‘one-word’ books.
Books that enable, and even require, participation and interaction are the most effective. From flipbooks to books with texture to even simply ones with detailed illustrations, there are many to choose from that can make it easier for you as the reader to engage your child and find things to talk about. Bilingual books are no different. Don’t be afraid of confusing the child with more than one language, they are totally capable of grasping the differences (child=sponge remember?).
Tips for using Bilingual Books:
1) Ask what language you should use to read the bilingual book in
The worst thing that could happen in the process of raising a bilingual child is them ending up hating one of the languages. Unfortunately, this is more common than you might think and can be caused by a number of reasons depending on the child. One thing you can do to prevent this from happening is not forcing the language on your bilingual kid during storytime, but rather giving them the languages as options. Of course, if they consistently disregard one of the languages, your parental authority can step in, but for the most part, try to adjust the reading to what they’re in the mood for. If they just got back from a long day with German grandma, they might want to hear English. If they were in school for hours learning in English, they might want to hear German. Be flexible and they will be much more likely to enjoy storytime if they have a say in the language they want you to read in.
2) Describe the images in a bilingual book
The words on the page are important, sure, but not necessarily the aspect of storytime that your child can connect to best (especially true for younger kids). Instead, pay attention to the images. Illustrations are there for a reason, and oftentimes are the overpowering focal point of bilingual books. They bridge the two languages together and act as a great reference point for unfamiliar vocabulary in one or both of the languages. So, be the facilitator in bridging this gap. Describe the illustrations by pointing out any of the elements, even small details like a butterfly in the background or the color of a character’s water bottle. Look to where your child is pointing, and if they use vocabulary from one of their languages, connect it to vocabulary from the other. When they have a visual aid to help them, the process of expanding their vocabulary knowledge will be so much smoother.
Example: “ ’Delfín rosado’, that’s exactly right, that is how we say it in Spanish, in English it is a ‘pink dolphin’” In this case, for example, the child will not only learn the vocabulary but also the structural differences of the two languages.
3) Make Bilingual Storytime Fun
Don’t just read the book page by page without stopping. Make storytime into an experience. Attention spans range from 7-14 minutes for children aged 2-5, so the more you can make storytime interactive, engaging, and fun, the longer you can hope to keep them interested and alert. Show them how exciting different languages can be by giving them an experience they will want to repeat.
1) My kids, for example, relished the fact that animals sound different depending on the language you use. How do animals sound in different languages?
2) Make a connection to something similar the child has already experienced, for example, if the book has to do with a beach start the conversation with “Remember last time we went to the beach? What did you see? Sand and algae and a jellyfish, see like the jellyfish in this book. Does it have the same color?”
4) Ask the child to describe an illustration in your target language
You don’t need to be doing all the work during storytime. After all, you deserve a break while your child takes the lead for a bit. It is actually very beneficial for bilingual children to have practice in describing illustrations, using details such as colors, textures, patterns, and other visual sensory descriptors. This way they get accustomed to using both languages interchangeably and build their own vocabulary. Not to mention, children are significantly more engaged this way and are much less likely to lose interest.
Example: What is your favorite animal on this page? What color is it? Does it have dots or stripes? Do you know what sound this animal makes? Does it run very fast?
5) Stop to make sure the child has understood what has happened
Of course, some moments of confusion might occur, but this is where you can stop and ask questions. You can directly ask about specific events that have happened, what they think will happen next, what do they think of a given character, etc. Their answers to such questions will make it clear if they know what’s going on or not. If it’s clear that they don’t understand something, explain it one more time. Do your best to find ways to explain using the target language, for example by using other words or giving examples to help make the child make a connection. But no worries, there is nothing wrong with explaining it in the child’s stronger language, especially if it helps with their enjoyment and understanding of the story. Simply try to revert to the minority language once it is clear and explain it one more time.
6) Makeup voices or accents for the different characters
Characters in the story should be like real people: full of personality. You can help achieve this effect by giving each character a specific voice, tone, or accent. Believe it or not, these can actually be consistent across all languages. For example, languages, where you would normally roll the R’s, can be made into a posh English accent by using the phonetic English R. You can see this technique being used in children’s films, like the French movie Asterix and Obelix: God Save Britannia, where the British characters retain a specific accent though they are still speaking French (or whatever else the film was dubbed in). Also, if a character has a defining trait, use that in coming up with their voice. The tone you use can convey what kind of person they would be like, and this can further help your child stay interested as well as bridge the languages together.
7) Act out the story
We might not all be academy award-winning actors, but we can still try our best to put on a show. Make funny faces, use movement, be dramatic! This not only makes storytime more fun for both you and the child but will help bilingual children connect certain words with actions if they have not yet encountered them before.
If the child has read the book a few times already, make up a different turn of events for that page and see how your child reacts. If she knows the story well, she will complain strongly that you are reading the story wrong and will defend the original story in her own words, isn’t that what you want?
Example: one of my kids’ favorite book growing up was a picture book in Spanish. As my husband does not speak any Spanish, he would make up a completely ridiculous story that just barely had anything to do with the illustrations. Even now, the kids are teenagers in the meantime, on a rainy weekend, that book makes it back out to our family reading aloud sessions. The story is now becoming even more ridiculous thanks to the kids’ crazy input 🤦♀️🤪
8) Ask the child to “summarize” the story
If you managed to reach the end of the story (if you didn’t, remember– that’s ok), it’s time to see what your child understood. Amongst all the potential distractions, it’s likely that they didn’t catch every word. But, what is important is that the general message was grasped, so you should ask your child to summarize what he remembers. You don’t have to phrase it like a reading comprehension exam question, but casually ask what the story was about. One language will likely be easier than the other, but practice makes perfect so don’t give up!
Example: What was your favorite part of the story? Did you like the main character? What is your favorite page and why?
Last, but not least you will see differences in how quickly bilingual kids learn to read in one language versus the other. Phonetic languages, like for example Spanish are usually easier because they are read exactly as they are spelled. On the other hand, English is a more difficult language to read, simply because it has so many different ways to pronounce the same set of letters. Think of: wind vs wind (waɪnd), tear (tiɛr) vs tear (tɛr), sow (so) vs sow (saʊ).
Simply enjoy the reading aloud sessions and make the most out of this time together. Time to snuggle up and get lost in a book, if you find a bilingual book, even better. 😍😍😍
Gabriela Schultze-Rhonhof Simmons (just to make it complicated), trilingual mom of two trilingual teenagers, who has experienced first hand the ups and downs of the multilingual parenting journey and is still in the middle of it all. Co-Founder of TimTimTom Books. Contact me on gaby at timtimtom dot com
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