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Should I teach my child to read and write in our home language before or after they learn in school?


If this is the question you are asking yourself, I congratulate you on wondering WHEN you should start teaching your child to read and write in your home language, rather than WHETHER OR NOT you should.

Being literate in all their languages will empower our children in many ways (that I won’t develop in this post). Of course, practically, it enables them to access more resources, and later on in life, it can help them in their studies and jobs. Emotionally, it can also help a child confidently endorse their multilingual identity. (But this is a discussion for another blog post...).


The question often arises when our child starts to show interest in reading (by pretending to be reading a book on their own for example) or when they are going to start learning to read and write in school.


This blog post won’t give you a definite answer but aims to point at different aspects to consider so that you can make your own decision.




Here are 7 things to consider:


#1 – You can start teaching your child at any age.

In different countries, children start to learn to read at different ages. In some countries like the UK, they start as early as 4. In others like Finland, they start at 7 years old. Therefore, depending on the country you live in, your child will learn to read and write in their school language / majority language at different ages. Please note that the older your child is, the faster they will learn. Finnish pupils therefore catch up on their British peer in the space of several months.



#2 – Follow your child’s lead, and wait for them to be ready.

Every child is different. Some will want to “crack the code” of these “mysterious symbols” on the pages of their favourite stories earlier than others. When your child is showing this interest towards reading is the right time to start. This can happen before they start to learn to read in the school language, or after.

In your home language, you have the luxury to adapt to your child’s needs and wants. Take advantage of that! You do not have the pressure to follow a curriculum. Your child's experience will also be a lot more positive, and they will master the literacy skills faster if they WANT to learn rather than if they have to learn.



#3- The first language your child will learn to read in is the hardest.

Learning to read in a language means understanding that some of the signs we see on paper represent the words we hear. Understanding this, is the first step. Then comes the decoding process i.e. which “symbol” represents which sound (or idea in the case of ideograms). This is the same in every language. The first time your child learns to read is therefore a lot more difficult than the subsequent times, as new concepts need to be understood.

In other words, we only learn to read once. Then, it is a matter of mastering different ways to represent these sounds (or ideas) each time we learn to read in a new language.

If you do not feel like you have the knowledge and skills to teach your child to read, you can leverage what they learn in school. Here is a video where I talk about this more in details. - How "Leverage" will help you teach your child to read and write.



#4- Learning to read in two different languages will NOT confuse your child.

a- If your language uses a similar script (e.g. the Latin alphabet) to the school language, you might be wondering if teaching your child to read in your language first might impact your child negatively when they will learn to read in school, as they would get confused by similar letters pronounced differently.

There will surely be a learning curve, and your child will need to remember that when reading in Spanish for example, the letter “z” is pronounced [s] or [θ] (depending on the country) but in English, it is read [z]. However, this no different from a monolingual child learning that the letter “c” is read [k] in some contexts (before “a, o, u” or a consonant) and [s] in others (before “e, i, y”).

On the other hand, it is important to remember that there are many other letters that are pronounced in the same way.


b- If your language uses a different script than the school language, the learning curve will be for your child to learn these new “symbols” that represent the sounds (or ideas in the case of ideograms) of your language.

However, there are many things that your child learns by reading in one language that can be leveraged to teach your child to read and write in a language using a different script. For more details, I invite you to watch this videos: How Can I Teach My Child to Read in a Different Script



#5- You can give a head start to your child by teaching them to read in your home language first.

Here are two reasons why you might want to teach your child to read in your home language before or at the same time as they learn in school.

  • A child who learns to read and write in their home language first, has a head start on their peers when learning to read in the school language for the reasons mentioned above.

  • Practice is the key to improvement. Due to the time a child spends in school, and the amount they read and write in the school language, they will become proficient readers and writers in the school language no matter what. By teaching your child to read in the home language first, they can first become independent readers in that language. This head start could play an important role in keeping your child read in your home language as well as in the school language.


#6- Teaching has evolved

Research and practice in education have evolved a lot since the time we were students ourselves. Chances are that the way your child learns in school is much more interactive and engaging than when you and me were in school. When teaching our children, it is therefore important to make learning time engaging and fun!

If your child feels that they do not enjoy the way they learn to read and write in your home language, it is going to be a struggle to keep the learning going.

Focus on creating a learning experience that your child will enjoy! If they enjoy it, they’ll be asking for more! For concrete ideas to teach your child to read and write in a fun way, you can of course check my book The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children.



#7- The home language and the school language are NOT the same

Learning to read and write in the home language and the school/majority language are completely different experiences for your child. The main difference is of course that the school/majority language serves a more “obvious purpose” i.e. to function in society. The home language being more limited in our children’s environment, can seem a lesser priority, especially when it comes to reading and writing. Except the books you/they read, there don’t really seem to be a real necessity to read (from your child's perspective).


Your approach therefore needs to be different. You cannot simply limit the reading and writing experience to a school-like environment.

With the school language, children learn to read and write in school, but they can immediately see how useful these skills are in their everyday life.

With your home language, whether you are teaching your child or send them to a supplementary school, it is important for you to create opportunities for your child to see the usefulness of reading and writing in your language OUTSIDE school, in their EVERYDAY LIFE. This can mean that you need to find books in your language that your child WANTS to read!



Conclusion:

As promised in the introduction, I am NOT giving you a definite answer to the question “Should I teach my child to read and write in our home language before or after they learn in school?” The good news is that it is never too late!


If you are thinking of teaching your child to read and write, or are on the first few steps of their multi-literacy journey, remember to:

  • Follow your child’s lead. Start when they are interested.

  • Once your child can read in one language, the other languages will be a lot easier. You can either be the one walking your child on these first few steps, or you can let the school teacher be that person.

  • Make the learning experience fun.

  • Let your child experience the usefulness of being able to read and write in your home language in everyday life situation.


- So, when will you start teaching your child to read and write in your language?

- Have you already taught your children to read and write? When did you start? Why?

Let me know in the comment!

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