Thursday, 10 February 2011

Supporting early literacy in bilingual children

Cubling has reached the point where her interest in all things letters and words is well established. I blame the pre-school personally, as I find it terribly early. Nevermind, my approach has always been to look at signs of interest and then support it.

But how do you do it if the language you use exclusively, in spoken and in writing, is one other than the community language, i.e. the language that she will learn to read and write in?
I don't want to confuse my child, but I also don't want to give her more reason to think that it's a nuisance to talk German when everything around her is English. Being a linguist, I also know that the written word gives a lot of power to any language, in fact, often makes a language in the mind of speakers of that language. A language without a written form is often dismissed as a dialect, as not a real language because it lacks the authority of the written word.

Therefore, considering that Cubling's is an at-risk bilingual (that's a bilingual child who grows up in a bilingual home but in whose community only one of the two languages is spoken. This may lead to refusal to speak the non-community language or even a total loss of the minority language, see Neuman/Dickinson, p.161), it's crucial that we support her early literacy without forgetting about German.

There is some information on the lovely internet, but often, the information relates to different settings to ours. Usually the setting relates to migrants who have one language at home and are now entering the UK/English language community. The typical child is one who speaks one language and now enters pre-school not speaking English. Of course our situation is far from this - English is the stronger language and one that is used at home and in the community. My interest is not how to support Cubling's developing literacy in English (because I know roughly how to go about this) but how and when to support it in, and using, German. My aim in this endeavour is not for her to write perfect German, but to be able to read German and use some writing in German, both of which should ideally support her English literacy as well.

More than her actual proficiency in writing and reading German, the reason to support her literacy in German is to give German some equality of relevance and usefulness, which in turn will help her maintain it, but also open up the world of the German written word to her.

We have already had interesting situations where she tried to decipher words on a wall chart. The words were in English, but she spoke to me, so "read" Katze instead of cat. Now this behaviour, while understandable, is bound to cause confusion - c-a-t does not read Katze after all. The nursery suggested to add the German word, which is probably a quick solution but won't help with all the signs we come across during the day.

There seems to be very little research evidence as to how achieve biliteracy. It appears that for children who have a home language and subsequently learn a second language (migrant children speaking one language at home who then enter pre-school and are only there exposed to, say, English) it is better if they learn literacy in their home language first because, in order to learn reading and writing, they need to have a decent range of vocabulary to work with and be able to distinguish phonemes.

For a child like Cubling, who is an at risk bilingual, it is on the one hand important to support the at risk, minority, language by introducing literacy in that language, as otherwise the weaker language may be at even greater risk of being lost. However, it's not clear if her German is proficient enough for her to acquire literacy in German just yet as her productive abilities in German are rather weak. She may be a borderline case and early literacy development is considered to be a mostly transferrable skill so that it may be best to introduce literacy in both languages at the same time.

Interestingly, what started being a question of curiosity appears to point towards a question that hasn't been appropriately answered in research, and one where the level of language in the weaker language may carry the answer. Cubling is definitely a borderline case - her German is beyond the formulaic stage but not yet at the productive stage. It's not clear if passive knowledge of vocabulary is sufficient to lead to fluent literacy or if productive use of a complex range of vocabulary and syntax is a prerequisite for literacy development.

The available research does point towards the importance of supporting literacy development at home, ideally in both languages. The emphasis is on the quality of language interaction and literacy activities in either language to be more important than what language this occurs in. It's just not clear as to whether it's better to introduce literacy in both langauges simultaneously or subsequently.

Bilingual children, regardless of how their proficiency in each language is distributed, benefit from additional support in literacy development. This is because their vocabulary in each language is smaller than that of a monolingual (though the accumulative vocabulary is greater than that of a monolingual) and size of vocabulary has been shown to be directly related to success in acquiring literacy. This means that bilingual children may find it more difficult to acquire literacy.

This means for us that maybe we should change our approach of letting things flow and become a bit more proactive with pre-literacy activities, while keeping in touch with Cubling's educators to spot any possible difficulties she may experience. I'm still none the wiser if it'll be best to focus on English literacy first and introducing German literacy later, or if it may be too late by then and it would in fact be better to introduce both simultaneously.

Susan B. Neuman, David K. Dickinson: Handbook of Early Literacy Research vol. 1.
Ellen Bialystok: Acquisition of Early Literacy in Bilingual Children: A Framework for Research. Language Learning 52:1, p. 159-199.


smashedpea said...

Very interesting post - thank you! This topic is also near and dear to my heart, since we are in this same situation with two at-risk-bilinguals in the house.

I find it interesting that Cubling reads 'cat' as 'Katze'. This has, so far anyway, never happened to us as S has always read words in the language in which they were written. Is Cubling actually reading or does she look at a picture of a cat at the same time or does she know it says cat/Katze on the chart? I know S often tells us she read an entire book when in fact she memorized it all, although she does actually read an increasing number of words these days. For Cubling, I think her age might play a role too, no?

Overall though, introducing literacy skills in both languages around the same time has worked for us (so far). S started learning English letters and sounds in JK last year (at 4) and at the same time became interested in it in German as well. All I had to do then was follow her lead and support her German at home by beginning to teach her how to read (not exactly a concerted effort, more small doses whenever she showed an interest). English is still her stronger language, but she's gotten her head around the early literacy side of things in both languages without confusion, it seems.

Right now I'm trying to figure out our own long-term plan for the whole thing, so thanks again, your post couldn't have been any more timely for us :)

Mwa said...

Very interesting. I'm wondering if I'm doing the right thing now. You know my children are bilingual Dutch-English, and I've told my son I'm not teaching him to read English and he won't get any English books to read by himself until he can read and write Dutch perfectly. Maybe I should be a little more flexible. He seems to be circumventing my rule at any opportunity anyway.

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

A very timely post for me. I'm currently teaching my son (4 1/2) to read in English which is his stronger language. I do often wonder if by teaching him to read in English I am further weakening his already very weak Catalan and undermining his learning to read in Catalan at school?

I'm going to continue though, if only because working with him on phonetics etc has strengthened his English and given him a sharper ear which I am hoping (probably naively) that will develop into a better ear for Catalan, in which he suffers badly from mispronunciation.

I am however, completely taking it at his pace, he can be rather lazy and often seems to feign a stomach ache if things start to get a bit difficult, but we usually manage to do about 20 minutes or so each day and after only two weeks he can now read about 20 words.

I know I have to keep it fun and light-hearted for him, he goes to school for 5 hours a day so I'm weary of overburdening him with additional learning, but it's working OK so far.

Foodie Mummy said...

Oh that's interesting. My 7 year old is not bilingual (through my own fault) but she can 'read' french (she sounds right but doesn't know what she is reading). Our second one is not yet 2 so we are not at this stage yet. They are both subscribed to french magazines and we read them regularly. Do you think it would help?

cartside said...

@smashedpea, she doesn't read yet, but knows most letters of the alphabet. So she saw a cat and a word (cat) and "read" Katze. Because she is learning how to sound out simple words, it could confuse if I'd let it go, so I sounded out "cat" and explained the chart was in English. Cubling is quite creative (in the sense that she isn't bothered with copying and learning by rote - she'll take elements and make up new things, so she doesn't know any stories by heart and even changes well known nursery rhymes) and seeing a c will be enough for her to guess the word. She is very curious to have every sign she sees read out to her at the moment. I was worried that introducing both literacies at the same time may be confusing, but that German might be an easier foundation because of the close relation of letter and sound, but it seems that this isn't an issue as such. Good to hear that you've been successful doing both at the same time, that's very encouraging!

@Mwa, I think if both languages are well established, it doesn't matter so much. The two variables in our case are that Cubling's German vocabulary is small and may not be big enough for successful literacy development vs not developing her German literacy may be the nail on the coffin of German (the crucial time being 3-5 years).

@VBiC, the "mispronunciation" was mentioned in the research too, and indeed, if children have difficulties distinguishing phonemes it's harder for them to develop literacy, so it's good to have extra support with it at home and it will sharpen the ear. And taking it at their pace is, as with everything, the best advice. I had no intention to do any literacy with Cubling, but she's so keen on letters and reading, as well as scribbling, that I can't ignore it any longer.

Rhi@FlourChild said...

Hi, I'm newly following you :) This post is really interesting and timely for me too - I have a 3.5 yr old daughter, bilingual in English and Dutch. I'm Australian and her Dad is Belgian. I speak English to her at home, and she goes to our local Flemish school. She is already writing / drawing all the letters and knows the alphabet, and is hungry for more... She just wants to learn, and to read. She already takes books to bed to read to herself. I want to foster that, and encourage and help her but I have been worrying if it would screw things up for her when she has to learn to read Dutch at school. I've found it hard to find any resources, so I'm really pleased to have found your blog and some real-life bilingual kids to see how others are doing it. Thank you!

Sarah said...

I will be eagerly awaiting your future posts on this topic! My son is only three, but he adores books and recognizes letters and can name them in French and in English. I'll have to figure out when and how to try to teach him to read in French, but for now, I'm just thrilled that he has such a happy relationship with books.

herald said...

very interesting post. i thought that the Goethe Institut in Glasgow used to offer German courses for bilingual kids on a Saturday? I had a look on their website but couldn't find any information- but that would be an idea, just to strengthen their German literacy.
Not sure how I'm going to tackle this issue having a 10 months old, raising her in a Scottish/Swiss German household - being Swiss German a spoken language, it will be quite a challenge!

cartside said...

@Sarah, your son seems to be doing really well, we're only now recognising a decent number of letters (though she did recognise some earlier) and the most important thing about literacy development is of course fostering a motivation - through books and living the importance of the written word.

@herald, yes they used to but it's for school aged children so she's still a bit young for it. And I think it's not running at the moment.
Your combination is interesting, I know a few people where Swiss German is one language. I wonder how difficult it is in general for a Swiss to learn to read and write - it must be tricky in general.

herald said...

In Switzerland you learn German automatically when you start school, as we learn to write and read in German. When I went to school, teachers would speak Swiss German in the 1st year and from the 2nd year, the 'classroom language' was German for core subjects but most teachers would switch to Swiss German for subjects such as art and pe. There is a new trend to make German as the 'classroom language' in kindergarten too, as research showed that it would benefit migrant children - however there is a bit of opposition, as a lot of Swiss people feel that their identity is take from them. I'm a bit in two minds about this, having studied to be a kindergarten teacher - on a personal level, I do identify myself through my language though and I don't think I could bring my daughter up in German even though it would be the more sensible thing to do! As with stories and books, they are mostly in German, so you constantly translate from German to Swiss German.
Going back to your blog, maybe if there was a requirement for infant classes, mixing play with learning, it would be an idea to set something up, either by parents or approaching the Goethe? I'd be certaintly up for it and so would be most of my German speaking friends :-)
In Switzerland some schools (and some kindergartens) offer language classes 1-2 hours a week in the children's native language, which is a great thing I think.

Jen said...

Hello, this is Jen from trilingual trio - now I know who you are I'm following your blog too.

And what a great post. This is a topic that is beginning to occupy my mind, as so far I had nothing more to go on than a statement made by Tracey Tokuhama Espinosa (well-known specialist on multilingualism) at a lecture of hers I went to that you should definitely introduce literacy in one language at a time.

Now I haven't quite worked out how to do that practically, as we have a large collection of children's books in English, French and German, and both I and the children speak all three languages. So next time we sit down with a French book and my son gets interested in the letters and words, how do I enforce "oh no, we can't do that, you're learning to read in English first"? I don't think I want to discourage his interest in that way. Although at the same time we've already run into tricky situations just with the names of letters. For example, our last name is a German name beginning with "W", so in German it's pronounced like a "v" in English. So when I'm talking English to him and he wants to spell his last name, what do I do??? So far I've just fudged, I think, although maybe I should tell him "in German it's this, and in English it's this". He's good on the concept of different words in different languages, though somehow different sounds for the same letters feels like it might be more likely to confuse him.
Arrgh, as you can see, something I could also use some guidance on! Especially, as you say, as written language is sooo important (I'm a linguist too, so I'm with you all the way on that!)
So if you find out any more about this, please pass it on. I'll be doing my own research too, which of course I will share too.
All the best,

Anonymous said...

I am so not looking forward to this, especially as Russian is a different alphabet. Although I don;t know if that makes it easier or harder. I'm assuming harder, but perhaps it will make the two language easier to distinguish. Interesting point about the need for vocabulary. Will keep working on this in preparation.

Kara said...

@Jen - I think you should just tell your son, "In German it's this and in English it's this," especially since he's already used to switching languages. I'm a bilingual teacher and my students always get confused between e/i because when you say "eee" in English, meaning e, it sounds the same as the Spanish name for i. So I just specify - "E as in elephant..." (elephant being a word that starts with "e" in both languages). These are 2nd-3rd grade students, so I definitely wouldn't worry about your son not getting it all sorted out right away. :)

Bilingueper Gioco said...

Great post! I asked myself all these questions too. A. is 3,5, he fits in your definition of at risk bilingual but so far (fingers crossed) has a very positive attitude to the second language (english in our case, italian being the dominant language). In Italy schooling starts at 6, so my plan is to introduce him to reading and writing in English first, the question is how though... English literacy is taught in a very different manner than Italian, and to make things worst there are different appraoches to teaching English literacy too... I'm trying to learn more on the subject, tips from experience mothers welcome...
Thanks for this post,

Tamara Staton said...

Like the others, I find your post both timely and very fascinating. My daughter is 2, and speaking both German and English now, pretty similar competency in both. Also an at-risk bilingual (thank you for introducing this term to me!), as we live in the States and I'm her primary German source (other than a neighbor and playgroup members). As Rhi said of her child, Kaya is also very excited about taking books to bed with her, and is already showing interest in the letters. I've never heard of the idea of introducing literacy of the second/third language once the first is already established. It seems backwards to me, esp. if a child is showing interest, as many of these kids are. I think many of your readers (and our lingual community!) have brought up great points...give them the information that they are seeking and when it's too much, they'll let us know.
I was thinking about this topic the other day, for sure, and am excited to have found your post and blog through the carnival. Raising our daughter in German/English as well, it's exciting for me to connect with others in a similar boat, esp. in regards to resource connections. I hope you continue to blog about her language development...I will certainly look forward to reading more!

Busy as a Bee in Paris said...

hello! visiting from the carnival... i think what's important is to read with your child and to read in the language of the book not translate, to promote early literacy. this is how my children fell in love with books and reading. my three children are trilingual and two of them starting to read and write in all three languages as well, and this by choice. fun books, family, penpals, etc. i have a large selection of books in english, spanish and french at home and sometimes they just look at pictures, but because they love reading, they inevitably start reading the books as well. i don't push too much, although i recently started asking my 10 year old son to read a chapter book in english - that i read before him - and then give me some verbal summaries. my method is perhaps not very scholastic, but i want to engender desire to become bi- or tri-literate, the rest will follow!

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I'm like Solnushka and wondering if two different alphabets will make things easier or more difficult. As she's only 2.5 I've got a little time to research!

cartside said...

Thanks for all the thought provoking comments! I'm no expert on this, learning as I go along as everyone else.

On the topic of different scripts, I have a few thoughts and will put it into a new post because it's a bit much for a comment.

Petra said...

Thank you for this great post! I always thought that reading & writing should be introduced one language at a time. And I switched my son (6) from German (before school) to English when he started school and will soon start him on Saturday school, now that he can read in English. But it is not so clear with my daughter who is 4 and wants to learn to read in German (her words) but her brother is trying to teach her English! So she just has to learn both languages simultaneously and hopefully not be confused :-)

Morgaine le Fée said...

This is a great topic for me, since I'm mother to an italian-swedish at-risk-bilingual child, being swedish the most spoken language.
My son is not 3 yet, so literacy can be a premature issue right now, but there will be a point when we'll face the problem.
Anyway, he has a growing interest for reading several letters in the alphabet: some of them sound different in both languages, and it's a strange situation when it come to the point that mama and papa pronounce the same symbol in a different way.
The Swedish educational system gives bilingual children the opportunity to have a minority mother-tongue teacher a couple of hours/week, both at school and Kindergarten. This could be a precious help.



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