Parents these days face many difficult decisions, no matter if their kids speak one language, two languages or three languages. One of them is whether or not teach children to read in an early childhood, before the school's formal education starts. Some parents decide to wait, thinking that kids will otherwise get bored at school, some step in and provide the reading instructions before elementary school thinking that being "prepared" will help children along the way.
I can understand both parents' positions; nevertheless, experts on this topic see a great benefit in engaging children in pre-reading activities early in life and at preschool. Doing some rhythm and phonic related activities that help children slowly establish letters-sounds connection and prepare them for more formal instructions.
Research shows that
- learning to read is not a natural process like learning to speak
- one has to practice to become a successful reader.
Bilingual children's parents have even a bigger dilemma on the table: should they start teaching their children to read in the minority language before they learn to read in the community language? Can they teach two alphabets at the same time? The answer to this question really depends on a particular child, languages s/he speaks and a particular family situation. Some children do not mix the languages and are ready for simultaneous instructions, some will do best if they start learning to read in one language only. What is important that your bilingual child actually works towards learning to read in one of the languages, as he will be able to apply the reading skills to another language or languages later.
When my son was born, I made a decision to give a try and teach my multilingual kid to read in the minority language before he will be taught reading in the community language. My decision was mostly based on my desire to avoid possible confusions due to the alphabet differences. Russian alphabet is Cyrillic and not Latin. Russian "P" is "R" in English, Russian "H" is "N" in English, and there are many other totally strange looking letters. :) I felt it would be good to give him a head start and allow for the Russian alphabet absorption. Because my little boy enjoyed reading alphabet rhyme books very much, I used this unique opportunity to teach him letter sounds. I write about it in Teaching the Letter Sounds Before Letter Names post. By 18 month he mastered all the letters and could read them in a second. Unfortunately, I had to slow down with my "lessons" when his little sister was born.
Only a year later I was able to dedicate more time to teaching him how to read. I would snuggle on a couch with my son and we would looked together at the book we just received - a practical guide "How to teach a child to read" ( "Kak Nauchit Rebenka Chitat' "). This is a great book by Olga and Sergey Fedini that teaches children to read in Russian. I started reading aloud Russian syllables from the first chapters making silly sounds. It worked! My son laughed repeating them and even started reading by himself. He did not even noticed that he was learning! If you are teaching your child to read in Russian, I also recommend a book by Tatiana Bokova Kak Nauchitsya Bystro Chitat .
By no means you should be stressed about teaching your child to read before school. I had much less time and energy to work on reading with my daughter, but I see she is also doing very well. We work on her reading a little bit everyday and she has already figured out how to read syllables! And she is not 3 yet. Also it really helps to have a big brother as an example and, I guess, a multilingual brain with all neurological connections developed.
I always keep in mind the following 7 principles while teaching my son and now his sister (who is a totally different kind of learner!) to read, that can be implemented by parents of monolingual, bilingual or multilingual children.
1. Short daily (if possible) reading exercises: 5-10 min for children below 4 years old and 10-20 for older children. It could be just recognizing the letters or reading titles in a book you read to your child. Even one seemingly insignificant daily practice gives good results in a long run.
2. Use letter sounds instead of letter names while teaching the alphabet. Read also Teaching the Letter Sounds Before Letter Names .
3. Work with two letter syllables first: read the all possible combinations of two letter syllables first (BA,BE,BI,BO...) then move on to three letter words and then four and so on. Your child should also be able to connect two letters together "B" "A" is "BA"
4. Do not use "and" or any other extra words to connect letters together. For example: MA - instead of saying "M" and "A" , say "M" "A" together is "MA".
5. Practice recognizing letter sounds in words. Ask what letter or letters represent certain sound and write it down together. I do it often while kids are drawing something. We talk about what they draw and I ask to tell me what letter sound the object they draw start from. I repeat the word several times and we listen. Then I or my son writes the word letter by letter. I do not wait long for an answer - I help the kids, if I see the kids have difficulty to recognize sounds. This activity should be a fun game and not a lesson.
This audio was recorded, when my 3 years old child came to me while I was working on the computer and had a piece of paper and a pan near by. She asked me to write something with her and we spelled out grandparents names in Russian "dedushka" and "babushka".
6. Explain most common reading rules: explain the change in letter sound and practice with syllables and short words.
7. Make it fun! It is too early for a toddler or a preschooler to have formal lessons. If a child prefers to play with a ball instead, just do it! You can teach your child letters during other activities. Be creative!
Those are the general rules that you could adapt to your language. Two languages might have a different sound for the same letters. I just tell my children that this is the way the letter sounds in Russian and this is the way it sounds in Italian. Some Italian letters have multiple sounds, so I provide both sounds and tell that in different words the letter sound differently. I explain the reading rule only if I see that the children are ready to listen.
Also I have a proof that reading skills are transferable from language to another - I witnessed that myself! My son read a sign at front of our house that is written in Italian : "Pedoni a destra" ("Pedestrians on the right"). All by himself!
I hope my 7 principles will help you in teaching your child reading in your language and the results will give you as many positive emotions as it gave me. I was over excited when my son could hold himself on the water, but I could never guess how I would explode with emotions, when I heard him reading his first words aloud sitting with a book, far from me and totally on his own!
Good luck! and please share your tips and teaching to read experiences below.
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These are some useful resources:
English language Phonics Primer developed by The National Right to Read Foundation
English language Reading Rules for kindergarten power point presentation on TeachersWeb.
G. Reid Lyon Why Reading Is Not a Natural Process. Educational Leadership Vol. 55, No. 6, March 1998
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What should I order? Mortadella alphabet!
7 facts that can determine the language spoken between multilingual siblings
Bilingual child: when to start reading?