Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa


1 Apr 2015

When we decide to pursue literacy skills in more than one language we are adding years to the total time it takes to master a second or third language. Having accepted that, we also know that learning to read is an exciting time in a child’s life, and doing this in more than one language is doubly or triply so. Something that zealous parents should remember, however, is that whereas speaking more than one language is widespread (most of the world does so), reading and writing skills in more than one language are not as common. To make matters even more complex, learning to read and learning to write are complimentary but distinct skills in the brain. The following is a summary of key ideas related to multiliteracy skills.

To be a good reader in two or more languages, a child must give time and practice to each of them. This is different from oral skills. Whereas learning oral vocabulary in the first language usually parallels increased vocabulary in the second language, the same spin-off benefits do not exist for reading and writing. To become a good reader in a foreign language, one has to devote time to that language separately. A child with strong oral skills in Spanish and English, who then learns to read in Spanish, has a very good chance of becoming a good reader in English as well—but it is not automatic. Each language has to be given time to develop.

There are five basic steps to assuring multiliteracy skills (being able to read and write in more than one language):

  1. Understand the use of the written word
  2. Learn the phonemic alphabet
  3. Acknowledge exceptions in sound to letter relation
  4. Acknowledge exceptions between languages
  5. Practice, familiarity, repetition, and frequency

Let’s look at these five steps in the context of an example. Kate is an American married to a Spaniard, living with their two children in Spain. She speaks English to her children and her husband speaks Spanish to them. Their four-year-old son, Pedro, goes to a Spanish preschool. Pedro is beginning to learn the vowels, recognizing the written letters and also the sounds in English as well as Spanish.

Understand the Use of the Written Word and Learn the Phonemic Alphabet

In an ideal situation, Pedro’s mother, Kate, has been reading and speaking to him in English since he was born, and his father has done the same in Spanish. At around age three or so when Pedro began showing a natural curiosity for letters they encouraged this interest and helped him label the symbols that corresponded to letters. Kate did this using her native English, whereas her husband did the same in Spanish. When Kate wrote his name she told Pedro that it starts with a pee, not peh, as in Spanish, for example.

At this stage there are many ways natural curiosity about language manifests itself. For example, Pedro might see a “P” on a billboard or in a newspaper or book and ask, “Hey, Mom, is that my letter?” This is similar to a situation I had with my youngest son when he was three. I remember Mateo told me he “read” the McDonald logo. He had matched a symbol to the word and basically mastered a conceptual understanding of reading by doing so. “That is my letter. It says McDonald’s!” In a twist, a four-year-old friend accompanying us at that moment said, “That’s nothing,” as she pointed to the four circles that are the Audi car logo, “That says a-u-d-i!” This sophisticated matching of symbols (logos) to words (concepts) is a huge first step toward building literacy skills. At this stage, children learn that written language can be used to label things and, especially, to record information, such as in stories or making lists.



Acknowledge Exceptions in Sound to Letter Relation as well as Between Languages

Ideally, when Pedro starts preschool in Spanish he does so with a working knowledge of pre-literacy skills in English already in place. Then, when Pedro begins to learn letters and their corresponding Spanish sounds at school his mom continues to read in English at home but stops (temporarily) explicitly teaching the names of the letters in the alphabet and their corresponding sounds in English. Why stop? It is very hard for a child to learn biliteracy skills simultaneously, especially from two different trusted sources: “But, my mother says something different,” or “My teacher corrected me and said it was like this.” When the child is slightly older and has a cognitive understanding of the different languages and can label them by name, then Kate can begin again to point out that “yes, in Spanish we say eeee but in this English word the letter “E” sounds like ehh. This helps the child with understanding not only the exceptions in the letter sound to symbol correspondence but also the exceptions between languages. Having said this, it’s important to recognize that many school systems begin teaching literacy skills simultaneously. Schools that do so successfully are those that separate the processes by person, place, and time. In the ideal case, a different person, a different physical space, and a different time are used. In the best case scenarios, time means a separation by a number of years, whereas in other cases it means the difference between morning classes and afternoon classes.

It is important to note that most consonants are very close in sound, independent of the languages. The exceptions are usually found in the vowels (a, e, i, o, u). If Pedro’s mother has not yet taught him the phonemic alphabet in English before he starts learning Spanish, she should not try to do so until he gains a firm grasp on the Spanish alphabet and he can clearly label and distinguish between Spanish and English. She should, however, continue to strengthen Pedro’s mother-tongue vocabulary by reading to him in English frequently. In other family cases when the languages have different alphabets, it is important that parents realize that understanding the different symbol systems and giving time to practice each one is perhaps the most important factor in literacy. For example, a child whose home language is Russian might learn the Cyrillic alphabet before entering school and not find conflict learning the Phoenician (ABCs), but he or she will still need to give each language time and practice to ensure fluency.

Practice, Familiarity, Repetition, and Frequency

Good readers read a lot and give time to each of their languages. My daughter learned pre-literacy skills in English with me before she started reading in German at school in the first grade. About two years later she told me it was “too bad” she had never learned to read in Spanish (her father’s language). When I asked her why she thought she couldn’t read in Spanish she said because she had “never had a class in it.” Excitedly, we took advantage of this opportunity and my husband began to read more with her in Spanish, pointing out the sound to symbol correspondence, and I explicitly pointed out that the vowels in Spanish were very similar to those in German (which she found easy by that point). She began to read in Spanish more fluently. We lived in Switzerland at the time, and Spanish books were expensive and not commonly found. We had more English books available than anything else (thanks to my mother and the nearby American Library), and so she spent more time reading for pleasure in English than in Spanish or German. When she got to the third grade, however, German began to dominate based on the amount of school reading. Spanish did not gain equal footing, however, until we returned to South America when she was in the fifth grade. Because of the equal amounts of opportunity (country, school, and parental presence), availability of resources (books in all languages), and personal motivation (friends and relatives who highly recommended books in each of her languages), she now reads at or slightly above age level in these three languages. Practice, familiarity, repetition, and frequency were vital factors. Her writing skills, however, are another story.

To my chagrin, my daughter’s English spelling is still pretty atrocious, but because English and Spanish are school subjects, she accepts corrections from her teachers, something she never did well with her parents, and her writing has improved in a consistent manner over the years. It is worth mentioning an observation about timing and writing in our personal family case, which is admittedly anecdotal but consistent with projections by experts. In sixth grade Natalie blossomed as a student (seven years after being in the German school system). It was at this point that her English and Spanish writing began to catch up with her German. It appears that her writing achievements were staggered in time and developed in direct correlation to the amount of time spent practicing writing in each language. She first needed to consolidate her first language literacy base, and then move on to the second and third. An additional factor about writing that did not exist when “we” were kids is the computer. My daughter argues endlessly again me about the need to learn to spell: “The computer can do that later!” To her credit, her teachers (English, Spanish, and German) now generally comment on her sophisticated content—just before they slam her awful spelling. I have faith, however, that with time and practice her writing skills will continually blossom, just as aspects of her oral language did.

I feel that one of the reasons my children have made good strides with their languages is their emotional links to each of them. The people who love them most in the world, their parents, grandparents, and cousins, speak English and Spanish. This gives these languages an important emotional status in their life. Additionally, their best friends come from school and the community, giving German and Spanish an elevated status. Finally, the years we lived in Switzerland were extremely important in the formative years of my children, and the relationships they formed there, many in French, impacted us all in a very positive way. The overwhelmingly positive links made to these languages have contributed greatly to the speed with which my children learned their languages. We have been fortunate in this respect as I have seen more than a few unsuccessful attempts at a second language thwarted by negative emotions. Let’s look at the link between how emotions impact memories and how memories form the basis of learning.

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About Tracey

Tracey is a globally recognized educational leader who professes the philosophy that change starts with one: one student, one teacher.


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