Teaching a bilingual child to read

Teaching a bilingual child to read

I've been teaching Sterling to read for the last few months, my second-least-favorite parental task (the first-least-favorite is potty training). I very much enjoy the final result: a kid who can read! But the process itself is tedious and even, weirdly, emotionally fraught? At least it has been with my kids.

It's going really well with Sterling, perhaps because I waited a little longer to start than I did with the girls (they were four and Sterling is nearly five). But there is one little wrinkle in the process that gets bigger and bigger the farther we progress: Sterling is bilingual, and I am only teaching him to read in English. And English, in case you haven't noticed, is not pronounced the way it is spelled.

(Side story: one of my students here once told me about traveling to the US and having some Americans ask her about Finnish. She said something like, "well, it's a difficult language, but it's easy to read because it's pronounced as it's written." And, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT, the Americans were like, "oh, so is English!" No, it's not.)

So in these early stages of teaching Sterling, we start with one-to-one sound and letter mapping. I show him the letter 'e' and we learn that it makes the sound 'eeeee' (and later, sometimes 'eh', or no sound at all). And I feel like I'm lying to him! Because in Finnish, 'e' is always 'eh' and 'i' is always 'eeeee'. The other vowels and consonants in Finnish are consistently pronounced, too. And someday he will learn to read Finnish and I just hope his world doesn't come crashing down.

I used to think parents who had to teach their kids a second alphabet in order to read had it harder. But now I'm wondering if, in some ways, that would actually be easier. Then there's no lying involved; only twice (or more) as many letters and sounds to learn. For Sterling, though, being bilingual in English and Finnish means that the letters in each language will look the same but the sounds they make will often be very different. In my experience, kids in Finland never really need to learn how to spell as a discrete skill. In second grade, Magdalena did a lot of practice with dictation and syllables in Finnish, but there aren't spelling tests as such, like there are in America for almost all of elementary school.

I plan to look up what The Literature has to say on this subject of bilingual kids learning to read. I suspect it will be more of the same: Kids Are Smart And They Will Figure It Out. Because they are! And they do.

August 10th, outsourced

A Quiet Place