A Bilingual Child: 5 Reading Strategies

English: Open book icon

Open book (Wikipedia)

Giving your child the gift of enjoying the act of reading has got to be one of the greatest things a parent can give.  Assuming we satisfy our child’s basic needs, then reading is a gift that just keep on giving.

But as a dad of a bilingual child it also provides a vital opportunity for exposure to the minority language.  In our case the constant reading of books every night for almost three years has given our son, Mr. T, the chance to learn vocabulary he would never have learnt if he were only listening to me talk.  He has also been able to pick up aspects of the rhythm of the language that I am convinced have helped him to also enjoy music.

While I am very satisfied with Mr. T’s love of all things book-related at the moment, it hasn’t always been the case.  There have been times when he hasn’t wanted to read books, or have books read to him.  There have been spells when he has actively thrown books away when we have suggested reading one and there has been the odd occasion when he has just lost interest half way through a book and gone looking for some other form of entertainment instead,

The easiest thing to have done would have been to give up on books and let him follow his own path.  But then he would have missed out on all the current and future advantages.  To get around his moods and phases we have had to develop some strategies for encouraging him to read or just get through the last negative phase of his life.

1. Keep Reading

When Mr. T hasn’t been interested in reading, I have kept on doing reading aloud anyway.  Sometimes he has continued to ignore me and has played with his cars instead.  At other times he has relented, perhaps out of curiosity, and come over and sat on my lap to finish off the book.  Whatever his reaction, I think it is important that he sees I am not going to give up and that he is free to come and join me is he wishes.

2. Books Are Toys

Book shop

Heaven? (Sue Langford)

My wife and I both treat our books very well.  We are not the obsessive kind who read without breaking the spine of a book, but by the time we are finished, you could easily read it again without worrying about it falling apart or finding that some pages are missing.  We both agreed, though, that for the first few years at least, we had to treat books as if they were toys for our son.  This meant we wouldn’t get upset if he started to bite them, or if the pages were bent or ripped out, or if Mr. T decided that the colours were all wrong and so coloured everything blue.  In order to develop a love for books a child has to interact with them on their own terms, and not according to what an adult thinks is appropriate behaviour.

3. Low Library

By deciding that books were toys we were then free to keep the books in a position where Mr. T could easily get them, without asking us for permission.  This has meant that most of his books are stored under his bed, along with other toys.  The only problem that we have is that he now has too many books to fit under his bed, so some are stored up on a shelf, but we still encourage him to select books to go under the bed every so often when we feel he is maybe getting bored of what he has access to at the moment.

4. Freedom of choice

Although I have my own favourite books that I like to read to my son, it is up to him what we are going to read together.  I like to try to guide him in a certain direction, but if he prefers to read Super Submarines for the 21st night in a row, then that is what he gets.

But freedom of choice is more than this.  I like to take him to the bookshop with me so that he is actively involved in choosing which books to buy.  I am convinced that by him taking part in the selection of the book he is more likely to want to read it when we get home that if he was only ever given books.  I am very happy to say that if we ask him if he wants to go to the bookshop his eyes light up and we can easily spend a whole afternoon looking at different stuff for him to get.

5. Read Yourself

My Books

After Mr. T has finished with his books (Jennerally)

It can be very difficult to find the time, but I believe it is vital that children see their parents reading.  I can vividly remember watching TV as a kid on the sofa with my mum in the armchair reading Catherine Cookson.  I couldn’t quite figure out how a book could be better than watching tele, but over time I realised that there was a whole lot more in books.

Recently I have started to pretend to read when Mr. T is happily playing on his own with his cars or a jigsaw.  I say ‘pretend’ because although I love books, I love watching him play even more, but I am hoping he will see me with a book enjoying myself and he will associate ‘play’ and ‘fun’ with books as much as cars and jigsaws.

More Ideas

Lots of other people have written with ideas and strategies for encouraging reading in both monolingual and multilingual kids.  Some of the best that I have come across include the following.  If you know of any others, please leave a comment below.

Bilingual Monkeys is a wonderful site and is chock full of brilliant ideas for developing reading skills.

Multilingual Families Raising Bilingual Children has a great series of posts looking at pretty much all of the reasons why reading is so important for bilingual kids.

Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes shows how encouraging reading doesn’t have to be just about books.

Dad’s the Way I Like It writes about how important your local library can be.

The Piri-Piri Lexicon discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of reading bilingual books.

And if you need another reason, it’s part of the meaning of life.

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Stupid Things on Planes

Português: Airbus A319 da TAM no Aeroporto de ...

This is exactly how we had to get on and off the plane.

As part of my recent trip back home to the UK with my son to see my family and go to IATEFL we obviously had to fly from Curitiba to London via Sao Paulo.  I chose a night flight in the hope that Mr. T would sleep most of the way and I think it was, mostly, a wise choice.

On the way to the UK the plane left at midnight and my pride and joy was asleep not long after.  He slept for 8 hours and then watched Toy Story so that I only had to keep him from crying at the sheer boredom for the last half an hour or so.  On the way back to Brazil he was even better as he slept nearly all the way.

I like to think that this is down to my planning and preparing for any contingency, but it is probably more to do with the fact that he is now a seasoned traveller with this being his 3rd trip to the UK, as well as many flights within Brazil to see family and friends.

There were two things that more than slightly annoyed me and threatened on more than one occasion to wake my son up and thus guarantee an awful flight for anyone within earshot of his powerful crying.

Burning With the Light of a Thousand Suns

When was the last time you smoked on a plane?  When did you last hear of anyone who thought they were allowed to smoke on a plane?  In my case it is about 15 years ago, and since that time we are pretty much all aware that it is now illegal to smoke anywhere on a plane especially (or particularly, according to the cabin crew on TAM) in the toilets.

I therefore don’t understand why we have to have the no-smoking signs on planes anymore.  We know we can’t do it, just as we know we can’t murder that obnoxious German in the row in front of me who insists on listening to some crap music all night long on his earphones at full blast.

But maybe we have to have these signs just in case somebody feels the need to light up at 10,000 feet.  But do the signs have to burn with the brightness of a thousand suns making it impossible to sleep unless you have an industrial scale mask over your eyes?  I think not.  Every time my son turned over he saw the lights and threatened to wake up with a howl so I had to keep shading his eyes so that everybody else could get something resembling sleep.

Brass Monkey

No, not that type of brass monkey

Brass Monkeys

Maybe my analogy of the lights burning as bright a quite a few suns is off, because if it were true then the cabin would be a few degrees warmer than it was on the trip to the UK.  I don’t know about you, but I never have never felt the need to have the air conditioning on so high that I can see my breath when I breathe, never mind have icicles hanging off the end of my nose.

Perhaps TAM was just preparing us for the Baltic conditions that awaited us in the UK.

Fortunately, I knew about this from previous flights with TAM, so I made sure that both my son and I had plenty of clothes at the ready because those flimsy blankets they give out just don’t do the job.

Dinner at 2?

As I mentioned, the flight to the UK took off at midnight.  By that time I was exhausted and just wanted to follow my son into a deep sleep, or as deep as it can be while sitting at a 95° angle.  The lights were all off (apart from the thousand suns up and down the cabin) and silence reigned, only punctuated by the odd snore and terrible Euro Disco from the row in front.

And then, at about 2am, all the lights were switched on again and the cabin crew started trundling down the aisles serving dinner.  At 2am in the morning!  The smell alone was enough to make my stomach turn over.  Who in their right mind wants to have dinner at 2 in the morning?  There were a few people not in their right minds, but nearly everybody near me just looked fairly put upon as they turned their noses up at the rubbery chicken in a mild and bland curry sauce.


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22 Things You’ll Never Hear Somebody From Curitiba Say

Araucaria, a symbol of Curitiba

Araucaria pine tree, a symbol of Curitiba by Willian Menq CC BY-NC 2.0

1. What this city needs is another shopping mall.

2. This holiday weekend, what I’d really love to do is sit in a traffic jam for hours on end and then stay near the beach while it rains the whole weekend.

3. I’m so proud of how my city is preparing for the World Cup.

4. It’s ok, we won’t need a lift home after the party, we’ll just flag a taxi down on the street.

5. Didn’t we get the best games for the World Cup?  I mean Iran v Nigeria and Honduras v Ecuador!  I’m so excited.

6. Is it just me or is the traffic getting less and less every day?

7. Let’s go to Rua 24hs for a few beers and something to eat.

8.  With my central heating, double glazing and tight-fitting doors and windows I hardly ever notice how cold it can get.

9. I’m sure the new metro system will be ready next year.

10. We have the most successful football teams in the world.

11.  Curitiba International Airport is just so international.

The Oil Man, Curitiba

The Oil Man, another symbol of Curitiba

12. I just can’t find an Italian restaurant in this city.

13. One thing you can be sure of, everything on sale at the market in Largo do Ordem on Sunday mornings is pure top quality.

14. I always stand to one side on the escalator in case other people want to get past.

15. It’s my birthday, so come on down to that German bar in Largo do Ordem for a big night out.

16. Carnival in Rio and Sao Paulo has got nothing on Curitiba.

17. The parks in this city are totally overrated.

18. When I grow up I want to be just like the oil man.

19. It’s impossible to get a decent drink around here so I’ll just have Nova Schincariol

20. Only R$15 for the toll road down to the beach?

21. Bridges?  No thanks.  Sitting in my car for 20 minutes watching a train cross the road really chills me out.

22. I hate pine trees.


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A Bilingual Child: Looking for some advice

Mechanical Painting

I couldn’t find an appropriate image, but I really like this painting by Mark ChadwickCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I recently saw a video of a friend who is bringing her son up to speak English and some Portuguese.  I have a lot in common with them due to the age of the child (about 3), the fact that they come from the same city as me and we have similar backgrounds.

They are also different because they both speak English as a first language and, instead of bringing their child up to be bilingual by speaking two languages at home, or some variety on that, they are making sure he knows certain words in Portuguese.  There are many advantages to doing this, for example, they avoid bad Portuguese while at the same time make their child aware of other languages/cultures early on and also prepare him for learning a language later in life, for example.

One thing that I was struck by was how the parents ask their son ‘What’s X in Portuguese?’ and their son was easily able to tell them.  They ran through about 15 different vocabulary items and their son was able to tell them very quickly what the translation was.  I was impressed.

This is something that we have never done.  To simplify our arrangement, I speak in English and everybody else speaks in Portuguese, but I have never checked if he knows there are two languages or if he is aware that monkey is the English for ‘macaco’.  I have mentioned before in other blog posts, and to anyone who will listen, that I have a sneaky suspicion that he doesn’t even realise that he is being exposed to two different languages

So I have a few questions for those who have more experience of bringing up multilingual children.

1. Did you explicitly ask your child what the word was in a different language or did you just speak the different languages at home assuming that the child would sort it out in his own sweet time?

2. If you did make it explicit that there were two or more languages at what age did you start doing this?

3. If you didn’t highlight the two languages do you feel it made a difference in their language acquisition?

4. Am I being just being a relatively normal parent and finding something to worry about where there isn’t really an issue at all?

If you have any answers, please leave a comment below, write your own blog and link back to this or find some other way of letting me know.  I am genuinely interested in what other people have done as I have found it hard to find any mention of this from my research.

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A Bilingual Child: Speaking in Chunks

Balti Lamb Tikka Saag

I could murder a Ruby Murray (Simmo1024)

I have been a teacher of English as a foreign language for quite some time now, which means that it is very rare that I read something that revolutionises the way I see language or the best ways to teach it.  This might mean that I have become a bit old in the tooth and set in my ways, but I try to combat this by remembering a few things that I read many aeons ago that did completely change the way I view my profession.  And because I deal with language, when my view of language changes it changes my view of life and how I relate to it.

One such moment of clarity was while I was studying for my Diploma in teaching English about ten years ago.  I read a book called ‘The Lexical Approach’ and its follow-up ‘Implementing the Lexical Approach’ by Michael Lewis.  At the time there were a lot of controversial ideas in these books about how we use language, how we learn language and the best ways to teach language.  Among these ideas were the fact that vocabulary, or lexis*, is far more important than grammar and that we shouldn’t worry about individual sounds when teaching pronunciation but on things such as word stress, sentence stress and intonation.

One of the main outcomes of the Lexical Approach has been to accept that we don’t construct sentences by putting individual words together.  Instead, we have sort of prefabricated chunks of language that we can use in whole or in part.  For example, if we really want a cup of tea we don’t search in our minds for the word and then the word would or ‘d and then think of the word love, followed later by and then cup to soon be followed by of and then finally the search for the word that means tea.  The Lexical Approach teaches us that we have stored in our minds the expression I’d love with a slot that could filled with other fully formed expressions like an apple, a Ruby Murray or a cup of tea.

And so it was with some interest that I have been following my son’s journey on his language acquisition.  Would he learn language in individual words, or would he acquire chunks of language.  After all, just because we learn and use a second language in chunks, doesn’t necessarily mean we would learn our first language in the same way.

Cover of "The Gruffalo"

Daddy reads when, and what, he is told to read.

From the age of about 1 it seemed as if the ideas of the Lexical Approach wouldn’t really tell me much about how we learn our first languages.  My son, Mr. T, was picking up and using individual words.  He learnt the colour ‘blue’ and the adjective ‘big’ and the word ‘plane’.  After a while he might say ‘big plane’, but it still seemed as if he was thinking about the two individual words, rather than using them together.

And things started to change.  He never learned the word ‘read‘ or the word ‘book’, but that didn’t stop him saying ‘Daddy read book now.’  While we were in the UK this usage of chunks of language exploded.  He came out with fully formed expressions such as ‘See you later’, ‘Look out the window’ and Go home Noel!’

And so I am pleased to report that my totally unscientific observations have proven that the Lexical Approach is 100% true for both first and second language acquisition.


*Lexis isn’t really the same as vocabulary.  Vocabulary is usually thought of as individual words, whereas lexis is more about individual words and the way they appear with other words to form expressions or phrases.

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Flat Hunting: His Granddad’s Grandson

For sale signs

To let or buyby Boyce Duprey CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We are looking for a new flat at the moment.  We did have plans to build our own house, but thanks to the interminable bureaucracy that is the Brazilian government we have had to put these plans on hold for a while.

My dad, back in the UK, has a thing about houses and flats.  He finds it almost impossible to walk past an estate agent’s without looking in the window to see the prices of property in the area and to see if there are any bargains going.  He is quite happy to go and view houses and think about what he could do to them to improve them.

If he were with us in Brazil he would be like a pig in muck.  And so, it seems, is his grandson.

We showed our son a couple of properties online and he was enthralled.  He loved looking at all the pictures and we took the opportunity to describe some of the things we could see in the pictures, things like the names of the rooms and some of the furniture.

We then took him with us to see some of the flats and told him we were going the ‘apartamento’.  Mr. T was in his element.  It helped that the first couple of flats were empty so he could run around without us worrying he was going to break something.  He quickly learnt the Portuguese word ‘apartamento‘ but seems to have decided that it should be spoken with an English accent so that the final ‘o’ rhymes with ‘toe’.  Do I really sound like that when I speak Portuguese?

It has now developed into an obsession, though.  Yesterday we only saw one flat, but there were tears as we were leaving amid demands for another ‘apartamento’.  During the evening we were having some quiet time before going to bed and all of a sudden Mr. T started asking about more ‘apartamentos.

I think his grandfather, or doe doe as Mr. T calls him, will be very proud.  Despite living half way around the world, it is clear that he is his grandfather’s grandson.

Further Reading

Over my holiday I read ‘Dublin’ by Edward Rutherford.  It is a romantic history of the city and, while not the greatest book in the world, did provide some worthwhile insights into the home of my grandfather.


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Hello, It’s Good to Be Back

Oasis soup

Oasis Soup by atomicjeep CC BY 2.0

As you probably haven’t noticed, I haven’t written anything on here for about a month or so. I went to the IATEFL conference in the UK and decided to make a bit of a holiday out of it for both myself and my son.  As my wife couldn’t get time off from teaching at university it meant leaving Mr. T with my parents while I went off and developed myself at the foremost English teachers’ conference.  I was a bit worried about Mr. T not being comfortable with my parents, so we went back to Birmingham a couple of weeks early so he could get used to them again.

I needn’t have worried as he had a wonderful time with my folks, going to a safari park, visiting a fire station, going on a choo choo train and much, much more besides.  His English has improved far more than I could ever have expected.  Before we went, he seemed to be entering a phase of improving all of his language skills, but while in the UK it was unbelievable how much and how quickly his vocabulary increased.

I also learned a lot at the IATEFL conference, as well as meeting up with lots of old and new friends.  I really must try to get to more of those conferences.  I gave a talk about using linguistic landscapes to teach English that seemed to be well received.  I have this idea to write a book about it, if I can just find the time.

The one thing that I learned outside the conference was also a bit startling: it seems that it is now 2o years since Britpop was a thing in the UK.  The likes of Oasis, Blur, Suede and Pulp formed a large part of the soundtrack to my days at university,so to realise that it is now 20 YEARS since I was a carefree student just doesn’t bear thinking about.



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