How to Help Bilingual Children with Reading in Dual Languages

January 17, 2023

Help Bilingual Children with Reading

Many families in the United States are bilingual. Children might grow up proficient in both their family’s native language (Spanish, Chinese, etc.) and in English. When bilingual children are learning to read their parents or caregivers might wonder how best to guide their journey to ensure that children can read fluently in both languages.

Osceola Reads is an organization serving children in Osceola County in Florida where many students are bilingual—speaking both Spanish and English. The organization provides parents with three tips to help bilingual children with reading in dual languages:

  • Practice the alphabet and the sounds of each letter in both languages
  • Ensure children learn the proper sentence structure for each language
  • Read in both languages

The Code is Different for Every Language

Decoding is one of the most basic and important components for reading. To read fluently, children must recognize each letter and understand the sounds of each letter. However, the ‘code’ differs for each language, and this could complicate the reading journey for bilingual children.

For example, not all Spanish letter sounds are the same as the English letter sounds. In addition, Spanish includes some additional sounds not found in English—the ñ is unique to the Spanish alphabet and is pronounced like nya. Double ‘r’ in Spanish requires that speakers roll the ‘r’ sound, while the double ‘r’ in English just sounds like a singular ‘r’.

Before children learn how to decode words to read, they need to learn the alphabet for both languages. This ensures that children understand the letters and the sounds they will need to ‘decode’ to successfully read words in a book in a particular language.

Parents can teach children each alphabet separately to be sure that children don’t get confused or start conflating one language’s alphabet into the other. To help children master the letters and the sounds in each language, parents (or caregivers) can create flashcards for each letter. In addition, parents also could play an alphabet match game with their child by creating two cards for each letter; take turns choosing matches and have children say the letter and make its sound when they choose their cards.

Help Bilingual Children with Reading

Sentence Structure Could be Different, Too

Reading fluently and proficiently also means that children need to have a grasp of proper sentence structure. Again, this can become complicated as different languages might arrange nouns and adjectives in different order.

Depending on the languages that the child speaks, teaching sentence structure could be fairly simple or it might require more instruction to help children gain mastery. In Spanish, adjectives are placed after the noun in a sentence, but sentences in the English language are composed with the adjective placed before the noun. In addition, love languages (i.e. Spanish, French, and Italian) typically designate nouns as feminine or masculine. English doesn’t designate feminine or masculine for nouns.

Children might catch on to sentence arrangement quickly, though, as they are used to speaking in both languages and applying these sentence structures as they speak. Some children, though, could get confused and might need more help.

All languages also include colloquialisms; these are terms or conversational phrases that are used casually but that don’t follow the norms or grammatical rules of the language. Characters in a book might say “What’s up?” instead of a more formal greeting. Some colloquialisms might not easily translate into another language.

A popular Spanish colloquialism is “Vale.” The literal meaning is a ticket. The slang or colloquial meaning is “Yes.”

Read Books in Both Languages

Reading aloud to children exposes them to new words. However, for bilingual children, reading aloud in both languages can help them better understand how to read in both languages. Hearing both languages can help them understand the pronunciation of words for each language, and listening to words and stories could help them with decoding, too.

Many books are printed in multiple languages, and parents might be able to read a favorite story in both languages. However, parents might not always have access to the same book in both languages. Parents just need to expose children to books in their family’s native language and in English (or the other spoken language). The same book doesn’t necessarily need to be purchased for both languages.

Children simply need to hear those different language sounds and learn the sentence structure of both languages. Whether a child only speaks one language or is bilingual (or knows more languages), the best way to help children read is by reading to them and teaching them the letters and the sounds of each letter.

Help Bilingual Children with Reading

Children Can Use a Reading App to Help Master Reading in English

For children living in Osceola County, Osceola Reads provides a reading app that is designed to help bilingual children. However, those living outside of this region might not know how to find reading help to ensure their child can read in both languages.

Readability Tutor offers reading help in English and is designed to be used by children in kindergarten through sixth grade. While Readability doesn’t offer dual Spanish/English lessons, it can help children gain a better understanding of reading in English if they are bilingual or learning English as a second language.

Readability’s reading lessons are leveled to ensure that books are appropriate for every child’s ability. Parents who know their child’s reading level can choose to set the level on the program as the baseline or Readability can work with the child to determine the most appropriate baseline reading level in which to begin lessons.

A built-in AI reading tutor guides a child during the program. Children read aloud when using Readability, and the AI tutor is programmed with voice-recognition software to learn and understand each child’s voice and intonation. If a child doesn’t know how to pronounce a word, the tutor will provide help.

In addition, Readability’s AI tutor also helps measure a child’s reading comprehension abilities. At the end of every book, the tutor asks questions related to the story. Children need to demonstrate comprehension mastery and read fluently before they move to a more difficult reading level.

Vocabulary mastery is crucial to reading comprehension, too. Every book in a child’s Readability online library includes a list of vocabulary words to ensure that children are expanding their word knowledge. Children also can tap any word in a story to hear the word’s definition or hear it used in a sentence; the discovered word is added to the child’s master vocabulary list. Children can explore all the words in their master vocabulary list any time they wish.

Listening to stories read aloud also can help children read in a particular language. For younger children, Readability offers the Storytime feature that lets children listen to their favorite books in the program. With Storytime, children can follow along in the book and hear the story read aloud by a narrator.

Parents or caregivers who are interested in using a reading app to help their child learn to read more fluently in English can sign up for a free seven-day trial with Readability. During the trial period, children will have access to all the features of the program and can work with the reading tutor. Parents can explore how the app guides lessons and helps children gain proficiency and confidence.