Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads, the podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we’re talking about reading in two languages. Bilingual children get taught to read at school in at least one language. But what about the other language or languages? How do you make sure that your child can read in their heritage language as well as the school language? I’ll talk to researcher Elise de Bree to find out the answer. And I share another Kletsheads Quick and Easy with you. A concrete tip that you can put into practice to make the most out of the bilingualism in your family, school or clinic. Keep listening to find out more.

Sharon Unsworth: Learning to read is an important step in your child’s development. When children start to learn to read depends on the country they live in. In some parts of the world, like the UK, children are taught to read pretty much as soon as they enter school. Whereas in other countries, like here in the Netherlands, children spend a year or 2, first learning to recognize some of the letters before they’re actually sat down and taught how to read and write. Now, learning to read comes more easily to some children than others. And as a parent, it’s of course important to help your child to learn to read by reading to them yourself, helping them sound outwards, and, of course, encouraging them to read themselves once they’re able. I think it’s fair to say that most bilingual children learn to read in their school language first. And for parents who don’t speak the school language very well or who usually use another language with their child, this stage in their school career can sometimes lead to a bit of a dilemma. Is it better to stop reading to your child in the other language, your home language, whilst he or she is learning to read in the school language? Will it help if you switch to reading in the school language too? And what about learning to read in the other language or languages? Now, I remember that when my son had just learned to read in Dutch a couple of years ago, something which he found very hard, it became incredibly frustrated and at times confused when he tried reading a book in English. Of course, English is perhaps not the easiest language when it comes to figuring out which letters go with which sounds. But this is a challenge faced by many parents. How do you make sure that your child can read in the heritage language as well as the school language? Is it always better to start with a school language and then move on to the other language? Or is it okay to do it the other way round or even at the same time? And what happens when the two languages use different scripts? These are all questions we’re going to be answering in this episode of Kletsheads, together with Elise de Bree, Professor of Developmental Language Disorders in Inclusive Education at Utrecht University, my hometown here in the Netherlands. I started by asking Elise what steps children have to go through when they learn to read.

Elise de Bree: Well, learning to read is actually a very complicated and protracted process, because the ultimate goal is that we want children to read a text, an entire text, and be able to understand the message. So that takes a lot of different skills. But in order to do that, you first need to be able to read separate words and understand what the words say and read them accurately and fluently, and then move on to the text level. A beginning learner will first see a word such as ‘cat’ and it has to decode the symbols and then translate them to the word cat. So c a t that becomes cat. So the child needs to have the vocabulary knowledge, but it also needs to know which sounds relate to which symbols. And has to of course know the symbols. If you don’t know which symbols relate to which sounds, you’re never going to get there. So you need to have phonology, sounds, you need to have a knowledge of symbols and the combination between them to first read them accurately and then fluently. And then you’re on your way to learning to read and comprehend what you’re reading.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. It’s complicated, right? Because there’s lots of pieces of that puzzle that a child needs to first learn and then put together in some kind of meaningful way.

Elise de Bree: Yes, exactly. And it’s of course, the child starts with spoken language knowledge because prior to learning to read, the child has acquired knowledge in his or her language and knows the meaning of words. But now all those words have to be translated to or have to be recognized in the written text. So it’s actually learning to crack a whole new code. And so I forgot to tell you just now, but of course, if you don’t know the meaning of words, you’re never going to able to to read because you’re not understanding what’s written in in the text. So but it takes a long while to integrate sounds and symbols and the meaning of the language. That takes a long time. Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So, so having a good vocabulary is important to being able to learn to read?

Elise de Bree: Yes. So in the decoding process, so matching the sounds to the symbols, you can get a long way without actually understanding what’s being written there. But of course you want to get to the meaning and and recognizing the words is the end goal of fluent word reading. So you have to connect meaning to the reading text. So of course we can all decode words that we haven’t seen before. So if I see a word such as expefragiliciousexpelliadocius, I won’t have seen that word before, but I can decode it, but I don’t have a meaning to it. So it becomes more difficult to read in the first instance. But I don’t have any meaning added to it. So the decoding process is okay. But in order to understand the meaning of the language to it, you need to have the vocabulary.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And it is, of course, it’s not really a natural thing right?

Elise de Bree: No.

Sharon Unsworth: Reading. People often think language is reading, but actually it’s something we made up.

Elise de Bree: Right, exactly. If we start with the spoken language and then writing and reading is really a cultural invention which is not present, of course, in all cultures. So it really depends where you live, what language and orthography you are taught, and the importance that is attached to cracking the written code. Absolutely. It’s a very interesting question or statement you made, because often when I go to schools and I ask schools about their language policy, they’ll move to a written language policy. So how do we foster reading and spelling? So that’s very much the focus. But of course, the spoken language component is just as equally important in learning to read and learning to comprehend the text that you’re reading. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. So moving now to bilingual children. Are there reasons to expect that learning to read in the school language will be different for bilingual children than for monolingual children?

Elise de Bree: In principal, there shouldn’t be a difference. So when the child is bilingual and enters school, generally, the bilingual child I have in mind at this moment is the one who already speaks the language at school and the other heritage language. And so the spoken language component will have developed and of course the decoding mechanism, so connecting the sounds to the written symbols will proceed. It’s a technical skill that needs to be acquired, and there’s no reason to think that bilingual child will not do that as quickly as fluently as a monolingual child does. So it should not be negative. But of course, if a child is a refugee child who’s just come to the new language and does not have any knowledge about the school language, then it’s a different process. Then it will be more challenging for the child because he or she doesn’t know necessarily the sounds that are present in the school language. So matching the symbols to the sounds will be much more difficult maybe. And also understanding the word. So if a word such as cat, if you don’t know what cat means, you can decode maybe, but it doesn’t have any meaning for you. So then it will be more difficult. But generally for bilingual children, there should not be any problem in in acquiring the the word reading process.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. So it’s to the extent that you have experience with the school language already, then it should be the same. But if you’ve got to learn the school language as well, then it is going to be a challenge because of those building blocks you maybe don’t already have already.

Elise de Bree: Yep.

Sharon Unsworth: And what about you know, I’ve heard that bilingual children have maybe a better phonological awareness, right? Because they’re learning, they grow up with with more than one language, they’re aware of the different sounds and that you can have different sounds in different languages. Does that help then, when it comes to learning to read?

Elise de Bree: That’s a very interesting question. I’m a bit hesitant in answering it really positively, but there are indications. So there are some studies that even point towards the reading outcomes of bilingual children being slightly better than those of the monolingual children in some studies. So just looking at the reading level, not the factors underlying it. So the different skills you need to take to to read. So there are some studies but not that many and that’s really interesting. So the question is how, how? Why, why is there an advantage? And one of the proposed mechanisms indeed is that the ability to play with sounds, so phonological awareness like you refer to, you need to be able to chop a word into pieces like cat should be c a t, but also what rhymes with cat. Is it mat, hat, whatever, and also playing word games. So you have the word cat and you leave out the first sound. So it should be at that’s all related to playing with the structure of words and sounds. And bilingual children have been found to be better in this ability in some studies. So it could be that one of the reasons why in some studies bilingual advantages have been found is that they might have this better phonological awareness. But I don’t think we have the entire puzzle yet.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. It’s, it’s a bit of a can of worms that right. The whole bilingual advantage story. But it’s interesting to note that there might be some advantages for bilinguals when it comes to being able to read. So what can you do then as a parent to help your child learn to read? I mean, in general, I guess not even necessarily for bilingual children. But but what should you be thinking of?

Elise de Bree: Well, I think generally presenting a really nice home literacy environment in which spoken language is important, but also written language. So knowing that books contain words, so there is meaning in words. Reading books together is always good because it’s an understanding. So you creating meaning yourself while reading the book, you understand that there’s there are letters that relate to sounds and to words. And of course, for any child, it’s essential for language development to read together, for young children, but also to have this bond with parents and child, because it’s just in a way of showing affection and share your culture and your communication. So that’s important. But in the learning to read process and the same would go for learning to spell as well, I don’t think the parent needs to do that much in the beginning phase because it’s typically something the mechanisms of learning to read and spell are really taught at school. So mastering that combination of sounds and symbols, that’s something that’s typically done at school, learning to decode. But you can of course, present the rich home literacy environment. That’s always beneficial.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. So read a lot to children from the, from the early ages anyway. And I can imagine that’s also going to help with the development of the vocabulary.

Elise de Bree: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. And then which is going to help them ultimately to learn to read.

Elise de Bree: Yes. Because I just referred to the potential advantages and disadvantages of bilingual children in learning to read. And of course, sometimes it’s stated that the vocabulary of bilingual children in one language is a little less large than those of monolingual children. So for the decoding process, that’s not an issue at all, because of course the decoding is just related to matching the sounds to the symbols. And these will generally be high frequent words in the beginning. So I don’t know whether you remember from your children when they started to learn to read, really the simple words, the really high frequent ones, and the children will know these words. So it shouldn’t be a problem.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, that’s good to know. So, you know, assuming parents are reading to their children, parents of multilingual children will often read in their home language, the heritage language. So for us it will be English, but you know it could be whatever that is for you. Turkish, Finnish, Italian. It depends on where you’re living, of course. Parents I know, at least in my case and I’ve heard it from other parents as well, are often or sometimes advised to stop reading to the child in a language other than the school language at the time when the child is learning to read at school. Right. The idea being that it might confuse them or you can better invest your time in the school language. What do you think? Is that necessary?

Elise de Bree: No, I don’t think that’s necessary. I think it’s important to keep on reading with your child because reading together, reading a story, reading books, sharing knowledge, sharing communication, understanding each other remains important in all the languages you’re acquiring. And so maybe you don’t focus on on what’s in the text. Look, we can read this together, but of course, you’re going to read with your child because the ultimate goal is understanding meaning of texts and whether that’s spoken or written. And of course, you want to bond with your child and you want to provide the language input so you don’t necessarily focus on the technical component of learning to read, but you can focus on the meaning of language and the meaning of the text. So I would definitely continue sharing this rich language and literacy environment.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And just on the kind of almost the flip side of that, you know, even if you continue doing that, there’s nothing wrong whit if your kid comes home with a book from school and or is told by the teacher, you need to practice your reading, right? It’s okay as the bilingual parent, let’s say, to help your child in the school language, as long as you know, you’re you’re able to do it, of course.

Elise de Bree: Yep. I’m guessing that, of course, for the beginning reader, generally, if if the parent is fluent enough, of course they can help in learning to read and doing the practicing. So if you’re able to do it, fine. If not, then there should be other ways that you can think of, such as asking the older brothers and sisters, or asking the neighbours or maybe other relatives who do speak the the school language. But the parent should feel confident about doing actually the reading exercises or making the kilometres, as we say in the Netherlands, of course, the reading kilometres. But in general, of course, a bilingual parent can do this, too. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Yeah. I think sometimes parents are worried that, oh my goodness, that’s no good if I suddenly start doing things in Dutch in the Netherlands or whatever the school language is. But okay, so not necessarily a reason to worry. Some children find learning to read really hard, right? They find it difficult. What kind of problems might they have and at what point should you really be concerned that there might be something serious going on?

Elise de Bree: So generally learning to read and spell, of course it’s the same, it’s something that’s an educational product. So of course some children will come to school and will have already taught themselves to to read. Those are the exceptions. Generally, children are taught this mechanism of of reading and of spelling at school. So it’s an educational investment, an educational outcome. And so what you can see is if a child is not able to progress. So first the child will learn the letters, so it has to recognize the symbols. Then it has to be able to chop words into pieces so that the sounds can actually be related to the letters. If that’s slow, that might be an indication that children are either slower in learning to understand this mechanism or they might catch up in the end. And so really, you can only say a child is a poor reader once the reading process has started, and then you can see okay how is the progress taking place? Is it fast enough or is it not progressing? So is the accuracy, so does the child still make many errors? If the child has to read cat after one year of instruction, it still reads c a t then it’s taking a really long time, whereas typically a reader will recognize the word at that stage. So reading difficulties, you can sort of get some indications in the early years how quick the underlying skills are taking place. But actually you can only assess the outcomes once the reading instruction has taken place. So it’s really important that there’s a good teacher who is able to really teach the children well. And the same is true for bilingual children. So bilingual children follow the same track, but then there shouldn’t be a different trajectory. But it’s actually quite interesting that in the Netherlands, for instance, the number of children who are being referred to dyslexia care, so if you’re really having difficulties in learning to read and spell, is quite low. So it seems that sometimes the reading problems that might arise in these children are being labelled as a language problem rather than a literacy problem. So we’re actually trying to make sure that teachers are aware of this distinction between the technical component of learning to read and spell and the language component. Don’t think too quickly that it’s related to language. It could be something in the reading process that might be slower.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Okay. Maybe we can come back to that in a minute. You can give some tips for teachers. You mentioned dyslexia then. And I think that’s the problem that people think of when they think of problems with reading. Well, hopefully going to have you back at some later stage on the podcast to tell us more about dyslexia, because that’s definitely one of your areas of expertise. But maybe you can just mention to us, so what is dyslexia exactly?

Elise de Bree: Yeah, it’s a tricky question because it depends on who’s presenting it, but generally dyslexia, it’s where the reading and spelling process are not taking place like you would expect. So the child receives adequate teaching, adequate opportunity, adequate feedback on on the learning to read and spell process. But for some reason, the child is having this difficulty that cannot be attributed to something neurological, like, for instance, epilepsy or severe cognitive impairments. And it cannot be the cause of failure to instruct properly, it cannot be the cause of any other external factors. So it’s really the reading process, despite intensive education, that it’s not leading to the desired outcomes.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Okay. And just then for bilinguals, if you’re bilingual, you’ll be dyslexic in both languages, right?

Elise de Bree: Yes. Yes. But of course, there are differences between scripts. So if we’re talking about alphabetic scripts, for instance, English and Dutch, then those are different, as you of course know very much, because it Dutch is much easier to acquire because the sound and the letters match much more easily than in the English language. So in in Dutch, children will move from accuracy, so being able to decode the words to reading them fluently, much faster than in English. In English the children have to decode much longer, so they have c a t but also mate, m a t e or knife or you know, those terrible words that you have in English are much more.

Sharon Unsworth: Cough.

Elise de Bree: Cough. Exactly. Yep. Bough, whatever word you can think of. And so the reading process is the same, but the languages that have this much more difficult script, the focus will be much longer on accuracy rather than fluency. But you’ll have difficulties in both languages. So an Italian child with a really transparent language, difficulties will be on the fluency component in the young learner, whereas in English it will be on the accuracy. But you’ll have the same difficulty in matching sounds to symbols and reading fluently and accurately.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay. So if parents see that their despite having followed the same paths as other children in terms of what education they’ve got and they continue to have problems and these problems seem quite severe, then they should probably start thinking about whether they should talk to somebody. But presumably the teacher will highlight this, right, to a parent?

Elise de Bree: Yes, exactly. So often I think if a child is bilingual and has difficulties in learning to read and spell at school, the teacher will signal this because they, of course, track how the reading process and spelling process are going. And if if this is persistently poor, I think the teachers will come to the parents and ask, so do you know anything about the reading process in the other language that the child is is learning? Are you are you practicing with that? Is that taking place at all? And do you see similar problems? But they’ll generally be problems in both languages.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay.

Elise de Bree: It’s a bit tricky because some studies looking at second language learning, so when you’re learning to read a language when you’re older, so not being bilingual but really using foreign language, then in some cases, students in the Netherlands, for instance, they might have dyslexia and might have these difficulties in Dutch, but for some reason, reading in English for some words are is easier because they recognise the words more easily. So there is this underlying shared difficulty, but sometimes the orthography might actually help foreign language learners. So we don’t know. We need to look into that a bit more. But for bilingual children, the difficulties will be present in both languages generally. Especially if you can compare the the script, so alphabetic scripts when they can be compared. It’s really clear that the difficulties will be present in both.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay, we’ll come back to scripts later on. Just before that, you suggested that bilingual children were maybe not being considered to have dyslexia because teachers thought that it was maybe a language problem. Right. So that they had a problem with the school language rather than a problem with reading. Have you got any tips for teachers for how they should approach diagnosing or indicating that they think a child might have dyslexia, a bilingual child?

Elise de Bree: Yeah. So generally the reading process should take place in the same way. So if there’s proper instruction, so if the child is a bit slower, then you add more intensive practice and feedback. So you go from class approach to small group approach to individual approach, then that should be progress. And of course the teacher needs to be aware that there’s the language component that can take place. If the child doesn’t understand the instruction, then we’re talking about a different situation. But if the if the child speaks both languages, then the reading process should just take place and the decoding mechanism should be exactly the same. So if the child reads unfamiliar words, there shouldn’t be any difference between the monolingual and the bilingual children, for instance, because both words have no meaning and they should just be able to decode them. So it could be the case that you can look into the difference between reading real words and reading nonwords, pseudowords. And then maybe if it’s if it’s a language problem, then the difficulties will arise more on the word reading component because the child will read words they don’t know, but the decoding should just take place. And if that’s the problem, then it’s not a language problem, but it’s really the learning to read problem.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. That’s a great tip. So basically, if it’s a word you think that they should know and they can’t manage, but they can manage to figure out, decode, you know, a nonsense word, a word you made up, then it suggests it’s probably a language issue. They don’t actually know that word. So it’s important then to take into account the language level.

Elise de Bree: Yep.

Sharon Unsworth: Possibly even at the level of different words.

Elise de Bree: Yep, yep. And so for learning to spell it might be a bit more difficult because reading you can just see what’s on the page and then you can decode. So you don’t need to have these representations in your head, you know, knowing what the words look like. So that can be more tricky because in spelling, of course, it’s also a matching sounds to symbols, but the other way around. So you need to first think of the word and then write them down. You have to present the symbols yourself. And that can be more tricky because then all these really orthographic complexities surface like the ones you just mentioned in English. And we think that spelling relies a bit more on language components than reading. So if you consider that a child, you’re looking at a bilingual child, you want to know what’s the language understanding of the school language, how well developed is it understanding what’s happening in the reading process, and also assessing there are difficulties surfacing in both spelling and reading. Because if it’s only a spelling problem and not necessarily a reading problem, then it might be a bit more language related than reading related. So you need to take the whole profile of the child into account. But I think generally teachers will do this, but it’s something that we can take into account.

Sharon Unsworth: We leave our conversation with Elise now to hear our next Kletsheads Quick and Easy. A concrete tip that you can put to use straightaway to make a success of the bilingualism in your family, class or clinic.


Kletsheads Quick and Easy

Sharon Unsworth: In previous episodes of Kletsheads, we’ve talked about writing a family language plan. In the very first episode, in fact, I talked to Eowyn Crisfield about how when you’re expecting a bilingual baby, it’s important to think about how you’re going to deal with the different languages in your family, the goals you have, the people needed to achieve those goals, and what resources are available for the different languages. One question you can ask yourself when writing such a plan is whether the resources available in the languages in question are sufficient to achieve your goals. For example, if you want a child to learn to read and write in the heritage language, then different resources will be needed than if you only want your child to understand that language. To help you figure this out. It’s useful to map out which languages your child hears or will hear over the course of a week. In fact, you can do this at any time, even when your child is older. So the Kletsheads Quick and Easy for this episode is: Map your child’s language input.

Sharon Unsworth: In her book on family language planning. It’s a great book, by the way. Eowyn says that the easiest way to do this is to make a picture. This is never going to be precise, but it will give you an idea of the distribution of the different languages. So if your child’s awake for 12 hours a day, you basically can estimate how many hours he or she hears the two or more languages. So you just go through each day of the week per full hour and indicate what is the main language that your child he is at that point. So, I tried this out for myself, for my daughter, who is now 11. So I basically looked at every day and per hour decided which language she heard the most. Now, when she’s at home just with us, it’s pretty clear cut. It’s just English. When she’s at school, it’s Dutch. There were some cases where it was a bit more complicated. So, for example, after school, she has the children have a babysitter who’s American. They speak mostly English, but there are usually other Dutch speaking children around. So for that, I just said it was both languages. When they’re at home in the evening, they watch some TV in Dutch. But I just decided to ignore that, to not make it too complicated. So I went through all the days and I made rough estimations of the time only per full hour, and that worked quite well. I made a kind of picture for each day with colours for the different languages. And so then you can see at a glance how much contact my daughter has with her two languages. I’ve put the picture that I made in the shownotes so you can have a look if you want. I was pretty happy actually with what I saw because at the moment at least, she has as much contact with English as she does with Dutch. And so that was kind of reassuring for me, but I’m definitely going to do it again in a year or two when she starts secondary school, just to keep an eye on the amount of input that she’s getting in English.

Sharon Unsworth: Now, in her book, Eowyn Crisfield writes that it’s exactly at the moment when there are changes in your child’s life that you should make such an input map. Or if you’re worried about the bilingualism, then mapping their input can also help you identify where changes need to be made. As I said, you can find a picture of the input map I made in the shownotes and there you’ll also find information about Eowyn’s book on language planning. For a different way of mapping the input, take a look at the materials created as part of the Planting Languages project. There they map input using pieces of pizza, whichever way you choose, mapping the input like this can be a fairly quick and easy way of getting a handle on your child’s bilingual situation and whether anything needs to change.

Sharon Unsworth: If you’re a teacher or speech language therapist, it is, of course, also important for you to know how much language input a child in your class or practice gets in the majority language, because this can have consequences for the language proficiency and therefore for what you can expect from them when it comes to their development in that language. You can use the materials I just mentioned from Planting Languages. I’ll put the link there again in the shownotes and you can do this together with parents or ask them to fill in the worksheet at home so that you can have a look at it together afterwards. Another useful tool for mapping bilingual children’s input, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times already on Kletsheads, is the online tool that we’ve developed in the Q-BEx project. So we’ve developed a questionnaire that consists of several modules. There are seven in total, two of which are compulsory, and one of the optional modules that you can choose deals with language input and use. Parents answer the questions at home, online, on the phone or tablet, and you can get an overview of how much time the child spends listening to and using their two or more languages. So for example, you get 30% English, 70% Arabic or whatever the languages are. There’s also a score for both languages separately that indicates how rich the input is. You can then use this information when making clinical decisions or deciding what kind of support a bilingual child in your class might need. And you can find more information in the shownotes or on Q-BEx.org So it was a long one this episode, the Kletsheads Quick and Easy, but I hope it will nevertheless still be useful. The Kletsheads Quick and Easy then, for this episode is to map your child’s language input. Have a go and let me know on social media or by sending an email how you got on.

Sharon Unsworth: So far, we’ve concentrated on learning to read and write in the school language. But many parents want their children, their bilingual children, to learn, to read and hopefully to write in the home language or the heritage language. But they don’t often really know how to go about it. And I must admit that when my kids were starting to read, I also had this question, you know what, what what should I do? How should I approach it? So maybe here again, we can just start at the beginning. So how does a child learn to read in another language when they, you know, they’ve already learned to read and one, and then they have to learn in a second language, by which I mean the second language they learned to read and not necessarily their second language. Right. Could be the first language that they learn. Is it different from reading in the school language?

Elise de Bree: Well, in principle, no, because the mechanism is exactly the same, matching the sounds to the symbols. And so once you’ve done it, you’ve learned it in one language, you can then apply it in another language, but it’s quite tricky. So I tend to think that learning to read and spell is something that typically belongs to school. So once the mechanisms are being acquired, then it might not be the most suitable time to focus on learning to read in the other language. But once the process of decoding and recoding for spelling the other way around, of course, has been acquired and this takes place rather quickly so that the child generally learns all the letters, learns the connections to the sounds, and starts to decode. Only then you can support the reading the language, the other language at home. So I would say until the technicalities have been acquired, it’s easier to let the process take place at at school.

Sharon Unsworth: I suppose it’s not like you have to learn that whole process again, right?

Elise de Bree: No, no, exactly. So once you’ve acquired the mechanism, decoding mechanism, then you can do that in any language. But it’s difficult if the orthographies are a bit different. So I don’t know what your children did, but it could be that they start reading the words in the language that they’ve done at school. So they use the mechanism of decoding, so if, for instance, if looking at my situation, if you learn to read in Dutch and then you have to read in English, it might be that you start to decode in the Dutch way and then you have no idea what the word means. So cat, maybe you could get there, but for knife or any other tricky words the child might say knieve in Dutch because then it starts decoding k n i f e and if so, it would say knieve. But it has to connect to the fact that it’s a different orthography. So the mechanism is exactly the same. But then the child needs to know that different combinations of sounds to letters are possible to get to come to the word meaning.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, so that’s definitely what happened with my children. And I’m sure many parents listening will recognize that as well, that the child will think, Oh, now I can read. And then they pick up a book and the other language start reading it as though it was the school language. And like I said at the start, in the case of my son, get very frustrated because it makes very little sense. So it’s a case of reorganizing which letters go with which sounds right or which combinations of letters go with which sounds.

Elise de Bree: Yep.

Sharon Unsworth: You mentioned there a bit that that it was probably not a good idea to start learning in the other language whilst learning to read in the school language is ongoing and that’s also a question that I get asked a lot by parents. So I indeed have always understood that it’s in general, it’s better to to master the school language first and then only start the other language. But I know opinions are divided. So do you know if there’s any research evidence for one way or the other, or whether it matters or whether you could do them together?

Elise de Bree: Yeah, I don’t think there’s that much research on it. So it’s something I’m very interested in myself. I think it depends on the child, for instance. So some children come to school and they’ve already learned the combination of letters and sounds in their one language, and then the school language is something that’s being taught. So I think we need more research on that. But for the safety side is to make sure that the mechanisms of acquiring reading and spelling is something that first needs to take place and then generally children will benefit. But I think we’ll get more research in the coming years to see whether children are can actually acquire this simultaneously. But I think then generally it’s that the children are already perceptive and have already started some kind of process themselves. But if the child has to acquire the mechanism, it’s at school.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So what I always say to parents and maybe you can tell me if this, if I’ve been saying the wrong thing for years, if a child is really interested in language, you know, you’re reading to them and they’re trying to figure it out. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with, you know, telling them how you say words and sounding them out for them. But yeah, as you said, you can also just wait until they learn at school and then, you know, add on the other language afterwards.

Elise de Bree: Yeah. Yeah. And, and like you say, of course, if the child recognises his or her own letter so Sharon and you recognise the S in a license plate or of course you can stimulate that. It’s really nice. And if the child has, you know, is able to, to already acquire these letters and match the symbols to each other, great. Go for it. So that’s something you can of course stimulate. But the really complicated words, will, of course, surface at a later stage because all instruction takes place with the really easy words first before you move on to the more complex one. So there’s no reason you shouldn’t stimulate if the child is really interested in it. But it’s not something you should actually make a goal if the child is not very keen or very ready for learning to read and spell prior to school.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So, so now imagine we’re talking about children who can read and in the school language and then you want them to learn to read in the heritage language. So how do you actually do that?

Elise de Bree: Well, generally, I think if children are not necessarily aware of what they’re doing. Of course they know the process of what they’re but they’re not metacognitively aware at the young learner stage. So you can basically generally take a simpler book in the heritage language and start reading that with a child like the same ones you start in grade one at school. And so the words will be simple, but then the reading process will take place too, and you can add to complexity later on. So in Dutch you have these really simple words that your children might have had them save the really simple books. And if you have the same ones in the heritage language, then you can practice and move on to more complicated words and then the child will understand. Aha. So, so now I’m using the sounds and, and letters in, in this language and now in this language because then the meaning is also attached to it. So I think lots of shared reading is, is fine. If you can can find the books in the heritage language, then of course that would be super to practise with.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So for that I always found that I was lucky enough and I’ve mentioned this a few times on the podcast already, that my sister has two kids who are the same age, right, growing up in the UK. So I’ve got an immediate source of all information about how things happen in England with English kids. So she sent me along the books that kids used or gave me some tips as to what to use. And so that’s something you can do as well, right, is ask any family or friends in the country where your heritage language is spoken for tips. Ask them what’s happening with their kids at school. I know that definitely my son was not very happy with the idea of having to go back to those simple books again now that after he developed enough in Dutch to read more complicated books. But I definitely saw that they progressed a lot quicker in learning to read in English than they did in Dutch, as you said, because they already knew the idea. It was just a case of rehashing, remixing the letters and the sounds. One thing that I mentioned also before, but we haven’t really spoken about yet and maybe we can finish on that, is what to do when your heritage language doesn’t use a Roman alphabet, so doesn’t use the alphabet that we use in English, Italian and many other languages? So, you know, there are so many languages we could think of that don’t have a Roman alphabet. Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Tigrinya, I’m sure many, many others. So how does learning to read in one of those languages differ?

Elise de Bree: Very complicated question. In some languages, it doesn’t necessarily differ that much. So if there’s some way of connecting the sounds to a symbol, then the mechanism is the same. Except you have to learn a different symbols, different signs that you use. But it’s a bit more tricky. If it’s like characters, for instance, then the mapping is not as consistent because it could be that you map entire syllables or you map entire words to to a character. And of course, when children are taught to read in China, they often use pinyin as a bridge. So they use the sort of an alphabetic principle in between to help them, facilitate them. And of course, if you’re a heritage speaker of Chinese in in the UK or in another country, then you don’t necessarily have access to that teaching mechanism. And so those countries with which have more symbols, like for words entirely, they rely more on visual-verbal and visual-spatial maybe skills than in an alphabetic language which relies on the phonological or the speech sounds relating to the separate symbols. So I wouldn’t necessarily know how to go about it, but I think still there it would also be exposure to the characters and especially in those languages, really knowing the meaning of the words. Because then you can map the sounds, the words to the word symbols, as it were, but for other languages, like Hebrew, for instance, then, then it’s more like units of characters. Then I think you can get a long way with, with the decoding mechanism and exposing the child to the words and the meaning of the words as well. And of course, learning to read in the direction because the directions can change depending on the language you’re learning to read. In alphabetic scripts is usually from left to right, whereas sometimes it’s of course the other way around. That’s something you can easily tell them. So depending on the orthography, the importance of knowing the words is more prominent in the earlier stages of learning to read than in other orthography.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. So for some children who have learned to read in a Roman alphabet language like English, for example, then they can use what they’ve learned, just like we were talking about before in the non-Roman alphabet language. Right. But for others it might be more complicated because like you said, it’s really about going from a character to a word rather than to a sound.

Elise de Bree: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: So what can parents do then to help their children learned to read in one of these languages? Yes, I can imagine. Well, maybe I’m just that’s a completely naive question. Coming from my English perspective, it sounds really complicated, but, you know, I didn’t grow up with it, so I’m guessing it’s less complicated if you grew up with it.

Elise de Bree: Yeah, but I think it’s a it’s a very relevant question. And so the studies that I know of to have tended to focus on foreign language learning, but some of them have also looked at bilingual learning. And of course, the principle is the same. We have spoken language and that needs to be connected to the symbols on paper. So understanding this connection is essential. There’s a code, there’s a new code we have to learn to combine. So connecting sounds to the written is is always the essential part. If that’s mechanism is clear, you can start to read and maybe also spell a bit in any type of language. So the one way alphabetic to different scripts, then there’s already the recoding and the decoding of the separate letters and sounds, but if it’s the other way around, so you start with script, character-based script, then of course it might actually be a bit easier because you have these separate sounds that now have their own symbols in. So the Chinese child will be acquiring the characters in Chinese, but we’ll have learned this through pinyin generally. So then the step to an alphabetic language is actually a bit easier, I would say. But I’m saying this based on speculation, so I don’t know necessarily, but I think it might actually help into the entrance, into another script.

Sharon Unsworth: Right. Right. And of course, I know that in many of these cases that children will often attend a heritage language school where one of the goals is exactly this, to help them to learn to read and write in that language, and particularly when that language has a different script or a different alphabet.

Elise de Bree: Yeah. And that’s always something that if the child and parents feel the importance, then of course that should be stimulated so that the child is equipped to read. And once the child is able to read, it will get more vocabulary in the whatever language the child is reading. So it supports both languages or whichever language you’re reading in. And of course, that’s essential because ultimately the goal is to share and communicate with each other through the written language.

Sharon Unsworth: Thanks to Elise for telling us about the ins and outs of learning to read and how to approach this process with bilingual children. As Elise said right at the start of this episode, reading is, in fact, a pretty unnatural process, so it’s not surprising that it can take some children a while to figure out how to do this. What have we learned in this episode then? Bilingual children learn to read in the same way as monolingual children. So by first breaking downwards into letters and matching letters or combinations of letters to sound, and then learning how to do this more quickly or more fluently. Ultimately, reading means understanding what’s written down, and children won’t be able to do this if they don’t actually know the word in question. So a well-developed vocabulary is essential. As a parent, you can stimulate your child’s vocabulary by reading to them yourself or telling them stories in the language that you speak best. And you can continue to do this once your child starts to learn to read in the school language. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t help your child with their reading in the school language if you’re able to. Well, there’s no reason to focus on reading in the school language alone. When it comes to learning to read in the heritage language, you’ll notice that children will often learn this a lot more quickly than in the school language because they’re already familiar with the idea and with much of the process. That’s assuming that they know how to read in the school language first, of course. What they need to do is to reconfigure, so to match different letters or combinations of letters to different sounds, though in some cases where the heritage language is in a different script. So if the heritage language is in a nonalphabetic script and that’s different from the school language, they’ll need to learn that the symbols or characters refer to larger units, sort of syllables or words rather than just sounds. If you want to help your child learn to read in his or her heritage, language or languages, try and enlist the help of any family or friends you might have in your home country. Ask them to send you resources. Consider signing your child up in a heritage language school where there’s often professional instruction available in that language. If you want to know more about Heritage Language Schools, listen to episode six of the first season of Kletsheads, where I talked to Gizi Canazzaro of the Heritage Language Education Network. So that’s it for this episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new one. Until then.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at kletsheadspodcast.org. That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using amberscript.com and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

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