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Monday, June 10th, 2013

How Should We Teach Reading to a Bilingual Child?

Teaching Reading to a Bilingual Child via lshutterstock

Dear Dr. Gupta,


I have a five-year-old girl who is fluently bilingual. I think she may be French dominant since she speaks to her little sister in French but her English is above average as well so it is hard to tell. I am anglophone and her father is bilingual but his first language is French. He speaks only French with the children and I speak only English. She has always attended school and daycare in French and most of her friends are monolingual francophone. I live in Quebec but on the border with Ottawa so almost all people are bilingual.


I started teaching my five-year-old to read in English at four just because she showed an interest. She picked it up quickly and loved it. Then she showed off her new skills to her father who quickly panicked that she had learned to read in English but not French and started trying to teach her to read in French. It is much harder because you have to learn syllables and not letter sounds. She became frustrated and discouraged and refused to read altogether. We gave her a break from reading since I realize she is still very young and it is not important to push it at this stage.


I think the main problem is we both went to English school and learned to read in English so even though he is a francophone, he does not really know how to teach reading. I on the other hand have taught kids to read English before and I am usually the one who teaches them things as I enjoy teaching. I had planned to teach her to read English and let the school teach her French but my husband is very competitive and protectionist of the French language. There is a lot of politics here surrounding the French language so most Francophones here think kids will pick up English from Sesame Street but you really need to protect the French or it will die out. That is why the French mommies only teach their kids French until they are six because they want them to learn French really well then let them pick up the English since they will need it to work anywhere here.


My question is this. Is there an easier way to teach French reading? Should I insist my husband back off on pushing the French reading as she will learn this in school next year anyway to rekindle her interest in English reading? This is very frustrating for me because we were having so much fun before. Now she refuses to read even cat, which she knows without thinking about it.




Dear Freda,


First off, I don’t know much about the teaching of reading.


But what you have here is a child in Quebec who already speaks the two languages that will be supported in her community as she gets older. You don’t have anything to worry about.


If a child picks up reading before they go to school, that’s nice, but I don’t think it’s something to force, as you have discovered. She’ll learn to read both languages in time. It is not your job to teach reading to your child. It happens at school. It is your job to teach her to take pleasure in learning and in books. The best way to support reading is by sharing books with your child. You need to get back to her taking pleasure in looking at books and being read to, as does your husband.


There are different ways of teaching reading in both English and in French. But the phonics skills developed in one language are readily transferable to the other. This is true of all languages. Think for a moment and you will realise how much easier it is to learn to read words in a language that uses then Roman alphabet than in one that doesn’t.


There is no particular advantage in reading early. What matters is how you read when you are 15, not how you read when you are five. Back off the teaching and go for fun, in both languages.


Dr. Gupta

© 2013, Anthea Fraser Gupta. All rights reserved.

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Anthea Fraser Gupta is a sociolinguist with an interest in how children learn to talk. She was born into a monolingual environment in Middlesbrough, England, but enjoyed learning about languages from an early age. She gained a B.A. in English Linguistic Studies and Archaeology at the University of Newcastle, then went on to do an M.A. in Linguistics. She left Newcastle in 1975 to work in Singapore, where she encountered a society in which multilingualism is usual and expected. In Singapore nearly all children come to nursery school already able to speak 2 or 3 languages. While lecturing in the linguistics of English at the National University of Singapore, she did a doctoral degree at the University of York, looking at the language acquisition over two years of four Singaporean children who were growing up with four languages. In Singapore, she also married a man from a multilingual family from India. She returned to England in 1996 to the School of English at the University of Leeds, where she taught courses on both English language and bilingualism until her retirement in 2010. Anthea has had experience in a range of multilingual and multicultural societies and families. She has published books and articles on English, especially the language use of children in Singapore, and has also produced a novel for children set in Singapore. She is deeply interested in child development and believes that the most important thing in raising a child is to provide love and stimulation, regardless of what language or languages are learned.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsEric Rolf   |  Monday, 16 December 2013 at 11:34 pm

    I am very thankful to you after reading your blog. my elder son is fluent in Spanish as well as in English. your blog helped me to make strategies for him to assist in his learning process.

  2. CommentsAva Anderton   |  Monday, 06 January 2014 at 8:54 am

    This was an intriguing Q&A. I would think phonemic awareness –decoding and breaking down letters as symbols for sounds as an approach to reading would work in any language.

  3. CommentsSheila   |  Sunday, 18 May 2014 at 2:43 am

    I realize this post is a year old, but I thought I would weigh in anyway. I taught my son to read French with a series called “Pas a Pas,” which is, as the name would imply, step-by-step and syllabique. It worked very well, far better than the “global” method they were using in his school. I took the approach of waiting until his reading in his academic language (French) was 100% solid before introducing a second set of phonemes, so now that he is 8, I plan to teach him to read in English this summer. I’m looking for a good method for that, on that will be interesting for him as an 8 year old, but simple enough given that reading isn’t easy for him!

  4. CommentsChris   |  Saturday, 05 March 2016 at 7:05 pm

    I’m Chris, a reading teacher and father of 4 amazing kids. Forget about everything you’ve read and heard about how and when your child should learn to read – most of the information out there is irrelevant, some are downright detrimental, and you may even be shocked to hear that starting off by learning sight words could actually lead to reading problems and difficulties!

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