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If you speak one language at home and your child goes to kindergarten or first grade in English, the question will naturally arise: When learning to read in two languages, which language should the child learn to read first?

No matter what language your family chooses, the goal should be clear: to read well in both English and your home language. Research shows that being biliterate (not just bilingual) will help your child be more successful in life. It will help them find better jobs, understand different cultures, and grow their brains.

But what’s the best way to help your child begin their reading journey?

First of all, there is no cookie-cutter approach. Some children learn to read two languages simultaneously. Others learn sequentially, becoming fluent readers in one language and then adding a second language soon after. Research shows children can learn two very different reading systems at the same time, such as Chinese and English. Spanish and English have mostly the same alphabet and same left to right text direction, so it’s not as challenging to learn both together. But because the languages are very similar, it may lead some children to mix the two languages up temporarily. This is a normal part of this learning process.

When should a child learn to read in one language first? Typically, if your child can speak one language much better than the other, they should begin to read in the stronger language. For instance, if your child speaks Spanish at home and knows very little English, then reading in Spanish can help them continue building their reading skills, while their basic English skills catch up. This approach has multiple benefits. Spanish-speaking parents can help their child practice reading at home. Just as important, if your child is frustrated or unmotivated in their English-only classroom, learning reading skills in Spanish may help build their confidence and get them excited about reading in general.

When children are required to learn to read in their weaker language — like a recent immigrant suddenly being expected to learn to read in English before they’ve learned to read in their home language — they typically learn to read more slowly and have less success. Why? Because learning to read requires the brain to match up squiggles on the page with sounds and meanings they don’t yet know.

Finally, it’s important to understand that learning to read in a second language doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Why? Because reading is about more than sounding out letters; it’s about getting meaning from symbols on a page. Once the brain has gone through this process in one language, it’s primed to learn to read in a second language.

4 key takeaways about learning to read in two languages:

  1. It’s a good idea to have children learn to read in their stronger language first. Once the brain has learned to read in one language, it’s primed to learn to read in a second language.
  2. However, kids can learn to read in two languages at the same time. Don’t be afraid to read your child books in both English and your home language to try this approach.
  3. Helping your child learn to read in your home language by reading together will help your child develop the thinking skills needed to read while your child is learning English at school.
  4. The goal should be for your child to read well in both English and your home language. Research shows that being biliterate (not just bilingual) helps children be more successful.

This article owes a debt of knowledge to the book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker.

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