Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family

Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family

by Xiao-lei Wang

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847693693
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 04/15/2011
Series: Parents' and Teachers' Guides Series , #14
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Xiao-lei Wang received her doctoral degree from the University of Chicago in 1992. She is a full professor in the School of Education at Pace University in New York. Her research covers a wide range of topics such as cultural parenting styles, effects of nonverbal communication in teaching and learning, multilingual acquisition and development, and moral development. Her recent book Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven documented the simultaneous trilingual development of her own two children. Dr. Wang is a regular speaker on child development and parenting in local, national and international parents? associations and academic conferences.

Read an Excerpt



On a recent flight from Seoul to Shanghai, I sat near a 5-year-old Korean girl, Choon-Hee and her mother, Mrs Pak. The mother and daughter were on their way to join the girl's father in China. They planned to settle there because of Mr Pak's job relocation. During the nearly 2-hour plane ride, little Choon-Hee was keenly making drawings and experimenting with different ways of forming Korean Hangul1 letters and Hanja (Chinese characters). From time to time, Mrs Pak modelled the details of how to write Hangul letters and Hanja strokes. The mother and the child seemed to enjoy immensely what they were doing.

Watching the interactions between Mrs Pak and her child, I realised that I was witnessing the little girl's multilingual literacy development in the making. I imagined that with this level of child engagement and with this level of parental support, Choon-Hee would certainly become multiliterate in the years to come.

However, as much as I was impressed with the mother-child enthusiasm and as much as I wanted to be optimistic about the girl's future multiliterate development, I could not help but worry if the child would remain so eager down the road and if the child's multilingual reading and writing skills would be thriving a few years from now. My seemingly pessimistic outlook for this child's future multilingual literacy development may not be entirely baseless. You will probably understand my concern after you read an e-mail that I received from a mother.

Anna's frustration is not unusual. Many parents who attended my parents' workshops or corresponded with me have substantiated Anna's sentiment based on their experiences of raising multilingual and multiliterate children. Below are some of their challenges and concerns.

Challenges of Developing Multilingual Literacy

Time constraints

It takes a great amount of time for a child to develop reading and writing skills in one language. Needless to say, those children who grow up with more than one language require even more time to develop the skills in multiple languages. It is already difficult for busy parents to cope with the mundane routines of their everyday lives and it is even harder for them to find time to teach their children to read and write their heritage language. Many parents commented that even though they wanted to engage their children in heritage language literacy activities, there was simply no time.

Moreover, there is always a competition between the time needed for heritage language literacy activities and the time needed for other events, such as sports, leisure and regular school assignments. Thus, the time constraint is often the major issue that prevents children from continuing with their heritage language literacy development.

Lack of pedagogical information

Parents who are determined to help their children develop heritage language literacy skills often have two options. First, there are community-based language schools. When they are available and affordable, parents may choose to send their children to these schools. Alternatively, some parents opt to teach their heritage language literacy at home. The issue, however, is that most teachers who teach in the community language schools are parent volunteers (I call them parent teachers). Even though some may be well educated, they have never gone through any teacher preparation programmes. Some of them simply teach by drawing on their recollection of learning to read as children. As a result, many parent teachers may lack the skills necessary to engage their students. Even if some parent teachers had teaching experience in their heritage country, they may not be familiar with the teaching pedagogy in their current country of residence. Therefore, these parent teachers may not be quite aware that their students experience a different kind of world from that of their own. Many parents who teach their children at home face a similar situation.

Hence, while almost all children are ready to learn, not all parent teachers are ready to teach. Consequently, many children grow exasperated and lose their motivation for heritage language learning. The lack of adequate heritage language teaching pedagogical skills of some parent teachers and parents may be one of the reasons why some children do not make progress or continue with their heritage language literacy development. Research has long indicated that teacher qualification is positively related to student achievements and teachers and their teaching methods do matter.

I want to stress that some parent teachers' lack of pedagogical information does not mean that all parent teachers in community language schools do not contribute to children's heritage language learning. Many of them have greatly contributed to children's success in their heritage language development.

Conflicting teaching styles

The teaching styles of many teachers in community heritage language schools and parents are sometimes drastically different from the ones their children are used to. As a result, their teaching styles unintentionally conflict with their children's learning styles and hinder the children's heritage language literacy skill development. The following is a quote from a 10-year-old boy who attended a community Chinese language school in Montreal in Xiao-lan Curdt-Christiansen's study:

I don't like the Chinese school, it's boring and the characters are too difficult to remember. Plus, there is no action in the class. I feel like sleeping. But my mom says I have to go. I like action. But in the Chinese school, we are not allowed to do anything. We are not allowed to talk or to write except dictations. So all the Chinese I have learned, I forget it all when I come home. In my French school, we are allowed to make up stories, we can talk about our stories in front of the whole class, and the teachers are nice.

This boy's comments pinpoint the obvious differences in teaching styles between his teachers in the community language school and his teachers in his mainstream language school. It is clear that when children are not used to the teaching styles in their community language school or at home, their motivation to learn subsides. I have recently taken my two children out of a local Chinese language school for fearing that they would lose motivation to read and write Chinese because the teaching style there is drastically different from the one in their regular school.

Teaching materials are remote from children's lives

The literacy materials used by community language schools or parents are often textbooks imported from the heritage countries. Frequently, the contents and vocabulary in these textbooks are too remote from children's lives. For instance, a group of teachers in a Canadian community Urdu language school researched some Urdu textbooks and discovered that the reading materials from the heritage regions were full of political undertones and religious dogma too foreign for the children who grew up in Canada to relate to.

A Chinese mother who attended one of my parents' workshops complained that her 12-year-old son refused to learn a poem from the Tang Dynasty. The boy commented that he did not see any point in learning this poem because he had no place to use it. Despite his mother's good reasoning (she argued that it would help him appreciate the beauty of the Chinese language and culture), he remained unconvinced. From his standpoint, the boy may be reasonable. Indeed, why should he learn a poem written hundreds of years ago that is so seemingly unconnected to his life?

Research has shown that it is important how children connect to what they read. As literacy experts Jo-Anne Reid and Barbara Comber rightly point out, children's learning from literacy events is contingent on their being able to make sense of the genre, content and social significance of the task at hand. When the literacy materials are too remote from their reality, children are not motivated to read. In fact, using existing heritage language teaching materials that are not specifically intended for heritage language learners has generally been unsuccessful.

Lack of practical advice books for parents

Despite the fact that there are many parenting advice books on how to raise multilingual children, few specifically address the reading and writing issues of multilingual children. Although some books may touch on these aspects, parents often find them too general and not practical. When parenting advice books occasionally do mention multilingual children's reading and writing, they tend to focus on young children and not on older children. Many parents like Anna (you read her e-mail earlier in this chapter) are desperate to find help in the parenting literature.

Lack of support

Ideally, to facilitate a child's multilingual literacy development, four elements must work together: family, school, community and society. However, children who grow up in a multilingual family rarely receive adequate support from the four milieux. The balance of power often tips heavily towards the mainstream language and literacy development. Few opportunities are offered for children to study their heritage language literacy outside their homes. When school, community and society support for multilingual education is lacking or absent, the responsibility to help children develop multilingual literacy skills falls mostly on parents' shoulders.

Purpose of the Book

The purpose of this book is to help parents explore various ways to make their children's multiliteracy development possible. Drawn on interdisciplinary research in multilingual literacy development as well as experiences of parents who have raised their children with multilingual literacy, this book walks parents through the process of multiliteracy development from infancy to adolescence. It identifies the target skills at each developmental stage and proposes effective strategies that facilitate multiliteracy development in the home environment.

However, I want to stress that this book does not intend to diminish the role of community heritage language schools or school heritage language programmes. I would be very happy to see parents working together with these education entities to promote their children's heritage language literacy development (see Chapter 7). Nevertheless, when many parents are currently left alone to shoulder the challenging task of teaching their children heritage language literacy without adequate school, community or societal support, this book can provide immediate help for them to bring up multilingual children.

This book can be used as a guide for home heritage language literacy teaching or as a supplement for those parents who send their children to heritage language schools. It can also be used as a reference for teachers who teach in community heritage language schools and in school heritage (or foreign) language programmes.

Targeted Child Population

This book focuses on typically developing children who are growing up in multilingual households. It excludes children with cognitive (intellectual) and language learning disabilities for two major reasons. First, within the multilingual child population, there is extraordinary variability with regard to the linguistic, social and cultural environments. It is already a perilous enough undertaking to address this diverse population without delving into the issue of disabilities.

Second and most importantly, the issues related to children with cognitive and language learning disabilities are complicated by the fact that many characteristics of these children cannot be generalised. It would not do these children justice if they were included in this book without enough research evidence to support the home teaching strategies for children with disabilities. However, Appendix A lists some useful references for readers who wish to explore the multilingual literacy development issues on children with cognitive and language disabilities.

Advantages of Teaching Children in the Home Environment

Although teaching children at home alone is not necessarily the most ideal learning environment, when parents cannot find a better solution to fit their needs, it is an option. If the right strategies are employed, there will be positive results associated with home teaching. Research has suggested that children who are home schooled in all the required school subjects tend to perform one grade level higher than their public and private school counterparts and they tend to achieve better educational outcomes. Likewise, research has confirmed that children who are home schooled their entire lives have the highest scholastic achievements. In addition, long-term studies found no apparent social deficiency of home-schooled children.

As of now, little research evidence is available to suggest the absolute advantages of teaching heritage language literacy skills in the home environment. However, studies conducted in different cultural communities have challenged the assumption that school-based literacy is the only legitimate way to engage children with heritage language literacy development. There is evidence to suggest that when parents engage their children in heritage language literacy activities at home, children are likely to make headways in their heritage language literacy development. Thus, it is reasonable to postulate that children who are taught heritage language literacy skills in the home environment may benefit from the experience for at least the following four reasons.

Parent-child relationship

There is a special relationship between parents and children. The emotional bond established with parents can often motivate children to listen to their parents and learn from them. Moreover, the nature of the parent-child interaction context enables parents to know about their children in ways that many others, including teachers, do not. Parents certainly have unique advantages in reaching their children over others.

In fact, the first literacy learning experience most children encounter is often provided by parents in the home. A growing body of research has shown a close relationship between young children's early home literacy experience, their print knowledge, interest in reading and their later engagement in independent reading. Parental overall responsiveness and support in early literacy is the strongest predictor of children's language and early literacy skill development.

Scheduling, location and content flexibility

Each family can set its own schedule based on their family situations. The spontaneous nature of home literacy activities means that learning can occur in the midst of everyday activities, such as mealtimes, shopping and travelling in the car. These kinds of literacy activities do not present an onerous time burden on even the busiest of parents.

Children and parents can spend time flexibly on different language topics based on children's progress at their own pace. In addition, parents can use a variety of environmental prints, such as food packages, newspapers, advertising flyers, magazines, religious texts, game or toy packages, television programme guides, shopping lists, letters, e-mails or text messages and catalogues, to initiate and carry out heritage language literacy activities. These materials are often directly related to children's lives and tend to be more meaningful to children's learning.

Instruction adapted to individual needs

In the home environment, parents can focus more on children's individual language and literacy learning needs and adjust their teaching pace and method accordingly. Children can benefit from the extra time and learn well when their parents do not have to rush to finish a language-learning task before their children are ready.

Learning centred rather than grade centred

In the home learning environment, children are usually not formally graded or tested on their performance. They also do not have to worry whether they will be promoted to the next grade level if they do not do well. Children can therefore concentrate on the learning activities instead of being stressed with grades or tests.

In addition, parents can help motivate children by providing them with alternative forms of reinforcement or rewards, such as verbal praise or something that is related to children's immediate interests. For instance, my younger son Dominique is a football (soccer) fan and an enthusiastic player. To motivate Dominique to read French (one of his heritage languages), my husband introduced him to online European football news. In doing so, Dominique realised that if he read French online, he would be able to get the European football news faster. Such intrinsic motivation (the internal desire to perform a particular task) tends to be longer lasting than grades.

Given the above-mentioned home teaching advantages, teaching children heritage language literacy skills at home may present an attractive option for many families who wish to help their children develop multilingual literacy skills in addition to other possibilities.


Excerpted from "Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Xiao-lei Wang.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: IntroductionChapter 2: Understanding the Multilingual Reading and Writing ProcessChapter 3: The Importance of Active PlanningChapter 4: Infancy and Early Childhood (Birth–5 Years)Chapter 5: Middle Childhood (6 -11 Years)Chapter 6: Adolescence (12 -18 Years)Chapter 7: Parents’ Practices, Voices, and Concluding Remarks

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