Teaching Your Bilingual Child To Read


Multilingual education can be a daunting task. Not so much for the children learning multiple languages, but for us, the parents and teachers trying to teach them! There are so many questions, worries and challenges we face when trying to decide how to approach our multilingual strategy. 


One of the biggest issues comes when it is time for children to learn how to read. Many parents may wonder when to teach children how to read in which language, and whether to give up on one language while they focus on another. 


The most basic premise we need to remember, however, is that just like there’s enough room for speaking multiple languages, there is enough room for reading in multiple languages! As long as your child is ready for reading, that is. 


I am not sure about the rest of the world, but in The US and in Venezuela (where I am originally from), we have been known to push our children into reading way too early! More and more, we want them to learn their alphabet, alphabet sounds, and start reading simple words all before they even get to kindergarten! But the problem with this is that we don’t give them enough time to gain their pre-reading skills, their brains are not developmentally ready for reading yet, and they may turn out to hate reading because of the pressure that has been put upon them. 


Once you know that your child is ready for reading, however, there is no reason why they can’t learn to read in multiple languages at once! Just begin early exposure side by side, and work on reading skills in all of your target languages. 


Introduce your child to your target language’s alphabet early on and practice those pre-reading skills. It’s will be useful to compare the alphabet between the languages and talk about similarities and differences. Once they have mastered those skills, they are ready to move on to the actual practice of reading.

If your children are learning to read the majority language at school, then you should focus on your target language (or languages) at home. You may be required to help with homework and such, but the bulk of your home reading should be in the target language. 


If you are homeschooling or learning to read in multiple languages, then I would recommend setting up a schedule. Divide your time equally amongst the languages you are reading in, maybe alternating days or simply scheduling time slots during the day. 


Here are a few things you should expect when teaching your child to read in multiple languages: 

  1. They may confuse the names and sounds that some letters make, especially if they are similar to each other, but not quite the same. A great example between Spanish and English is the E and I.

  2. They may try to sound things out according to the rules of the other language.

  3. They may break things up into syllables according to the rules of the other language.

  4. They may seem to be behind in terms of vocabulary and how many words they know and quickly recognize (sight words) if you only take into account 1 language. But if you take into account all of the languages spoken and read, you will see that they are on par and will soon surpass their monolingual peers.


All of the above situations are normal! They will sort themselves out with practice! However, if you feel like there is a significant delay in your child’s reading abilities, you should consider seeing a specialist. In the same way that bilingualism will not cause a speech delay, it will not cause a reading delay. If your child is experiencing significant delays in reading, he or she might be facing an issue which requires professional help to overcome.

This task may seem really intimidating and you might fear that your child will fall behind or won’t be able to learn all of the languages. However, remember that it’s not a competition for who can read the earliest! You want your child to be fluent in several languages, you want them to read with confidence, and you want them to LOVE to read. Let it take the time it has to take and never give up on your multilingual goals. 

About the Author

Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and currently works as a Preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on Spanish Safari,  a Spanish Learning game for children 4-10 years old. You can follow her and the rest of the team on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.