Episode 96: How can I teach my child to write in the home language?

How can I teach my child to write in the home language-

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I give a mother advice on how to introduce writing for her children.  She is looking for tips to teach writing in the home language which will be different from the one her children are learning in school.  She is also looking for advice on what language to use at home and how to help her children with their homework.

If you don’t have time to listen to the whole episode, you can pick up a cheat sheet with the six basic principles I cover in the episode!
Click Here to Get a Cheat Sheet with Tips To Help Your Child Learn to Write

Hey there and welcome to another Question and Answer episode of the Bilingual Avenue podcast.  We are getting close to celebrating our 100th episode which I am really excited about. If you have enjoyed the podcast, I would love for you to help me celebrate by telling others about the show as well.  If you tell just one more person, that can really help the podcast grow and I would be so thankful.

Today’s question is fun, it is a follow up question from another Q&A back from episode 84.  Analia’s question was submitted this time in Spanish but I have translated it for you.  I have abbreviated a bit to get right to her concerns from her emails. Here’s it goes:

We live in an area with large Hispanic population. I am concerned that the ideal two-way immersion program may not be available in my community.  My question is this, assuming that my children can go to school with full immersion in Spanish.  Which language do you suggest that we speak at home? Currently, we only speak Spanish, both mom and dad that is, but I am slightly concerned about their English exposure.

Also, if they do attend a full immersion program, which is the best method to teach children the language of the home? Specifically when it comes to learning to write. Also, how can we balance school work in English, and practice to learn Spanish? Today, my children are going to a preschool in English but still in the house we speak in Spanish and we talk about everything they did during the day so that they have the vocabulary in both languages. We also read in both languages ​​and on occasion watch TV.

Thank you Analia for your question and for allowing me to share it with the Bilingual Avenue community.

You bring up an interesting point in your follow up question.  You are essentially indicating that even though you live in the United States, your community language is essentially Spanish.  It sounds from the background that you have provided that most of the day to day interactions your children will have with those around them are not going to be in English.  I have certainly seen this happen before.  I have experienced it myself and have heard plenty of other friends and families experience something similar.

On this podcast, you may often hear me refer to languages as community language vs target language.  But another term used to describe different languages is majority language vs minority language.  Just because you live in a country that speaks a certain language does not mean that this language will be the one spoken by the majority of those around you.  So you kind of have to keep that into perspective.

All this to say that if you do in fact think that your children will have little exposure to English yet you want them to be bilingual, you are going to want to make up for that lack of exposure.  You can do that through the One Parent, One Language strategy and have either you or your husband switch from Spanish to English.  You can also implement the Language Time strategy and assign specific times of the day where you as a family will speak English.

Or you can go to the other side of the spectrum and implement a Minority Language at Home strategy and both you and your husband switch to English 100% of the time. The choice is very personal.

One suggestion that you can take on to inform your decision is to designate just a week where you are going to document how much English your kids are hearing throughout the day vs how much Spanish they are exposed to.  It may sound a little silly and to be honest it may be difficult to quantify just how much you are hearing in one language versus the other but give it a shot.

You may be surprised and find that they are in fact hearing more English than you think or you may confirm your suspicion.  After a week, take a look at your findings and incorporate that into your decision making process before you decide to switch your language strategy.

Now let’s move on to your other follow on questions.  You asked what the best way is to teach a language at home, specifically when it comes to writing.  This is a really fun question for me to answer because I loved teaching writing in the classroom and you can do it in a similar way at home.  Many parents are intimidated by writing instruction and I promise it does not always have to be that painful. It certainly is not easy but it is definitely manageable.

You are going to want to introduce writing after your child has been introduced to reading.  Reading and writing are intertwined so you do not have to wait for your child to master reading before you introduce writing.   But it is helpful for your child to have been introduced to reading first because there are some concepts that you will be able to transfer from one skill to the other.

For example, one of the main concepts that you can use to your advantage is that of letters and sounds.  So your child will be learning letters and sounds so they can learn to read and you can take advantage of that little knowledge that they have and incorporate it to their writing.  You are going to want to make sure that your child knows their letters and sounds in the language that they are working with at home.  This is especially important of course if it is going to be different than what they are learning in the classroom.

I actually always encourage parents to focus on the sounds that a letter makes rather than the actual names.  Sounds are much more important for reading and writing.  Analia, in your case, many letters share similar sounds in English and Spanish but there are a few that do not so even if your child is learning the sounds in one language in the classroom you are going to want to teach those differences in the home.

Let’s say the H, for example, it has a very different sound in English and Spanish so you want to make that difference for your child.  Vowels can also be tricky so you want to make sure you make that difference.  That is the number one basic block that you will want to address.

Now let’s move on to some of the mechanics of teaching writing.  I am going to try to simplify things and not get very technical but hang in there with me as I walk through the different things that you want to keep in mind.  Children go through a very predictable set of stages when it comes to learning to write.  First, they start scribbling, then they will start making repetitive drawings that look similar to cursive.

Then, you will find that there are some letters they are very comfortable with like the letters in their names.  For example, my name is Marianna so I am sure when I was a kind I loved using A’s and N’s for because they were all about my name.  Then children progress to writing the beginning and ending sounds in a word and last they will incorporate some blended vowels that make up the middle.  That is sort of a very general but very natural progression for children.

You will find that most likely a child’s interest in communicating their thoughts on paper outgrows their knowledge of spelling.  Therefore, children will very commonly invent their own spelling until they master the correct spelling.  This is perfectly natural.  My advice when you are teaching a child how to write is not to get too caught up with spelling in those early stages!  You are trying to create an appreciation for writing so let that invented spelling happen.

Over time your child will start to incorporate more and more conventional spelling and make up less on their own so they will outgrow the invented spelling but in the beginning just let it happen.

Once you are ready to teach your child more conventional spelling, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Review frequently. This will mean that you have to continually revisit what you have taught your child.  Even if your child has mastered it, keep going back to some of the concepts previously learned so that they are making connections between the new materials and things that they already know.
  • Limit the number of skills you teach your child. Keep your child’s interest and abilities into consideration and do not try to pack too much into one sitting because we really do not want to overwhelm our kiddos. Make sure you are reading the signs of when they are getting tired.  You may be really excited and want to pack a lot of information but limit the number of skills.
  • Encourage your child to double check their work. I will admit I was one of those kids that was so excited after finishing an assignment, I would rush to the front of the classroom, hand over my assignment to my teacher only to notice that I had missed filling the back page of a test or an assignment.  I am, therefore, a big proponent of encouraging your children to double check their work.  It is always a good to get children used to monitoring their own writing, their own reading, and their own assignments.
  • Focus on what you have taught your child. If you see that your child is still incorporating invented spelling for a word that you have already taught him or her, that is when you can jump in and correct those words.  You have the green light for correcting your child if you have already taught the word and they have already seemed to master it.  In these instances, it is perfectly fine to make the correction.  It is probably an oversight and if anything it gives you a really good opportunity to revisit a concept.  If you have already taught it and your child has shown mastery, then you can go ahead and make that correction.
  • Teach your child some of the high frequency words in your language. You will be surprised that we typically find that the 100 most common words make up 50% of what we read which is pretty significant.  That is not the case for every language but it is the case for a lot of them.  We call these words, sight words.  If you teach your child these sight words, they can feel more comfortable when they are writing and it just makes it a little easier for them if they have mastered those.  Take a look and see if you can find the 100 most common words in your language and see if you can teach those to your child.
  • Incorporate the mechanics of writing. You are not going to be teaching a Kindergartener types of speech, of course, but you can start incorporating fundamentals of the writing process.  Basic things like leaving a space in between each word and in between each sentence.   From that you can move on to capitalization, punctuation etc.  Do not try to push these too hard in the beginning but do keep them in mind as your child is showing progress and proving that they can handle more.

I have everything outlined for you in a cheat sheet so you can remember these principles later!

Click Here to Get a Cheat Sheet with Tips To Help Your Child Learn to Write

Hopefully that is helpful for you as you think about teaching your child writing.  It may have sounded a little technical, just go back and listen to that section again.  I also have everything written out on the show notes page, you can find that at bilingualavenue.com/episode96.  It can seem really daunting and scary at first but writing with your child can actually be a lot of fun.  To other listeners, if teaching your child writing is something that is of interest to you, let me know and I will find ways to incorporate more information about writing on the topic in future podcasts.

Alright, Analia, your last question is regarding the work at school vs the work at home.  You can still provide guidance to your child with their homework assignments even if he or she is not receiving instruction in the home language.  To start, establish a regular time for homework.  Find a place where they can do it that avoids distractions.  Make sure your child has the supplies they need to do their homework and show interest in what they are doing.

You should also talk about the assignments and make sure your child understand what they are supposed to do.  You can choose to have these conversations in the home language or in the language your child is using at school.  That is a personal choice and you will see that overtime which one comes natural to you.

If you listen to previous episodes, some guests are really specific about sticking to that target language.  Others have found that it is easier to switch to the language of the school when it comes to homework. So just find your rhythm and try to stick to it.

Once homework is done, you can transition to practicing the home language.  Leverage what your child is learning in school and do exactly what you are doing now with your kids.  Talk about it in the home language so that you are able to complement what they learning in school and have a natural transition between the two languages.

Well that brings us to the end of this episode, I hope you found it helpful.  I know I shared a lot of information.  So again if you want to take a listen to it again, go for it.  If you want to check the show notes for this episode, you can do so at bilingualavenue.com/episode96.  If you need any clarification, I am happy to answer any questions that you may have. Well I commend you Analia for thinking through all these issues in advance.  Visualizing what is coming ahead is always useful!

To everyone else, I also hope you found some good tidbits of information.  Remember that if you have a specific question or scenario you would like to think through, you can also send in your question.  I would love to feature it on a future episode.

Just send me an email, a Facebook message or a tweet!

May you have fun travels on your language journey. Hope to see you again on the Avenue.

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