biliteracyThe more you read, the more you know… and the smarter you’ll grow1. And if you read in two languages, the more bilingual you will be, and doubly smart too! Family literacy is defined as home literacy activities that provide literacy skill-building opportunities for young children while enhancing literacy skill development in all members of the family. Our particular form of family literacy is bilingual English-Spanish and focused on our 6-year-old daughter Carla. She started reading in English before K. We taught her at home before she was taught how to read in Spanish at school to avoid confusion. And now at 6 she’s reading in Spanish at a solid first grade and one year above grade level in English. There is no secret but here’s our secret:

  1. Deliberate and regular practice both in reading aloud and in being read to. Both activities are necessary since the child’s reading proficiency is below her comprehension level so when Carla reads, she strengthens her skills and gains confidence and when she’s read to she has the right kind of input and a model of rhythm and intonation in longer stretches. Right now she’s reading Francesca Simon’s Horid Henry’s Double Dare (Orion, 2010), which is good practice because it is printed in as varied a typesetting as can be: capitals and lower-case, bold type and italics, fragments in larger size for emphasis, fonts that imitate handwritten text. And the jokes and dares are brief and funny. She read last week La bruja Belinda by Beatriz Doumerc (Bruño, 2015), which is part of a series developed to make children acquainted with storytelling and phonemes, and includes comprehension games and activities. Now that Christmas is getting near, we found a second-hand Spanish edition of Piet Worm’s La Biblia de los Niños (Plaza y Janés, 1962), which is easy enough for Carla to read. She’s being read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, illustrated by Quentin Blake, of course, (Puffin, 2013) before watching the film, which certainly makes a difference. Next comes Elizabeth Howard’s The Amazing Adventures of Freddie Whitemouse, who simply hates being a mouse (Mantle, 2016).
  2. Read on a broad range of topics. Stories are good, but so is poetry and non-fiction. Poetry is excellent to develop a sense of rhythm, enjoy rhyme and think and talk about the point of the poem. Every now and then we open The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry (ed. By Brian Patten, 1999) My sister Laura’s bigger than me/ And lifts me up quite easily./ I can’t lift her, I’ve tried and tried;/ She must have something heavy inside. Our lattest discovery is the dictionary, but a dictionary you can read as a regular book, Merriam Webster’s First Dictionary (2012), with easy definitions, examples, illustrations, a bit of history, stories and poems, look-it-up notes to almost 3000 words! For now we go one at a time.
  3. Read in different mediums. This means more that paper or tablet. We have found that subtitles and captions can be added to the reading menu, moderately at first.
  4. Play with books. When Carla was smaller she loved pop-ups, and we treasure her Maisy books, Las tres mellizas, or La casa del señor coc, but she outgrew those books and now we enjoy the experiments in Make and Do –Science (Priddy Books, 2010) and surprise friends with the vinegar volcano, the non-pop balloon or the disappearing egg-shell. Amazing.


1A. Cunningham and K. Stanovich. 2001. What reading does for the mind. Journal of Direct Instruction 1(2):137-49 []


homeschoolWhat should parents do when their child is offered lessons as a beginner at school in a language they speak fluently (and can even read)? Colin Baker1 answers this question from three perspectives. From a child’s perspective it is a bitter-sweet situation since the child may appear to classmates wonderfully clever. So says prof. Baker but it will certainly depend on the age and personality of the child and in our experience the feeling may be best described as ‘boredom’. From the parent’s point of view, language education will be seen as a waste of time if not a step backward since the child will surely develop a negative attitude towards learning. From the teacher’s perspective, it can be a great opportunity to use a role model with a good use and accent for others to copy. This is good but where’s the gain for the child? We changed Carla’s school after returning from a five-month stay in the US, where she attended an excellent school where two teachers struggled to give each child in the class individual challenges, Carla took and enjoyed them all.

Her former Spanish school bears the label ‘bilingual’, which is a misnomer in all Spanish public education and in Andalucía in particular, so we decided to change to a private school where the adjective meant something. A second issue would be the possibilities of individualization within the straightjacket of the Spanish education system. Into this bleak picture came a ray of hope: teacher Vicky. Our first grader is about to begin using three books from Collins easy learning series (ages 5-7) as extra material chosen and supervised by her teacher: Spelling, Phonics and Comprehension. The first two will strengthen crucial areas in Carla’s learning but the comprehension one looks like her kind of challenge: The three Billy Goats Gruff, Sandwich making, A Martian lands on Earth… She can’t wait to start.

1 A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism 4th ed., by Colin Baker (Multilingual Matters, 2014)


wp_20161106_005While researchers study the specificity of the bilingual advantage in memory, we are having fun and helping Carla to improve her memory by playing Brainbox® Science. This game has 70 cards covering topics from the Key Stage 2 science curriculum including the uses of electricity, the planets, or the human body. The aim of the game is to be the player with the most cards after 10 minutes. Each player takes turns to study a picture until the ten second timer runs out (younger player can be given double this time). You pass the card to the next player, roll the die and then must answer the question with the number shown on the die. If correct, you keep the card. If incorrect you return the card to the Brainbox. Questions vary from simple observation (How many complete skeletons are shown?) to more specific questions (Do all invertebrates have legs?). There is a broad range of games with a variety of themes but they all aim at expanding the child’s general observation and memory recall skills (preparing them for the real world and test taking), increasing their positive social interactions, and improving their knowledge on various subjects (e.g. Maths, Science, History, English, French, Spanish, German) through play. There are also more creative and artistic games (we have already ordered Art, developed in conjunction with London’s National Gallery) and there’s one based on Mister Maker in which children decorate the cards and write one question chosen by themselves. If you want to discover your child’s Brainbox personality, you can take a short quiz  and together with the result you will be sent a booklet with many techniques to improve your child’s memory (and yours too!) such as visualization, chaining, mnemonics or the pegging system, advice on how to increase positive social interactions and help with various subjects. Here’s a selection of games in English and Spanish (there are also French editions of some of the games):





naturalWhen Carla was born six years ago in Granada (Spain), my husband and I were convinced that if she was exposed to both Spanish and English from the start she could acquire the languages effortlessly. Both of us are teachers of English and both had lived for some time in UK and the US. Neither of us was a native speaker of English but both had what Bloomfield called ‘native-like control’, and were strongly committed to creating a bilingual environment at home. We also had our doubts, which were not dispelled when we read that what we were attempting was called ‘artificial’ bilingualism by Kielhöfer & Jonekeit1, because a parent is passing on a non-native rather than a native language to their children. The authors didn’t recommend such practice and indicated that such cases that they knew of had failed. Despite this negative forecast, our determination was not undermined because we saw Carla’s progress daily and if bilingualism hadn’t been ‘natural’ in our cases, it would be our option as a family, so we persevered.  Kielhöfer & Jonekeit didn’t know (and neither did we at the time!) about an Australian called George Saunders, who successfully raised three children bilingual in English and German although both he and his wife were not native speakers of German and their family lived in Australia. Then we read Saunders’ books Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family (1982) and Bilingual Children: from Birth to Teens (1988), which are basically the same book with the only difference that the first tells Saunders’ experience with his two older children and the second with his three children. He pointed out several aspects of bilingualism that convinced us that we were on the right track.

  • Many parents in the world speak to their children in a language which is not their native language, usually when immigrants use the language of their new country to their children.
  • There are also many parents whose native language is the majority language who have learnt their spouse’s native language and have chosen to speak to their children in that language.
  • There are notable examples of ‘artificial’ bilingualism in which some countries or regions have relied on large numbers of their citizens speaking a non-native language to their children to enable the creation of a national language. Saunders mentions the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, Scottish Gaelic and Irish (we could add Basque, Catalan and Galician in post-Franco’s Spain).
  • Natural bilingualism doesn’t prove successful in all cases and many of the problems faced in both kinds of bilingualism are similar (eg., when children understand everything in both languages but will only speak the majority language, especially in front of strangers).

We can modestly add our case as evidence that ‘artificial’ bilingualism can be successful. At six, Carla can speak both Spanish and English fluently and can read books in both languages with a similar level of proficiency. It is true that we had a little unfinished business. Neither my husband nor I are native-like models for pronunciation but that can be solved with a stay in an English-speaking country. We spent four months in the US last spring and while my husband and I returned with our old foreign accent, Carla acquired a flawless East coast pronunciation (for a six year old).

The label ‘artificial’ bilingualism implies unnaturalness or lack of genuineness but this can only describe the situation for parents before the two languages are consistently established in the family life. If bilingual education begins at birth, the child will find it the most natural thing in the world. That’s something parents will discover by themselves, the same as we did.

1 Bernd Kielhöfer & Sylvie Jonekeit 1983. Zweisprachige Kindererziehung (= Raising Children Bilingually), Taschenbuch.



rugrats2Language acquisition has been described as a subconscious process taking place in the context of functional language use. Hence language acquirers are not usually aware that they are learning a language. This is what happens “naturally” at home in the early stages of language development, which can be used to foster bilingualism. Then comes schooling and acquisition progressively gives way to conscious learning. This is especially so in the case of second/foreign language learning. It is our understanding that the crucial difference seems to lie in the child’s subconscious perception of naturalness. A valuable example is TV. Since the language of TV cartoons and shows at home had always been English (the news were usually in Spanish), Carla got used to it and never noticed or complained until at some point (she was between 4 and 5 years old), she noticed and disliked it when some shows were not in their usual language. By that age, some of her friends and cousins who came home complained that they couldn’t understand TV and hated it. Clearly their attitude indicated that for them the cartoons were in a foreign (rather than a second) language that they didn’t accept, let alone understand. This attitude may block acquisition of a second language even at such early ages, since it will prevent children from using the cues from their environment to acquire language. And this is why it is so important to start and maintain an early bilingual input at home. Exposure should also include written language since children are thought to acquire much of their literacy without formal instruction. Here is where captions come in.

Subtitles and captions

Although sometimes they are used interchangeably, captions commonly refer to on-screen text specifically designed for hearing impaired viewers, that is, in the same language of the original soundtrack, while subtitles are straight transcriptions or translations of the dialogue. (Closed) Captions are usually positioned below the person who is speaking, and they include descriptions of sounds and music. In other words, subtitles are intended for viewers who can hear the audio but cannot understand the language while closed captions communicate all audio information, including sound effects. In France, Germany or Spain, TV shows are mostly dubbed while in the Netherlands, Belgium or Portugal subtitling is the common practice. And in most countries, closed captions can be turned on at any moment.

The reason why subtitling is preferred to dubbing is because subtitling is much cheaper. But aesthetic reasons regarding the integrity of the audio-visual text are more complex. Subtitling allows to maintain the voices of the actors but the subtitles cover part of the screen and reading may distract viewers. Dubbing alters the actors’ performance and lip-sync is never complete and so distracting but the screen image remains intact. A second problem is that subtitles can often be too quick and children may have difficulty following a film/show. But more importantly, viewers’ preferences for dubbing or subtitling do not seem to be motivated by aesthetics but by habit. An unintended advantage of subtitling is that learning effects may occur both in the first and second language. The conclusion is clear: get your child used to watching TV with captions no matter the language. Captions mean that both the sound and the written channels convey the same language so this is a reinforced input. We noticed how some of our friends in the US kept the captions on all the time and how that could contribute to the reading skills of 4-5 year olds who were learning sight words at school.

Research1 has shown that the reading of subtitles enhances the development of children’s decoding skills and a second effect affects the acquisition of foreign languages. In a study cited by Koolstra, Dutch sixth graders indicated they learned more English from radio and TV than at school (we don’t know whether this is good or bad!). Significantly, TV programs provide a rich context for second acquisition given the multiple channels: the spoken (first or second) language, the written (first or second) language and the visual image. Second, viewers are strongly motivated to understand what is shown and said on TV and last but not least there is a generally positive attitude towards languages if this enhanced input starts soon enough.

In non-formal contexts learning occurs because the child is trying to understand what is said, sung or written, and meanings are not given but inferred from the situations in which they are presented. If children grow accustomed to subtitles, their reading skills are bound to have more solid foundations and the extensive practice may make quite a difference in the child’s reading speed. An added bonus will be the addition of a powerful source of reading material to the good old books.

1KOOLSTRA, Cees M. & Johannes W. J. BEENTJES 1999. Children’s vocabulary acquisition in a foreign language through watching subtitled television programmes at home,  Educational Technology, Research and Development 47(1) pp. 51-60

NEWMAN, Susan B. & Patricia KOSKINEN 1992. Captioned television as comprehensible input: Effects of incidental word learning from context for language minority students, Reading Research Quarterly, 27(1) pp. 94-106