Reading in the Minority Language
Is your child ready to start reading in the minority language? It can seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be Karin Waldhauser, a New Zealand native living in Switzerland with her family shares her experience and some excellent tips she received from a school teacher.
My Child Hates Reading
I couldn’t believe it. My son, who, ever since he was old enough to talk, has demanded story after story had just announced that he hated reading.
The rational part of me thought, calm down, he doesn’t mean it; he’s probably just frustrated. The hysterical part of me thought, oh my God! This is terrible! He’ll never be able to read in English!
German is the school language here in Switzerland, and there’s no doubt about it: German is easier to learn to read than English. It’s much more phonically regular, meaning that once you’ve got the basic letter sounds figured out, it’s easy to advance. There’s none of this nonsense like in English where ‘though’, ‘thought‘ and ‘cough’ all sound completely different.
So although my son had learnt the basics of English before German, it was taking him longer to make progress than he’d hoped (patience is not his strong point!). Then he started school and reading in German came fairly easily. He started preferring German books over English. Fine, I thought. Reading is reading.
Expert advice on teaching kids to read
But then, he just got stubborn. Instead of fighting him on it, I decided to call in an expert, in the form of my friend Barbara Häfliger. Barbara is a Canadian teacher and mum also living in Switzerland. She teaches English literacy to native English speakers who go to local schools. I asked her for a few tips for encouraging kids to read in their minority language.
“The key to getting kids to read is to make it interesting and fun.”
Barbara advised me to try playing short games, like hangman, using sight words or frequently misspelled words. Anything that’s quick and has lots of repetition and rhyming is also good.
It sounds fairly simple, right? But I was a bit worried about not having all the right resources. When you don’t have access to a library with books in your language it can get very expensive buying books and other resources.
“You don’t have to have a lot of teaching materials.”
There are often very good resources online, such as Twinkl (twinkl.co.uk) for English”, she suggested.
My plan of attack
With Barbara’s tips in mind, I decided to go on the offensive. Firstly, I had to figure out exactly what he didn’t like about reading in English. It turned out that he was frustrated by the notion of book bands and levels used by the reading system we’d been using. Some kids find it motivating to go up the levels, but he found it stressful because he wasn’t at the same level as his sister.
So that was it. He had stopped enjoying the stories and was instead focusing on achievement and competing with his sister.
I searched for different early-readers and chose a set of Paw Patrol phonics books. Yes, that’s right. I was going to use his love of television against him. Diabolical.
When they arrived, I just left them lying on the coffee table. It took a couple of days for him to pick them up and at first he just flicked through them. He finally cracked and asked me to read them to him. Of course, I said, I’ll read a page, then you read a page. He groaned and made a fuss, but he did it. He surprised himself by getting through it quite easily.
Then we moved on to The Cat in The Hat Beginner Books series. They have simple vocabulary, lots of rhymes, lots of pictures and they’re funny. The bonus for us is that my son didn’t recognise them as being ‘learning’ books.
Creating a reading routine for the minority language
During our spring holidays I promised myself that I’d get the kids to read to me every day. Yeah, well, you know what they say about good intentions. They weren’t feeling very motivated, and neither was I.
That is, until I built a ritual around it. At around five o’clock, I poured myself a glass of wine, put some sparkling water in fancy cups, cut up some carrot sticks, put some chips in a bowl and announced that we were going to have a reading-apéro.
Their eyes lit up. There’s nothing my kids like better than an unexpected snack. The deal was, they would read to me for 10-15 minutes, and then I would read to them. Those who weren’t reading would listen and have their snack.
This may be the best idea I’ve ever had (she says with all modesty). The kids actually started begging me to let them read. Even better, I found that it relaxed me, too (ok, so it was probably the wine). I was more patient and enjoyed listening to them more. With the increased frequency and enthusiasm, my son made big improvements.
Once they went back to school, it became harder to keep the momentum going, but we’ve managed to build short chunks of reading in English into our routine. A little reading frequently works better for us than trying to do big chunks every now and then. It’s hard, though, to fit it in around homework, sports etc.
It’s a long path to biliteracy, but I think it’s one worth taking. However, depending on your situation, it might not be the right thing for your kids during the early primary years. What’s most important is instilling a love of reading. Then, when the time is right, they’ll be able to transfer their skills to the other language.
Barbara’s tips for encouraging reading in the minority language:
- Keep reading aloud to your kids, even if you think the time would be better spent with them reading to you.
- Make sure you give your child the chance to scan the page and look at the picture before reading the text.
- Use books with lots of rhyming and word repetition.
- Try books with CDs so that the child can follow along.
- Try taking turns reading aloud by taking a page each.
- Find online resources for learning sight words.
- Keep it short and fun.
Maybe you have a story similar to Karin’s above? Try these tips and see if your child improves their reading in the minority language. Also, feel free to take a look at our list of English Books For Kids or our English Nursery Rhymes list.