Giving your child the gift of enjoying the act of reading has got to be one of the greatest things a parent can give. Assuming we satisfy our child’s basic needs, then reading is a gift that just keep on giving.
But as a dad of a bilingual child it also provides a vital opportunity for exposure to the minority language. In our case the constant reading of books every night for almost three years has given our son, Mr. T, the chance to learn vocabulary he would never have learnt if he were only listening to me talk. He has also been able to pick up aspects of the rhythm of the language that I am convinced have helped him to also enjoy music.
While I am very satisfied with Mr. T’s love of all things book-related at the moment, it hasn’t always been the case. There have been times when he hasn’t wanted to read books, or have books read to him. There have been spells when he has actively thrown books away when we have suggested reading one and there has been the odd occasion when he has just lost interest half way through a book and gone looking for some other form of entertainment instead,
The easiest thing to have done would have been to give up on books and let him follow his own path. But then he would have missed out on all the current and future advantages. To get around his moods and phases we have had to develop some strategies for encouraging him to read or just get through the last negative phase of his life.
1. Keep Reading
When Mr. T hasn’t been interested in reading, I have kept on doing reading aloud anyway. Sometimes he has continued to ignore me and has played with his cars instead. At other times he has relented, perhaps out of curiosity, and come over and sat on my lap to finish off the book. Whatever his reaction, I think it is important that he sees I am not going to give up and that he is free to come and join me is he wishes.
2. Books Are Toys
My wife and I both treat our books very well. We are not the obsessive kind who read without breaking the spine of a book, but by the time we are finished, you could easily read it again without worrying about it falling apart or finding that some pages are missing. We both agreed, though, that for the first few years at least, we had to treat books as if they were toys for our son. This meant we wouldn’t get upset if he started to bite them, or if the pages were bent or ripped out, or if Mr. T decided that the colours were all wrong and so coloured everything blue. In order to develop a love for books a child has to interact with them on their own terms, and not according to what an adult thinks is appropriate behaviour.
3. Low Library
By deciding that books were toys we were then free to keep the books in a position where Mr. T could easily get them, without asking us for permission. This has meant that most of his books are stored under his bed, along with other toys. The only problem that we have is that he now has too many books to fit under his bed, so some are stored up on a shelf, but we still encourage him to select books to go under the bed every so often when we feel he is maybe getting bored of what he has access to at the moment.
4. Freedom of choice
Although I have my own favourite books that I like to read to my son, it is up to him what we are going to read together. I like to try to guide him in a certain direction, but if he prefers to read Super Submarines for the 21st night in a row, then that is what he gets.
But freedom of choice is more than this. I like to take him to the bookshop with me so that he is actively involved in choosing which books to buy. I am convinced that by him taking part in the selection of the book he is more likely to want to read it when we get home that if he was only ever given books. I am very happy to say that if we ask him if he wants to go to the bookshop his eyes light up and we can easily spend a whole afternoon looking at different stuff for him to get.
5. Read Yourself
It can be very difficult to find the time, but I believe it is vital that children see their parents reading. I can vividly remember watching TV as a kid on the sofa with my mum in the armchair reading Catherine Cookson. I couldn’t quite figure out how a book could be better than watching tele, but over time I realised that there was a whole lot more in books.
Recently I have started to pretend to read when Mr. T is happily playing on his own with his cars or a jigsaw. I say ‘pretend’ because although I love books, I love watching him play even more, but I am hoping he will see me with a book enjoying myself and he will associate ‘play’ and ‘fun’ with books as much as cars and jigsaws.
Lots of other people have written with ideas and strategies for encouraging reading in both monolingual and multilingual kids. Some of the best that I have come across include the following. If you know of any others, please leave a comment below.
Bilingual Monkeys is a wonderful site and is chock full of brilliant ideas for developing reading skills.
Multilingual Families Raising Bilingual Children has a great series of posts looking at pretty much all of the reasons why reading is so important for bilingual kids.
Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes shows how encouraging reading doesn’t have to be just about books.
Dad’s the Way I Like It writes about how important your local library can be.
The Piri-Piri Lexicon discusses some of the advantages and disadvantages of reading bilingual books.
And if you need another reason, it’s part of the meaning of life.