Don’t Worry About English for Now
A while back we had a parent–teacher conference at Bilingual Baby’s Spanish and French immersion school. One of the things her teachers commented on was our almost-four-year-old’s interest in reading, and by the end of the conversation she would be telling us to drop learning to read in English all together. “Teach her to read in Spanish first.” My eyes got big and my insides giddy—it made sense to me, and I certainly had no plans to teach her to read in English anytime soon, but I was sure my husband did. I looked over at him and saw a surprised, but receptive father leaning in, not quite convinced in the first few seconds, but listening…
Bilingual Baby’s school is mixed ages with kids from three years old to six years old, and this means she sees the older kids doing their kinder work, tracing letters and sounding things out. She has always worshiped older kids. It also means that at story time, the teachers will often rhythmically clap out the syllables in a word for all the kids to hear.
At home, Jojo mimics all of this. One of her favorite things to do is have me write letters to her grandma, Mimmy, who lives in Massachusetts. She dictates, I write letters in light dots and she traces over them. She also, out of the blue, will repeat a word we say in an attempt to break down the syllables: “Vamanos, Jojo,” I’ll say. “VA-MA-NOS,” she’ll say, often counting the syllables out on her fingers as she says them, the way her teachers do. And she’s into pretend reading, which is a sign that a kid is wanting to learn (I didn’t read that anywhere, I just assume that’s the case).
Here she is playing with letters at home about six months ago (age three and a half). Notice we’re discussing the letter “L”, but not really the sound that it makes.
And Don’t Worry About the Alphabet
Back in our meeting, we shared with her teachers all about the interest in reading we saw in her at home, and we told them about how much she loves letters. Then her teacher said the second thing that caught us by surprise: “Don’t teach her the alphabet right now, it’s just an extra step.” OK, so no English, and no alphabet, not even in Spanish. Got it.
What they do at school, and what her teacher was asking us to reinforce at home, is practice sounding out the letters in Spanish. So the letter “P” doesn’t need to be labeled as the letter “P” in order for someone to read. You don’t have to know what it’s called, you just have to know what sound it makes. If you think about it, knowing the names of the letters in the alphabet is just a thing that gets in the way of reading at first. The alphabet can easily come later. So when you see a “P” you point it out and call it a “Puh,” because that’s the sound it makes.
And if you’re sounding out a language, what better language to be using than Spanish? Nearly everything sounds exactly as it’s spelled, unlike complicated English. For now, her teacher explained, Jojo can learn to read in Spanish, and later, she can transfer the reading skill to English. Then reading in English will come quickly and easily.
The Skill is What Matters, Not the Language
I cannot tell you how much this resonated with my experience raising Bilingual Bably so far. In the beginning, when I knew nothing, all I could do was cling to the assumption that if I taught her everything I could about the world using Spanish, it would easily click into place for her in English later. When she was barely walking, if we were crossing a parking lot and I said “dame la mano” sternly and explained that we hold hands in a parking lot, pointing out the cars to her, I trusted that I would not need teach her the English for her to be safe with someone else. I trusted that later, if someone said “give me your hand” in the same tone and in the same context, she would know what it meant.
Why would I need to translate for someone into a language they didn’t even know yet? I didn’t. That early, I wasn’t teaching her a language, I was teaching her to navigate the world, and I’d chosen to do it in Spanish.
By the end of the conversation I could see that my husband was on board. We would never discourage her from playing with English and sounding out words that she was curious about. But if we sat down to play with learning to read, we would do it in Spanish. It made sense to us both.
Here she is just a month ago, using her knowledge of how the letters sound to read a word in Spanish; we’ll learn what the letters are called later.