Hello! My son is turning 4 in a couple of months. We live in the US and he goes to an English preschool. His minority language is French and he’s fully bilingual.
Our current challenge is with learning the alphabet. He’s learning it in school in the ML and he knows a few letters but he’s not extremely interested. My family (aka my mom!) thinks I should focus on English before I teach him the French alphabet. I’ve been doing both since the few letters he knows, he knows in both languages.
So I’m looking for advice and ideas from people who’ve been through this. Alphabet in the ML first, or both ml and ML at the same time?
We're in a reversed situation. French is our ML, I bring up my daughters in English (ml2) and Daddy in Spanish (ml1).
We have always taught our 5 year old the ml equivalent simultaneously to what she learns at ML school. For instance they are learning to count to 100 in ML, so we teach her to count to 100 in both mls. Same went for the alphabet.
She initially picked the alphabet up from Youtube nursery rhymes, and later she learned the phonics song. We sang them on the school run and to brush her teeth (I sang 3 different songs whilst she brushed her teeth, so she brushed them long enough ). I then taught her phonics a bit more formally to prepare for an entry test to a Wednesday ml2 school programme for which she unfortunately didn't get a spot. So I dropped all the phonics "teaching" as my husband and I had decided we'd rather she started learning to read in ML so as not to interfere with her teacher's work.
However, we had a bit of a surprise a month ago when we discovered she had started reading on her own! We then changed opinion and decided we had to build on this and not let her interest wane till next year (when she'll enter Year 1 -CP- and start to learn to read). So she now reads an ml2 early reader book on a daily basis.
Hope our story can be of help to you. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.
***"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars" - Oscar Wilde***
I would like to reassure you that it is very, very normal for a 4 year old not to be interested. I have taught hundreds of children to read in my job as a teacher and this is one of the hardest things of a set curriculum in an education system. Many 4 and 5 year olds, and more often boys than girls, are not interested in formal learning. The best thing to do is to take the pressure off and focus on fun. All children (including the super interested ones) learn best when they are playing, relaxed and enjoying themselves. If you have the opportunity to postpone formal teaching of letters and sounds that would be my first recommendation and instead, play lots of games involving rhyming words and can you find something beginning with ssss etc. And read to your child as much as you can. Point out writing in the environment eg signs and notices. Many children recognise the letter m first because of a large golden m they see outside a fast food chain. Write things as part of play eg write a shopping list, dinner menu, his name and names of family members, friends and favourite toys and, as he begins to recognise the names, play matching games with them. You can then watch out for signs your son is becoming more curious and restart formal learning at that point.
Reading works in a similar way to earlier milestones. The children who walk at 10 months are not better walkers when they're older than those children who start to walk at 18 months. So if your son starts to read later than his peers it won't hold him back with reading. The difficulty only comes if he's expected to use reading a lot in other areas eg the school focuses on reading and writing as the main way to learn about maths problem solving or science or art etc. This is very unlikely to be the case at preschool. Sometimes if a school is very focused on reading progress then the child will need to find a way to learn earlier or will start to feel switched off and discouraged. If you think your child has to learn the alphabet right now then you can do it but still focus on keeping it fun and harness whatever your child is interested in to help you. You can do letter hunts around the house or garden or taping letter cards onto cars and garages to match them up or use songs etc. If you have time to also do the activities I mentioned above they will really help too.
Your original question was about which language to start with or to do both at once. There is no one right way of doing it. It depends on the child's age, circumstances, interests and language combination. Because your child is so young, is not interested yet and is in an ML school which wants him to learn, I would think that focusing on English first would be best. English has more complicated sounds than French so it will be easier to learn French sounds later. In the meantime, you can still do all of the rhyming and oral activities I mentioned above in French and keep reading French stories and rhymes. Once your child knows the basic sounds in English he might start asking more about written French and that would be a good time to start pointing out similarities and differences and learning to say the French alphabet aloud. If the preschool doesn't need him to learn the alphabet yet and it is just one of the activities they provide without any pressure for the child to learn it, you can decide if you have time to focus on French first. It would probably be easier to do that if he is really interested. You can definitely sing an alphabet song in both languages but try to find a different tune for each language.
However, you might find that your son does things differently than how you plan it. For many children it feels like they get stuck at one particular point for a while and make no progress no matter what adults do and then suddenly they make a leap forward without you expecting it and can make connections and understand things they couldn't do before. It's very similar to the way babies can reach some milestones very suddenly and surprise you with what they can do and no amount of trying to encourage them to crawl has made any difference until the point they are ready to do it. A resource that could be helpful for you at that point is a bilingual alphabet chart - Love Your Lingo has a nice one and has some matching activities which might be nice if and when your son gets to the stage of enjoying sitting down to do writing or colouring.
In my personal experience the answer is “yes, any of that”.
The thing about the theory about how to create the optimal bilingual child is that it rarely considers the fact that life is nothing like theory. For one, “learning to read” is actually a task that takes years. It’s not like you say “this is the letter P” and from then on your four year old remembers it 100% of the time.
Personally, I started teacher my oldest the alphabet at 2, thinking that I’d do Russian first and ML English will be done by the school later. Little did I know that right at the same time the preschool teachers started with the English alphabet. So there went that sequential plan. I have to say that my daughter took very well to it. Just like she knew there were two words for everything, she understood that similar symbols can have different sounds or two languages can have some different symbols (Cyrillic vs Latin script).
Then at 4-5 she asked to learn to read. I was supposed to teach Russian and my husband English (we do OPOL). But of course a few weeks in my daughter came to ask me to teach her English as well because my husband, while a wonderful man, is not talented at teaching a four year old to read. So there went the OPOL reading plan.
As per her request we did English first, although I snuck in some Russian in parallel. What I found is that the greatest difficulty was decoding unique letters. She got twice the exposure to letters the languages had in common but the W, the Z, the Ш, Ч, Ф and so on, were harder to remember.
Another problem we ran into isn’t that English was objectively easier to learn as a four year old. English words were shorter and involved a lot of pure memorization. She didn’t have the short-term memory capacity to remember 4 syllable words Russian is so full of. She also tended to guess the last part of the word, which is problematic with a language that has genders and declination. Which is something to keep in mind - just because the child is ready for one language doesn’t mean they’re ready for a second. She currently can read in both, although her decoding skills in Russian suffer because she simply doesn’t like to read in it.
My little one was supposed to learn Russian first at a Russian daycare. But at 5, despite the teacher saying that she could, she really hadn’t learned much. Because she was born right on the cutoff date for school, we’ve been forced to focus on working on English just to ensure she has a chance to “skip” a grade if she proves smart enough. We bought her an online subscription to a learn-to-read app (Reading Eggs) and she seems to really learn from it. She’s reading early readers in English now. So did she learn to read in English first? Or Russian? Who knows...we’ll go back around to focus on Russian in a few months.
So as you see our approach has been “whatever works in the moment, while covering both over time.”
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