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Bilingual children at school

This post continues the post about bilingual children. In the first part, I told you about bilingual children and specific things related to their education in a family. Let's discuss now the education of such children at school.

What about teachers? What should be done at school?

There are a lot of difficulties. As I have already told you, unfortunately, contemporary educational system is not adapted to teach such children. Sometimes teachers are absolutely not ready to teach bilingual children. A multicultural audience requires that a teacher should be flexible regarding the content and materials. An educator should take into consideration a lot of details; for example, be able to master several cultural concepts, consider that even body language can be different depending on the ethnolinguistic and cultural environment. For instance, in Russian and American culture active gesticulation is perceived to be a sign of friendliness, vigorousness, and sociability, In Finnish culture, on the contrary, it is considered as a sign of self-assertion and bad manners. And there is also a question about methods of education. Natural bilingual children have certain advantages over monolingual children that educators should take into account: they are a deeper understanding of other cultures, well-developed cognitive skills, concentration, memory, spatial orientation, tendency to use language more creatively; they start to think analytically earlier, split words in parts, understand clearer phonetics of the words and have higher phonological awareness. But all of it will be revealed only if a teacher helps the child to meet the challenges that bilingual children inevitably encounter.

Reading difficulties

The ability to read and write is the essential requirement of bilingualism. Some linguists even believe that one can learn a language by reading only. Strictly speaking we, adult people, learn it just by this method, using manuals and books. Natural bilingual people take another way by mastering spoken language first and only after that reading, just the same way as any monolingual child when learning his/her language.

While reading rules and pronunciation change from language to language, the general idea remains the same. A phonic method applies to any language; we always split words into sounds. And if a child mastered this operation in one language, he/she will easier do a similar task for a second language. However, to achieve this goal, educators must take into consideration the difference in reading for bilingual and monolingual children.

A child reading in a native language focuses only on putting letters together to make words and, as a rule, immediately understands their meaning and idea of the text. A bilingual child with another dominant language often has to think about the meaning of the words as well. That is why at the beginning it becomes more tiring and difficult process, so do not insist on reading for more than 10-15 minutes in a second language. In this case, it is important to pay attention not to speed, but to the quality of reading and understanding of the content. Furthermore, the content of the books should be a bit easier than texts in the native language. Do not pursue speed reading or reading books in accordance with the age. Books should be selected individually.

For kids, the most difficult task when reading is to increase their vocabulary. For adults, it is to make a habit of spending time with a book that helps to remember their native language. It is very important that outside the school the child has an example of somebody reading in both languages in front of him/her. A parent who is a native speaker should read with a child in his/her language. Only this way language learning will be consistent.

Studies demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between the number of books that were read to a child in his/her childhood and the level of literacy at school age. Moreover, you should read books to bilingual kids in both languages. Language development specialists are unanimous that even if the child started to read on his or her own, adults should not stop reading out loud until the age of 8-9 when reading skills are fully developed and the child will not have issues with understanding what he/she has read.

When a student starts to read fluently, it is time for an educator to encourage their parents to look actively for books, magazines, and websites which in their opinion might be interesting for their child. For the family which does not know much about interests of each other that will become a curious experience. And parents who have a good knowledge of their child’s interests will have no difficulties in doing so: ‘Can you imagine that Manchester United was knocked out of League Cup. I’ve sent you an article, read it’.

Difficulties with writing

The scientists believe that bilingual children understand the correlation between a letter and a sound better than monolingual. Although the ability to speak two languages makes it much easier to teach a child to write, it is still immeasurably more difficult than to understand a language, speak and read in it.

When a child is learning to write in his/her second language, let the parents know that from now on they should speak only this language. It is necessary to avoid that the child doubles the work by creating sentences in one language, then translating them and writing them down in another language. It is easier for bilingual children with one dominant language to think in this language, that is why recommend to you children not to translate things in their head, but to use a second language from the beginning.

When we were learning languages, I was learning them by translating from Russian into Spanish, and that way I frequently broke the correct structure of the sentence; my children, however, were able to speak that language because they could think in it.

And no worries if they will use simpler structures. Children master the skills of thinking in the right language quickly.

Beware of both difficult and boring topics when writing first texts. It would be better to suggest the students write about what they want to get as a birthday present or invent a new ending to a familiar fairy tale. To combine writing and memorizing of new concepts you can use word lists and charts with prompts that should be used when writing an essay. Let the child write about things that interest him/her.

Should we correct all the written mistakes made by a child by coloring the notebook with red pen corrections? Or should we respect their attempts to express themselves and encourage them to use compound sentences? There is no consensus among specialists and educators on this subject; however, it is obvious that corrections (no matter how many there are) should not offend a student, and it is important to explain clearly to a child what was his/her mistake and how it can be corrected. At the same time when discussing an essay it is better to start with acknowledging what a student did well, and these areas can be notated with a green pen, and only after that, we can move to mistakes discussing them with a child. The way of correcting errors and how to explain them to a child is a task for an educator.

While the knowledge of both languages is strengthening and is getting better, a child will stop mixing up the rules. The objective of educators and parents is not to panic and not to insist that the child should quit learning a second language. A student should be proud of his/her bilingualism and should not consider it as an obstacle on the way to good grades. Teachers know better than anybody else that children with different language abilities should be praised for their individual achievements and not compared to each other to avoid fueling war between them. Remember that every child is a person and show respect to their individuality. When observing such an approach, children will do their best to do any job and their studying will become more efficient. In a school educational system, teachers must take into consideration that bilingual children might have more difficulties when solving math problems and they should be given more time to understand the content of the question; but with time it will also return to normal. Do not demand overachievement from a bilingual child, think of how much effort he/she makes to study overall.