30 September 2014

The Read-Aloud Handbook: A Game Changer

A week ago, a very dear friend handed me a gift at church. It turned out to be a book that I had overheard her talking about in previous conversations. It was The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. This friend is an avid reader (one of the most avid readers I know) and I was a little surprised when she told me that this book inspired her to read to her kids even more. So, the minute I had some time, I opened the book and started reading.

My first reaction: I have not been reading enough to my kids!

Yes, I read them books. We read a little before they go to bed, but usually only about 10 minutes or so (I'm usually anxious to put them down for the night so I can get things done). Sometimes, I'll sit and read books to them during the day, but not every single day. One of my problems is that I'm often so tired that the minute I sit down on the sofa to read a book to the kids, I fall asleep. I've been a casual read-aloud mom, at best. However, after reading The Read-Aloud Handbook, I realized that I wanted to read to them much, much more. The book is packed with encouraging statistics about the benefits of early exposure to books. It explains that those children who are immersed in more books receive some amazing benefits. They outperform those children with limited reading exposure in many areas, including vocabulary, reading comprehension, attention span, grammar, writing and spelling. The list goes on and on. The more I read, the more excited I got about increasing the reading in our home. It also got me thinking differently about some of my long-held ideas and philosophies about my bilingual parenting methods and inspired me to make some changes.

Here are some of the changes that I'm about to implement (and I've already started some of them):

  1. We're going to read a LOT more English books.
  2. We're going to read more German books.
  3. We're going to spend more time discussing English and German books in both English and German.
So why would we want to read more English (majority language) books, when I'm trying so hard to push German (minority language)?
Well, there are several compelling reasons. The first being that my children live in an English speaking country and will need to have a good grasp of the English language. They will go to school in English. They will take their college entrance exams in English. And, yes, even though we are teaching them German, they will live most of their lives in English. My philosophy, up to this point, was to just let the "English" happen on its own....which it did (to a certain degree), while we pushed German at home. I tried very hard to limit our reading to German books so that we could foster the children's German language development amid the pervasive English influence. I knew that unless we kept our home a German-speaking refuge, that the English would infiltrate and eventually overpower our German bilingual efforts. And, I know from experience, that once the majority language (English) becomes a comfortable conversational language among family members, that the minority language (German) will be spoken less and less until it's hardly used at all. 

However, as mentioned in a previous post:  Books Are Boundaries , I have discovered that reading English books does not affect our conversational use of German at home. Because a book is a clear language boundary, we are able to open the book, read (and even discuss) a book in English, close the book and then we naturally switch right back into German. It's a fascinating phenomenon. And because of this, I figure that we can spend much more time reading English books and reaping the benefits of improving the children's English language skills without it affecting our goal to have a German-speaking home.

What about German Books?
Of course, I want to continue to read a lot in German. And as we increase the amount of overall time we spend reading books, we will read more German books than we did previously. My goal is to have the children be literate in both English and German. I want their vocabularies to grow. I want them to understand more complex German sentence structures than what we usually use at home. I want them to be able to read and write in German and I feel like exposing them to lots German books will aide this process tremendously. So, yes, we will continue to read lots of German books. However, that said, the kids' English language skills will most likely play a much larger role in their lives than their German language skills, which is why we will no longer be reading exclusively German books.

Why discussing books is crucial in both languages
Because the children are more comfortable communicating in German, most of our book discussion tends to be in German--even when reading English books. It's crucial to spend time discussing books, especially when you're raising children to speak more than one language. As we read books, I'm able to ask questions about the story in either language. This way, I can check the kids' comprehension of the story in both languages. Sometimes, I ask in English and they answer in German. Other times, when discussing an English book, the discussion is all in English, and other times, it is all in German. The nice thing is that the book allows us to "break" our regular language rules and use whatever language we choose. As we read books in both languages and discuss them in both languages, we are able to translate words, talk about the different syntax in each language and even discuss cultural differences that come up in some books. 

I've always loved books. And, like I said before, I have been reading to my children their whole lives. But until recently, I feel like I've been underestimating and under-appreciating the power of books in helping my children to become truly literate in both languages. It took a book (The Read-Aloud Handbook), to really light the fire and to help me take reading to the next level. It took a recent discovery--that books are language boundaries--to open up my mind to the idea of reading to my children in English (the majority language). And both of these ideas together have been a positive "game changer" in our non-native bilingual parenting methods. I'm anxious to see where these new ideas will take us.
I've ordered a huge pile of books from our local library, all taken from the excellent anthology of great read-aloud books, which is included in The Read-Aloud Handbook. I recognize many of them from my childhood, but I had not thought to check them out for my own (German speaking) children until now. It's been fun to rediscover old books and enjoy new books. As much as I love our German books, it's been liberating to open our home to the world of English books...because, really, there is just no other way to read Dr. Suess!

Thanks, Stacey, for the book and your inspirational example!

18 September 2014

Cousins and Firemen

I took this little video last summer while we were visiting extended family. I had been resting on the sofa while the kids were playing with their cousins. It was fun to listen to them picking up on English phrases and slang while they played. At the beginning of the video, Simon approaches me and wants to know the English word for fireman. After I give it to him, he and his cousin start playing that they are firemen and that they have a fire to put out down in the stairwell. Simon asks his cousin where the fire is. He struggles a little bit with English prepositions: "Is the fire with your house?" He then corrects himself to "in" the house. Then Jonathan joins the game. Simon and Jonathan are speaking English as they talk about the fire that they need to put out. Jonathan then makes believe that he has a button that automatically sprays water on the imaginary fire. He uses German syntax in English to explain his make-believe button: "Water is coming alone out." This makes Simon mad. He doesn't like the imaginary button. As soon as Simon gets mad, he switches to German. I'm always fascinated when I observe the kids switching between languages. They have always been able to play in English, but they almost always use German to deal with relationship issues. When they are angry, they switch to German. However, at the very end, Simon yells at Jonathan using Jonathan's English name "Jonathan" (rather than the German pronuciation Yonahtahn). It was probably his way of letting his cousin know that he was frustrated with his brother. The language boundaries are sometimes not as clear. The kids were fighting in German in my presence and in the presence of their English speaking cousin, so it was not completely apparent which language to use.

12 September 2014

Chester, the dog, speaks German!!

I took this little video as the little twins were riding our horse down to the bus stop to meet their 1st grade brother, Jonathan, when he got off the bus. I have to apologize for the noise (horse hooves on gravel is loud) and for the terrible bounciness of the video (I was walking backwards while leading the horse and holding the camera in my left hand). Anyways, the reason for posting this video (besides it being so cute), is that I thought it was funny how up to this point, the kids had been addressing the dog, Chester, in English. All the big people addressed Chester in English, so it was just natural that they also addressed him in English. I'm sure they just figured that the dog only knew English. Anyways, as we're riding along, Simon keeps calling to the dog (who never obeys anyone--ever) in English, and of course, the dog was not coming. So, I told Simon that Chester only spoke German. And, just my luck, the minute Simon calls out to him in German, Chester pops out of the bushes. The kids are delighted with the new discovery that their dog speaks German. And the rest of the ride, they continue to call out to him in German. Since then (and this was about a week ago), I have noticed them addressing Chester in German much more frequently.

05 September 2014

More Homeschool Thoughts--Splitting it Up and Getting the Best of Both Worlds?

For the past year or so, I've been mulling a bunch of thoughts around in my head regarding home school, alternative school, private school, public school, etc. (home school thoughts). And I've been having a hard time making up my mind because what I want doesn't exist in our area. What I really want is the same type of schooling I had growing up. I wish that the school day was shorter...much shorter. The small school that I attended in Germany started at 8 am and got out at noon. That gave us time to come home, eat lunch with our families, do our homework and still have time to play. I would love to have an option like that for my kids, but I don't. I can't find anything like that around. So, I've been trying hard to come up with a best alternative.

So excited for 1st grade
There are a few things that I'm considering as I've been mulling this over. First off, I want to say that I don't dislike public school. In fact, there are a lot of things that I like about having my kids attend our local school. I like the sense of community. I like that they get to know the local kids and families. I like that they meet new friends. I like that they learn kid social rules and that they learn to get along with children from different backgrounds. I like that they are exposed to different kinds of teachers and teaching styles. And, in our particular case, I like that school helps them to learn English (real "kid-English"). It helps them to learn to pick up on social cues and kid-appropriate language. School helps them become a little bit more "socially savvy" in a kid sort of way. And my kids actually need that more than other kids, because we don't get any "kid-English" at home. It's all German.

So, why not just be happy sending them to school. Well, besides the problem of them being gone ALL day (which is a big deal to me), I also have some other issues. One is that I want to teach them to become literate in German (I already wrote all about this in another post). And I need WAY more time than the few hours after school and before bedtime. Not only do I want to work on reading and writing in German, but we are playing with the idea of teaching them French, too. I'd also love for them to have some more time to learn piano, do sports and dance and still have time to play. The "play" part is also a big deal to me.

Two cute Kinders ready to
meet their teacher.
So, how am I going to solve this dilemma? Well, since I can't have my ideal situation: 1/2 day school, I've decided on what I think is the best alternative: 1/2 year school. So, for now (and this plan could change depending on how I feel in a few months), I have decided that I will send the 3 Littles (my younger batch of kids) to school through December. And after Christmas break, we'll start our homeschooling adventure. And next fall, I'll probably send them back to school again and then maybe pull them out again the following December. That is the plan I've come up with...no promises or guarantees that we'll stick to it. But, at least it's a plan. 

Why does this crazy plan appeal to me. Well, for starters, they get the excitement of the first day and weeks of school. It's been so fun seeing the anticipation of my little people as they've been preparing for school. They loved getting their backpacks ready. They loved their meet and greet with their Kindergarten teacher and finding their cubbies. Jonathan loved finding out which friends were in his first grade class and seeing them again after the long summer. They also love the excitement of riding on the bus. They especially love feeling grown up and having the "school" experience.  

Initially, I thought about sending them to public school for a few years and then pulling them out in 2nd or 3rd grade to focus on German for a year or two. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that by waiting that long, I might miss the (language) boat. I don't want to pass up that amazing language acquisition window (it starts closing around age 8-10). Right now they are at an age where they are literally little language sponges. If I wait a few years, I run the risk that learning new languages might not come as naturally. Plus, they might start rejecting German (after going to school for a few years) and choose to speak mostly English at home. That would make it much more difficult to try and pull off homeschooling in German--at the very least, it would make our time less effective. This is the same reason why I don't want to pull them out of school completely. That same language window helps them to acquire better English, as well. So, I've got to use the "window" while it's open, which is why I'm so anxious to use this time to soak up as much language learning as possible. 

Christmas break seems like a great time to pull them out. Once January hits, there really isn't that much going on at school---so, they'll miss the class Valentines party (I can live with that)! It'll be much easier to do school work at home in the winter when the sunshine isn't tempting them to go play outside. The winter months are cold, dark and rainy where we live and that seems like the perfect time to sit and read books in front of the fire with mom. No one really likes leaving the house on winter mornings to go to school. Even my teenagers look longingly at the roaring fire and the cozy family room and wish they could just stay home. It'll be a good time to get some serious homeschooling accomplished...and still give the kids time to build cushion forts, do crafts, and just enjoy cuddling together in front of the fire.

So, that's the plan. And I'm getting pretty excited about it. I've already started collecting teaching materials. I'm excited to try homeschooling and I'm especially excited about doing it in German (and adding some more French)! I'm excited about all the possibilities and about spending time with my kiddos! I'm just so excited to see where this new adventure will take us. Did I mention that I was excited???
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Bilingual Baby Dream Team

Going on 20+ years of raising our bilingual babies...
I'm so grateful for a sweet husband who was willing to give this whole experiment a try and and that he was willing to speak German to our kids, even though his German exposure had been limited to a few semesters of college German. It's been one of the most fun and rewarding things we've done. The fact that our family speaks German has given us our own identity and helps the kids feel like they are a part of something special. And anything that helps your family feel special and connected is a good thing.