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):
- We're going to read a LOT more English books.
- We're going to read more German books.
- We're going to spend more time discussing English and German books in both English and German.
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!