You live a new life for every new language you speak. - Czech proverb
I have vague memories of a series of books called Cuentos de Hadas on my beige wooden bookshelf in the childhood bedroom I shared with my sister. They all had classical illustrations, a healthy amount of pages, and most importantly they were in Spanish. I can’t really remember much about the books aside from their smell and how different the binding felt to the usual books I read at the library, but I do remember being able to read them in Spanish with little to no instruction. I was reminded of all this on a thunderous Miami afternoon while playing Minilingo (a bilingual memory game and Sol Book Box goodie). Imagine my surprise when my five-year-old English reader started reading in Spanish without any formal instruction. (Note: we do read books daily in both the majority language: English, and the minority language: Spanish.) Guau! As a former classroom educator with nearly 20 years of experience I was interested in learning how this happened, what other benefits existed in relation to biliteracy, and how I could continue supporting my bilingual kiddo.
According to John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University, “for a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.” Unpacking McWhorter’s comment, what he means is that there’s a direct correspondence between the spoken sounds and the way they are represented as writing. The internet abounds with amusing memes about this difficulty. There’s even a poem that’s famous amongst the ELL community which contains 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation.
Here’s a snippet:
Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
Peter, petrol and patrol?
Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Let’s take the words “sew” and “new,” although logic would suggest that both words rhyme - they don’t, because they have different etymologies. This lack of correspondence between the letters on the page and the words read is one of the reasons learning English is so difficult. It’s also partly why the US has lower literacy rates when compared to countries in Latin America. In Spanish speaking countries the literacy rate surpasses the US in leaps and bounds. Argentina’s literacy rate (of those 15 and older) is 99%; Peru 94.4%; Costa Rica: 97.9% whereas in America only 79% adults are literate. Clearly, learning to read English is challenging. Not so with Spanish. Spanish has, for the most part, a perfect correspondence between the written and the spoken (except for a fractional amount of exceptions).
This is great news for monolingual families trying to raise bilingual children, as there’s a clearly defined set of rules that works most of the time. This also means that it’s easier to teach kids the idea of a letter corresponding to a sound consistently. As José Ignacio Hualde, the author of The Sounds of Spanish states, “Anyone who has learned the sound values of Spanish letters and letter combinations can accurately ‘sound out’ any word or text written in Spanish, even without knowing the meaning of the words. Unlike English speakers, Spanish speakers never have to consult the dictionary to verify the pronunciation of a written word that they have not seen before (unless it is perhaps a foreign proper name or a word from another language).”
Phonological awareness is “the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words. Examples include being able to identify words that rhyme, recognizing alliteration, segmenting a sentence into words, identifying the syllables in a word, and blending and segmenting onset-rimes. The most sophisticated — and last to develop — is called phonemic awareness.” Studies have shown that strong phonological awareness skills are the biggest predictor for success in reading. From Kindergarten to about second grade children are learning to read but from third grade on children are reading to learn (that is they are expected to read a book to answer questions about the text, or reading for their own pleasure). It is at this point that a student’s lack of reading skills starts to seriously affect them - researchers call this the Matthew Effect, when children who are strong readers become even stronger and those who struggle to read become even more discouraged, find reading unpleasant and, as a result, are less likely to want to read. This becomes a cycle that is difficult to break.
So what can we do to help our children? We can use Spanish (and English) language books to build phonological awareness. You can begin by playing a sound treasure hunt game. Ask a child to tell you the first sound they hear in the word pan: p-a-n. Don’t worry so much about the letters (print) just focus on the sounds. Have them identify just the first sound they hear, [p] which incidentally is the same in English and Spanish. Ask them to find items in the house that begin with that sound. You can continue to do this with other words. Now you can bring in a book, like Vámonos: Bogotá, that is rich in illustrations and captures the bustling scene of life in the capital of Colombia and play the same game. Another game to play focuses on rhyme. You can set a timer and play a game to see who finds the most rhymes. A great book to pair with the rhyming activity game is La Casa de la Mosca Fosca, a cute, clever rhyming story about a fly that lived in the forest, and the animals that came to visit. To extend the challenge children can then come up with their own rhyming words.
Being able to read in Spanish has also been found to directly improve a student’s reading skills in English. In a study titled, English Reading Growth in Spanish-Speaking Bilingual Students: Moderating Effect of English Proficiency on Cross-Linguistic Influence, researchers compared students who were fluent in Spanish but were not skilled Spanish readers to students who could read and speak Spanish fluently. They found that the students that could read in Spanish outperformed the non-readers significantly. The ability to read in Spanish continued to benefit them even as students progressed through the grade levels. Simply put, teaching children to read in Spanish will teach them skills that will transfer and translate to the classroom and beyond. Just another reason to pick up a book in Spanish and share in the reading.
Playing while learning is the goal and Sol Book Box has just the books to help your little learner enjoy learning to read in both Spanish and English. Que emoción!
Karina Batchelor is a Latinx mama from the Magic City that runs on books and cafecito. Her haunts include her local leafy library, her homeschooling cooperative, the warm comfy nook near the window, and the theatre, where she works as a professional dramaturg.