The Bilingual ABC’s: What you need to know about Early Bilingual Literacy 

Yes, we want our children to learn how to read and write, but believe it or not, that is not an easy task.

Research literature suggests that a good 50 percent of the US children learn to read relatively easily once exposed to formal instruction, but the other half will find it very challenging, and perhaps one of the most difficult skills that they will have to master1. So with that in mind, do we want to make it even more challenging by introducing another language in the mix?

 Counter to intuition, the answer is that kids are better off learning literacy in two languages versus one. There are five essential components of early reading skill: phonemic awareness (being able to identify and play with individual sounds in spoken words), phonics (being able to connect the letters with the sounds), vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency2. Research has shown that dual-language literacy education may well give bilingual children from English-only homes a reading advantage, as they may develop these key components “of successful reading and language ahead of their monolingual peers in a single-language learning context”3.

 What is the best approach?

There is no single approach, or philosophy for teaching reading that is equally effective for all children1, but…parents often weigh teaching their children how to read in one language (and then transferring this knowledge over to the other language(s)) versus starting with both languages at once9. While either approach works, research suggests that children coming from languages with a deep orthography (such as English – where words don’t follow a strict sound-to-letter correspondence) may actually get a bilingual reading and language processing advantage from learning in the 50:50 dual-language learning context (both languages at once). Furthermore, findings indicate that the 50:50 dual-language set up - combined with phonological training - may be the optimal and most enduring type of bilingual language learning3.

 So when do we get started?

Now. Learning to read is not easy, and success comes largely from developing language and literacy-related skills very early in life1. Reading books to your young ones is early literacy. Children should be involved in reading from the first days of life; small children should be engaged in playing with language through nursery rhymes, storybooks, and writing activities as early as possible1. It turns out that spoken language and literacy are indeed connected, and studies show that children with little exposure to listening to books read aloud “typically start school with poor early literacy skills”4. Obviously, kids in the emergent stage of literacy cannot yet read, write, or spell - maybe they know that writing represents ideas, but it is not until later that they start “to understand that letters represent the sounds they hear in words”8. However, there is little question that during the early stages of speech and language development (the emergent literacy stage) children learn skills that are key to the development of literacy10. So, get started now.

 How to go about it?

Three good suggestions:

First is something called Dialogic Reading. Researchers have learned that when the child actively participates in the reading experience, the language gains are greater than when an adult simply reads the book. Dialogic reading encourages the child to become the storyteller over time. Your role is to prompt the child with questions, build on the kid’s responses, and praise his/her efforts to retell the story or name elements from the book4. That is a perfect opportunity to segue into another language – the Kids’ Candor bilingual kits’ reading activities exemplify this.

 The second is simply Picture books, but why?5 Picture books help our young ones understand that words convey meaning, way before they are aware of the actual text. Pictures help increase vocabulary, a key element of reading. No reason why this cannot be done in another language simultaneously or alternatively. Picture books also help young children identify colors, shapes, numbers, letters, etc – in short,

they build the background knowledge that is essential to successful reading. Parents should choose books with simple images so that the child can point to objects and learn names6.

 The third is building literacy every day7- here are 10 great tips inspired by Pearson Education7. You can alternate key words and/or expressions on a second language for every single one:

  1. When you sit and look out the window, go to the grocery store or go for a walk, ask: “What is This?” or “Where is he/she going?”7.
  2. While you do everyday tasks such as sorting the laundry or thinking about what to cook, talk to your kid7.
  3. Go to a familiar place and focus on the people working there. What tools are they using? What jobs are they doing?7
  4. Read, sing, or say nursery rhymes from your childhood. Focus on the parts that rhyme or on the words you like to say or hear. Try to teach them to your kid7.
  5. Point out how words begin or end. Compare words that start with the same sound, for example, pizza and pees. Ask your kid if he/she can hear the “P” in pizza and pees7.
  6. Read books that have rhyming words, for example Dr. Seuss’. While you read them again and again, let your kid fill in the words7.
  7. Call your child’s attention to words on street and store signs. Read them out loud while you are driving. Look for specific letters in them, for example, look for the 1st letter of your child’s name7.
  8. Label a few objects with your kid’s name, for instance, a cup or a box. Read the labels together7.
  9. While sitting next to your kid, hand-write shopping lists and to-do lists. Give your child paper and pencil so he/she can also try to make a “list”. Use the list as you shop at the grocery store to show the words on it have meaning7.
  10. Play with magnetic letters on a surface such as the refrigerator. Spell simple words for your child and encourage him or her to repeat them .


Kids' Candor Bilingual Educational Kits
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  1. Lyon, G. Reid, Ph.D, “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action”,, July 10, 1997,
  2. Boyse, Kyla, RN, “Reading, Literacy and Your Child”,, University of Michigan, October, 2010,
  3. Berens, Melody S., Loulia Kovelman,and Laura-Ann Petitto, “Should bilingual children learn reading in two languages at the same time or in sequence?”,, US National Library of Medicine, May 24, 2013,
  4. Whitehurst, Grover J., Ph.D, “Helping Children to Develop Early Literacy Skills with Dialogic Reading”,, Pearson Early Learning,
  5. “Getting the Most Out of Picture Books”,, Reading Is Fundamental, 2007,
  6. Stanberry, Kristin, “Understanding Beginning Reading Development in Preschoolers”,,
  7. Whitehurst, Grover J., Ph.D, “Building Literacy Every Day”,, Pearson Early Learning,
  8. Ford, Karen, Rebecca Palacios, “Early Literacy Instruction in Spanish: Teaching the Beginning Reader”,, 2015,
  9. Heller, Corey, “Biliteracy: Teaching Bilingual Children to Read and Write in More Than One Alphabet”,,
  10. Roth, Froma P., Ph.D, CCC-SLP and Diane R. Paul, Ph.D, CCC-SLP, “Early Reading and Writing Development”,, 2006,

Jorge Gallego
Jorge Gallego


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