Sunday, November 06, 2011

Reading Times Two

Liz from Lizardek asked about the books in my post office tower. Because I read mostly on a Kindle now, only a few were for me – Mariana, by Monica Dickens and a book on Chinese brush painting. The rest are Christmas presents for Will and Caroline. Caroline's stash includes The Saturdays, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Horse and His Boy. Will reads kolokolo, so I'll keep quiet about his ;-). I love to give and get books for Christmas, and before I bought a Kindle, always looked forward to the days after Christmas when I had enough to read, and more! So satisfying.

Now that Caroline is reading English fluently, having lots of English books around for her to choose from gives me the same satisfaction, and we pour through online book lists to figure out what we can find for her to read next.

"Reading English fluently." Three words to savor even more than a tower of books. A few days ago, Prague Monitor’s Emily Prucha posted an article in Half-n-Half about reading in Czech and English. Her story of her daughter's first foray into reading English reminded me of our own bi-literal try. It's a longer tale than I usually tell here - to make up for it, I promise I'll stick to pictures tomorrow!

Kindergarten, or školka, in the Czech Republic is very different from the UK or the States. Kids learn to change clothes on their own, dance the mazurka, and brush their teeth thoroughly. They draw pictures, sing songs and practice lots of socialization skills. They don't study the alphabet, numbers, or much of anything academic and it's generally a relaxing few years. I thought Caroline's last year in školka might be the perfect time for her to get the basics of reading in English behind her, before she needed to switch to Czech.

It didn't take. Caroline believed books were for us to read to her, and she told us so, loudly. Then first grade came along, and all focus switched to learning to read and write in Czech and to sit still in class. Each was tough at first (especially sitting still). By contrast, the basic English her class studied was easy – she did no work and always knew the answer!

The one word Caroline learned in school those first few months was "jumper." She also picked up a cute British accent she’d use at supper sometimes. English remained a blank book, so by January I decided to go guerrilla. We worked on spelling lists while we walked to the store, wrote letters on the weekend, read picture books together at night. If she did all her chores, she took over my computer and played on Starfall.com. Czech is a phonetic language, which makes it beautifully simple to learn to read. English is not. The spelling disgusted C. She refused to believe it could be so illogical, and words like "two" spent weeks on her spelling list. I dug up similarities between Czech, German and English to explain word spellings and turned English's long history into spooky bed time tales. After a while, Caroline decided that English was weird, but cool.

Then second grade arrived, and Caroline found school a lot easier. English class started to get boring. Her teacher and I put our heads together and agreed that I’d help Caroline after school just as usual, but this year she'd give C credit for the extra work. If she had an essay or book report to write in Czech that week, she’d write one in English too. I found workbooks for her and we spent many a Sunday morning playing school.

Last spring Caroline started to read in English for fun. She still writes book reports in both English and Czech, and in the ESL classes each week at school she either works on vocabulary or reading comprehension on her own. She’s joined an after school English class run by Class Acts, and her teacher there inspires her to work even harder. Her essays have become funny and more fluent. It still feels like pulling teeth to get her to sit down and work on writing, but she’d carry a book around and read all day if we let her.

Looking back now, I’m proud of C for her perseverance, grateful to her teacher for the extra motivation, and very glad that James has a few more years until first grade!

And you? If you have kids at home learning two or more languages, what's your best advice for handling the everyday challenges of helping them learn to read and write the languages they're not focused on in school?

11 comments:

Ellen said...

Am betting James will compete with Caroline for those books - how could our children do otherwise? :* E

Julia said...

James isn't a big fan of chapter books yet, but he'll listen to almost any story as long as there's a picture of a ship, tractor or train in it.

lizardek said...

Oooo! Caroline's books are some of my old faves :)

We read books in English & Swedish to our kids from very early on, every night. If one of the kids brought me a Swedish book to read, I translated on the fly to English, and Anders did the same the other way (except Dr. Seuss: he refused those outright and told the kids mom had to read them).

We also bought reading/learning early-year PC games and the kids were learning vocab from that, American videotape children's shows and the fact that luckily in Sweden, they don't dub.

It's been an amazing thing to watch them grow up bilingual.

Julia said...

I have to admit to strongly seeding this current crop with my old favorites ;-).

Did your kids learn to read Swedish or English first, and did Swedish help any with English spelling?

bouncyczech said...

I am in the same boat as you but with the languages switched :)
My 3 year old boy is currently refusing to speak Czech ("I'll just use my regular voice") I know he understands me but he only replies in English. I know it's going to change when Babička comes for a visit but right now - it is so frustrating.

meredith said...

This is a hard one. Both my girls definitely prefer reading and writing in French. But we have a lot of books in English and curiousity has started to get my oldest daughter pulling out those books she snubbed a few years ago. They both have great middle school English teachers that give them extra reading and writing work to encourage them.

Barrett Bonden said...

A Monica Dickens book! That takes me back, notably to My Turn to Make the Tea, a sort of autobiographical account of life on a weekly newspaper.

I'm fascinated to read about what goes on at Czech schools since as you know I passed through the British educational system like quicksilver, absorbing nothing. Certainly nobody ever taught me socialization skills and I've been wondering whether it's now too late. In your shoes I'd be worried about C. and English; the idea should be to force-feed children at an age when they are not yet capable of fashioning articulate arguments about why they shouldn't learn English. Could it be that C., now able to out-argue you, has passed the point of no return?

Zach at five was reading Horrible Henry books aloud in June this year and Lucy seemed surprised. Some child she knows is still reading them at age eleven. By then I would expect Z. to be reading Zola - in French if he wants to.

When you say it's hard to get C. to sit down and concentrate on her writing I take it you mean prose not calligraphy.

As to pushing her (without seeming to do so) I have only one tip. Compile a list of titles and tell her that these are "really for grown-ups" and she'll be starting them in a year's time. There's nothing like creating sanctions which a child thinks he/she can bust. However, having said that, the list will have to be carefully chosen and the books must tie in with what you've said. I think the earliest adult(ish) books I read were whodunnits that were kicking around the place at the time. And of course you'll be facing morality concerns as you approach this particular barrier. I may have mentioned this before but my mother quite cheerfully got me The Naked And The Dead when I was ill in bed and in my very early teens. The only book she ever worried about was Orwell's Coming Up for Air, and that because it was so depressing and negative. But I read it anyway. (She was right).

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Wow. I'm just struggling to do well by my kids in ONE language. Cannot fathom TWO! But there's no doubt they'll benefit from the whole experience, how lucky to have two tongues!

Julia said...

Bouncy - kids are so conservative when it comes to second languages. Our friends with Czech American kids living in the States say that a summer or two in the Czech Republic really helps, and the same is true for us. When we go back to the States the kids pick up new vocabulary (and lots of slang ;-) remarkably fast.

Meredith - good teachers really make a difference, I agree.

BB - Caroline is a big fan of mysteries, so she'll read anything that hints at detective work. What were the whodunits you read?

GG - that's what we keep telling ourselves and Caroline!

Barrett Bonden said...

Ngaio Marsh, XXX Mitchell (a woman), the ones with the fat guy who tends orchids. The Saint.

Lucy said...

I'm very impressed by Caroline's achievements and by yours too. It seems funny to think that at one time bilingualism wasn't widely encouraged, it's such an amazing thing and such an advantage. But by all accounts quite difficult to manage and get a good balance with.

I love the idea of kindergarten children being taught to dance the mazurka and clean their teeth properly!