Reading and Bilingual families (EAL)

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Reading and Bilingual families (EAL): an overview

Bilingual families come from many different countries, backgrounds, cultures and religions and include settled communities, refugees, asylum seekers and newly arrived families. Because there is such a cultural dimension to successful reading for children, it is more important than ever to include parents and carers. The role of parents as first educators and their continued involvement in their children’s education is the greatest factor in children’s achievement, certainly up to the age of 11.

The role of families

Families can provide information on topics familiar to the child to stimulate conversation and build vocabulary. They can provide opportunities for the children to put in to practice the reading skills they learn at school. Schools can support parents to realise the potential for boosting vocabulary and comprehension through daily household tasks such as making chappati or cleaning the bathroom. Discussions can include concepts and vocabulary for measuring, estimation, prediction and shapes. It may surprise parents that doing such everyday tasks is related to learning. Schools can share knowledge with families about the importance of sharing and talking about books. Bilingual families may need information about “out of school” reading activities such as joining the library, local storytelling events.


Reading requires the skills of word recognition as well as language comprehension. Since the Rose Review (2005), phonics has moved to the fore of teaching reading in schools. At first glance, this emphasis seems to disadvantage the bilingual child who may be asked to grapple with phonemes not found in his/her home language. However, practice is showing that provided phonic knowledge runs alongside vocabulary expansion so that the child understands the meaning of what he/she is being asked to read, transferable learning is taking place.

Bilingual children may have additional challenges with understanding texts and responding to them in the expected way. As well as unfamiliar vocabulary, the subject matter may be outside their experience e.g. a Sunday outing to an English farm, or the home modelling of reading may be different e.g. mother reciting from the Koran. The expectation of the bedtime story may not exist in the home culture and children may not be familiar with sharing and interacting with a book.

Bilingual books

Parents often have worries about “which language” English or first language? It is now accepted that a child needs a rich vocabulary in the first language to build proficiency in English and subsequent languages. To stimulate language, families can share bilingual books and talk about family stories and pictures if the parents have low levels of literacy in English and first language.

Like all learner readers, bilingual learners (children and adults) need exposure to different texts at the right level for them and the chance to put their newly learnt skills in to practice. They need to feel a sense of fun and enjoyment in reading.

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