Tips for Teaching Phonics in a Bilingual Home

I am really excited to write this blog post! I know so many parents feel overwhelmed thinking about being the ones who will teach their childrento read, or even just help support a struggling reader at home. Have no fear, I will let you know what and how I’m doing it in my own home in the hopes of encouraging you!

The very first thing I want to say is try your best not to rush it. I know, I know, you don’t want your child to fall behind and they are really struggling or they have zero interest and you’re worried. That is a valid concern and worry – I see you, I hear you, I totally get it. Especially if your children are going to school where there will be standardized tests (even in Kindergarten they do this now!) I understand the pressure. You can do everything in your powers to support your child and encourage them but just remember that they will go at their own pace always. Trust your little one and believe in them no matter the struggle. Trust yourself to support them. If your little one is learning at home, take that pressure off. Seriously. Children do not need to be reading by 5 or 6 unless they are motivated to do so and the more we push them the more they could pull away. Focus on their interests and try to bring some letter/word play into that. Learning your letters and how to read does not need to be a big formal ordeal, it can revolve around their passions!

So, my own children are just over three and we are starting to do some letter work at home only because they seem really interested in it. We are a big reading family and they are constantly pointing out letters they know and trying to sound out signs on our hikes. If they weren’t showing as much interest as they are, I would not teach them letters right now, I would wait. There are so many other important things to teach young children (more on that another day) and this is just one of them. So, how am I doing it in my bilingual home?

1) Pick one language to teach the alphabet in first.

Pick one to focus on and I suggest picking the most phonetic. Because we learn Spanish at home and Spanish is an incredibly phonetic language (meaning it can be sounded out easily) we are going with that! I also love prioritizing Spanish with some things because our own little world is so English saturated. So, when we are learning our letters and how to first read, we will do it in Spanish. Look for songs, ABC books that you can read with your children and anything else to support learning and reading in your target language

2) Teach the letter sounds before you teach the letter name.

I honestly don’t know how we ever got started teaching our children that an A is called an A before we teach them that it sounds like ah. They have to learn two totally different sounds for one letter and after they learn all the letter names then they have to learn the sounds and then they can start reading. It feels so backwards to me! If your children are learning at home then focus on just teaching the phonetic sound each letter makes first. What does that look like? Well it feels kind of weird for us but when we see an A we tell them that is an ah instead of an aye. So when I am teaching my children new letters I make the sound and they identify the phonetic sound of it instead of the name we would sing in an ABC song. Make sense? So, when we have our big alphabet board (which we will one day) we will go through it pointing to each letter and making the sound.

**One note of this – be extra mindful not to add vowel sounds on the end as you are making the letter sound. Try to make the sound of a B without going buuuh too much. You will notice that there are some sounds (b, d, p especially) that are really hard to just make the sound that one letter makes without adding extra vowels! Don’t worry about it too much but it is just something to think about. Do your best to isolate that one specific sound of one specific letter as you teach it.

What do I do if my child is primarily learning their letters in school? No worries! This is an awesome way to help support them at home. I would even explain it to them and just say that at school they are learning the English names for the letters and at home you will learn the sounds (either in English or your target language!) Will it confuse them initially? Maybe a little. Don’t let that hold you back. Their brains are way more capable at sorting out languages than we could ever imagine. They will get it. Also a lot of languages have letters that make really similar sounds!

3) It doesn’t need to start with A!

Teaching the alphabet doesn’t mean you necessarily need to start with the letter A! I teach them the first letter of their name and they LOVE pointing it out. Then we just slowly work through each letter of their name and then we will move on. Choose something important to them, something they are passionate about, especially if they seem hesitant or disinterested at first. You may run into some tricky letters (Y, I’m looking at you) but just tell your child that it is a tricky letter and sometimes it makes one sound and sometimes it makes another. They will get it. Remember you are focusing on the target language sounds of the alphabet, some names may sound different and that is okay! It can open the door to talk about accents that people have and how some words sound different.

4)Okay, this sounds great, but how do I actually DO this in the day to day? What does it look like?

I love tips and tricks but sometimes I just want someone to tell me what it actually looks like in their day to day, are you the same way? With my own children, we will literally do maybe 5-10 minutes of letter work on a day when we have some time. I’m not scheduling it yet into a daily rhythm because it is just so early for them but if your children are a little older you can dedicate 5-10 minutes each day.

A few activities:

-We have an amazing ABC Spanish book* that has super cute pictures and the girls love. One day we will just run through that book and I will ask them to say the letters after me. I will say things like “this is the letter ah and it’s for ardilla, can you say ah?” Then I will point to the letter. We will go through the whole book if they want or move on if they’re bored.

-We got some epic bath crayons and during a bath time I will write a new letter on the tub and we will all say it together. They will usually ask me to start writing other letters and we will eventually cover the tub in the whole alphabet! We got them from Bella Luna and if you want you can use this link to get $10 off your order (doing so also gives me $10 for a future order)

-I made these DIY Wooden Alphabet discs and then some felted letters (I still haven’t made the whole alphabet yet…) and we will do a little matching game where I put some of the wooden discs out and they have to match the felt letter. We will say the letter sound as we work!

I try to bring it into our play and make it fun. I will post more ideas as we work together but if you want even more right now you can sign up for my Con mi Familia, Series 2 course! In week 5 we go into the alphabet in Spanish and you will get 7 hands-on activities, a song, stories and music to bring into your learning at home.

Here are some materials you could buy (or make!) to support your bilingual learning at home:

Montessori sandpaper tracing letters*

Montessori Alphabet Set *(great for tactile learning and matching games, we will probably end up getting this)

Magnetic tracing board *(this is SO satisfying to use and great for learning to write the letters)

I will most likely end up making more of my own materials since Spanish has other letters and sounds to focus on. I will definitely have ñ, ll, rr and ch in our alphabet learning set since they are such crucial sounds!

Alright my friends, do you feel empowered?! Do you feel ready?! There are so many ways to do this and whether or not you have ever taught anyone to read and write before does not matter – you know your child and you can support them in this big life step whether or not they go to school or learn with you at home all day. I will post more about our journey and more tips as we go. Be sure to follow me on Pinterest to see all our fun reading activities!

*Show Amazon Affiliate links. You do not pay anything extra but Amazon will give me a teeny tiny commission from my referrals. I only recommend products that I have or will be buying myself!