Tips for reading aloud to children in your second language

Tips for reading aloud to children in your second language

As a sparkly-eyed college student preparing to become a teacher, I was a fan of Paulo Freire. Steeped in theory and finding it all too easy to talk about how things should really go in a classroom, I vowed never to treat my students as mere piggy banks into whom I was inserting coins of knowledge. 

When I had my own classroom, though, it wasn’t so simple.  Knee-deep in real teaching, I found myself wrestling with the urge to be the one who imparts the knowledge and expertise...but of course, I rarely felt like the expert. I was a white woman who learned Spanish as a second language, standing in front of a classroom full of Mexican-American eight-year-olds for whom Spanish was as natural as breathing. That fact created a lot of discomfort for me as a bilingual teacher. I was in the strange position of being the “authority” in the classroom, yet I sometimes made grammatical errors or came across totally unfamiliar words when reading aloud to my students.

I’m no longer a classroom teacher, but I still experience that same discomfort in my role as a parent. We have a bilingual household and when I read aloud books in Spanish to my daughters there are many unfamiliar words that I stumble across. The discomfort I feel when I encounter a new word brings back memories of the classroom, and old questions start to resurface. 

What does it look like to teach literacy in Spanish when it’s not my first language? How can I be genuine about my lack of knowledge yet still be competent, knowledgeable and command respect? This moment -- when we're reading aloud to children in our second language and we come across an unfamiliar word -- is a fork in the road for educators. How we handle unfamiliar vocabulary shapes the whole learning environment. This moment is uncomfortable, maybe embarrassing -- but it's a critical opportunity to model what it means to be a language learner. To look at learning as a collaborative and democratic experience, where everyone has something of value to bring to the table, and together we build new understandings. It’s an opportunity to validate the truly rich and diverse resources and tools at our disposal as bilingual people. And maybe most importantly, it's an opportunity to model humility. 

Here are some tips for reading aloud to children in your second language.

Read in advance.

  • We teachers know that this is not always possible. But if you have time, preview the text that you plan to share with students in advance. Notice words that might be unfamiliar to you so that when you come across those words later on, in front of students, you comprehend what you’re reading. When your tone and expression match the text’s meaning, that will in turn supports the kids’ comprehension (even if they don’t know every single word!).

Own it!

Be open with kids about what you don’t know, and show them how you document it.
A page of text in Spanish in which a single word is circled with notes written in the margin.
  • Kids know when you’re coasting through something you’re reading and you’re not really taking it in. If you just zip past unfamiliar words to the point that you’re not fully comprehending what you read, you’ll start to sound robotic and unconvincing. They’ll see right through it. 
  • Model how you make a note of the words you didn’t understand. Write in your book (ahem, if it’s your own property). My daughter knows that when I reach a word I’m not familiar with I draw a little box around it, find out what it means, and then jot a quick translation for myself in the margin. Careful, though -- If you do this too often it can really disrupt the flow of the read aloud. Make sure to employ this strategy sparingly, focusing on just a few key words that are central to understanding rather than marking every single word that you don’t know. I’ll come back to this in a bit!
  • If it’s not your personal book, mark unfamiliar words with post-its or keep a list of words and questions on a large sheet of paper posted for all to see. 
A stack of books with post-it note flags sticking out of the pages.

Model how to infer meaning.

This is an essential skill for all readers, regardless of language background.
  • Spanish speakers will encounter literature by authors from many different countries, each with their own unique cultural and linguistic twists on the language. A Mexican-American child who is fluent in Spanish needs to be able to infer meaning when she encounters slang in a book by an author from Argentina, just like an English speaking child in Chicago would rely on inferences to comprehend a book written in the dialect of rural Alabama.
  • Show how you use the context, surrounding words and sentence structure to make an educated guess about the word’s meaning.
  • See if you can identify a cognate in English or a related word in Spanish to help you infer the word’s meaning. These kinds of connections are pure gold for the neural connections we rely on for retaining what we learn and using it later, and bilingual kids relish discovering them!

Model using resources around you. 

  • Ask a native speaker. See if one of your students or another staff member can help translate the word. Encourage students to ask someone at home what that word means. There’s incredible value in children witnessing that they and the people around them are linguistic resources. Each of us is an “expert” in our own dialect and we can mine our own community’s expertise!
  • Use a bilingual dictionary. Doing so requires all the skills of a monolingual dictionary, and more; kids need to locate the unfamiliar word in the correct half of the dictionary and then find its corresponding translation. For children learning to read, these are complex skills to master, and children will benefit from plenty of modeling, practice and repetition.
  • Use the online forum WordReference. The online dictionary has helpful translations and verb conjugations, but the language forum is what makes it truly unique. It’s a treasure trove of real people’s personal take on the meaning of phrases, sayings, slang, and regionalisms. Users post questions about words and phrases that might be impossible to find in a standard dictionary, and native speakers from diverse regions respond with their input based on their respective dialect and cultural knowledge. People who use this forum are generally helpful and respond quickly, though with a quick search you will probably find that someone else has already addressed your question and you might not even have to ask it in a new post.
  • Show students where in the book you can find information about the author’s country of origin, the publication location, or if you're reading an edition that was translated from another language. Use that information to navigate and contextualize unfamiliar words and phrases. 

Model what you do with the new words you learn.

A child adds to a classroom chart called "Palabras Interesantes"
  • Kids love collecting words that are interesting, strange, beautiful, surprising, or connected to other words. Consider having a special poster, board or journal in your learning space where anyone is allowed to add new and interesting words, and give kids opportunities to talk about why words stood out to them. Maybe once a week have a group check in and invite volunteers to share a new and interesting word or linguistic connection that they made that week.
  • Make a goal with students to find opportunities to use the new word or phrase in the next day or so.

Choose your battles. 

Maybe there are seven unfamiliar words in just one small section of the text, and you yourself start to feel a little lost. If you haven’t had the time to preview the text and get to know those words before and suddenly you have 40 little eyes on you, then this can become pretty awkward. It's time to choose your battles!

  • You get to be flexible here as you take into the account how much time you have, your group’s attention span, and whether or not this particular moment in the text can survive interruption! 
  • There are some moments in stories that are so exciting and engaging that you just don’t want to risk letting the interest unravel by stopping to unpack an unfamiliar word and then another unfamiliar word. If you get the gist of what you’re reading and can maintain a tone that matches the story, you might choose to power through -- because stopping to look up 7 words would disrupt the flow of the story and zap the enjoyment out of the experience.
  • If you just aren’t understanding enough to read it in a way that’s engaging, you might choose to stop. Acknowledge that there were a lot of new words for you, then pick one that is especially key to understanding the passage and spend a little time investigating that one word.
  • If you have an inkling that the entire text is above your head, use this as a teaching moment and model how you sometimes have to make the choice that a book is just not a good match for you. Discuss your criteria for deciding that you don't want to continue with a book and how you go about finding one that’s a better match.

If you know me, then you know read alouds are my thing. My favorite part of the school day and one of the best parts of being a mom. I hope you find these strategies for tackling reading aloud in your second language helpful!

Caitlin Kiley is a former third grade bilingual teacher in Wisconsin and currently lives in Mexico.

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