Why read in the heritage language?
Children nowadays have many options to choose from when it comes to entertainment, so it is no surprise that reading for pleasure is not as popular as it used to be. Instead of picking up a book, a child might head for video games or online streaming services. Although parents are usually aware of the many benefits of reading, it can certainly be a challenge to convince children to read more often.
Most children will be encouraged to discover a love for reading at school, in the school language. It should be kept in mind, though, that some children do not speak their school language at home with their parents. They speak instead what is known as a “heritage language,” which is the language that (one of) the parents speak and wish to pass on to their child.
Multilingual children who speak a heritage language (HL) will naturally learn to read and write in the school language – but they might not develop the same literacy skills in their HL. And even if they do learn to read in the HL, they might not exercise that skill in their free time. This is unfortunate, because regularly reading in the HL offers lots of advantages!
On this page, you can discover the advantages of reading in the HL and find out how you can support and encourage children to read for fun in the HL.
What stages do children go through when learning how to read in general, and what concerns there might be when learning to read in multiple languages? What motivates children to read? Which types of reading materials should a child be reading?
How children learn to read
Every child is different, and it is completely normal for children to follow different paces when learning to read. Nevertheless, it is good to keep the following general timeline in mind.
Babies (0 to 2 years) often start expressing interest in books when adults read to them. They do this by making sounds, looking at the pictures, recognizing covers of favorite books, and naming familiar items. Besides this being a great bonding experience for parent and child, it will greatly help the development of vocabulary, listening skills, and memory in a fun and comforting way (“Normal Development,” n.d.; Zettler-Greeley, 2018).
Preschoolers (2 to 4 years) enjoy being read to as well, and reading to them positively impacts their literacy development. They will start to recognize letters/symbols and to know how they are associated with sounds. They come to understand how to correctly hold and read books: the fact that words go from left to right, and pages from top to bottom (“Normal Development,” n.d.; Zettler-Greeley, 2018).
Children aged 5 to 7 years start learning to read independently. They will be able to match elements from the writing system to the corresponding words/sounds. Once they begin learning to read, they may improve reading fluency and speed, start to learn spelling rules, and connect the stories they read to their personal experiences (“Normal Development,” n.d.; Zettler-Greeley, 2018).
Children aged 8 to 10 will move from learning to read towards reading to learn, as they start reading for different purposes. They can now identify and describe genres, plots, and themes, and they can compare information across different texts. At this age, most children will have developed most of the basic literacy skills. As they grow older, they continue to develop their vocabulary, comprehension, and analytic skills as they move on to more complex texts (“Normal Development,” n.d.; Zettler-Greeley, 2018).
Learning to read in multiple languages
Should a child learn to read and write in two languages at the same time (“simultaneous literacy development”) or should a child learn to read and write in one language before learning in another (“sequential literacy development)? Sequential literacy development is more common (Baker, 2014), and in our experience (of having spoken to numerous schools and HL programs), learning to read in one language before the other is the plan that brings the least risk of confusing the child.
While there are some advantages that have been found when a child first learns how to read and write in the language that they know best (Baker, 2014), we believe that in many cases a good plan is to first allow the child to learn to read and write in the school language, the majority language. Children are taught at their mainstream school in the majority language five days per week, several hours per day, by teachers who are trained to teach children to read and write.
Children are often only meeting with a HL teacher or with a parent a few hours per month for lessons in the HL, so in many cases it is a good plan to hold off on literacy development in the HL until a child has a solid basis in reading and writing in the school language. There are other skills that can be developed in the HL in the meantime, like speaking, listening, and vocabulary. This approach of temporarily delaying the teaching of literacy in the HL is one that is used by many HL programs we have spoken with. Once children know how to read short passages of text independently in the school language, then it should be possible to transfer these skills to the HL. The children do not need to learn all over again how to hold a pencil, or that symbols can correspond to sounds – this they already know (Baker, 2014).
That said, each child’s situation should be considered individually. After all, some children are so curious that they cannot be held back from learning to read in the HL! What parents of multilingual children can do is stay in close communication with the child’s day school teacher (and with the HL teacher, if they have one) during the crucial year or two of literacy development. Make sure an appropriate plan is made and that the child does not become confused.
Forced reading vs reading for pleasure
What are the ways that a child will be motivated to read (in any language)? Extrinsic motivation means that a child performs an activity in order to receive an award or benefit; the child is focussed on the expected result and not on enjoyment of the activity itself. This is in contrast to intrinsic motivation. A child who has intrinsic motivation performs activities solely for his or her own sake and interests (Wigfield, Guthrie & Perencevich, 2004). When it comes to reading, this translates into “forced reading” (extrinsic motivation) and “reading for pleasure” (intrinsic motivation).
Forced reading usually occurs during school when children are, for example, handed material they have to read, and perhaps need to complete accompanying exercises. However, forced reading can also occur at home when parents tell children that they can only read certain types of books. In these cases, a child might read in order to earn good grades or to get parents’ approval.
Reading for pleasure, on the other hand, involves children reading because they like to read. They have full freedom in choosing what to read at their own pace, which usually leads to reading becoming a soothing and enjoyable experience (Krashen, 2004). When children are intrinsically motivated to read, they are more engaged and independent readers (Wigfield, Guthrie & Perencevich, 2004).
So, how can we get children to enjoy reading? First of all, wherever possible, “forced reading” should be avoided. Forced reading often has an adverse effect since it will discourage the child, and might even bring negative associations to reading. When children read due to extrinsic motivation, it can actually lead to poorer reading skills (Becker, McElvany & Kortenbruck, 2010).
You might be wondering if there is some way to motivate children without forcing them – in fact there is such an approach called “forced reading for pleasure,” which is when children have free choice in what they read, but they must be accountable in some way. Perhaps they are assigned a number of pages or hours to read, or they receive some assignment related to what they chose to read. While giving children free choice of reading material is of course positive, even this approach has often been shown to be ineffective because of the accountability placed on children. Requirements like reading goals and assignments/tests can take the fun out of reading (McQuillan, 2017)!
It’s tricky, isn’t it? In general, the advice is to start early and give plenty of choice and freedom. More tips, advice, and suggestions follow below.
Children should read what interests them
Although many different kinds of reading materials are available, and parents or teachers likely favor some over others, research shows that what matters most is children’s enjoyment. So, whatever material best fits a child’s interests will result in the most gains. Give a child freedom when selecting what to read.
Books are the most conventional reading material. There are many different genres of books, which can be an exciting discovery for children. If an e-reader or tablet is accessible, children have the option to choose to read e-books instead of paper versions. Perhaps a child does not express much interest in books. In this case it might be worth exploring other materials such as: magazines, comics, jokes, poetry, plays or musical scripts, vacation guides/brochures, children’s news sites, or children’s encyclopedias. These are just some suggestions, but the options are endless! Exploring different materials and genres can be a great way to increase the child’s enjoyment of reading.
of reading in the HL
What are the benefits of reading in general, and what are the benefits specific to reading in the HL?
Reading in general is good for children
Children who are motivated to read and who find things to read that interest them enjoy countless benefits! Some scientifically backed advantages that follow from reading in general include:
Reading is better for literacy development (reading, writing, spelling, grammar, vocabulary) than direct/explicit instruction; some even argue that reading can be enough on its own to learn language rules since language has too many rules to learn explicitly (Krashen, 2004).
Reading for pleasure increases the amount a child reads, how much they enjoy it, and how well they read – in addition to being a very successful tool for vocabulary acquisition (McQuillen, 1998).
Research shows that children improve their spelling without receiving any direct instruction which is likely thanks to reading (Krashen, 2004).
Children who read more increase their knowledge on a variety of topics, since they receive higher results on tests of history, literature, practical, scientific, social, and cultural knowledge (Krashen, 2004).
Children’s literature often requires the reader to consider others’ perspectives and mental states, which increases empathy (based on Theory of Mind, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes) (Cassidy et al., 1998).
Research shows that a 30-minute reading session decreases blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of psychological stress in students. So, children could learn a healthy coping mechanism to deal with stressors later in life (Rizzolo et al., 2009).
Sustained Silent Reading in school can have a quieting effect leading to less disruption in the classroom, and children prefer this over traditional language learning (Krashen, 2004).
Reading before bedtime can help with relaxation which ultimately leads to better sleep (Krashen, 2004).
Reading is very healthy for the brain since it supports important cognitive processes in school-age children, while high reported screen time negatively affects the brain which may result in language delays and academic difficulties (Horowitz-Kraus & Hutton, 2017).
Children who read for pleasure exhibit a healthier lifestyle as teenagers, reading can lower the odds of experimenting with tobacco and alcohol, and increase the likelihood of regularly eating enough fruit (Mak & Fancourt, 2020).
Avid readers tend to be more creative and gain more success as adults (Krashen, 2004).
Reading in the HL is also good for children!
Naturally, the benefits that follow from reading in general, described above, also apply when children read for pleasure in their HL. Some people mistakenly believe that proficiency in the heritage language can negatively influence proficiency in the school language – but in fact, there is a long list of benefits associated with reading in the HL, including positive effects on the development of the school language! Some scientifically backed benefits that emphasize the importance of reading in the HL are:
Reading to children in the HL helps children learn to read
Parent-child shared book reading in the heritage language has a positive effect on children’s emergent literacy skills, especially for younger (aged 2-4) children (Shen & Tufo, 2022).
Early experience with reading in the HL, for example by being read to or learning the alphabet, can lead to a better development of reading and writing skills in both the heritage and school language (Goodrich, Farrington & Lonigan, 2015)
Reading in the HL helps children develop their HL
Reading in the HL is very effective for improving and developing language skills in the HL (Cho & Krashen, 2020).
When children have only oral – and no literacy – skills in the HL, they are more likely to experience a decline in HL proficiency and awareness/affiliation with the home culture (Eisenchlas, Schalley & Guillemin, 2013).
Reading in the HL helps children develop the school language
When children read in their HL, they experience cross-linguistic transfer to the school language. This means that knowledge of grammar, spelling, sound and letter recognition, reading fluency, etc. learned in one language can be passed on to the other language (Bialystok, Luk & Kwan, 2005; Kremin et al., 2016; Goodrich, Farrington & Lonigan, 2015).
Children who are able to read in both the HL and school language have a better understanding of reading and writing systems (Bialystok, Luk & Kwan, 2005).
Reading in the HL helps children’s self-esteem, identity development, and success
Children who are proficient in the heritage language have higher self-esteem; in particular, literacy skills contribute to higher self-esteem (Yu, 2015).
Children with high proficiency in their home language (through reading) maintain a stronger ethnic identity meaning they feel a strong sense of belonging to the home culture and ethnic group (Yu, 2015).
A long-term study done with American children found that students who exercise literacy skills in their HL ultimately have higher chances of completing high school and receive more academic success/opportunities than their peers (Jang & Brutt-Griffler, 2018).
Reading in the HL improves intercultural awareness
By giving children the chance to read in a language besides the school language, it opens up to them another world of fairy tales and traditional stories. This gives them a different perspective than the mainstream perspective from school, which can increase their intercultural awareness/competence (Riss, 2016).
Finally . . .
The more a child reads in the HL, the better they become at reading in the HL! When they read well, they enjoy it more, which in turn leads to more reading – and more of the known advantages (Smith & Li, 2020)!
from multilingual children
Shouldn’t I spend time reading in Dutch? I need that for school.
It is absolutely important to read in Dutch. There are so many types of interesting books for you to discover and explore in Dutch. When you read in Dutch, you will learn new Dutch words that will help you understand lessons at school.
But there is also a lot for you to discover and explore in your HL! When you read, no matter which language it is, you will find information about the world that will help you at school. For example, if you read a book in your HL about volcanoes, this will help you when you have a Dutch lesson at school about volcanoes!
I don’t know how to read in my HL. How can I learn?
If you want to learn how to read in your HL, first make sure you talk with your parents and your school teacher about it. If you are still learning in Dutch, you might have to wait a few months before starting to learn in your HL.
In order to learn how to read in your HL, your parents might allow you to follow lessons after school or on the weekend, together with other children who speak the same language. If there are no lessons near your home, your parents might help you find an online course, a tutor, or they could teach you themselves!
I don’t have books in my house in my HL to read. What can I do?
You can ask your local public library if there are children’s books available in your HL. Also, sometimes there are people from your HL community who have collections of books for lending or trading. If not, your parents might help you use online libraries to find interesting things to read.
There are books in my HL in my house and at the library, but I never read them.
There are many reasons that you might not have the habit of reading in your HL. Perhaps you read more easily in Dutch, or perhaps you spend your time doing other things besides reading.
First, try to find out which type of book in your HL really interests you. For example, if you spend a lot of your free time playing basketball, find a book in your HL about basketball or a famous basketball player. Instead of books, you could try magazines, comics, or poems.
Once you have found something that you like to read in your HL, try to read a bit each day or each week, for instance every evening before bed, or every Sunday morning. Then it might become a (fun!) habit.
I like to play video games and watch TV. Why should I read in my HL?
There are so many fun ways to spend your time, so it makes sense that reading might not always be the first thing on your mind. You should definitely try to spend some of your free time reading in your HL, simply because it offers so many benefits! It helps you feel more connected to your home culture, helps you have more interesting conversations with your family (because you learn more words), and you might discover stories or characters that you cannot find in a Dutch book.
If you like TV, did you know that some online streaming services allow you to change the audio language and subtitles language, especially on programming for children? Try watching your favorite movie in your home language with the subtitles on!
Sometimes when I read books in my HL, I don’t really get what they are talking about.
That makes sense! If you are not growing up in the country where your HL is spoken, you might not know all of the places, legends, heroes, or rituals from that culture. The people in the stories might behave differently than what you are used to in the Netherlands.
It is probably not fun to read things that you do not understand! If you ever get confused by what you read, you can let your parents or your HL teacher know so you can talk about what is different between the Netherlands and the place you are reading about. If you continue to struggle with this, you can look for things to read that have been translated from other languages into your HL.
See the videos below courtesy of Eindhoven Italian School "La Lampadina" to learn about the benefits of reading to children in the heritage language. They are categorized by age group: Babies, Peuters (preschoolers), Kleuters (Kindergarteners), Basisschool onderbouw, and Basisschool bovenbouw
The work presented on this page is the product of an internship project "The Joy of Reading in the Heritage Language" by a linguistics MA student of Radboud University Nijmegen in 2022.