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Kids and Language

As a mother of 2 small children I am continually astounded by their language development- the words they pick up and the way they manage to play with multiple languages already. As we're currently living in Vienna they are having to master German on top of English… so here are some of my ponderings on the linguistic theme.

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reading

Dealing with a late bloomer

late-bloomer-quotes-4Slow to speak, slow to walk, reluctant to write…

And that’s just my son! OK, I’m exaggerating here- I mean he’s only 3, so the lack of ability at writing is acceptable! (I am joking, BTW!) Each child has it’s own clock, set to it’s own time, and nothing (much) that we can do will change this. However, that doesn’t stop our internal discussions with ourselves, wondering when the next milestone will be reached.

I’m as guilty of this as the next Mum- with two children it’s impossible not to ask the million questions like: “Wasn’t Gen singing ’round and round the garden’ by now? What’s wrong with Sam? Is he EVER going to get there?!”

It’s the waiting game that’s so hard. Although we all know that we shouldn’t be pushing our children beyond their limitations, the sigh of relief when they do finally manage to do what their peers have been winging for months is huge. And it doesn’t help when there are often comparisons from other parents on Facebook etc- posting pictures of their little wonder typing on the pad,  singing etc… reinforcing our fears that our darlings are delayed in some way.

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Grandparents are great!

GrannyI flew back home to Vienna recently, after a week in the UK, sans famille. It was a lovely flying experience: I had a good wander round the airport shops without being nagged to buy this and that, I sat back in my seat and dozed a bit, I ate my meal at the same time as everyone else, without spills or whines (just wine!). Travelling without kids- what a luxury!

But when I looked across the aisle I saw a mum who had it even better than me. She was travelling with her son, yes, but also with her mother. Granny sat in the middle seat, mum in the aisle, and the 6-ish year old in the window seat. The whole way through the flight Granny looked after the son- she played with him, read to him, took him to the loo and helped him with his food. Mum did exactly the same as me: flew as if she was alone. Jealous much?!

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How to increase exposure to the minority language

playgroupPassing on language to your children sounds like it should be something easy to do- after all, we all speak one/ two/ multiple languages- we just need to speak them in front of our kids and let osmosis do the rest! Oh, if only it were that simple. Maybe when there is just one language for the children to absorb this relaxed approach is fine, but when we want our children to be multilingual we need to put a bit more effort into it.

30 is the magic number according to researchers: the percentage of hours each week children need exposure to the minority language in order for it to stand a chance of being native (as I wrote in my previous post: Exposure; how much is enough?). No matter how arbitrary that number is, it’s certainly a good idea to maximise exposure, and make every minute count.

How? Well, there are a lot of ways in which parents can build contact with language, some which take more preparation and maybe money, some which are instant ways to fill 5 minutes. Here are my pick of some tried and tested ones:

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Repetition: the mother of all learning!

fish gameI sit in the living room watching my husband playing with my son. It’s the fishing game, with a number of different coloured fish and a magnetic fishing rod. “Blue! Get the blue one! No, that’s white. This one’s the blue one!” Click. “Yes. Blue. A blue fish!”

We have played this game a hundred times- my son loves the colours, the simple action, the easy success. It might drive me mad, but for him it’s wonderful! And it’s a great way to learn, as the instructions are simple and repetitive, and the vocabulary is useful and visually clear. It’s the same with books, songs and television shows geared towards the youngest of learners- lots of repetitive actions, sounds and colours for them to learn to associate with.

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Dads need to read

readingdadWho is the reader in your family? The chances are it’s mum- reading bedtime stories to the kids night after night, becoming word perfect in the favourite book of the week- in our case Quentin Blake’s “Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road”. Why is that? In our family it’s often because bedtime happens before Dad makes it home from work (so he takes over at the weekend), but the reasons are varied for other families.

Before you have a go at me for making such a gender-biased assumption, research made by Booktrust, the UK’s leading literacy organization, found that only one out of eight UK fathers takes the lead with reading to his children. Dads might be great in other areas, like playing sports, fixing broken toys and general rough and tumbling, but 75% of dads admitted to a lack of confidence when it came to reading to their child.

Studies have shown that when fathers read to their children and share other care-giving responsibilities with mum, their children have better attachment, they have higher self-esteem, and show better social competence. The time fathers spend reading to their children does not just translate into literacy skills but also helps the child to have better impulse control and to show a greater ability to take initiative. In addition, if dad spends time with them at an early age, research has shown that they develop to become more empathetic. A fathers’ involvement in their child’s reading is proven to boost academic success and leads to improved social and emotional well-being.

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Book review #3: A book for bilingual children

a fish in foreign waters bookFor those of you who haven’t come across it yet, a new book is on the market which is specifically directed at bilingual and multilingual children. “A Fish in Foreign Waters”, written by Laura Caputo- Wickham and illustrated by Pamela Goodman is perfect for all young children who are learning a second language.

While written in English (with plans to translate it into other languages in the future), this book appeals to children of all (but especially bilingual or multilingual) backgrounds. It tells the story of Rosie Ray, whose family move to another part of the ocean. When they arrive Rosie has to learn a new language and make new friends- a daunting task for anyone, but especially for a young fish. The story describes her struggle and success, and reflects nicely the lives of many children who move to a new country or have to start afresh somehow.

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Helping children with reading difficulties

kids-reading-nook-6Reading is one of my big pleasures- at a young age I used to tuck myself into the top shelf of the hot cupboard at my parents’ house to get some quiet time with a book, or head into the fields behind our house to find a peaceful spot. Not everyone is so lucky though- many find reading a chore, or worse, they struggle with even short texts. Having just finished following a course on Dyslexia and Language Learning I wanted to write about it in layman’s terms, and look at the ways we can help children to learn to read. I’m not just confining myself to dyslexia though- many children simply don’t enjoy reading as they either didn’t have enough exposure when young, or weren’t taught how to read well.

Dyslexia can not be cured because it is not an illness or disease; instead we need to look at ways in which we can make the process of reading easier on the individual. If dyslexic students are taught with their needs being considered, and if they are equipped with the relevant strategies, they will learn how to overcome their difficulties. Girls somehow develop more easily successful strategies that help them study in their own way not only languages but other academic subjects too, while boys show more struggling in acquiring new materials, regardless of the subject.

Since dyslexia itself is of neurobiological origin connected to phonological awareness and working memory, its occurrence is not language dependent: it occurs in students of all language backgrounds. However, how much and what type of difficulties it causes CAN depend on the learners’ mother tongue or the language they are learning. Phonologically more or less transparent languages with the ‘say what you see, write what you hear’ system (like Finnish, German, Italian or Hungarian) are supposedly easier to master, while opaque languages like English and French, where one letter can have many different sounds, cause more difficulties for dyslexics. However, individual student’s experiences may differ since there are other factors (motivation to learn the language, relationship with the teacher, family background…etc.) that influence the success of learning any language (first or second).

Here are some tips which are easy to include in your reading routine, and which will help a troubled reader or dyslexic learner:

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Book review #2: Winners of children’s book awards

It’s hard to choose a new book for your children- especially with such a wonderful, wide range out there and recommendations coming at you thick and fast from all sources, reputable or not. Of course word-of-mouth suggestions are often the best, but it’s nice once in a while to find something new and feel comfortable that you have made a good choice for your child.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the most prestigious American children’s book awards, and so, despite the fact that I am not American myself, I love to look and see who has won, read the excellent stories and admire the wonderful illustrations of not only the winners but also the other ‘Honor (sic.) Books’.

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World book day

book imagesYesterday we all celebrated books. Wonderful, entertaining, tear- jerking books. It must be my favourite day of the whole year: an opportunity to focus on books and encourage our kids to do the same, dressing up as their favourite character, taking their favourite book to school, swapping books with a friend… revelling in the wonderful pages and even taking part in book sales, story time  or reading marathons at some schools.

But my very favourite part of World Book Day is the initiative in the UK to hand out book tokens to children. Thanks to National Book Tokens and lots of lovely book publishers and booksellers, World Book Day, in partnership with schools all over the country, will be distributing more than 14 million £1 World Book Day book tokens to children (that’s almost one for every child/young person under 18 in the UK and Ireland). The lucky child then has only to swap it for a (exclusive, new and completely free) £1 World Book Day books!

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