Picking Up a Book Helps Kids Learn a Second Language

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Christian Borres looks at books with his daughter Isabella, age 7, at the new Potranco Branch Library.

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report

Several local branches in the San Antonio Public Library system feature foreign-language titles for immediate borrowing.

Dual language education does not guarantee that children will become fluent in a second language, but studies of many programs have shown positive results in language acquisition and correlation with other forms of academic achievement. Reading in that second language further supports vocabulary gains and reading fluency.

In a city where more than 34 percent of the population speak both English and Spanish, according to the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, dual-language capabilities have become a calling card in the local workforce.

In the San Antonio Independent School District, Mark Twain Dual Language Academy and Irving Dual Language Academy follow a two-way immersion model of dual-language education, meaning a single class will have both native English-speaking and native Spanish-speaking children.

Both schools are in-district charters that will accept students from all over Bexar County, but give priority to students within each school’s attendance boundaries. The district is accepting applications for both schools through Jan. 31, 2018.

Parents who want to bolster their children’s dual-language education have a low-tech and affordable tool at their disposal: books.

While parents and educators have long accepted the importance of reading in children’s first language, they might not be aware of its impact on second-language acquisition. If children are expected to reach certain proficiency benchmarks in a dual-language program, second-language reading becomes even more essential.

Research has consistently shown that reading in a target language, specifically the kind that children do voluntarily and for fun, leads to increased second-language proficiency. Whether you call it sustained silent reading, “drop everything and read,” or free voluntary reading, this practice helps build first- and second-language skills for its learners.

A recent study from South Korea showed that with a modest amount of free reading time, English-as-a-foreign-language students made significant gains in vocabulary acquisition and reading fluency. Though the students in the experimental group still spent the majority of their time receiving the same intensive reading instruction as the control group, the relatively short amount of time they spent free-reading in English was enough to see statistically significant differences in test scores.

 

For children who make up the native English-speaking half of a two-way immersion class, such as those at the Mark Twain and Irving academies, gaining access to reading material in a language other than English can be a challenge. San Antonio parents who want their children to read more in Spanish have a few local and non-local tools at their disposal.

Interested parents can find books in languages other than English through the San Antonio Public Library, using the online catalog to run advanced searches for books in Spanish. Foreign-language books are sprinkled throughout various local branches in the public library system, so it may be worth a call to find out where Spanish-language titles are available for immediate borrowing.

While they cannot beat the price of the public library, local bookstores also have offerings in Spanish: Homegrown bookstore The Twig has a shelf dedicated to Spanish-language children’s books, and Trinity University Press publishes a series of Spanish-English bilingual children’s books that are suitable for students who are just beginning a dual-language program.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The Twig Book Shop

By far, the greatest variety of Spanish-language books can be found on Amazon, which has nearly 80,000 Spanish-language children’s books available. Books in the children’s department can be filtered by language.

Most dual-language programs admit students in kindergarten and first grade, at which point they generally cannot read independently in any language yet. However, these children can still engage in Spanish-learning outside of school, even if their parents do not speak the language.

YouTube is a treasure trove of stories read aloud in Spanish, which children can listen to and watch. Parents can start by searching for Spanish-language versions of stories their children are already familiar with so as to aid in comprehension.

Many parents of dual-language program students are not native Spanish speakers themselves, but may still have some proficiency in Spanish. Some may be reluctant to read to their children in their second language or even use it at all, and some may fear that their children will pick up an incorrect accent or become confused by hearing multiple accents.

Research indicates that children, even young babies, can cope with hearing the same language spoken with different accents. One study, which exposed children to different regional accents in English, found that the exposure to multiple accents affected children – in a good way.

These children ended up more attuned to the context of words in order to understand their meaning. Children who heard the same words in multiple accents had equal vocabularies to children who heard only one accent, so parents who are proficient in Spanish despite it not being their native language, should feel comfortable reading aloud to their children in Spanish.

Dual-language programs are not a magic wand that turn children into fluent speakers of a second language. Students do not generally leave elementary dual-language programs with native-like fluency, but most do achieve at least an intermediate level in the target language. Parents who support their children in accessing reading materials in the target language will help them improve their skills.

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