On learning to read in two languages

I have a new post up on the Foreigners blog for the BBC Russian Service. All about the Star learning to read. Or not. Although I can see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now. Still, it’s a slog.

Here’s the original:

My son got a certificate from his (British) school last week for good work in learning the (English) alphabet. Actually, it wasn’t for good work as such, it was for good effort, which is clearly not the same thing. The truth of the matter is that my four and a half year old son is finding the basics of reading and writing heavy going.


I blame the parents. Specifically I blame our desire for him to be nearly equally bilingual in Russian and English every step of the way. This means the poor boy is learning his Russian letters at the same time as all the English ones.


First problem. The Russian and English alphabets are, of course, different, so that means that for more or less the same sound, my son often has two learn two symbols. ‘f’ for instance and ‘ф’. But in my opinion it’s made harder when the alphabets are not different enough.  The Russian ‘с’ for example looks like a letter in the English alphabet, but has a totally different sound. Worse still are the near misses such as the English capital letter ‘N’, which looks confusingly like the Russian ‘И’, but again, bears no relation to the sound. Even the ones which are, at first glance, the same, such as ‘a/а’ are misleading. An English ‘a’ sound is often not much like a Russian one.


Second problem. I understand that the drive towards basic literacy begins more at six or seven in Russia. In the UK most of my son’s peers have been at it for at least a year already, and more if they happen to have been born in a month early on in the academic year like October. It isn’t compulsory (yet) for children to start their formal learning at three, but the UK provides fifteen hours of free nursery a week from that age specifically to try to make sure that kids get a head start on this kind of thing, so it is popular.


We did not send our son to these classes. They clashed with his Russian playgroup. No, he was not allowed to only go three mornings rather than the five mornings he was offered. That would have messed up the school’s attendance statistics. We had to make a choice about whether to tip the balance of English/Russian input almost completely over to English or try to maintain a more Russian environment for a little while longer. We chose the Russian.


Of course I could, I suppose, have started with the alphabet at home but the third problem is that my son is a summer baby, and it simply did not occur to me he needed to at three years old, the age he was until shortly before he started British school. Plus, see above about the English/ Russian balance. I was rather hoping that we could leave most of the formal English language instruction to the formal British education system. Do you think I am making guilty excuses here? Maybe. Let’s move on.


Fourth problem. This year, my son does not go in for half days, but for the full British school day of 8.45 to 3pm. Five days a week. I understand that most Russian children finish at 1pm. This seems much more civilised, albeit difficult if you have two parents who work (what happens then, by the way?). So let’s say we get home at half four (we often stop off in the park on the way home), and then cooking and eating takes until half five. My son’s bedtime is seven. That doesn’t leave very much time for both the Russian and English homework he has, and frankly, it’s not just the lack of time. After six hours in school I feel my son deserves a break, although to be fair they spend a lot of time just playing at the school. But basically, my son spent the first term exhausted, and this was not helped by the fact that he was attending Russian school on a Saturday too. Now that we have added two after school activities (judo and music classes in Russian in case you are interested), that squeezes us even more. When, I wonder, are we supposed to flash the flash cards and read the books they keep sending home? I mostly do the English side of things over breakfast. Babushka fits in the Russian work before dinner. On Sundays we have a rest and my son finally gets to watch some TV.


Fifth problem. It took me a while to work out that my son was quite so far behind with his English letters because experiencing school in two cultures has allowed me to once again notice the difference between the Russian and British characters. My son’s Russian teacher forthrightly pointed out his backwardness in colouring in neatly in the first lesson he ever had with her. It took us two weeks of battling with his lack of interest in anything involving manual dexterity, but he now seems to be on track there. In fact, his teacher told me how pleased she was with his improvement only last week.


The British teachers have been more… circumspect. In fact, I only found out by accident that he was in the bottom group for reading/ letter learning. What they mainly seemed concerned about when he started was his initial reluctance to put his hand up before answering a question. Don’t get me wrong – there has been plenty of encouragement to the homework, to read, to play with the letter cards they sent home, but no particular sense of urgency. A bit of urgency and a little bit less politeness would have been helpful, or maybe I have just been living with a Russian man for too long.


Maybe they don’t feel any, of course. But I do. Still, past experience of the bilingual journey is that if you grit your teeth, hang in there, and keep at it, it all works out in the end. I do hope it’s true here too.



10 thoughts on “On learning to read in two languages

  1. Lil says:

    maybe you should put off russian untill he s in second grade and confident enough in english?
    i am russian. i leave here in germany and trying to raise my daughter billingual (russian and german)

    started to teach her german abc at four, she began to read at five – more or less… but im not even a teacher and they dont really do much in that direction in their german kindergarden. so basically i took the matter with reading in my own hands.

    in russian kindergarden i dont even remember my teacher EVER teaching me how to read untill i was 7 and went to school… but nowadays parents in russia teach kids to read at home so about the age of 6 every kid reads more or less ok. and we often hear protests from elementary school teachers in russia who insist that parents should NOT teach the kids how to read so that the school teachers will teach them from beginning THE PROPER WAY. hilarious isnt it?

    but here in gemany with my daughter we ll only start russian alphabet at second grade.. now idea how to pull that off since her russian playgroup is only till age 6 and then they offer this saturday school with reading, chess and math in russian… maybe we ll have to skip it for a couple of years untill she learns german reading properly. i find it importnat to stimulate her russian by talking and having many russian friends with kids around. but writing lessons… i just dont know. not till she`s eight…

    your child is not under achieving if he cannot read fluently at four. i mean c`mon. four years old. they start so early in english speaking countries! is there a way to have him learn russian without reading untill he gets more or less confident in english?

    btw i enjoy reading your blog. being not even a russian speaker yourself you somehow manage to raise your kids more or less bilingual. thats allready something.

    and btw do they take afternoon naps in english preschools? i allways thaught they are vital for childrens health.

    • Hi Lil!

      It is interesting to hear from other parents of bilingual children. I must admit that I was a bit dubious about the Russian classes because of the writing issue – it may well be better to start them separately. That said, I have now realised that it’s a lot more gently introduced than the intense drive that the British school is going for, probably because the Russian school system doesn’t start letters until later. Now that the first shock is over, and he’s got more familiar with the whole concept of letters, that’s working out quite well – my son isn’t really having to try to learn to read in two languages at the same time any more. He’s being pushed ahead in English, and taking it much more slowly in Russian. I think it does probably slow him down on the English side of things a bit, but I figure that in the long term it will probably work out.

      We didn’t want him to miss out on the Russian classes though, because they also do other things like music and literature and performance and so on (not chess though – how cool), and so it’s more varied exposure to Russian than he’d get otherwise.

      I have a bit of sympathy for the teachers who ask the parents not to teach their kids though – mainly because I think part of my son’s problem at the moment is that some kids got/ get a lot of coaching at home and others don’t, and so now there’s a huge gap in the class between what some kids can do and others can’t. The early compulsory school and the early focus on literacy in British schools was, I think, supposed to help with that – by making sure that kids with parents who don’t help much at home got help through school early on. But I think it may have just made the parents who do help more determined/ think their child HAS to be reading at 5, and so… However, that is possibly a rant for another day.

      No naps in pre school here, either the nursery (3-4) or reception (4-5). This is a sore point with my husband, but my son dropped his nap anyway at around 3.5, and is rather better for it – he was never able to take short naps, and towards the end if he took a long nap he wasn’t getting enough sleep at night. But in principle I agree it would be a good thing.

  2. I wonder if the music & judo may be a step too far? For now? Perhaps replace with TV? (I am all about parenting via Benign Neglect, can you tell?!) The exhaustion returns, with savage tinkly bells on, at the start of year 1, and doesn’t seem to dissipate much; it’s such a jump from reception in terms of syllabus work. At the ripe age of 5+half, Harry is now experiencing problems with, for example, maths, because although he can do the sums (for a given value of ‘do’), he can’t read the question… Oh, for Scandinavian-style education! It doesn’t suit everyone, but my God, it’d suit us! The thought of introducing another alphabet alongside… wow. My head does exorcist-style spinning. If the Star is making even the tiniest amount of sense of all of it, he will Go Far!

    • The thing about music and judo is – I didn’t want all of the Star’s outside school activities to be reading/ language related. This is why I dismissed the idea of adding, say, Spanish. He’d probably do well at it, but too much stuff the same there. Anyway, I thought I’d give some totally literacy unrelated activities a go this term, and weirdly enough, he seems to thrive on it. I thought it would tire him out more, but no. I have declared Sundays a day of sitting around in our pajamas though. The short terms we’ve got this time should help too – last term was a right slog all round.

      I am not looking forward to year 1, and I have put off thinking about maths at all until we have got a bit better at reading. The Star is behind in that too, which I do feel a bit affronted by. I thought he was quite good at counting and such, so either I am wrong or they hothouse the kids in that too.

      *sigh* if only they had a subject called ‘esoteric animal facts’.

  3. How amazingly culture-bound this all is. We are raising the girls bilingual Dutch-Romanian in Belgium, but although school begins here at 2 1/2 (at least, it’s the same institution), I haven’t dreamt of starting to actually teach our 5-year old to read programatically. She recognizes many letters and knows how to write her own name, but that’s about the extent of what they do in school for now and I haven’t felt compelled to start pushing, although at her age I was reading for myself for about a year already. Homework? Two activities? I’m getting scared 🙂 .

    • Totally agree about it being all cultural. In fact, I’m not sure anywhere but the UK goes so hell bound for reading at this age.

      Two activities is nothing. One of the Star’s friends does Chinese, swimming lessons and ballet (or basketball – I forget which) on a Saturday, and that’s before he gets to the Russian classes. I am positively lax in comparison.

  4. Biliteracy is certainly challenging! I agree with you that when alphabets are similar it’s possibly even more confusing! We are battling with French and English, which have, for example, different sounds for the letter ‘e’. Then my kids also have to learn that in English there is the way we say ‘e’ when it is part of the alphabet and the way we say ‘e’ when it is a phonic sound for reading. So that’s 3 sounds just for one letter!

    What I’ve found is that when I focus on teaching English reading, that steams ahead, leaving the French reading flailing and vice versa. My son doesn’t seem to be able to deal with both systems at the same time, so I am mainly focussing on the French for now, as that is the language he has least exposure to.

    I hope your son starts to enjoy reading soon, but learning to read is a very long slow process, or at least, it is in our family! So try not to feel too rushed, and if you can, make time to read books to your son so that he can see how much fun they are.

  5. Just wanted to share our experience. I’m a Cuban with a Russian husband living in Moscow. I prefer the “sequential strategy”, so my daughter learnt to read first in Spanish (at home and in a Saturday Spanish school) when she was around 4, about a year later she was taught to read Russian in the kindergarden. As I loved the results, that’s what I’m planning to do with my son.
    That said, there is no evidence that if kids learn to read in two languages at the same time it should cause any problem. You can find more information on this in Colin Baker’s Guide to Bilingualism.
    Besides, in my opinion, it’s incredibly difficult to become “perfect” in two languages. My daughter is now 13 and she sounds native in Spanish, but her Russian writing is far better than her Spanish. I’m completely happy with that as my aim was to be able to communicate with my children in my mother tongue and to transmit my culture.
    I wish you success!

  6. Thank you for commenting! It’s nice to hear from someone more on the other end of the process!

    I agree the whole ‘totally balanced’ thing is probably unattainable, but I think with the kids, we’d like them to be good enough all round so they can choose – ie their ability in writing or lack of it in one or another language shouldn’t hold them back if they wanted to, say, study in one or another country.

    So far it’s going quite well and, shhhhhhhhh, dare I say it, we may now have reached a tipping point where his slow start seems to be gathering a bit of pace in both languages.

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