10 Tips to Nurture a Biliterate and Bilingual Child

10 Tips to Nurture a Biliterate and Bilingual ChildThe following is part of our series on Raising Biliterate Children by guest contributor, Dr. Carlos Ulloa. In this article, he’s partnered with Laine Gen to present these helpful tips for parents.

Below are some tips to consider as you help instill in your child a lifelong love of reading, writing, listening and speaking in two languages. 


If you want to develop a bilingual and biliterate child, you must be a strong and consistent example in the home. When you embrace the gift of speaking, listening, reading and writing in two languages, you model a family value that can be passed on for generations. Accept it, you are your child’s first teacher! Do not relinquish this important responsibility to anyone.  But don’t feel like you have to speak perfectly. All language learners make mistakes, and getting corrected is one way we learn. You are modeling effort, not perfection. 


If you can’t make trips to visit abuelita and abuelito, call them on the phone or Skype with them weekly.  Nothing is sadder to a Spanish-speaking grandparent or relative than when children cannot communicate with family because of language barriers. Start with basic greetings. Plan out a few phrases and teach them to your children each time you call. Ask your family not to switch to English at the slightest misunderstanding (if they speak English). Again, emphasize and encourage effort on the part of your children and how their attempts to communicate are a gift and sign of respect to their elders. 


Make time to read with your child every day. There is nothing like escaping into a great story together! Find your child’s inner passion and then look for books, magazines, and websites related to his or her favorite topic. One child I knew was a reluctant reader in Spanish (his second language) until his mother found a Minecraft handbook in Spanish. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait to read each day.

While reading together, consciously ask questions aloud about the author, story setting, characters or plot. Ask your child to predict what will happen next and then see if the predictions are correct. This is what great readers do in their heads, and you can model it for your child. Put yourself into the book and honor your child’s responses.

There are a growing number of bilingual books written in English and Spanish. Your local library and your child’s school library can help you find Pura Belpré Award-winning books. The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. Established in 1996, the award is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. For a list of current award and honor books, check out the Pura Belpré home page at http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/belpremedal. 


A simple and fun pre-writing activity is to talk about new and familiar words you see when you are walking, driving, or riding the bus. When encountering new words, be curious about them. Model using a dictionary and help your child figure out meanings by breaking the word into smaller parts.

Writing is a process. Start small: Craft your grocery shopping list with your child and alternate languages each week. Older, second-language learners love to label all the furniture in the house. Write down a favorite family recipe together. Label captions on the back of your family photos (who, what and where) or create a photo album together online or through social media. Card making is also a wonderful and purposeful form of reading and writing, and don’t forget thank you notes to family members or classmates who give birthday or holiday gifts. Expand from letter writing to recording family stories together. 


Cooking together requires searching for a recipe (using alphabetization skills), reading it together, reviewing the vocabulary as you find the ingredients and once again as you combine them. This is hands-on language learning at its finest. You can even write a review of the dish after you eat! 


When you are at home or in the car, listen to songs in both languages. Check out CDs by José Luis Orozco, Suni Paz, or Juan Sánchez from your library or use online resources like Pandora’s Música infantil station. Talk about the lyrics. What is the singer trying to say? Audiobooks in English and Spanish are also a wonderful way to improve your child’s listening comprehension in the car. 


First, eat dinner together as a family. This can be a homemade meal or take-out, but sit together at the table and talk about the vocabulary of the food you are eating. Turn off the television and all devices. Talk about the day’s events.  Share a rose/rosa and a thorn/espina. The rose/rosa  is a wonderful moment in the day and a thorn/espina is an event in the day that needs some helpful advice from the family. Then, after dinner, play a game together. Look for games like Candy Land, Uno, or Battleship that have simple vocabulary based on numbers and colors, which can be played easily in different languages. Select games your child enjoys playing. 


Use technology to enhance learning only after kids have had time to do chores, play outdoors, and exercise their imaginations. Ditch the cable. Movies can be checked out from the library and watched on the weekend. Set the captions to a different language while you watch. If your child wants some computer time, there are great eBook resources like Bookflix, a Scholastic website requiring a subscription but available for free for patrons of California libraries. Bookflix allows you to access fiction and nonfiction books paired on a topic. Some pairs are available in both English and Spanish. All of these stories are animated, narrated by native speakers, and feature words that change color as they are read aloud (like in karaoke). Also, reluctant readers are sometimes much more motivated to read if they can do it on a tablet rather than a traditional book. But make sure all electronics are off at least an hour before bedtime so you can relax together with a bedtime story from a real book or your imagination. 


Librarians are an underutilized resource. They live to help you find unusual items. Most libraries have inter-library loan programs, where you can borrow materials from other sources and they are sent right to your local branch for you to pick up. If the library doesn’t have what you are looking for, put in a purchase request. Ask your branch manager to consider allocating more resources to books, videos, CDs, and story time in Spanish or other languages. And finally, when you purchase books, check your local independent bookstore to see if they can order for you. Some indie bookstores will give you a discount if you register your book club, so create one and start saving! 


Language learning happens most effectively when you are in a community, surrounded by people who speak that language. In fact, children need exposure to another language for about a third of their waking hours in order to acquire it naturally. More and more school districts are creating free public charter schools that offer your child the chance to become part of a bilingual community from a very young age. New programs require a lot of time investment on the part of parents to create enrichment opportunities, but your efforts will pay off in the long run as you give your child the life-long gift of being able to read, write, speak and listen in two languages.


Dr. Ulloa grew up speaking Spanish with his mother and English with his father. Dr. Ulloa has 25 years of experience as an elementary teacher, director of curriculum and instruction, Descubriendo la Lectura/Reading Recovery teacher, parent involvement specialist and dual immersion principal. He currently serves as a commissioner on the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC), an advisory board to the California State Board of Education. Ulloa earned his B.A. at San Diego State University in Liberal Studies with a Spanish Bilingual Emphasis, masters in Education from Harvard University and doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Ulloa can be contacted at CarlosUlloaJr@gmail.com or connect with him on Twitter: @DrCarlosUlloaJr.

Laine Gen grew up in a monolingual household but became trilingual as an adult by living and teaching in France and Mexico.  She holds a B.A. in French and a masters in teaching English to speakers of other languages.  She married a Chinese American and has picked up some Cantonese along the way from her in-laws.  Her two children attend Loma Vista Immersion Academy in Petaluma, California and are growing up bilingual in English and Spanish.  She can be reached at lgen@petk12.org.


  1. Salinas Rosalia says

    Dr Ulloa is wonderful role model for our community. I would urge that he do additional pieces on related topics

    • Carlos Ulloa says

      Thank you, Rosalia for the kind words! Laine and I are working on a useful book for parents, teachers and family liaisons. Laine is a wonderful parent advocate for biliteracy, bilingualism and biculturalism.

  2. Jo Reed says

    These tips are helpful. I would love to share them with the parents at the elementary school at which I am the librarian. It would be even more helpful and accessible to my school’s population, if it were available in Spanish.

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