Bilingual Readers


I never intended to be the one to teach my kids to read. I assumed, as I imagine most parents do, that a teacher—a professional with years of training—would swoop in and take care of that for me. That the most I’d be responsible for would be pulling them into my lap to read whenever they requested it, which was an idea I relished.

But as an American mother raising bilingual, bicultural kids in Tokyo, a conglomeration of circumstances (a dearth of options for instruction in English, and no official early childhood literacy education in Japanese) threw me unexpectedly and, I’ll admit, unwillingly into being their reading teacher.

Building on their enjoyment of play, I continued to find things around the home that could become games for them to learn from.

My own relationship with reading has propelled my life forward, taking me to unexpected corners of the world and offering up opportunities I could never otherwise have expected to find. Reading has made me the person I am, and so one of the dearest hopes I held for my children was that they would cultivate a similar relationship with the written word—one of love, engagement and trust.

It seems clear to me now that part of my reluctance to teach them came from these high expectations. Seeing their journey toward becoming readers and realizing that I’d be its first facilitator had me thinking only of how hard it would be to scale that mountain. So by the time they started showing interest in letters and words, I mostly felt frustration. Overwhelmed and intimidated by the enormity of the task in front of me, I hid from it and tried to find other options—anything but me being the one to teach them. It simply felt like too enormous a task to take on by myself.

But, as children are wont to do, they kept showing up with their indefatigable curiosity, with their keen observation of the world around them, and with their love of the books that they brought to my lap every day. So I asked myself: If what I want is for them to have a loving, engaged, pleasurable relationship with reading, what can I do today that will take them one step closer to that? How can I give them the experience of that relationship with reading right here, right now?

While I knew I could go online and find thousands of resources and curricula, I also knew that it would take time and energy to research them, to study them, to incorporate them into my way of being with my kids at home. Beyond that, I knew that my particular children thrive in an active setting, where they feel a sense of agency and freedom. Fed up with my own waffling, I was ready to stop thinking about it and just get started.

Looking around our home, I noticed a few empty plastic bottles waiting in the recycling bin. Remembering my work teaching Japanese children English, I decided to fashion a quick and easy game by taping one Japanese character to each bottle and setting them up like bowling pins. After introducing the characters, I gave each child a ball and challenged them to hit the correct bottle when they heard the corresponding sound. Delighted, they wanted to play over and over again, for far longer than any sit-down lesson would have lasted.

A couple of days later, emboldened by that success, I dug further into my memories of teaching kids in the classroom and made a simple, easy fishing game, this time using the alphabet. I wrote one letter on each of four or five index cards, then cut them into fish shapes and placed a paper clip on each one. Using chopsticks, some string, and a pair of magnets, I made a simple fishing rod for each child and placed their individual set of ‘fish’ on the floor. As I called out each phonetic sound, they tried to catch the corresponding card, giggling and jumping up and down with each effort.

Building on their enjoyment of play, I continued to find things around the home that could become games for them to learn from. We’ve played language games with toy tennis raquets and balloons with letters written on them, each child calling out the sound as they race to hit their balloon. We’ve zoomed toy cars over giant letter-shaped tracks as we practice their sounds. We’ve used cardboard boxes emblazoned with Japanese characters as stand-ins for basketball hoops, repeating the sounds over and over again in a way that feels less like practice and more like fun.

Sourcing materials from what we already have has taught me above all else that I don’t already need to know exactly what I’m doing. My kids don’t need perfection in a teacher, or in the materials they use. What matters far more than that is the fact that they’re engaging with their native languages in ways that feel good to them, that bring them joy, and that don’t involve anything particularly special. We can use what we have right here without it being a big, scary deal.

What started as an intimidating project is now a fun and invigorating way for me and my kids to interact with one another, and if it fosters a love of reading in them, all the better. More important, though, is that they feel loved, and that they know I’m there for them, whatever they may need. Whether I’m qualified for the job or not.