Raising children with two languages can feel like time travel. You try to live in the moment, because good parenting and good language teaching depend on being present. At the same time, you have to live in the past. Learning language takes repeated exposure, so you constantly revisit what your kids have learned. Yet, at every moment, you try to predict the future and stay ahead of them, as their vocabularies expand at speeds and in directions you never dreamed of. This is why having a text-rich home is so important.
A text-rich environment at home can serve as a time machine of sorts, helping children move through “language time.” Also called a print-rich or literacy-rich environment, this strategy involves designing a space with large amounts of displayed and easily accessible text. This written language draws on what kids have learned and also pushes them ahead. In the present, you talk, talk, talk about the words around you.
I raised my children in rural Wisconsin, where the linguistic landscape in English is barren. I knew that the Spanish they would see in print would have to come from me, so I became obsessed with making written Spanish a part of our home. I put text everywhere, and it made my life easier because it provided input at different levels, cultural content and topics for conversation. Of course, I loved filling the house with Spanish!
We often hear the term text-rich environment in the context of emerging literacy, but a print-filled space is an important source of minority language at any age. As you create your space, make sure text is plentiful and accessible. Position it at eye level, and leave print materials out to be used. Change text regularly so that children stay aware of it. Select language that is engaging and draws kids into interactions. Also, make the language more complex as children grow, and choose content that is relevant to their changing interests.
The language you choose should be meaningful and fun for you and your children. You can display quotes, song lyrics, and poems in dozens of ways. Word games can become part of a daily routine. Writing notes to each other makes language relevant and interactive. When you start seeing your home as potential “language space,” you will have no shortage of ideas. Here are a few to get you started.
Ideas for a Text-Rich Environment
1. Fill your home with books, magazines, newspapers and maps in the minority language. Although much of the same information is available online, it is important that children see language in print. This is the foundation of a text-rich space.
2. Write notes to your children to communicate important information and also just for fun.
3. Hang comics with blank speech bubbles. Fill in the first bubble and leave the comic for your child to continue. You will get some funny strips! Make Beliefs Comix has a selection of free blank templates.
4. Leave word games in a family space for everyone to play, the way you might all work on a jigsaw puzzle. Crossword puzzles are great for this, but you can do the same thing with games like Bananagrams or Scrabble.
5. Use chalkboard paint to make a chalkboard on a wall, a table, place mats or any other surface you want to put text on. Do an image search for chalkboard paint and you will see that people write on everything! You can buy chalkboard paint or mix your own.
6. Establish a “sticky note” conversation about a text. My daughter and I discovered this accidentally. We had a book of short poems lying around, and one day she put a sticky flag on a poem she wanted me to read. I read the poem and added a sticky flag on another poem. We would talk about the poems when we were at meals or in the car. This exchange continued for weeks and we ended up with dozens of marked pages!
This was was great fun, and it would also work with quotes or cartoons. You could use different colored flags for different people or as a rating scale.
7. Invest in trivia and quiz games with cards. Kids love to quiz each other and their parents. I don’t think we ever sat down to play these games as they were designed to be played, but we had the cards everywhere. What you see in the photo is just a fraction of our collection!
8. Subscribe to “how-to” magazines for kids. Right now, my favorite is Chop Chop, a wonderful healthy-cooking magazine for families. It is available in Spanish and English. I found that we were much more likely to do activities if they arrived periodically in the mail than if I had to structure something. I would leave the new edition out, and the kids would usually suggest something they wanted to make.
9. Use wall decals to put text on a big wall.
10. Write on a shower curtain. Choose an inexpensive white liner and use permanent markers. It’s fun to read while you are brushing your teeth!
11. Put words on stones. Use the words to assemble messages or write poems. Keep extra stones handy so you can add to your collection when you need a word.
12. Keep a family journal. Take a few minutes once or twice a week to record what has been happening. For some reason, my kids liked reading previous entries each time, even if they were only a few weeks old. They also insisted on doing most of the writing.
13. Recycle pages of old books into place mats. Put the pages on poster board and laminate it, or cover it with clear contact paper. I did this with a book of tongue twisters and they got much more attention than they had ever gotten in the book.
14. Make hands-on word art and display it.
15. Write on a plate with a ceramic marker. The plate in the photo has words from Gracias a la vida, a famous song by the Chilean artist Violeta Parra.
16. Use sticker paper in your printer to make stickers with minority-language text.
17. Use magnetic paper in your printer to make your own refrigerator magnets with text.
18. Print words on brown paper bags to use for lunch or picnics. I set my paper size to 5×7 for a standard lunch bag, put the text in a text box so there are no margins, and add two small pieces of tape to keep the flap down and the bag closed when I print. The bag in the photo at the top of the post has a poem by Ruben Darío that I used to read to my Margarita when she was small.
19. Buy posters in the minority language or print your own. Sites like AutoMotivator let you make and print posters with pictures.
20. Use web sites like Wordle or Tagxedo to make word clouds from songs, poems, or favorite stories. On Tagxedo, you can fill different shapes with text. Hang the word clouds where you can admire them.
21. Make your own greeting cards for holidays and birthdays and include plenty of text. Be sure to display the cards.
22. Print and frame proverbs in the minority language.
23. Use butcher paper as a tablecloth and decorate it with words and phrases. You can get things started with a question or a quote. We used to eat at a restaurant that did this and we had so much fun I decided to do it at home. Keep markers, crayons and colored pencils on the table to make writing fun.
24. Make a photo album and write about the pictures in the minority language. Choose a special event or a trip so the task is more focused and less daunting.
25. Hang funny or interesting pictures from magazines and write captions for them on sticky notes.
26. Collect postcards with words in the minority language and display them together. Search “postcard display” on Pinterest for some great ideas.
27. Recycle picture books that fall apart by arranging pages on a pre-stretched canvas and covering it with a clear sealant like Modge Podge.
28. Make displays of family or personal lists. For example, list things you are thankful for, no-cost gifts, New Year’s Resolutions, ways to conserve energy or places you would like to visit.
29. Make a jigsaw puzzle out of text. You can buy blank puzzles or make your own. A set of proverbs, a poem or part of a favorite story makes a great puzzle.
30. Finally, encourage your children to use the minority language to create gifts for others. Sometimes they have the most fun with words when they are thinking of someone else. A poem, favorite quotes, lines from songs, even tweets, can decorate cards, plates, ornaments, lunch bags and a host of other handmade gifts.