Motivating Children to Read in a Minority Language

For many multilingual families, motivating our children to read in a minority language can be difficult. Making sure our children read and write, as well as speak, our home language(s) is important. However, it can sometimes feel impossible to interest our children in books in our language(s). Maybe they find the books too difficult to read? Or maybe they are not that interested in reading them? These tips are designed to help you, and your children, stay motivated!

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Books are incredible allies when it comes to helping our children expand their vocabularies. Indeed, on a day-to-day basis, we use a limited number of words due to the rather restricted set of situations we encounter. When reading books, however, we can enter thousands of worlds and live countless lives! This also means that we read a much wider variety of words. While all this is certainly true in a monolingual context, it’s even more applicable for a multilingual child.

Unfortunately, the benefits of reading in the minority language can also make the task challenging. Reading can actually become a hurdle when it comes to accessing the fun parts of the story. Consequently, our children might be less likely to open a book in the minority language than one in the school language.

So, how can we encourage our children to read in our home language? Please note that “encourage” is the key word here. We can certainly guide them and create opportunities but, ultimately, they need to express the desire to read. Forcing them will have only a short-term impact.

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Develop a love for reading

The first step is showing our children how great some books in our languages are. We can do this by reading to them (and later on with them). Being able to read in our language(s) is going to enable them to enjoy these stories independently. And that can be a big motivator!

An infant listening to his dad read | MCK Blogs
Read a lot to/with them, for the PURE PLEASURE OF READING
(Photo: Unsplash/Picsea)

At the beginning, point to the words (or characters) while you read. This helps familiarize our children with the shape of the written language, and its orientation (e.g., left-to-right for languages like French, English, Spanish; right-to-left for languages like Arabic and Hebrew; and top-to-bottom for Japanese).

But I digress. The main thing to remember is that we need to nurture enjoyment and discovery. Our children should not feel cheated. We don’t want them thinking they will hear a story but end up in a lesson!

Make use of reading’s inherent rewards

Reading is a tool and a skill that we develop to access information, have fun, and be independent. Therefore, being able to read is USEFUL. How can we show that? By allowing our children to get immediate rewards enabled by their reading skills.

Photo of maps and other objects that people read
(Photo: Unsplash/Suhash Villuri)

Here are a few examples.

Treasure hunts

This can be as simple or as complex as our children’s reading skills allow. Simply write a series of clues leading to a treasure. The clues can be straightforward and 2-3 words long (e.g., my bed), or riddles (e.g., the place you’ve had your best dream and worst nightmare).

True or False games

If you conduct an internet search, you are bound to find a true/false game in your language. This game consists of players reading facts that others need to judge as being true or false. This type of game is helpful for two reasons. First, in order for the game to be played, the statements on each card must be read. Second, the game never seems too difficult. Sometimes, the facts are so tricky, even adults can get them wrong. But, since there is a 50% chance of being right (or wrong), the game remains fun.

Joke books

Books containing jokes offer the same immediate reward. The child simply needs to read the jokes to make people laugh.

For even more activities to make reading (and writing) fun, check The Parents’ Guide to Raising Multi-literate Children, or this link, which contains even more ideas!

Read at your child’s level

As our multilingual children grow up, it might become more difficult to access age-appropriate books in the minority language. One fantastic format is comic books. The images that accompany the text help clarify the action, making it easier to work out the meaning of difficult words.

Scarborough’s Reading Rope is also helpful when choosing appropriate reading material. The “rope” shows what is required for someone to read proficiently. In particular, it shows how decoding the written language is only one of the elements required to understand a written text. Knowledge of various vocabulary words, familiarity with cultural aspects, and other types of information all play an important role when a reader is trying to comprehend a passage. Thus, these factors should also influence which reading options you select for your children.

For more details regarding Scarborough’s reading rope and what it means for multilingual children, click here.

Read engaging books

If reading is challenging, we need to choose books that balance the amount of effort and the amount of fun our children experience. Here are a few ways to do that.


With these books, reading constitutes only the first step, and that step is relatively short. What follows, i.e., completing the activity or solving the riddle, is the fun part. And, in these books, it usually lasts a lot longer.

You are the Hero

Books in which the reader acts as the hero can also keep the level of engagement high. In these books, there are typically 10+ possible endings per story. The reader then gets to decide how the story develops. For French readers in primary school, I highly recommend the series Les Mystères Dont Vous Êtes les Héros by Agnès Laroche.

Graphic Novels

My upcoming graphic novel, titled In Search of the Lost Words: A Bilingual Time Travel Adventure, is another possibility. It gives readers an opportunity to help create the story by inviting them to write in their minority language. It provides a genuine reason to write in that language, and it adapts the complexity of the language to their level. For more details about this book, click here.

Let’s remember that for our children to read in our home languages, it is not enough to develop their reading skills. We also need to help them ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE.

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Yoshito Darmon-Shimamori

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