Bilingualism and Literacy Development

By Candice Mathers, PhD Candidate in Linguistics & English Language, University of Edinburgh

This October we celebrate Bilingual Child Month. A bilingual child knows two or more languages, which can offer tremendous insights into multiple cultures. There are many studies surrounding the benefits of bilingualism and methods to teach infants and children multiple languages. We know that language learning stimulates the mind, improves concentration and multitasking abilities, supports creativity, and builds strong social interaction skills. Bilingualism also has benefits as an adult. Multiple language use improves competitiveness in the job market and can help an individual to stay mentally stronger for longer.

One of the most important aspects of development for bilingual children is the development of literacy. We understand literacy as the ability to process the structures of a language and to understand the purpose and meaning of written language. Reading is particularly essential for a child’s present and future academic success. Children that experience difficulties with reading may never overcome them, resulting in poor academic performance. Learning to read is a challenge for all children, regardless of whether they are learning to read in one language or two. It takes years of teaching and practice for a child to become a skilled and fluent reader. Children have to learn how letters (orthography), sounds (phonology), and meaning (semantics) relate to one another. Some bilingual children may learn two languages from birth (simultaneous bilingualism), while others learn one language from birth and add a second a few years later (sequential bilingualism). Neither approach is better than the other and bilingual children will regardless have two sound systems, vocabularies and grammars to work with.


When bilingual children learn to read, they compare the differences and similarities of their two languages. This helps them to understand both languages in depth. For example, they will notice that their two languages have different rules for creating words and meaning, and that we can name the same thing but it will be written in different ways. But being bilingual does not necessarily slow down or confuse children when it comes to reading. In fact, bilingual children can even show some advantages over their monolingual peers when developing important reading skills. Research shows that bilingual learners may actually transfer orthographic, phonological, and semantic skills between their languages, which actually supports their ability to read in both languages.


Research on the bilingual child’s reading progress tries to answer several questions, such as:

  • How do children learn to read in different languages?
  • What mental and linguistic factors help create fluent reading in a second language?
  • What challenges do bilingual children face?
  • How can we support their reading development in both languages?

Researchers can test language skills in children with the help of clever and fun tasks, for example by asking children to name pictures, give antonyms and synonyms to words, break apart words into sounds, or remove sounds in a word. Understanding how growing up bilingual affects children’s language skills and reading outcomes can help us understand which language and reading skills parents and educators can focus on to promote reading success.


There are several positive methods for encouraging reading skills in the home and in school. Below is a list of possible activities that parents and educators can use to help promote reading development, though it is far from exhaustive. Some methods may work better than others for each individual child but with some trial and error, each child can become a successful bilingual reader.

  • Begin reading to your children as early as possible. Even when you think they’re not paying attention you’re still helping to establish a reading habit.
  • Make sure your children see you reading regularly and that they are aware of how important reading is to you.
  • Engage your child’s interests by finding books in both languages that focus on the topics they care about.
  • Consider bilingual books where both languages are used to tell a story. You can read the book in one language and ask the child to read in the other.
  • If your kids are already reading, talk to them about the books they are reading, and look for reading material that covers the same topics in the second language.
  • Try to find materials related to your family history and culture to give personal meaning to bilingual reading.
  • Don’t make books the only source of reading material. Look for other things to read such as magazines, newspapers, online articles, puzzles, and board games.
  • Recruit the help of family or friends who speak the second language. Look for opportunities for your child to read to others, such as younger siblings and older relatives, in either language.

It is important to remember that sometimes a young bilingual reader can get things a little mixed up. The journey to bilingual literacy is individual of course, but with encouragement, time, and practice, bilingual children can learn to read in both of their languages.

If you have any questions about raising bilingual children, or encouraging language learning, please get in touch.