Learning to Read and Write in Two—or More—Languages

Sixth to Eighth Grade

There are many things you can do to support your child’s reading and writing development in the middle grades. This article begins with suggestions for connecting with your child’s teachers, then offers several tips and activities for family members and caregivers to encourage reading and writing at home. No matter how you choose to support your child, remember that your home language is a treasure and bilingualism is an asset!

Working with Your Child’s Teachers

Almost all schools invite parents or caregivers to a conference in the fall so you can learn how your child is progressing in school. Try to attend this conference. If you can’t attend, ask your child’s teachers to meet with you at another time.

If your middle school child is not doing well—especially if they are struggling with reading, writing, and understanding text in the language of instruction—find out what the school is doing or can do to support your child, and ask what you can do at home to help. Many schools assume that middle school children who recently arrived in the United States can read words quickly and accurately in their home language. If your child has recently arrived in the United States and has not learned to read words accurately and quickly in your home language, make their teacher aware of this. Next, ask the school to provide specialized support in whatever language is used for reading instruction.

When middle school children struggle with reading or writing, it’s important for parents and teachers to work together to solve the problem. Ask your child’s teacher for resources and activities you can use at home, and make sure those resources are at the right level. For example, they should be just challenging enough that your child can complete them partially on their own but will need adult support to finish. And, ask for resources in both your home language and the language of instruction. If you only speak and read Spanish, please know that the reading and writing skills you help your child learn will support their learning English.

Some schools offer additional instruction, like free tutoring, in reading and writing for students during or after school. If your child is behind in reading or writing, ask how to sign them up for additional support.

Supporting Your Child at Home  

If your child is learning in your home language, support their reading and writing development in this language. If they are learning in English and you (or another family member or caregiver) are comfortable doing so, support your middle school child in English. If you are not comfortable providing support in English, provide support in your home language. Many reading and writing skills acquired in a home language transfer to English—and you’ll be helping your child become bilingual.

The support you provide to your middle school child will depend on their language of instruction and their reading and writing skills, as well as your skills in your home language and the language of instruction. In the rest of this article, I offer suggestions for how you might help your child acquire language and literacy skills and knowledge.

Reading Words

When children read slowly and haltingly, it’s hard for them to understand what they are reading. To help your child, read something together out loud every day that your child is interested in. Help them pronounce words correctly and read with the correct intonation. Intonation is the the way we use the pitch (highness or lowness of our voice) to express particular meanings and attitudes. Help them attend to the punctuation; for example, pause when they come to a comma and stop briefly when they come to a period. And, ask your child’s teacher for texts that your child can practice reading aloud to you every night.

Acquiring Vocabulary

The more words children know, the easier it is for them to understand what they are reading or listening to.

Helping your middle school child learn to look up definitions for unknown words is a great way to support their understanding of text and speech. An easy source to use for home-language definitions is Google translate. When English definitions are difficult to understand, help your child use wordsmyth.net; it has English definitions at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels for each word.

To encourage your child’s vocabulary growth, you might reward them for showing you five to ten new words each day that they have heard or read. It’s fun to help your child start their own dictionary: Give them a journal, then ask them to enter the date and list the five to ten words for that day. For each word, ask them to provide a definition in their home language and in English. At the end of the day, ask them to read the word and definition, then provide their own example sentence or sentences. Over time, take advantage of opportunities to use each new vocabulary word in conversation.

There are also many vocabulary games you can play with your child. For example, you can play a memory game by creating cards that have a definition on one card and the target word on another. Turn the set of cards face down and then ask your child to match them.

Understanding Text and Speech

Other ways to help improve your child’s comprehension are to find out about their interests and help them find resources on those topics. As children get older and begin to think about their own identities, they may become more interested in their backgrounds, which can contribute to a healthy sense of pride in their heritage and culture. Reading is a great way for your child to explore those interests. Your school or local library is a good source to check for resources like books, graphic novels, magazines, movies (ideally with subtitles in English or your home language), podcasts, or audiobooks.

Read and/or listen to these resources together. When you come to words that your child might not know, define them. After one or two paragraphs, ask your child questions and discuss their answers. Questions that help children become more active readers and think about text start with who, what, when, where, how, and why. As you read or listen together, you can ask your child to predict what will happen next and what makes them think that. You can also pause occasionally to ask your child to summarize what they have read so far.


To support your child’s writing, link the writing to resources that they have read or listened to. Middle school children should learn to write:

  • narratives about real or imagined experiences or events, such as a story about a great day with a friend.
  • informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly, such as describing life in the country a relative emigrated from.
  • opinion pieces to support a point of view with reasons and information, such as why 7:00 am is too early to get up for school.

The key to becoming a strong reader is to read—so give your child a lot of opportunities.* If you have younger children or older relatives who can’t read, ask your middle school child to read out loud—everyone will enjoy it! There may also be volunteer opportunities in your community for your child to read to young children, senior citizens, individuals who are blind, or hospital patients. And make sure you have lots of reading materials at home. Together, you could pick out books from a yard sale or the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

It’s OK if your child reads in their first language, second language, or both. If they prefer reading in Spanish, for example, this will help them keep their Spanish skills strong and give them more reading practice—which will also strengthen their English reading skills. The important thing is to read with comprehension, engagement, and enjoyment.

* For more tips on how to encourage your child to read, visit go.aft.org/2jx. (return to article)

[photos: Allison Shelley for EduImages]

American Educator, Fall 2023