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Questions from parents

What do I need to know about asking a question?

From time to time I get questions from parents who visit this site. Some of my answers may be of interest to other parents or teachers, so they will be published here. (The questioner will remain anonymous.) If you have any questions, I shall be happy to hear from you. But I have a couple of requests.

Firstly, if you have a question about the ESL programme at Frankfurt International School, please review my information for FIS parents in this section of the site. You may find an answer to your question.

Secondly, please bear in mind that I am a teacher with 4-5 ESL classes a day. I may not have time to answer immediately or comprehensively.

Thirdly, please note that the advice given in my replies is based on my experience as an ESL teacher in an international school, and on my reading of current research into second language learning. You may wish to seek the corroboration of other professionals in this field before following any of the suggestions on this page.

Lastly, please let me know if you find my advice useful. I take time to think about and answer questions, so I find it a little discouraging if I don't get some kind of reply. In particular, I'd like to know if my suggestions or comments have been helpful.

Do you have any advice on raising children bilingually?

The first request centers on a six-year old girl with Spanish as a mother tongue and very little English. Her mother will soon be getting married to an American and the family is planning to live in a city in the US. The stepfather-to-be wrote to ask how to facilitate the daughter's learning of English.

My reply: Thanks for your interest in my website. As to your question: first the good news! Your stepdaughter will be starting to learn English under very favourable circumstances; i.e. she already has a strongly established first language with developing literacy skills, and she will be exposed to a second language at an age that will allow her to become fully bilingual with no trace of an accent in English. If you are expecting bad news, well I can't think of any. Of course, you still need to know how best to promote your daughter's English language learning. This is what I recommend:

There are several places where you can read up about your situation. For example there is a newsletter that deals with such issues. I have copied information below:

The Bilingual Family Newsletter "This exciting quarterly publication is designed to help all those families who, for various reasons, are in a situation where they can give their children (and themselves) the advantages of being bi- or multi-lingual. The newsletter publishes short informative articles on current thoughts on language learning, bilingualism, biculturalism, mother tongue, schools, etc. It also publishes descriptions of how particular families have managed in their particular situations, problems encountered and how these were overcome. Readership: mixed marriage families; expatriate families in embassies, schools, contract work etc.; immigrant families; students of language learning; researchers in field of bilingualism."

Editor: Marjukka Grover. ISSN 0952-4096. Published: 4 times a year. Vol. 17, 2000: 10 or US$18 or Euro 16."

More information at: http://www.multi.demon.co.uk/journals.htm

Of course, the web itself is a wonderful resource. Two of the many pages, with further links, are:

Alternatively, you can click here for Amazon information on a recommended book: The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents

Your daughter is in the unique position of being able to grow up fully bilingual. This is a gift that she will appreciate for the rest of her life, even if she experiences some frustration at first. I wish you the best of luck.

PS, My own daughter is 6 years old and is doing very well in German despite not having the same advantage that your stepdaughter will have; i.e. both my daughter's parents are native English speakers!

Can you advise me on how to help my daughter with her spelling?

This question comes from a parent whose daughter, while almost fully fluent in speaking English, has great difficulty spelling accurately. The parent wondered whether it would be helpful to teach her daughter the phonetic script.

My reply: Thank you for your e-mail regarding your daughter and her difficulties with the English language. It is a pity if the quality of your daughter's writing in terms of its grammatical accuracy and the clear expression of her ideas is compromised by the external features of poor spelling (and handwriting). The question is: how to address this problem. It seems to me that there are many different approaches which, if combined and practised regularly, will ultimately lead to an improvement.

In the long term, extensive reading in English will help your daughter to imprint the patterns of common words in her mind so that when she writes a particular word she will have a strong mental image of its correct form to compare with her own rendition. Of course, this approach will achieve more rapid success if your daughter focuses some of her attention while reading on the spelling of the words she encounters. By this I mean that when, for example, she sees words like "friend" or "tomorrow", which cause her problems, she makes a brief mental note: "Ah! that's how you spell it!"

Another approach to pursue is to use a computer spelling program. My website, for example, contains some quiz games to help students learn the spellings of words that commonly cause difficulties. [Go there now.] Alternatively there are a number of commercially available spelling programs aimed at younger native speakers which reinforce some of the common word patterns. You could do a search for these in Amazon.

In addition, you could require your daughter to write down several times the correct forms of, say, 8 misspelled words in any passage of writing she does, so that each week she has about 20-30 words on which she can be tested.

A further method would be for your daughter to learn by heart some of the most useful spelling rules, and to practice applying the rules to the spelling of common words. Again you do a search for such books on Amazon.

Doing longer written assignments on the computer and using the spellcheck is another useful way of becoming a better speller. It has the immediate advantage of helping the writer to correct the mistakes in the piece of work in question, but can also help to impress the correct spelling in the user's mind if sufficient attention is paid to the correct form. (This is similar to the comments made above about focusing attention on the spelling of words when reading.)

A critical factor in the success of the above suggestions is your daughter's own attitude to her spelling problem. She will be more likely to make the sustained and regular effort that the above approaches demand if she can be imbued with a dissatisfaction with producing work whose surface elements interfere with the teacher's assessment of the knowledge she is trying to demonstrate or an appreciation of the thoughts and ideas she is expressing.

As far as the other issues you raised in your e-mail are concerned, it is certainly a little surprising that your daughter was not able to tell you the English vowels, but I don't believe this has very much connection with her poor spelling. Some students have a good metalanguage (explicit knowledge about language and its terminology) without necessarily being the most competent users of it. Others may not know the names for the parts of speech or verb forms or be able to recite the spelling rules, but are able to express themselves effectively and accurately.

I'm not sure that there would be any benefit in your daughter learning one or more of the phonetic scripts. This would require a considerable effort and commitment on her part, and would, in my opinion, have little effect on her ability to spell more accurately. Indeed, it would be requiring her to learn another language system on top of the one which she is already having problems with. If you are committed to this approach, however, there are a number of web sites that may be of assistance.

I hope your daughter will soon show an improvement in her spelling ability!

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