Building Bridges with Bilingual Books

By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning

Building Bridges with Bilingual Books

Bilingual books can help children from all backgrounds discover the richness and diversity of language. They can serve as mirrors, giving children who are dual-language learners a chance to see themselves and their families represented in books. Of course, they can also be valuable windows, helping children learn about and appreciate families and cultures very different from their own.

So, it stands to reason that bilingual books can be a wonderful resource at home, in the library, or in the classroom (whatever classrooms may look like in the near future). Read on for more about why bilingual books matter, selection tips unique to this category, and ideas for incorporating bilingual texts into your reading routines.

Building Bridges

When I think about bilingual books, I am reminded of a long-ago storytime when I was a fairly new librarian in a small, rural library. A new family had started attending my weekly preschool program, and the mother and little boy were both very quiet and shy. It seemed likely that they were not fluent in English, but it was hard to tell because they just nodded and smiled, never saying a word to me or even to each other.

The second or third week they came to the library, I, guessing their home language was Spanish, read a story with some Spanish phrases (Abuela by Arthur Dorros), and put several Spanish-language picture books front and center in my book display. The young mom lit up at the very first Spanish word, which happened to be the first word of the book, and she and her little guy both paid rapt attention for the rest of the program. After we wrapped up, she felt comfortable enough to talk to me a little and fill out the form to get a library card so that she could check out Abuela and several other books.

Even though her English was limited, and my Spanish all but nonexistent, hearing her home language included in storytime was enough to help this mom feel welcome, included, and comfortable speaking up. When her little boy saw that his mom was comfortable, he relaxed enough to talk a mile a minute to her and, soon, to anyone nearby.

That was a small thing in the grand scheme, but it certainly felt momentous at the time. In the years since then, that experience has served as a reminder of the importance of inclusive book collections and programs, in libraries and beyond. Along with offering mirrors and windows for children, bilingual books can build bridges.

Another example that sticks with me is not from my own career, but from that of a teacher named George Feldman. Mr. Feldman was teaching elementary school in Watsonville, California, and learned that about a quarter of the children in his class were from Mexico but not fluent in English or Spanish. They spoke Mixteco, a Mexican indigenous language, and were isolated even in a community rich in Mexican heritage and resources. Working with other school staff, including the school district’s only Mixteco-speaking staff member, Natalia Gracida-Cruz, Mr. Feldman helped write the first-ever picture book in English, Spanish, and Mixteco.

The book is called I Am Proud of My Family, Estoy Orgulloso de mi Familia, Iyi Cusiji’ini Shi’in Na Ta’in: My Family Feeds California, and it features photographs of local Mixtec families. I first learned about this book through a radio story on Latino USA in 2014 and loved the idea of it so much that I bought a copy for my library the same day. As Mr. Feldman said in the radio story, “One of the most basic steps is to fundamentally acknowledge that the kids are there . . . and in many ways we are just getting to that point.”

Of course, it is also important to note that for dual-language learners, the home language provides crucial building blocks for other language skills and for learning to read. Although “English-Only” laws have been repealed or relaxed across the United States in recent years, the policy fight is ongoing in many states. This highlights the importance of sharing the evidence-based benefits of bilingual education and bilingual materials and of supporting parents reading to and interacting with their children in the language most comfortable for them.

What Counts as a Bilingual Book?

As you start looking at bilingual books, you will notice that they come in several different forms, and in as many languages as you can think of, though in the United States it is easiest to find books in languages that are commonly spoken here, like Spanish and Chinese.

The bilingual category includes books that contain the whole text in two languages, presented side by side or in different sections of each page. There are also lots of books that are mostly in English, with words and phrases in a second language sprinkled throughout the text. Finally, there are books which are published in separate editions for each language. Each of these types of book can be fun and useful in a variety of settings. You will find a brief listing of recommended titles by type in the NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books.

Tips for Selecting Good Bilingual Books

If you have tried reading translated books aloud with kids, even if you are comfortable with the language of the text, you may have found that some types of books just don’t work well in translation. Books with rhyming text, alphabet books, and books with puns or wordplay tend to fall flat, although for older or more sophisticated students, they can make for interesting discussions about language and the challenges of translation.

In a 2017 article for Teaching Tolerance, Delia Berlin highlights these pitfalls and notes that dual-language picture dictionaries and chapter books can be particularly useful. For young learners, I also recommend picture books with minimal text, where the languages are presented side by side. For teachers, caregivers, and library staff who are not confident in a second or third language, books that are mostly in English with words and phrases in another language offer an approachable starting place.

For help selecting books that are just right for your classroom, family, or group, reach out to your local library.

Let’s Get Reading!

If you’re feeling ready to incorporate bilingual books (or more bilingual books) in your reading routine, great!

For early childhood classrooms, you will find some great tips for getting started in the NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books and Supporting Emergent Bilingual Children in Early Learning. These tips include prereading the text in the home language and discussing the book one-on-one or in small groups before reading aloud. One suggestion from the latter source, which may not be as important in nonclassroom settings, is to use a single language per activity, unless you are teaching cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings across languages). The idea is that if you mix languages, children will only tune in to the familiar. This is a good point, but its relevance depends on the purpose of the activity.

Whatever the setting, I recommend selecting brief, lively texts, and practicing enough to feel confident reading the language that may be less familiar. In classrooms and libraries, this can also be a great occasion to invite parents or community members to be guest readers or presenters who can share songs or activities in a new language.

For older students, it can be fun to share bilingual books for independent reading, especially if they are paired with discussion or activities highlighting similarities and differences between the languages.

You will find more useful resources listed below. Happy reading!

Berlin, Delia. “Early-Grades Bilingual Books: What Works and What Doesn’t.” Teaching Tolerance, February 15, 2017.

Education Development Center. Supporting Emergent Bilingual Children in Early Learning. Accessed July 8, 2020.

Genesee, Fred. “The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource.” Colorín Colorado, accessed July 8, 2020.

Gerety, Rowan Moore. “Learning Mixteco in Schools.” Latino USA, June 20, 2014.

Mitchell, Corey. “‘English-Only’ Laws in Education on Verge of Extinction.” Education Week, October 23, 2019.

National Center for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness. NCCLR Quick Guide for Teachers: How to Use Bilingual Books. Bank Street College, accessed July 8, 2020.

Rodriguez, Jodie. “Why It’s Important for Kids to See Themselves in Books.” Scholastic Parents, March 1, 2018.

Amadee RickettsAmadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.

Gentle HandsAmadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.

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