Learning to read in multiple languages – The Reading Rope explained

There are many different approaches, theories and practices about how to start fostering reading skills, and they all differ across languages and cultures.

I personally find the Reading Rope by Hollis Scaraborough, a leading researcher of early language development and its connection to later literacy, very helpful to illustrate what learning to read and becoming a skilled reader entails.

Reading does not only mean to recognize letters or characters of our written language, and reading doesn't come as naturally as understanding and speaking. The whole process is way more complex. And when our children grow up with multiple languages, and learn to read almost simultaneously in more than one language, the process is slightly different, which I'm illustrating here below.

When parents ask me when they should or could start teaching their children how to read in their home languages, I always ask them about their children's attitude, because only when children are curious about learning to read they are ready, Furthermore, parents need to understand what it means to teach reading. When children ask to learn to read, they might think about being able to read some words, whereas we parents already see ourselves explaining complex grammar. Therefore I usually tell them to have a look at the necessary skills to become skilled readers illustrated by the Reading Rope, and decide which aspects of the learning process they feel comfortable supporting their children with.


© Hollis Scaraborough


Let's start with the upper part, because it is the part that we already foster at home. It is the part of the language comprehension strands that consist of:

  • Background knowledge
  • Vocabulary
  • Language structures
  • Verbal reasoning,
  • and Literacy knowledge


Background knowledge is what our children understand about the world, what they can relate to. Like that the apple is a fruit one can eat, that rain is water and it can be cold and warm, that there is day and night etc. Background knowledge also includes everything about the cultures, the traditions, beliefs and values our children grow up with. If we speak several languages at home and transmit multiple cultures, their background knowledge embraces them all. 

Vocabulary means not only words, but also their meaning and the variety of meanings they can have. A rich and various vocabulary is a prerequisite for our children to understand the written word, to make this connection between what they know and what they read. When our children grow up with several languages, it is important that they know the terms and concepts in their languages in order to anchor them to the written word. The languages our children are exposed to at school will be their most dominant one, the one they will make great progress in within a relatively short time, as they need to function in it. For example, they will know what jellyfish are, they will know the story of the Gruffalo – if their school language is English – and the seasons of the year. As the home language vocabulary will not expand as quickly and won't possibly cover all the topics our children learn at school, the might not be able to access texts in our home language to discover those terms and the "world" that would provide them with this vocabulary.

This is why I always advise to provide input about these topics at home too, especially if we want our children to also be able to understand and read texts in our home languages about these topics. 

Language Structure refers to the syntax, the way sentences are formed in the language. So, for example, in English I say "I like the dog", in Grman "Ich mag den Hund", "mi piace il cane" in Italian, following in all these languages the SVO structure. But when we add an adjective, we'll say "ich mag den blauen Teppich", and "I like the blue carpet" in German and English, but "mi piace il tappeto blu" in Italian, as the adjective follows the noun in Italian, whereas it precedes it in English and German. Language Structure also refers to the many meanings words and texts can have, the semantics, that a "group of fish" is called school, as well as the place our go to learn, and it refers to morphology, for example, that by adding -s to some words we form a plural in English. Our children who grow up with multiple languages from early on, learn to differentiate between the syntax structures of their languages by trial and error. They mix them at times, which is perfectly normal as it is an essential part of the learning process. It is a way to connect the different systems without having to relearn every language from scratch: they can build on what they already know! By reading to and with our children we expose them to a variety of different ways to say things, to different styles – formal, informal, direct speech, indirect speech etc. – which often compensates the lagging exposure to a variety of speakers of our language. This is one of the many reasons why reading with our children in our languages is even more important when we raise them abroad!  

Verbal reasoning refers to understanding when and how words are used, when they are meant in a figurative and when they are meant in a literal way. Our children need to understand what is said, and what not, but implied, and how it is said. This can be fostered through conversations, speech, or through texts. They need to learn that there are multiple ways to express thoughts and meanings, and that we can imply, infer meanings, like if when they want to go outside to play and we say "it is going to rain" they need to understand that it's good to wear a raincoat and maybe wellies. Understanding metaphors, sayings, sarcasm are also skills our children need to master. If we want our multilingual children to improve their language skills and become confident readers and writers in our languages, they need to make the experience of using these metaphors, sayings and ways to communicate. Verbal reasoning skills can be fostered also through story telling, role plays and enacting scenes. 

Literacy knowledge refers to the different genres of texts: news, articles in newspapers, poems, riddles, fiction and non-fiction, dialogues, comics etc. The broader our children's literacy knowledge, the better they can understand the texts, as each genre has its own rules with regards to the use of vocabulary, style etc.

The more our children learn about each of their language for all of the aspects just mentioned, the easier they will understand the texts in those languages. The language comprehension strands are strongly entangled. They feed and reinforce each other and form a complex unity that weave together with the word recognition strands.

The word recognition strands are part of the pre- and early literacy skills our children can acquire – or the first steps one can take when learning a new language. They usually are what teachers focus on when they teach the language in formal settings. This strand of the Reading Rope consists of single straps: 

  • Phonological awareness
  • Decoding
  • Sight recognition

Phonological awareness is the ability to understand that words are made up of sounds. Children learn to speak without being told what is a word, where it starts and where it ends. Very young children would learn full sentences and repeat them without knowing where the different elements of the sentence. They just imitate speech. When children learn to read they learn to recognize that the sound chains correspond to words they can see on the page.

Children who grow up with multiple languages have a broader repertoire of phonemes, of sounds, that they need to transfer into letters or letter combinations, that they then use to write what they are pronouncing. Our children not only need to become aware of the different pronunciation of sounds, but also discriminate the individual sounds, through, for example, rhyming, blending, segmenting and manipulating speech sounds. This awareness can be built by learning that words can be broken down into different sounds and syllables.

A playful and effective way to raise phonological awareness is by doing rhyming activities and games. Find words that rhyme, either with the first letter or sound, or the word ending. Be ware that across the languages our children know, they can retrieve many words that might seem "not matching", if seen only from a monolingual perspective. But for them, they can! Like for example Kuh and Schuh (cow and shoe in German) rhyme with flew and flue. This might seem to complicate the learning process, but it actually doesn't. Our children will recognize that the sounds are rendered differently in words across their languages.

In some schools, teachers take their pupil's broad repertoire of words across multiple languages as an advantage to explore these languages in a more effective way for the children, through translanguaging practices that allow the children to explore their full linguistic repertoire. Knowing how words can be manipulated to change meaning is a great and fun activity to do! Our children can, for example, play with composita, compound words, and see how they work, how they are formed across languages. Also knowing how to segment words, for example that the plural is formed with an additional –s at the end of a word in English, like car-cars, but also by adding -ren like child-children, can lead to a transfer of these rules to the other languages our children know. In fact, they might apply the same rule to their other languages and say bambinos as plural of bambino (boy, Italian), whereas the plural in Italian is formed by changing the last vowel into –i: bambini. With these examples you can see that it is important for teachers to know what other languages their pupils use, to understand how they transfer the rules and skills they learn in the school language to their other or home languages!

Decoding is what we do when we start reading: we sound out the letters one by one: C-A-T, and focus on the smallest part of the word – the letters. Whilst blending letters, we learn about silent letters and about the complex structure of some languages, like English, where the combination of letters <ough> can be pronounced in many different ways (rough [ʌf], plough /aʊ/, through /u:/, though /oʊ/, thought /ɔː/, thorough /ə/, cough /ɒf/, hiccough /ʌp/ , lough /ɒk/), or French ways to write /o/ (eau, chapeau, chaud, travaux, drôle).

Our children will be proficient or fluent in decoding when they can sound out all the words that are on the page, even if they don't know yet what every single word means. Teaching our children how to decode words can seem easy at first, when we choose simple words where the correspondence between letters and sounds is easy, transparent, but when it then comes to more complex sound combinations, we need to know the rules. If your home language is transparent, i.e. the sound and letter correspondence is clear and there are not many rules, like C_i,e (i.e. <c> before <i> or <e>) is pronounced like a /tʃ/ (i.e. voiceless post-alveolar sibilant affricate) (cielo, citare, cena) in Italian, but C_a,o,u (i.e. <c> before <a>, <o> or <u>) is pronounced /k/ (i.e. voiceless velar plosive) (casa, cosa, cubo). The more transparent your home language, the easier it will be to teach it to your children.

Pic. from Transfer effects from language processing to visual attention dynamics: The impact of orthographic transparency

© 2022 The Authors. British Journal of Psychology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of The British Psychological Society.


Sight words:  the sight recognition of words refers to the words we can recognize instantly, automatically, effortlessly, without sounding them out, or guessing them. We usually start with words that begin with a letter we know, for example A in apple, and at some point we recognize words that are used more frequently and that we don't need to "read" anymore but "recognize" as such, like "I" or "can". It takes time and practice to get there, and what for monolinguals seems easy can be more complicated for multilinguals! Sounding out "can" for an English speaking child who wasn't exposed to German or Italian, is easy. But an Italian or German child might pronounce the vowel slightly differently. Depending on what our children already an read, decode, in their home languages, these "easy" or "sight words" can represent a real challenge. This is why I always suggest to let teachers know what kind of texts, what kind of words our children already decode easily in our home languages. It will help the teachers assess our children's skills much better.
We, parents, can help teachers understand the transfer our children do from one language to the other.

When we teach our children to read in our home language, we need to be aware that we are teaching multilingual readers, not a series of monolingual ones! What we can do is to help them literally sort out the rules by repeating words, spelling them out and playing with the different ways we can form words across our languages.

Parents usually are not teachers and therefore should choose what skill they can and want to help their children develop. We can foster the skills in the language comprehension strand, by exposing them to a rich and varied language, and help them recognize some words, i.e. those they come across regularly in the texts we read with them. One important tip here: never, ever compare your children with children who are growing up in monolingual settings! That is unfair. It is like comparing apples with bananas. Furthermore, every child develops in their own way when it comes to learning how to read. 

My final 5 tips:

1. choose texts about topics your child is interested in, your child can relate to.

2. choose moments to read when your child is up to it, i.e. not tired, not distracted.

3. choose moments where you are relaxed and curious.

4. choose texts that are slightly above the level of your child: your child should be able to understand more than 80% of what is written on the page.

5. follow the 20-80% rule: 20% of challenge, and at least 80% of fun! 


This text is an excerpt of my online course E.N.J.O.Y. raising children with multiple languages for parents of 4 to 10 year-olds


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