Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Reading in English


My husband and I are both bookworms. We have read to our kids since their babyhood in the hope that they would become readers too. They have grown up around books, watched us read books, slept with books in their beds. They know that books are a Good Thing. So with all this preparation, we have been keenly waiting for them to start reading books themselves.

While we are fairly – if ungrammatically – fluent in German, we both tend to choose to read in English. I have laboured over one or two German books, but seeing that reading is my main leisure activity, I didn’t really enjoy it being such hard work. For me, there is something special about reading in English. It brings me pure joy, relaxation and escape from the not always smooth or easy expatriate life. It’s my island in the sea of Germany, and it has a palm tree, white sands, a view of the sea, cool breezes and Pina Coladas. That’s how much fun it is.

When Lily started school last September, she knew her alphabet in English and could read and write a few English words. We had been loathe to teach her to read in English as the collective wisdom here is that that would confuse her when she started to read in German. We watched with pride as over the months she began to read fluently and without accent in German. She learnt to build words phonetically, as she was taught in school, and she started to bury her nose in German books.

We were thrilled, but also faintly anxious. When and how would she learn to read in English? Would we have to put in some effort and teach her? What would happen if we moved to an English-speaking country and she was behind in her reading? Should we arrange extra lessons?

Then, in May, she picked up an English book and read it with squeals of glee. “I can read! I’m reading in English! I really really am!” Cue huge, but disguised, parental sighs of relief. She really was reading, and began to read everything in sight, progressing quickly from storybooks with pictures to novels like The Magic Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven books.

Once it had dawned on me that my child really, really was reading in English, I asked her what had happened. It turns out that for the two weeks in May when our DVD player wasn’t behaving properly, all the movies that she watched were being shown with the subtitles turned on.

“Mummy, I would hear the words and then see them written on the screen,” she explained to me.

Yes, television taught my child to read. When I thought about it, it made perfect sense. I remember learning to read with flashcards back in 1970-whatever, and the subtitles had had exactly the same effect. We had primed her, made her ready for reading, but the flashcard effect of seeing the subtitles onscreen helped her to make the connections between letters and sounds.

So now when I meet earnest German mummies in the playground who like to say how bad telly is for their kids, I love explaining how Lily learnt to read in English and watching their faces drop.

I’m a bit naughty that way.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

29 thoughts on “Reading in English

  1. Superb! I am so happy for you that you will be able to share you love of reading English with your daughter without jeapardising her German progress. I also love that TV is not evil. I *knew* it!

  2. Well done, Lily! Serious readers do it for themselves with whatever is available subtitles and all.

    There is a received wisdom circulating somewhere, among other earnest types, that Enid Blyton is Bad for you too. My son also launched into reading via the Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven and I remember gobbling up the St Clares and Mallory Towers books when I was a child. Very good for my reading, though it gave me a rather rose tinted idea of boarding school and left me rather disappointed in the reality!

    I’ll have to start my son reading some serious literature now, so he doesn’t take after me in the escapist genre. Some hope. The Swallows and Amazons books are his current favourites.

  3. My girls are both fully bilingual, but did start actively speaking English a bit before Spanish because we were living in the US at the time they were each beginning to speak.

    They’re both being taught to read in Spanish at their Montessori school here in Costa Rica. The older, in 2nd grade, is reading very well (especially in Spanish), while the younger, in Kindergarten, is just now being introduced to the sounds of the letters.

    We have a whole wall’s-length of books in English in the playroom, with just a few Spanish ones here and there, so nearly all their leisure “reading” (or book-looking as the case may be!) is in English.

    I’m really not worried about their English reading skills – there are some differences, of course, but the letters and sounds are so similar that I see it more as a matter of practice than of learning an entirely new skill.

    I’m definitely with you in preferring English for my own reading, but then, I didn’t begin learning Spanish until college. Hopefully our children, bilingual from birth, will have two whole worlds of leisure reading to choose from!

  4. strangely, i prefer reading in english to german, too, at least the writings of english authors. there’s something in the differences between english and german grammar that make them hard to translate to the other. english sentences, translated to german, sound too simple. german sentences, with all their subordinate clauses, sound jittery or eccentric when translated to english. ehm … does that make sense to you?

    lovely how lily learned to read in english by watching tv. i taught myself to readwhen i was not yet four, by looking over my fathers shoulder as he was reading to me, constantly asking “what does that word mean? what part did you just read?”. at about the same time i learned my first words in english by watching english sesame street on tv. if there had been more to read on sesame street i’m sure i would have learned to read in english, too. “bookworm” is my middle name.

  5. Yay TV! Now that I know it helped to teach your daughter how to read in English I can feel a little less guilty about watching so much of it. However, TV is pretty bad here in the States. I did learn a lot as a kid watching the popular public television show Sesame Street.

  6. this is a great story – I love it! I wish I could remember the actual process of “learning” to read – when that special connection happened. I remember watching my parents read books w/out pictures and keening for the day I, too, could do that but I don’t remember when match hit flint and made a spark…

  7. Clever girl!!

    And Enid Blyton is a huge favourite in our house too.

  8. My friend Ally moved from France to the Uk when Kelly, her daughter, was 3.

    They are now back in France (have been for 5 years) and Kelly is 11.

    She is still fluent in English, thanks to watching Sky TV with the subtitles turned on.

    My boys only read French – Nathan can read English but he prefers French. Fabien can only read French. It saddens me.

  9. What a great story. I will never look at TV quite so skeptically again. I wonder how many parents ought to just used the “closed captioned” function all the time for their pre-school-aged children.

  10. Interesting topic, our three and a half year old daughter doesn’t read (yet 😉 but it’s great to listen when she’s speaking English words she learnt from watching Dora the Explorer.

  11. That’s cool! I don’t think TV is a bad influence either (I mean in sensible doses, obviously). Kiko said his first word: “Teddy” by pointing at a teddy on television. It’s so great your kids are bilingual. I really wanted Kiko to be but I doubt now he will because he never hears Tagalog! His Daddy says he finds speaking English to him more natural.

  12. Kate, I love my TV good news story.

    Kit, I remember my mother pooh-poohing Enid Blyton (apparently her books use a very limited vocabulary), but they helped to instill my love of reading and seem to be doing the same for Lily. Has your son read LionBoy? I am reading it to Lily at the moment and it’s a cracking adventure.

    Jen, great to hear from you. I also hope that my children will have the joy of reading completely fluently in both English and German.

    Bine, it makes perfect sense. I’d love to know more about your relationship with English and why you choose to read it in rather than in German.

    Ian, when we moved to Germany, our kids watched the German version of Sesame Street (Sesamstrasse) in order to start learning German. They still love it. It’s a great programme.

    Courtney, I wish I could remember the “click” too. I do remember the thrill of recognising the words on the flashcards in Grade 1 but I don’t recall when sentences came together.

    Hi Ms Marmite. Yay Enid is all I can say.

    Wendz, another subtitles success story! Your boys are growing up bilingual though, which is such a bonus.

    Emily, I am sceptical about TV as the background to one’s life and children watching uncontrolled amounts of TV. But judiciously used with discerning adults nearby, it appears to have its function …

  13. Hi Dorothy, it is a great story, and the best thing of all is my girl’s joy and pleasure in reading. Now while the other too watch TV, she reads!

    Welcome, Christian. We’ve used German TV to introduce and familiarise our children with the language and I’m sure it’s helped them.

    Helen, sensible doses is what it’s all about. I loathe telly as wallpaper.

  14. My son learned to read by playing his Pokemon game in his game boy. He was so desperate to play it he was obliged to master the commands it gave him. Did mean that he could recognise words like thunderblast and psychic shock whilst still having difficulty with who and which and why…. And yes, I get a great deal of naughty pleasure out of telling earnest mummies how it all came about!

  15. That is fantastic! Wonderful story. I too grew up with Enid Blyton and read the whole bally lot, yes even Mallory Towers et al, which I’m sure young chaps aren’t supposed to read. I still have fond memories of the Magic Faraway Tree and Mr Galliano’s Circus books.

    Maybe next time I watch a foreign language film, I’ll watch it with the original language subtitles to see the effect you describe in action.

  16. I’m another who cut her reading teeth on Enid Blyton – though I was a kid who would read anything she could get her hands on, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, aged six and a half, which resulted in weeks of nightmares. Don’t think it did me any harm in the long run.

    Picture books are great but there’s another amazing spark that happens when children graduate to books without pictures and realise that the pictures they form in their heads are much better than anything else.

  17. I learnt a lot of my English by way of DVDs with English subtitles. I even found out recently that even though I could now understand most movies without the subtitles, there was a real comfort in having them. I started to toggle the French subtitles when I was watching French movies, and I had a revelation: French may be my mother language, but having the words written out while they are spoken is like removing the mosquito net on a window with a view: all the sentences that were spoken sotto voce or the words that got lost in the background noise now appeared cristal clear.

    I am certain I will teach my child(ren) to read with DVD subtitles. I still think TV is bad for kids, but DVDs are not TV, just like novels are not tabloid press.

  18. Charlotte striking a blow against anti-TV dogma!

    While I still believe that it’s best for children not to watch TV, I don’t think it’s completely evil. I think that thinking dogmatically is more evil than TV.

  19. That is cool! I am very happy for Lily. What a relief too, it reminds me of Lucy and the Ward Robe.

  20. As it was the perfect excuse for not dusting, ironing, anything domestic really, I could be persuaded to read to either of my sons at any time. I was still reading to them when the second was about 10 or 11. For some strange reason that second son has never taken up reading for himself. I’m wondering where I went wrong – could I have kept going too long?

    My reading rate has taken a real dive recently, since I decided it would be good for me to read every second book in French. I do prefer reading the author’s original language, and I have weaned myself of looking up all unfamiliar words, but it still….takes….so….long…. I wish these bright ideas didn’t come to me.

  21. The Bambina turns three in a few weeks and I am already thinking about teaching her to read. My Anglo friends back in Paris tell me that children who learn to read in French first always prefer French books over English books, even once they have learned to read well in English. Children who learn to read in English first always prefer to read in English, even once they have learned to read in French.

    As the Bambina will get all her elementary school education in French, I would really like to teach her to read in English first just in case this is true!

  22. Litlove, that’s hilarious. That would really cause a storm at the playgrounds I visit.

    Singing Librarian, one of the cool things about not living in an English-speaking society is that we are outside of the moral majority. If my kids want to read Mallory Towers (which I adored), they can, dammit.

    Teuchter, it is an amazing moment. Lily is loving the pictures in her head.

    Mandarine, thanks for coining that phrase “DVDs are to television are as novels are to the tabloid press”. Wonderful!

    Henitserk, you are generous to me, given that you are not mad about TV. Thank you.

    Emma, I’m not totally sure what you mean about the War Drobe, but if you mean she’s seeing the light, then she certainly is. It’s pure joy.

    A, you are brave. I’ve never read a novel in German, despite living here for seven years.

    Caroline, I had the same anxiety, so it is an enormous relief that Lily, while she loves any kind of reading, appears to choose reading in English for her main reading pleasure. I hope for her that it will eventually be a balance between the two; that she gets the same amount of pleasure from both.

  23. Charl, all I meant was she discovered a new complete parallel world as she stepped from German books to English, and can exist in both, as Lucy did. Well, kindof, anyway..

  24. Are you quite sure that reading to your daughter in English would jeopardize her progress in German? I’m no expert but I think that this might be quite an old idea. When I have kids (with a handsome, dark-haired non-native English speaking man, so my kids can end up bilingual!) I plan on only speaking English to them while my husband/partner/sperm donor will only speak to them in whatever his native language is (Oh, please let it be Spanish!). I don’t think this will be confusing for them, as kids are much more intelligent than we give them credit for.

    Of course, now that I’ve said that I want to marry a handsome dark-haired Mediterranean, you just know that I’m going to end up with a redhead from Bognor Regis, don’t you?! Sigh!

  25. Hi Emma, being able to exist in two parallel worlds is pretty exciting. Lily is discovering that thrill already.

    Welcome Serizy! I don’t think reading to my kids in English will jeopardise their German. We have read to them in English since babyhood. However the received wisdom here is that teaching a child to read in English will jeopardise their learning to read in German. (I don’t necessarily think that’s true anymore, but that’s what we were told.) I hope you find your handsome dark Spaniard, and if you do, I’m sure you will be able to raise bilingual kids. Many of our friends have.

  26. Hi, this is a great story to read! Like others have said, it makes a parent feel a lot less guilty about letting their kids watch TV. I love the idea that I can just turn on the English subtitles on my children’s favorite DVDs and this will help them to learn to read English. Very encouraging. Glad to know this strategy worked on a real live kid.

  27. Great to read about myths being shattered. I believe children learn to read in many ways — there’s no one single method that is ‘it’. I remember being read to, I read to my son, and now he reads to his girls.

    Wondering if maybe you post book reviews of children’s books done by others? If not, it’s a-okay. I’ll still be reading your blog.
    Book Review: Sassy and Wondrous

    Greetings from Alberta – Canada

  28. Well done, Lily! Serious readers do it for themselves with whatever is available subtitles and all.

    Joshua Books

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