Books and Bilingualism for Toddlers

Speech Therapists, ST’s, when working with your families in early intervention, one way that I have found to help parents support the home language is through the use of books. Of course, before we break out The Very Hungry Caterpillar, let’s make sure that the child is at an appropriate stage for what may be a (very) short story time.

What’s great about using books in therapy is that even if the books are not available in the child’s primary language, parents can use popular books for toddlers and modify them for the child’s primary language and the child’s receptive/expressive developmental stage.  As ST’s, you can help the parents to come up with the target language. Does the child need to work on verbs? Then make sure that many of the pages include short sentences with verbs: The caterpillar eats. The caterpillar sleeps. The caterpillars climbs up. Uh oh, he falls down! Etc.

As a reminder, here are the traits of good books for a toddler

  1. It has big, colorful pictures and isn’t too busy.
  2. It centered around, at least to some degree, the child’s interests. I find most animal books interest children, but you may need to try other books, such as books about cars, dinosaurs, or food.
  3. It tells a simple story. A review of the alphabet from A to Z is not really a story. Neither is counting from 1 to 10. Again, where’s the plot, I ask?
  4. It’s sturdy. Find board books when possible unless you’re okay with ripped pages.

When it comes to translating the language in the book, here are a few of my recommendations:

  1. I use removable print labels and place the label anywhere on the page where it won’t be obstructing the pictures.
  2. I don’t translate the books word for word. I think about the clients who will use the book and then, depending on their stage of communication, I come up with the appropriate vocabulary words and sentence length and complexity.
  3. If the child has needs in receptive language, I will try to repeat key vocabulary throughout the text so that there’s a lot of repetition to hear the word. For example, with the book, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” I would use a very common and functional verb throughout the book such as eat. I might not even really emphasize the word hungry if I felt that word would be too challenging for the child to comprehend at that time. And then, perhaps I would focus on a few of the foods and not list out every single food that the caterpillar ate. And maybe, instead of calling him a caterpillar, I’d use an easier, more familiar word such as bug (of course, this depends on which language the parent is translating the text to). I will post pictures to give an idea of how this might look.
  4. Remember, simultaneous translation is not necessary during book reading. By simultaneous translation, I mean first saying one line in the book in English and then repeating that same line almost immediately after in the primary language. This back and forth simultaneous translation will focus the child’s attention on differentiating the languages. It will not focus the child on learning the key vocabulary. It is advised that you read through it in one language. If the child points out words in the non-Primary language, such as saying, “cookie” when you’re trying to get them to say this in Portuguese, in a positive and praiseful way, repeat back what they have said, pointing at it and in Portuguese saying, “bolacha.”  And then make sure to use that wait time to allow the child to say this word back to you in Portuguese.





2 thoughts on “Books and Bilingualism for Toddlers

  1. Shannon Powers, M.A., CCC-SLP says:

    This is great information! Skipping simultaneous translation and focusing on one language during each reading is very logical. Otherwise we might stumble along with “word reading” instead of overall comprehension of the story. What do you suggest in terms of focusing on one language or another – Portuguese vs. English, as you mentioned? Do you tend to focus on only one language with a child or do you do any alternation between languages between activities or sessions, etc.?


    • Becky Green says:

      Thanks for your question, Shannon! I’m going to be posting a discussion on this soon. I definitely don’t have a set of rules carved in stone that I go by, meaning I won’t forbid the second language in therapy, but if I am working with a child whose primary language I speak, say Portuguese, then because I am fluent enough to model complete sentences for my client, I will do so mostly in their primary language. Although if in the session, the child says some words or short phrases in English, I may choose to comment or recast in English. Research shows that supporting the primary language is beneficial for second or third language acquisition, especially for our little ones with language delays.


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