I recently heard from Carla, a Panamanian who lives in Brazil and works as an English teacher. She has a new student, Dahanara, who was born in Brazil and grew up in South Africa. This nine-year-old speaks Portuguese and English fluently, but, says Carla, "she writes English as she speaks. So I'll have to teach her how to write and read in a different way, for she isn't learning how to speak (as most kids her age are learning here in our Language School). I've never had to teach a kid that was fluent in English, but didn't know how to write."
Carla agreed to let me post her emails to solicit some suggestions from the readers of Bringing up Baby Bilingual. She'll be able to work with Dahanara separately from the rest of her classes (who are learning EFL, English as a foreign language), so that means that at least the student won't end up in a class where her peers are much farther behind than she is, and the teacher won't have to teach two very different audiences in the same classroom (which is not uncommon for language teachers around the world)!
Dahanara's situation recalls that of what we call heritage language speakers, people who grew up speaking another language (typically the language of their parents) in a country whose majority language is a different one. These students tend to be fluent speakers but have not had formal instruction or much experience in reading and writing the minority language. They may speak very naturally and fluently, but perhaps can't recognize all the written words of the language and lack the writing conventions of the language (for example, spelling words phonetically and not knowing where the boundaries of words are, resulting in writing two or three short words as one long word). Heritage speakers and students like Dahanara bring special challenges to their teachers, who can be initially misled by their ease in speaking and their strong listening comprehension.
I have only worked with a handful of heritage speakers or students in Dahanara's position, so Carla's challenge as a teacher lies beyond my level of expertise. My first instinct, though, is to get her reading as much as possible in English, because that will help her become a better writer by familiarizing her with the spelling, punctuation, and conventions of written English. (Carla says that Dahanara sometimes has trouble reading, which is not a surprise; she should probably begin with books and stories below the level of what a native speaker would read at age nine, but nothing that she'd see as "babyish.")
I also suggested that Carla create some reading-writing activities that are as personalized and contextualized as possible. For example, have her tell a story about a funny picture or what she did over the weekend. Type up her story and cut it into separate phrases or sentences, and then have her put it back together in chronological order. Then give her the story with words missing that she has to fill back in. Finally, have her rewrite the story in her own words without looking at the original text.
Once Carla has some examples of Dahanara's written prose, she can do "error pattern analysis," where she determines what the most frequent mistakes are--spelling, verb use, organization, etc. The goal with error pattern analysis is to identify the problems that occur most often and prioritize them, with the mistakes that interfere with comprehension considered more serious than, say, spelling. Then Carla can find or create worksheets to practice those structures, ideally within a context (rather than a list of fill-in-the-blank sentences that have nothing to do with one another).
It might also be valuable to give Dahanara traditional lists of spelling words for her to practice (she can illustrate them, write sentences that use the words, do crossword puzzles that supply the definition of the word, find synonyms and antonyms, etc.). Even if she already knows what the words mean, she's bound to learn more about how to use them in writing. Then she can take spelling tests like she would in a class for nine-year-old native speakers of English. Carla might want to start with the traditional Dolch sight words, lists of "service words" and common nouns that students should be able to recognize automatically.
These are just a few ideas that came to mind while thinking about this dilemma. Carla and I would love to hear from other teachers or parents about their ideas for improving Dahanara's literacy skills! Please share your ideas, experiences, or resources by clicking on "comments" at the bottom of this post.