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Reading tips for parents and guardians

December 09, 2020 by Nora Nagy

Parents and guardians often ask why and how they should read with their children in English. To help you give them useful pointers, we have collected some questions and answers plus a selection of useful reading strategies you can share with them. 

You can also download and print our free guide from Helbling e-zone with activities based on our Young Readers series but which you can adapt to any young learner reader:

Why does reading matter?

There is no real need to explain how reading contributes to cognitive, linguistic, literacy and emotional development in children. Mainstream approaches value and promote reading with children from the early months. Reading in the family is a ‘literacy event’ (Heath, 1982), and through such shared, memorable experiences children learn so much more than new words. Of course lexical development is an essential outcome of reading, but the impact of reading reaches wide-ranging areas.

First of all, reading together is a way of bonding. Also, during read-alouds, while watching and listening to parents read, children learn about the conventions and the style of language used in stories. What’s more, they build background knowledge of a variety of topics (see Lugossy, 2008 for an overview of a long list of benefits).

Students also become familiar with story structures and discourse patterns. This aspect of childhood reading has special significance: by approaching the experience of reading from top to bottom, children learn to feel comfortable about texts and they won’t feel intimidated, almost blocked by new words in the stories they read. They simply learn to guess the meaning and ask questions about new words through the dialogues they engage in during storytime.

Why should parents read in English with their children?

Most importantly, reading in English can be lots of fun for the family. Even if the parents or guardians don’t speak or read in English very well, they can explore stories with children. And the children can take on the role of reading to the adults! 

Apart from the fun-factor, it is also important that students experience reading not only as a classroom activity, but that it also becomes a part of their free-time routine. In class, students often perceive reading as a task to complete during lessons. This is important because research shows that children reading in a second language often get stuck at the word-level understanding of a sentence (Nikolov, 2006; Walter, 2007), a typical difficulty language learners face when they concentrate on language learning as learning words.  When we read at home we show children how to approach a text as a whole, engaging with it on all sorts of levels and building meaning and understanding from one page to the next. We also choose and read different  stories, which is an important aspect of young learners' English reading process. 

What’s the relationship between reading in English and your mother tongue?

Generally, we can establish that children’s knowledge and reading skills in their first language have a positive impact on their English language skills. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that pre-acquired skills will be automatically transferred.

There are several important theories on reading in two languages; Cummins, for example, has written about 'common underlying proficiency' as well as  'the interdependence hypothesis'. His research shows that children’s language and literacy knowledge and skills in their first language positively influence their learning in their second language. However, it is important that they are exposed to the second language not only at school but also in their home environment. 

According to research in bilingualism, when students read in two languages, they use strategies they learnt in one language in the other. This cross-lingual influence might operate in both directions (e.g. Bialystok, 2002), in other words, students use their thinking and reading strategies in both languages.

Put simply, reading at home both in your mother tongue and second language has wide-ranging benefits for children. And it’s easier than most people think Here are some take-aways from our free guide, How to help your child read in English:

  • The more children are exposed to a language, the easier they will acquire it.
  • Reading in a second language expands children's culture and understanding of the world.
  • As children read more in the language, so their vocabulary and language skill expands. This in turn makes them better readers, so the more they read, the better they become.
  • Children learn the language by interacting with adults.
  • Learning a second language at a young age increases brain activity.
  • When children learn a second language at a young age, they tend to find it easier to learn a third and fourth language.

What should parents read with their children?

Some of the most helpful resources for at-home reading are young readers which were specifically designed for children learning English as a second language. The activities and resources that come with these readers help both the children and the parents (and of course the teacher when you read at school). Plus the language levels and content of these stories are devised and chosen for language learners while maintaining the feeling of a picturebook.

Some parents who don’t know English well might find this reading experience intimidating. However, the good news is that both the Helbling Young Readers and The Thinking Train series come with:

  • a full recording of the story,
  • guided activities in Play Stations,
  • language games,
  • karaoke chants,
  • story sequencing,
  • an audio visual dictionary.

An important characteristic of these readers is that they are fully illustrated and help readers with engagement, comprehension, contextual and emotional references, and conceptual/lexical knowledge. In other words, these illustrations help us imagine and learn about the story, involving the readers and helping their understanding of the text. What’s more, through pointing out and labelling details, they also support vocabulary development. Plus, the children already know how to ‘navigate’ a picturebook, having read them in their mother tongue.


 I can't sleep
Double page from 'I can't sleep' by Herbert Puchta and Gavin Biggs. Illustrations by Francesca Assirelli. © Helbling Languages


Parents who feel comfortable reading in English might opt for stories written for native speakers of English. You will find a wide range of beautiful picture books. These, however might not have support activities which guide you with the reading process. 


How should parents read with their children?

Parents often ask how they can get started with reading in English. As the reading experience in English is not that different from reading in our first language, we can encourage parents to begin as they would normally do. Here are some tips:

  1. Take a book or choose a book together, and show the cover and some pages to your child.
  2. Tell them that this story will be much fun as you’ll be reading in English.
  3. Mention to your child that they can teach you interesting words in English.
  4. Now, you can go through the Before Reading activities and then start reading the story.
  5. Or, you can start reading the story.
  6. If you don’t feel comfortable reading in English, use the audio recording and stop when your child has a question. There is a pause between each page, and you can stop and discuss the illustrations and how they relate to the story. Or do the activity on each page.
  7. Dialogues are very important during shared reading. If you don’t speak English, ask and answer questions in your mother tongue. Encourage your child to point to details, objects, people and name them in English. This activity contributes to vocabulary building. Don’t insist if you feel your child is becoming restless or that s/he is perceiving it as a school-like activity.Above anything else, reading together should be fun.


Extra ideas

Picture dictionary: use it on the inside flaps of a Helbling Young Reader to check the meaning of some key words.

Follow-up activities: If you have time (or if you are not reading a bedtime story), encourage your child to do the After Reading activities. You don’t have to do all the activities at once, you can do them one by one.

Creative projects: The Play Station (Young Readers series) and Make and Do (The Thinking Train) projects give you fun, creative opportunities to expand the story and create something memorable together.

Illustrations: Use the illustrations wisely. You can start with talking about the cover, and spend time observing and ‘reading’ the illustrations. This slow process of looking shows your child that reading in English is like in their first language. Name details together in the pages. 

Point out the mascot in each page to get your child to do an activity. You can also use the illustrations to help predict what might happen next.

For a lot more tips and activity ideas, download our free guide from Helbling e-zone:

Registration and the download are both free. You will find two other useful guides here:



  • Bialystok, E. (2002). Acquisition of literacy in bilingual children: A framework for research. Language Learning, 52(1), 159–199.
  • Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Heath, S. B. (1982). “What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School.” Language in Society 11.1 : 49-76.
  • Lugossy, R. (2002). "Constructing knowledge through experiences with narratives in natural and instructed settings: Teachers and learners of English as a foreign language." PhD Thesis.
  • Nikolov, M., & Csapó, B. (2010). The relationship between reading skills in early English as a foreign language and Hungarian as a first language. International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(3), 315–329.
  • Walter, C. (2007). First- to second-language reading comprehension: Not transfer, but access. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 17(1), 14–37.


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