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Big Reveal: The BEST TOOL For Teaching Your Child How to Read and Write in the Target Language

Updated: Jan 31




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In today's blog post and the accompanying YouTube video, I will share with you the BEST tool (in my opinion) for teaching kids how to read and write in your target language as someone raising trilingual children.


I’ve tried so many different things over the years, and after lots of trial and error, I can finally reveal what I’ve found to be the most effective tool for my kids.


And it might not be what you think… Keep reading if you want to find out!


A World Flooded With Options


We live in a world that’s literally flooded with tools and products that claim to make all areas of our lives easier – you can download apps to help you lose weight, you can buy a robot to help you hoover and mop the floor, you can even write a whole book with ChatGPT!



We live in a world overflowing with options and technology - as parents raising bilingual children, where do we start?
We live in a world overflowing with options and technology - as parents raising bilingual children, where do we start?

And when it comes to education and language learning for children, there really are countless tools, apps and products out there, ranging from low-tech options like flashcards and books to high-tech alternatives like fancy interactive apps and online learning platforms.


Never before in history have we had access to so much information and so many options.


So, you’d think that raising a bilingual or trilingual child should be easier than ever, right?


The Paradox of Choice - How Too Many Options Can Be Overwhelming


But in reality, all these choices can be confusing, overwhelming, and even paralysing.


Research suggests that when presented with too many choices, people may experience decision paralysis, leading to decreased satisfaction and increased anxiety.


This phenomenon, known as the paradox of choice, occurs when individuals feel overwhelmed by the plethora of options available, making it challenging for them to make a decision.


How on earth do you decide which app or platform is the best for your child? Which book series should I choose for my kid to maximise their chance of success?


Maybe I should just try everything – after all, if that’s what other parents are doing, I wouldn’t want my child to be missing out, would I?


A Story: Why We Cancelled Our Netflix Subscription and What My Five-Year-Old Daughter Said About Netflix


Speaking of this very "first-world" problem of having too many options, I'd like to share a personal anecdote with you.


In 2022, I finally caved in and took out a Netflix subscription, as the kids got hooked to a cartoon on Netflix while we were visiting my cousin in Germany.


We kept the subscription for 9 months, using it every now and then.


What my five-year-old daughter said about Netflix sums up a major problem we have in the modern world - the tyranny of choice; why we cancelled our Netflix subscription
What my five-year-old daughter said about Netflix sums up a major problem we have in the modern world - the tyranny of choice

However, a few months in, I began to notice that my children gradually gravitated towards the BBC iPlayer and were using Netflix less and less frequently.


Since neither my husband nor I were watching Netflix, I made the decision to cancel our Netflix subscription. However, I was apprehensive about breaking the news to the kids, and was bracing myself for a dramatic confrontation...


But when I finally broke the news to them, their reaction really surprised me.


They were totally unbothered!


What shocked me even more was what my daughter said to me:


其实我不是那么喜欢 Netflix,因为有太多选择了!(Translation: Actually, I don't really like Netflix that much. There's too much choice!)


To me, these pithy words - coming from my five-year-old daughter, no less - just sum up so much of what's wrong with our modern world - the tyranny of choice is real.


Financial Costs


Leaving aside the mental stress that this excess of options can bring, the financial costs can add up very quickly.


One single bundle of books can easily set you back 50 US dollars.


The supposedly affordable online Chinese school our kids attended earlier requires parents to spend thousands of USD upfront on lesson bundles.


And that’s not taking into account the fact that the good old days of paying for an app only once upfront are well and truly over – 99% of apps these days run on subscriptions, and if you subscribe to multiple educational apps for your child, you very quickly accrue recurring costs on a monthly basis.


And oh, don’t forget about the cost of a tablet if you go down the hi-tech route.


Last time I checked, the average iPad costs about 500 US dollars.



A standard iPad costs USD 500 - that's the average monthly salary in many countries around the world, including India and Vietnam
A standard iPad costs USD 500 - that's the average monthly salary in many countries around the world, including India and Vietnam


Of course, cheaper options are available, but if you’re spending money on gadgets, you might as well invest in a good one that will last you a little while (incidentally, my last MacBook lasted me 10 years - NOT sponsored!)


While I have not bought a tablet either for myself or my children, for reasons that I’ll perhaps explain in a future blog post, I have bought tons of different books, invested in online Chinese lessons for the kids and tried many subscription-based apps. And, of course, I’ve spent a small fortune during this process.


And now I can finally reveal what I’ve found to be the best tool around for teaching my kids how to read and write Chinese.


Are you ready to find out?


Revealed: The Best Tool for Learning


The best tool you can use to teach your child to read and write in the target language is something you already have at home.


It costs peanuts, and you probably already have a stack of it at home somewhere.


That something is… You guessed it.


Paper.



Pen and paper are the most low-cost and effective tools for language learning; best tool for raising bilingual trilingual multilingual children
Pen and paper are the most low-cost and effective tools for language learning


And something to write with, like a pen or pencil.


Now, I know, I know, maybe I’m just one of those ancient dinosaurs who hate new technology and are always banging on about the good old days, but please hear me out.


There are two main reasons why I think pen and paper can be the simplest yet most powerful tool in your arsenal.


No more distraction or sensory overload


First. It is inherently distraction-free.


All your child has in front of them is a piece of paper, a writing pad, and something to write with.


There are no fancy graphics, sound effects, buttons to tap, or keyboards to fiddle with - in short, it doesn't contribute to sensory overload.


I’ve touched on this topic in another video and blog post where I share my thoughts about online language schools.





My Own Experience of Online Language Schools


But to sum it up here, my experience with online language schools has convinced me that learning online using electronic devices is NOT very effective


Essentially, such learning programs are primarily sold on the idea of “fun interaction” but deliver little value in terms of actual learning and retention based on my observation.


My children would spend half an hour learning two or three Chinese characters, do a ton of interactive activities that get them excited because they’re given the opportunity to press buttons and do fun stuff on the laptop.


However, after such sessions, I found that their retention rate was very low relative to the amount of time spent and the money invested.


The Chinese school that we used convinced me to sign up for a separate Pinyin learning program that teaches Pinyin over 40 lessons or so, which equates to a cost of about 500 US dollars.


We got through half of it, but my son’s retention of the information he learnt was really not great, despite all the “fun interactive” stuff that he was doing in class, like shooting down zombies with Pinyin letters on them.


I eventually gave up on the course, got our money back, and started teaching him Chinese characters and Pinyin with just paper and pen.


Honestly, the progress we made has been astounding.


It’s been about two months, and he has learnt a couple of hundred new characters and can spell out the Pinyin of any given word with a high level of accuracy.


I remember reading an article in the Times newspaper recently about how parents of children at a super prestigious UK private school officially complained to their children’s school for giving first-grade pupils iPads for learning purposes.


One parent interviewed by the paper, who is a highly successful businesswoman, said that she wants her child to spend time reading physical books, to draw, to have the ability to “think deeply”.


While I do not oppose all forms of technology, I think this mum has a very valid point.


Pen-and-paper learning fosters concentration and limits unhelpful stimulation.


It’s interesting that parents like her are paying insane amounts of money for the privilege of traditional low-tech education for their children.


Let’s also not forget the fact that many leaders in the tech world, including Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, and Steve Jobs, the late founder of Apple, are (or was, in Jobs' case) extremely strict about limiting their children’s screen time while deviously trying to get everyone else hooked on their digital creations!



"Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard" - The Incredible Cognitive Benefits of Writing with Pen and Paper according to an article published in The Times



Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, The Times 26 January 2024; Pen and Paper Are Superior to Computers For Learning, According to the Latest Research
Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, The Times 26 January 2024; Pen and Paper Are Superior to Computers For Learning, According to the Latest Research

As further proof of my belief, recent research cited by The Times newspaper (thanks to my stepdad for the newspaper cutting!) points to the superior cognitive benefits of writing with a pen as compared with typing.


According to this article, scientists have discovered that handwriting trumps typing as a boost for the brain; these scientists are even "urging teachers to ensure that penmanship remains a core part of teaching even as tablets and laptops become more common in the classroom" (a quote from the actual article).


According to a study by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, "the skill and concentration needed to form shapes of letters while writing with a pen or pencil stimulates a far greater range and complexity of connections within the brain than simply tapping the correct keys on a keyboard."


This enhanced connectivity was "crucial for memory formation and for encoding new information and beneficial for learning".



In another blog post and video, I've discussed the extremely powerful benefits that being bilingual has on your brain.


Now, imagine how much more of your child's potential you can unleash by combining bilingual parenting AND pen-and-paper learning techniques!


Ultimate Flexibility and Room for Creativity


Now, let’s move on to the second reason why I think pen and paper is the most powerful learning tool: it simply offers the ultimate flexibility and room for creativity.


Let’s explore this in more detail, using my own routine with my kids as an example.


My son’s just turned 7, and we have a 30-minute Chinese study session every day.


We first review some of the characters, words and sentences that we previously did – that’s easy to do, because we already have a stack of paper from previous sessions!


We do this for 5 to 10 minutes to warm up and consolidate things we previously learnt. After this, I write out some new characters that I want him to learn that day on a new sheet of paper.


I aim for 3 to 4 characters a day, and focus on the most commonly used ones that will give us the most mileage.


He then practises writing each of these characters 3 to 4 times. This takes about 10 minutes.


Then we move on to Pinyin – I encourage him to spell out each of the new characters we learnt today using Pinyin.



My son's Chinese writing and Pinyin exercise; raising trilingual bilingual multilingual children Chinese Mandarin Russian English
My son's Chinese writing and Pinyin exercise


After doing this for a while, it all started to click in his mind – we did NOT need to spend 40 hours learning Pinyin systematically!


The Pinyin practice takes 5 minutes or so. I then write out sentences for him to read, or write out some questions and encourage him to write out his answer. That’s 30 minutes of highly effective learning.


And the best thing is that this basic technique can be adapted to suit any individual child.


Incorporating Art and Storytelling into Reading and Writing


My daughter, for example, loves drawing and is a very visual learner.


I actively incorporate drawing into our study routine. When we’re learning new words or reading sentences, I encourage her to draw pictures or scenes to illustrate our writing.


My daughter answering a question and doing Pinyin exercise; she also adds her own pictures illustrating the sentences, which are about the Ugly Duckling story we were reading together; raising bilingual trilingual multilingual children; combining words pinyin and art and pictures
My daughter answering a question and doing Pinyin exercise; she also adds her own pictures illustrating the sentences, which are about the Ugly Duckling story we were reading together

Or we can flip it around – sometimes, we first start by drawing a picture together, and then we annotate each part or write a sentence to describe what’s going on.


The point I’m trying to get across is that the possibilities with just a blank sheet of paper and a writing instrument are literally endless.


You can adapt it however you want.


It encourages true creativity and reduces your child’s dependence on technology and sensory stimulation.


I can’t remember where I read this, but I once read somewhere that a very famous education expert once said this:


There’s almost nothing you can’t teach your child with just a pen, a piece of paper, and two hours of your time.


Very wise words indeed.


Technology is Not All Bad!


Despite everything I've said in this post, I am by no means an anti-technology dinosaur!


I firmly believe technology can be extremely powerful in helping both adults and children learn new things. And your child absolutely does need to learn how to use technology to survive in today’s world.


But the purpose of this post is to show you that you absolutely do NOT need fancy equipment, apps, devices or spend a ton of money to help your child achieve their language goals and potential.



You do NOT need to spend a lot of money to raise a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child. Pen and paper is the ultimate low-cost tool!
You do NOT need to spend a lot of money to raise a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child. Pen and paper is the ultimate low-cost tool!


If you know the target language yourself and have the patience, you absolutely CAN teach them how to read and write with the humblest yet the most powerful of tools that human ingenuity has ever created.


So, just go and grab the notepad you have gathering dust in a drawer somewhere and a pen or pencil, and start a reading and writing routine with your child today.


I promise you that you and your child will re-discover the joy of teaching and learning without digital distraction, and you’ll love the freedom of allowing your imagination to guide you.



The joy and freedom of putting pen to paper is one of the best gifts you can give to your child; raising bilingual trilingual multilingual child; low tech education; screen free education; screen free parenting
The joy and freedom of putting pen to paper is one of the best gifts you can give to your child


I really hope you got some value from today’s post!


Please also share in the comments below if you have any questions about today’s content, or if there are any particular topics you’d like me to discuss in any future blog posts/ videos.


Thank you!

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