Helping Kids Do Homework in a Language Not Your Own

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“Why has it been accepted as gospel for so long that homework is necessary? The answer, I think, lies not in the perceive virtues of homework but rather in the clear deficiencies of what happens in the classroom. Homework becomes necessary because not enough learning happens during the school day… The broadcast, one-pace-fits-all lecture… turns out to be a highly inefficient way to teach and learn.”

Salman Khan, The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

Homework…. Whether you agree it is a useful tool for setting up good habits for your children’s future education and work ethics, or subscribe to the “afternoons should be for play” school of thought most of us end up with afternoon homework supervision of some sort or another. Reading books with kids… that is my favourite kind of homework, but I digress!

Now let us take this one-step further. What happens when the homework is in a language that you do not fully understand or your children are studying at a level you cannot yourself comprehend? This is regularly my dilemma.

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Let the games begin! Literally! Our children attending bilingual school was pretty much a given because whilst we lived in Australia my husband’s entire overseas family speak only Arabic. When the first homework arrived home during our first week of our first year of school, identical sets in English and Arabic, I was so excited. We were learning:

[English: A a is for apple ] and 25 more letters
[Arabic: أ (a) is forأسد (asad) which means lion] and 27 more letters
We made extra cards and played games of match, fish, snap and anything else I could think of. We made a larger set to have an Arabic and English word wall. Everyone was having lots of fun /learning whilst laughing’. We decided that if “making it fun, got it done” then that is how we would approach our whole school journey.

Aim: Our children will speak to their grandmothers in their own language.

Six years on, we have changed sides of the globe and we now are in a majority language Arabic and minority language (second language at school) English situation. Catch, whilst we learnt Arabic for six years in Australia and studied determinedly… our academic vocabulary is limited and the set of words learnt from a textbook for Arabic speaking children in an English speaking country is very different from the set of words needed to survive in an academic environment.

To compound our issue, my older two children, grade 4 and 8, surpassed my knowledge in Arabic about two years ago and our youngest just started grade 1. Whilst I try very hard every day to be of assistance, I really struggle. Luckily, their dad is an Arabic/English teacher so it takes him very little time to keep us all on track.

But, how do you help your kids when you realize the academic vocabulary you carefully organized for them, and the study you insisted on every single day is actually a whole other vocabulary than used in an Arabic culture setting. Even the fruits and vegetables you eat have a different set of names. Add in dialect and hey, I am ready to throw in the towel some days.

I have learnt to insist my husband gives a very clear set of instructions by page number in study to be covered. We approach much of our learning as you would a university textbook:

Helping Kids Do Homework in a Language Not Your Own

  1. Copy the introduction to the topic/summary into your notebook and translate (or write in own words)
  2. Find the key words in the introduction and underline in the chapter.
  3. Now with a better understanding of the work we are trying to complete…
  4. Read the introduction and notes of ‘what is covered in the topic’.
  5. Translate to English as required. (or change unknown words on the page to known words)
  6. Read the conclusion (if there is one) and translate
  7. Read the chapter questions and translate
  8. Now we are ready to investigate the rest of the words in the chapter. (My children are able to read them and understand about half of the words but with careful preparation, much of the rest is comprehensible – with a bit of dictionary assistance.)

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Author: Josephine O'Brien

I am an Australian. Accountant by trade. Teacher by necessity. Advocating for learning differences, gifted, and multiliterate children. I grew up on a farm in country NSW, where I developed a love for languages hosting Japanese farmstay visitors, and as an exchange student. Studied several languages whilst working and met my Arabic speaking husband at University. Currently an expat, worldschooling in an effort to provide an holistic approach to bicultural. Find my ‘A sojourn to writing' at https://springbrookorbillabong.wordpress.com/

8 Replies to “Helping Kids Do Homework in a Language Not Your Own

  1. Such great tips. Our little neighbors go to regular school and also attend a Polish school as their grandparents who watch them speak mostly Polish. I’ll have to pass these tips on to them.

  2. Wow. This is such useful information. There is a child in my daughter’s class who I need to share this information with his mother, English is not their first language and I think this would be super helpful for them.

  3. I can only imagine how tough this could be. I remember a friend of mine in college had to translate a lot of things for his mom, like bills that were due.

  4. I have been worried about how to handle this when my child learns another language. These are great tips. My daughter in general needs me to learn with her, so I find that if I actually learn everything from scratch – we both learn! Win win! 🙂

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