Thursday, July 28, 2005

Holding your child's attention - Strategies for reading in German with non-native speakers

A customer wrote today to ask for some book recommendations for his 3 year old son. He mentioned he was looking for books with short sentences to keep his son engaged. Certainly having interesting and appropriate books is important. But this also got me thinking about what kinds of adjustments can be useful to make when reading with kids in a language other than their strongest language (in our case, of course, German).

Preschool-age kids have one distinct advantage over older kids when it comes to reading books in German - they are not expected to actually be able to read! They can just listen and enjoy. They may also be less hesitant to ask questions when they don't understand and so it's easy to tailor the story to their individual comprehension levels.

In most cases, a child's fluency in a second (or minority) language will lag behind his comprehension in his first language. It's a challenge to find books that are interesting but not too complicated for him so he can enjoy the story. I'd like to suggest the following ideas and books for preschoolers (and older children who are being read to) to help maintain the interest and enjoyment.

Shorten and simplify harder stories.
Read through the story without the child to get the gist and refresh your own German vocabulary if it's helpful. Then paraphrase and omit sentences as you go. For instance, the Conni and Ich habe einen Freund... books are actually quite long, although they are written with 3-4 year olds in mind. These stories can easily be shortened and difficult words and grammar can be replaced with more familiar choices. As long as your child isn't yet truly reading along, he probably will not mind the modification.

Elaborate and expand on simple stories
Bobo Siebenschläfer and the Max series are great books to build upon. They are both written at about a 2 year old level but you can modify them to suit your child's needs. Discuss the pictures or ask questions about the story. These books are both in use in kindergarten classes with non-native speakers - your child may be happy to find a book that he understands word for word.

Non-fiction (Sachbücher)
The Meyers kleine Kinderbibliothek series has books on a wide range of topics like Am Strand, Die Biene, Licht an. Wunderwelt Körper. Similarly, the Wieso, Weshalb, Warum series (Die Uhr..., Das Wetter, etc.) packs lots of little bits of information on every page. It's very natural to pick and choose what you're going to read when looking through these books. They can appeal to kids in a wide age range and of varying degrees of German fluency. My 18 month old likes these as much as my 5 year old.

Take frequent breaks to discuss
This is always a good idea when reading aloud, but it's even more important with your child's minority language so you can gauge his comprehension and perhaps repeat key elements of the story. Ask "why do you think she did _______?" or "What do you think will happen now?" or "How do you think she felt when _______ happened." Ask "Do you know what _____ means?" If your child says no, then simply explain the new word. Reading together shouldn't turn into a quiz session.

Think aloud about the story
This provides alternate vocabulary, helps the child understand what's going on, and provides a chance to hear important details again. For instance, "Hmm Ich mag wenn Susi und ihr Vater die Klippen herunter klettern - es sieht so spannend aus!" Your child gets another opportunity to understand what happened with different words.

It's ok to not understand everything
Make sure your kids know this and model it yourself - if you come across a word unfamiliar to you, say "Hmm I wonder what this means? I wonder if so-and-so knows." Or talk aloud about your best guess based on the things you do understand. Your child will see you modeling deductive reasoning and will see that you are still learning things too. I learn new vocabulary every time I read through some of the Lesemaus books!

Stop as soon as your child shows signs of fatigue
Even if the story is exciting and your child is enjoying it, he may get antsy after a while. It can be hard, even exhausting, to read or listen in German! I know I don't like to read more than one newspaper article at a time - it's just too much - although I can happily sit with a Cornelia Funke book all day long.

Above all, have fun and follow your child's lead! Viel Spaß beim Lesen :)

- Sarah

Some other books recommended for kids ages 3-6 at an intermediate level for reading aloud:
Bildermaus - several stories in each book make it possible to get in a quick read.
Stellaluna (simplified if necessary - the pictures are fantastic)
Mein Esel Benjamin (may require simplification of some vocabulary but the narrator is a small child and the tone is straightforward)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Sendung mit der Maus

I just wrote about the website from Die Sendung mit der Maus on my newsletter but I wanted to elaborate a bit (if you're not subscribed, sign up and see what you're missing!)

I am constantly looking for interactive and multimedia websites where my kids can listen, play and learn auf Deutsch. Both Niklas (5 years old) and Max (1.5 years old) love anything on the computer and it's great to be able to keep a list of favorites and load them up quickly when we need a change of pace.

The Sendung mit der Maus has soooo much to do! I didn't realize it upon first looking but they have 20 short cartoons (MausSpots), over 30 full length music videos under Lieder, and the Lachgeschichten are great for curious kids. Everything loaded very quickly over our DSL connection.

Many of the songs on the Maus website are from Ritter Rost which is a new favorite of ours. I love Ritter Rost because it's got such a great reversal of roles. Ritter Rost is quite timid and reluctant to fight and is encouraged by his competant and brave Burgfräulein, Bö. The King is full of himself and the knights compete in completely silly events like thumb-wrestling. And the music is so much fun! Check it out for yourself. Ritter Rost at Alphabet-Garten...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Homeschooling auf Deutsch

Our older son, Niklas, has just turned 5 and we have decided to homeschool him. I am very excited about this decision and interestingly enough, I owe a big thanks to several of my own customers for helping me find this path for our family!

I'm not sure if it's because they prefer not to order online or they're just especially friendly, but many of my homeschooling customers like to call in their orders. This has given me the chance to find out why they homeschool and what they do with their kids. So thank you, Molly, Kerstin, Jane, and Cindy!

So now we are able to incorporate German into the entire day and time normally taken up by school can be better utilized learning, playing, reading, and "doing" in German. We are enjoying using several of the Bastelbücher we have. We are also looking forward to doing some correspondence with Oma and Opa auf Deutsch. Of course German DVDs are always a hit and are easily labeled "educational" and time well spent. We are looking forward to Pokemon Heros in German which is expected online in the next week or so.

We had a tremendous rainstorm the other day and my kids decided it would be cool to create a wildlife blind on the deck. So we got umbrellas, raincoats, and a play tent and they happily ate breakfast in the middle of the downpour while listening to me read Eine Nacht im Zelt from the relative dryness of the kitchen. This is the kind of activity I'm looking forward to in the coming months as we learn and grow together. Lots of "subjects" can be covered at once and the kids just have a great time.

Are your kids homeschooled? I'd love to hear about your experiences. Send me a note or give me a call!

Thursday, July 07, 2005

German the Musical Way

One of my primary goals with Alphabet Garten is to make learning German FUN! I try to find interesting, colorful, exciting materials so that parents and teachers can share their love of German with their kids. One of the best ways to do this is with catchy music.

Niklas and I were lucky enough to attend a rock concert (and German lesson in disguise) a couple years ago put on by Uwe Kind. Uwe is a musican and performer who travels the country and around the world singing songs in German for junior high and high school audiences. His music is upbeat, catchy, modern, and LOUD! The atmosphere in the junior high auditorium was like one I have never before experienced! Kids from schools all around the area had been bussed in to take part in the concert and were bursting with energy. Kids from other language classes had begged to be allowed to attend and had certainly picked up many German phrases in the process. Kids were invited on the stage for every song and participated in the choreography, showing no hesitation to dance and sing on the stage in front of hundreds of their friends! The words and movements were shown on a screen so everyone could sing along. The energy in this place was amazing! We were hooked. We have been listening to Uwe's CDs ever since.

Uwe's CDs and concerts are a great way to energize learning in homes and classrooms alike. And Uwe is so much fun to talk to in person as well. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend attending a concert. I also have several of his books and CDs on the website.

More information on Uwe is available at his website at Tell him Sarah says hi!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A strange mix of German and English

You may think that since we run a German children's bookstore and since our kids are surrounded by wonderful German books, our kids would rattle off in German all day long, right? Well, unfortunately it's not quite that simple. But then, who said life was simple?!

German with Mom
I speak to the kids in German about 75% of the time. Niklas (5) usually responds in English - his English vocabulary is huge and he just can't find the words in German quickly enough to express himself. He can, however, have a very nice conversation in German and his accent is excellent. He loves all his German CDs, books, CD-ROMs, and DVDs. Although I try to stick to German, I revert to English when it gets too complicated! I'm not a native speaker and it's just too difficult to talk about space travel or bugs or Scooby Doo or many of the myriad of other topics that come from my 5 year-olds busy mind during the day!

I have made an extra effort to speak 100% German to Max (16 months) since he was born and as a result, his German vocabulary is larger than his English vocabulary. He is an early talker, already saying "trinken, essen, Ei, Mama, Dada, Wasser, Ball, Balloon, up, hoch, sitzen, and bye-bye," among others. His "ja" is perfectly pronounced! I'm sure the balance will shift as he gets older and as he interacts with others more but for now, I'm able to give his German a head start.

So it may seem a little odd to strangers on the playground to hear me addressing my little one in German and then my older son in English. But it's a pattern that works for us for now. I see both my kids making progress with their German and that shows me we are on the right track!

A standard piece of advice for bilingual families is to keep it consistent, no matter what your pattern happens to be. So while our pattern may be a little unconventional, it is consistent and the kids know what to expect.

I hope that we will be able to take an extended vacation to Germany sometime and give the kids a chance to socialize with German kids. Until then, we'll just keep reading and talking and popping down to the basement warehouse when we need a new book. I started Alphabet Garten because I couldn't find German books I loved for Niklas and the effort has paid off in so many ways!