By Dylan Calder, Director, Pop Up Projects
Children’s books in the home are a vital resource in enabling parents to engage with their children’s learning, and the shared reading of picture books is an essential foundation in early literacy development. But for many families where parents first language is not English, access to quality children’s picture books published in their home language can be limited or non-existent; particularly where the home language is non-European. Where the parents speak and read very little English, the children of those parents can miss out on a crucial stage of early learning, potentially having consequences on literacy attainment throughout their education: “Parental involvement in their child’s literacy practices positively affects children’s academic performance and is a more powerful force for academic success than other family background variables, such as social class, family size and level of parental education… Any [initiative] aiming to improve literacy standards… needs to embrace the family as a whole and include parents as partners in their children’s education from the very beginning of their children’s lives.” [A Research Review: the importance of families and the home environment, National Literacy Trust, 2008; revised March 2011].
At Pop Up, we believe that there is demand for quality original picture books by well-known children’s authors; books that, crucially, do not have to be about ethnicity or identity; published in diverse, non-European languages; and who can be reached not through traditional routes (e.g. high street retailers) but through schools, libraries, family services and community networks. If we are able to evidence this demand within the arts and education sectors, and demonstrate effective promotional and distribution strategies, we may be able to influence the commercial publishing sector, and increase the diversity of stories available to families in the UK, whether they are mainly English-speaking or not.
We undertook some research into the provision of, access to and demand for contemporary children’s picture books among diverse parents for whom English is not the first language. 106 parents from 22 different countries of origin were surveyed in eight primary schools in three London boroughs (Hackney, Islington, Camden); surveys were made available to respondents in eight different languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Bangla, Somali, Yoruba, Twi).
89% of respondents were born outside of the UK, and stated that they ‘speak (their) home languages the most’; and 76% agreed they communicate orally in their home language ‘the most’ with their children – with the highest three groups who stated this being Turkish (16%), Somali (12%) and Spanish (7%). The value this sample group of parents placed on the importance of reading books in the home appeared to be extremely high: 96% said they have ‘children’s books in English at home’, 76% claimed to read books with their children ‘very often’, while 96% ‘would like to read more books with their children’.
Almost half of respondents perceived their children as not able to ‘read very well’ (33%) or ‘at all’ (12%) in their home language. And a clear majority (95%) wanted their children ‘to read better’ in their home language, with a similarly high percentage (85%) wanting children’s books in that language in the home. 38% said they did not currently have books in their home language in the home; a total 67% were unaware of children’s books in their home languages being available in the schools their children attend (analysis of the 33% who were aware of books in their schools showed that all spoke European languages with the exception of Turkish), while 87% ‘would like to have more children’s books in (their) language in school”. A further 83% said they ‘would like to buy children’s books in (their) home language’ from a range of sources, with schools ranking first, followed by libraries and bookshops.
These results depict a broad sample of mainly migrant, bilingual parents as placing considerable value not only on books and intergenerational reading in the home, but also on opportunities for their children to connect with their home language/culture through reading and writing. This suggests that in addition to providing parents for whom English is not their first language with books to read with their children, these books will serve a further purpose: to enhance children’s reading skills in their home languages – which the overwhelming majority of the parents we surveyed would like to see happen. This research represents the first step in evidencing demand for books in diverse languages, and for access to those books – both for sale and to loan – to be facilitated via schools and libraries.
Illustration by Joe Manners, Birmingham City University, as published in Rising Stars