photo credit: Mary Ann @ flickr.com

“Come here, little huggy bear!”
“Are you ready for bed, my little coconut candy?”
“Let’s put your coat on, my flea!”

If you’ve ever used any of these terms of endearment with a child, English probably isn’t your first language! And if English is your first language, you probably can’t imagine calling your baby a “tiny elephant”, like they do in Thailand, or “breadcrumb”, which is popular in Finland. Whether you are used to calling your loved ones “pumpkin”, “honey”, “babydoll” or “sweetie”, you will certainly understand what the unfamiliar phrases mean: love for a child.

No two cultures do things in exactly the same way, and there’s no right way or wrong way. That’s why the recently-published findings about the lack of “book-sharing” within immigrant families is a bit misleading. The study, completed by the Stanford University School of Medicine, shows that “parents in Hispanic or Asian immigrant families in California were less likely to read…with their young children than non-Hispanic white parents.” It goes on to point out that there may be many reasons for this difference, such as cultural practices and parents working more than one job who therefore have less time overall to spend with their children.

Of course, “’early reading enlarges vocabulary and becomes a tool for many other kinds of learning later on in school’”, as Dr Mendoza mentions in a Reuters article about the study’s results. And it stands to reason that children whose parents and carers never read with them could be at a disadvantage – but does this study show the whole picture?

There are many ways of sharing the content of books. Just because a parent doesn’t sit down in the family’s extensive library with his child and read every word of a book they’ve chosen together, complete with silly voices and long digressions about what’s going on in the illustrations, doesn’t mean that the family isn’t “book-sharing” in their own way.

Different cultures have different ways of teaching and nurturing their children. For instance, some parents prefer to tell stories, rather than read them. What better way to respond to your child’s environment and enrich his or her vocabulary with practical, useful words than to spontaneously break into a tale that fits what he or she is interested in at that moment? No searching for the perfect book, no worries about finding a perfect spot to plonk down and read: just you, your child, and the magic of a story. Of course, having a varied library of books you’ve shared in the past might help fuel your imagination as you spin your yarn or relate a story passed down through generations, but telling a story without the physical pages of a book will still support your child’s language and literacy development. Singing songs and sharing rhymes will help accomplish the same goal.

Most educators would agree that it is beneficial for educators to make a classroom library available with bilingual children’s books in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and other languages represented in the classroom, allowing children to take the books home to read with their parents. That said, supporting parents to build on their own interests and to make use of their own skill set is a way of getting them more involved in home literacy activities, rather than trying to get all parents to do things the same way.

Wordless picture books that children can borrow from the class library are a good way to start, and there are lots of interesting ways to use them (www.colorincolorado.org has some great ones!). Think about taking a few of these ideas and putting them onto a (bilingual) sheet which could be stuck into the inside covers of all of your classroom’s wordless picture books. There’s no reason to force the view that all families should read together in the way that we are accustomed; rather, wordless storybooks might give some families another option for book-sharing in their own way with their loved ones.

For families in which parents simply work too much to be able to sit and read with their children, making recording equipment available to them at the beginning or end of the school day could really help get them involved. Creating a cd or mp3 of a parent reading their child’s favorite book (in any language!) would only take five minutes and could be quickly accomplished at pick-up time. At home, the child could listen to the recording while looking through the book as the parent rushes out the door to work or cooks dinner – and it would still promote his or her literacy and language skills, besides strengthening a parent-child bond even when the parent can’t actually be present!

Some parents may merely need to be introduced to the special bond reading with their child creates, and they’ll want to bring the practice into the home. If it’s something they never experienced with their parents, they may not be aware of how wonderful it can be! Preschool teachers can make parents reading with their children a fun and comfortable prospect by creating a special Parent-Child Reading Corner somewhere in your classroom. Fill it with your students’ favorite choices, fun posters, comfy cushions, and maybe even some snacks and drinks. Then encourage parents on the school run to take five minutes to relax with their child and share the books that have caught their interest that day. It’ll be infectious and will soon turn up in the homes of many more of your students.

Despite what some surveys suggest, we all know that every culture is effective at supporting, nurturing and showing love for children. While it’s wonderful to promote at-home reading, it’s important to consider cultural aspects and promote alternative approaches to building literacy skills as well. After all, what would America be if our founding fathers had just decided to keep doing things the English way?

We’d love to hear about your experiences on this topic – feel free to comment below!

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