The link below is to an article that questions the ‘need’ for children to read classic children’s books.
Neuroscience has found a clear relationship between music and language acquisition. Put simply, learning music in the early years of schooling can help children learn to read.
Music, language and the brain
Music processing and language development share an overlapping network in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain developed music processing well before language and then used that processing to create and learn language.
At birth, babies understand language as if it was music.
They respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean.
Babies and young children mimic the language they hear using those elements of rhythm and melody, and this is the sing-song style of speech we know and love in toddlers.
Musically trained children are better readers
Reading is ultimately about making meaning from the words on the page. A number of skills combine to help us make those meanings, including the ability to distinguish between the sounds in words, and fluency of reading.
How do we learn to read?
Fluency includes the ability to adjust the the patterns of stress and intonation of a phrase, such as from angry to happy and the ability the choose the correct inflection, such as a question or an exclamation. These highly developed auditory processing skills are enhanced by musical training.
Musically trained children also have better reading comprehension skills.
Music can also give us clues about a child’s struggles with reading.
Research has found three- and four-year-old children who could keep a steady musical beat were more reading-ready at the age of five, than those who couldn’t keep a beat.
What parents and teachers can do
Language learning starts from day one of life with parents talking and singing to their babies. Babies bond with their parents and community primarily through their voice, so singing to your baby both forms a bond with them and engages their auditory processing network.
Taking toddlers to a well-structured, high quality music class each week will build the musical skills that have been found to be so effective in learning to read. It is vital to look for classes that include movement activities, singing, and responding to both sound and silence. They should use good quality music-making toys and instruments.
As they head into preschool, a crucial time for language development, look for the same well-structured music learning programs delivered daily by qualified educators. The songs, rhymes and rhythm activities our children do in preschool and daycare are actually preparing them for reading.
Music programs should build skills sequentially. They should encourage children to work to sing in tune, use instruments and move in improvised and structured ways to music.
Children should also be taught to read musical notation and symbols when learning music. This reinforces the symbol to sound connection which is also crucial in reading words.
Importantly, active music learning is the key. Having loud music on in the background does little for their language development and could actually impede their ability to distinguish speech from all the other noise.
This isn’t to say children need silence to learn. In fact, the opposite is true. They need a variety of sound environments and the ability to choose what their brains need in terms of auditory stimulation. Some students need noise to focus, some students need silence and each preference is affected by the type of learning they are being challenged to do.
Sound environments are more than just how loud the class is getting. It’s about the quality of the sounds. Squeaky brakes every three minutes, loud air-conditioning, background music that works for some and not others and irregular bangs and crashes all impact on a child’s ability to learn.
Teachers can allow students to get excited in their lessons and make noise appropriately, but keep some muffled headphones in your classroom for when students want to screen out sound.
Music for all
Our auditory processing network is the first and largest information gathering system in our brains. Music can enhance the biological building blocks for language. Music both prepares children for learning to read, and supports them as they continue their reading journey.
Unfortunately, it’s disadvantaged students who are least likely to have music learning in their schools. Yet research shows they could benefit the most from music learning.
As we look to ways to improve the reading outcomes of our young children, more music education in our preschools and primary schools may be one way clear way forward.
We often hear about the benefits of reading storybooks at bedtime for promoting vocabulary, early literacy skills, and a good relationship with your child. But the experts haven’t been in your home, and your child requests the same book every single night, sometimes multiple times a night. You both know all the words off by heart.
Given activities occurring just before sleep are particularly well-remembered by young children, you might wonder if all this repetition is beneficial. The answer is yes. Your child is showing they enjoy this story, but also that they are still learning from the pictures, words, and the interactions you have as you read this book together.
Kids want repetition
A preference for familiarity, rather than novelty, is commonly reported at young ages, and reflects an early stage in the learning process. For example, young infants prefer faces that are the same gender and ethnicity as their caregiver.
With age and experience, the child’s interests shift to novelty seeking. By four to five months, novel faces are more interesting than the now highly familiar caregiver face.
But even three-day olds prefer looking at a novel face if they’re repeatedly shown a picture of their mother’s face. So once infants have encoded enough information about an image, they’re ready to move on to new experiences.
Your child’s age affects the rate at which they will learn and remember information from your shared book-reading. Two key principles of memory development are that younger children require longer to encode information than older children, and they forget faster.
For example, one-year olds learn a sequence of new actions twice as fast as six-month olds. And while a 1.5-year old typically remembers a sequence of new actions for two weeks, two-year olds remember for three months.
Two dimensional information sources, like books and videos, are however harder to learn from than direct experiences. Repeated exposure helps children encode and remember from these sources.
How do kids learn from repetition?
Being read the same story four times rather than two times improved 1.5- and two-year olds’ accuracy in reproducing the actions needed to make a toy rattle. Similarly, doubling exposure to a video demonstration for 12- to 21-month olds improved their memory of the target actions.
Repeated readings of the same storybook also help children learn novel words, particularly for children aged three to five years.
Repetition aids learning complex information by increasing opportunities for the information to be encoded, allowing your child to focus on different elements of the experience, and providing opportunities to ask questions and connect concepts together through discussion.
You might not think storybooks are complicated, but they contain 50% more rare words than prime-time television and even college students’ conversations. When was the last time you used the word giraffe in a conversation with a colleague? Learning all this information takes time.
The established learning benefits of repetition mean this technique has become an integral feature in the design of some educational television programs. To reinforce its curriculum, the same episode of Blue’s Clues is repeated every day for a week, and a consistent structure is provided across episodes.
Five consecutive days of viewing the same Blue’s Clues episode increased three to five year olds’ comprehension of the content and increased interaction with the program, compared to viewing the program only once. Across repetitions, children were learning how to view television programs and to transfer knowledge to new episodes and series. The same process will likely occur with storybook repetition.
How parents can support repetitive learning
The next time that familiar book is requested again, remember this is an important step in your child’s learning journey. You can support further learning opportunities within this familiar context by focusing on something new with each retelling.
One day look more closely at the pictures, the next day focus on the text or have your child fill in words. Relate the story to real events in your child’s world. This type of broader context talk is more challenging and further promotes children’s cognitive skills.
You can also build on their interests by offering books from the same author or around a similar topic. If your child currently loves Where is the Green Sheep? look at other books by Mem Fox, maybe Bonnie and Ben rhyme again (there are sheep in there too). Offer a wide variety of books, including information books which give more insight into a particular topic but use quite different story structures and more complex words.
Remember, this phase will pass. One day there will be a new favourite and the current one, love it or loathe it, will be back on the bookshelf.
The Victorian Coalition has promised $2.8 million for “decodable readers” for schools if they win the upcoming election.
Money for books must surely be a good thing. But what exactly is a “decodable reader”? After all, surely all books are decodable. If they weren’t decodable they would be unreadable.
What is decoding?
The Australian curriculum provides a clear definition of decoding:
A process of working out the meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual, vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge.
However the Victorian Coalition is defining decoding as “sounding out letters”. As their policy platform states:
Decodable books are designed to align with explicit, systematic phonics instruction. They are simple stories constructed using almost exclusively words that are phonetically decodable, using letters and letter-groups that children have learned in phonics lessons.
The “decodable readers” they are funding are books that are contrived to help children practise a particular letter-sound pattern taught as part of a synthetic phonics program.
For example, the following sentences are from a decodable reader designed to focus on the consonants “N” and “P” and short vowel /a/
Nan and a pan.
Pap and a pan.
Nan and Pap can nap.
Books like this have no storyline; they are equally nonsensical whether you start on the first page, or begin on the last page and read backwards.
While they may teach the phonics skills “N” and “P”, they don’t teach children the other important decoding skills of grammar and vocabulary.
And as many a parent will testify, they don’t teach the joy of reading.
What about the children’s vocabulary development?
Meaning and vocabulary development are not the focus of decodable readers. Yet, research shows the importance of vocabulary for successful reading.
Students need to add 3,000 words a year to their vocabulary to be able to read and write successfully at their year level.
Limited vocabulary in books translates to lack of vocabulary growth.
What is the alternative to ‘decodable readers’?
Supporters of decodable readers are hopeful these books will support students with reading difficulties, by focusing closely on the sounds in words. However, focusing on sounds alone is not sufficient to support a struggling reader.
The reality is all children learning to read need to listen to, and read books that are written with rich vocabulary, varied sentence structures and interesting content knowledge that encourages them to use their imagination.
Compare the text about Pan and Nap with the opening lines of Pamela Allen’s very popular story Who Sank the Boat?:
Beside the sea, on Mr Peffer’s place, there lived
a cow, a donkey, a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse.
They were good friends and one sunny morning, for no particular reason,
they decided to go for a row on the bay.
Do you know who sank the boat?
This book immediately engages children and asks them to question, imagine and help solve a problem. Children always ask for this book to be read again and again and they enjoy joining in. They learn new vocabulary and incidentally learn about complex sentence structures, which they emulate in their oral language and story writing.
Using books to teach all the decoding skills
Using rich authentic texts supports all the decoding skills described in the Australian curriculum – phonics, vocabulary and grammar.
In Pamela Allen’s story above, we can look at the word “bay” and notice the parts /b/ – /ay/, which help us to say and spell the word. What happens if we change the beginning – how many other words could we write and read? For example, day, say, play, and so on.
We can look at the “frequent” words. These are the words that we can’t always “sound out” but which make up the 100 most frequent words in English. For example, do, you, they, were, the.
These words are very important to teach children, as these 100 words make up 50% of all written language.
We can develop their vocabularies with words and phrases such as “for no particular reason”, “decided” and “beside” .
We can introduce them to beautifully literate sentence structures, for example,
“Beside the sea, on Mr Peffer’s place, there lived a cow, a donkey, a sheep, a pig, and a tiny little mouse”.
Decodable readers can only do the phonics part of the reading puzzle. They are a very inefficient way to teach reading.
So what do we want for all children learning to read?
When teaching children to read, we hope they will learn reading is pleasurable and can help them to make sense of their lives and those around them.
The strategies children are taught to use when first learning to read greatly influence what strategies they use in later years.
When children are taught to focus solely on letter-sound matching to read the words of decodable readers, they often continue in later years to over-rely on this strategy, even with other kinds of texts. This causes inaccurate, slow, laborious reading, which leads to frustration and a lack of motivation for reading.
A book must be worth reading and give children the opportunity to learn the full range of strategies needed to read any text.
Children who grow up with real books, with rich vocabularies, beautiful prose and genuine storylines reach a higher level of education than those who do not have such access, regardless of nationality, parents’ level of education or socioeconomic status.
And yet it’s children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to have access to these books in their homes. It’s crucial schools fill the gap.
A$2.8 million spent on beautifully written books to fill Victorian classroom libraries would be a far more effective use of the education budget.
Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra; Brian Cambourne, Principal Fellow, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, and Robyn Ewing, Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts, University of Sydney
There is magic in stories. We all remember hearing them as children, and we loved them. Imaginary adventures set in faraway places. Tales about how the dishwasher isn’t working. It doesn’t matter! Whether made up by parents or read from books, kids love to hear stories.
Our recent work showed reading to children positively impacts long term academic achievement more than many other activity (including playing music with them, or doing craft). We found the more frequently parents read to their children, the better their children’s NAPLAN scores in different areas.
In our most recent study, we asked parents to read a wordless storybook to their three to five-year-old children titled The Wolf and Seven Little Goats. We also tested children in many areas of their important cognitive skills, such as language proficiency, memory, self-control, and friendship skills.
Through examining the different ways parents tell stories, we have pinpointed which elements of shared reading are most beneficial for children’s cognitive development.
1. Tune in to your child
Perhaps the most important aspect of reading to children is to tune in to your child. Listen to your child’s cues. Do they like the story? Do they know the vocabulary? Are they paying attention to the pictures more, or the text?
Try to coach your child, not to instruct them. Instead of saying: “look they are going to cook some food, maybe they are hungry”, you can ask “what are they doing?” or “why do you think they’re doing that?”.
Be sensitive about whether they are listening and engaged or uninterested and disengaged. If they are disengaged, are there questions you can ask to make them more interested? Do you think they’ll like a different type of story better? The best books for your child are the ones they enjoy most.
2. Ask questions
Parents who ask lots of questions engage in a more fun and informative way with their children. Ask them if they know the vocabulary, if they can guess what the characters are going to do next, and why they’ve done what they’ve done.
These questions are not only helpful because they help children gain new knowledge and ways of thinking, it also helps strengthen the emotional bond between parent and child. Children like to feel they’re a part of the task, not that they’re being told how to do things.
3. Go beyond describing images or reading text
In our study, we gave parents a wordless picture book. An important difference we observed between parents was some only describe what they see. Some go beyond the picture.
For example, when the mother goat in the picture book comes home and sees the door to the house open, one parent said:
When their mother came home and was looking forward to seeing her children and hugging them and telling them a story, she suddenly saw that the door is open. She was shocked!
Another parent said:
The mother came home and saw the door is open; she went inside and looked for the children.
This parent is only describing the picture.
The first parent is imagining what is beyond the picture and text. This is a richer way to tell a story to children, and ultimately leads to better cognitive developmental outcomes for children. This is because it teaches abstract thinking, which is the basis for many of the higher order cognitive abilities such as problem solving and critical analysis.
4. Make logical links between different parts of the story
Another element that has a strong link to the development of children’s cognitive skills is the way parents build logical links between different parts of the story.
Often the events in books unfold very quickly. One minute, the wolf eats the little goats, and the next minute he is found by the mother. Some parents try to make the sequence of events more logical than others.
For example, in this picture, when the wolf is coming to knock on the door, one parent said:
The wolf, who realised the mother is not home, came and knocked on the door.
This sentence is lacking logical links. How did the wolf know the mother is not home? Why should he come and knock on the door? What did he want?
Another parent said:
The wolf, who was sunbathing in the bush, saw that the mother is going to get some food. He thought, oh, the little goats are alone at home, and it’s a good time for me to go and trick them and maybe get a good lunch!
The parent here is clearly providing logical links between these different parts of the story.
5. Add relevant details
We also found most parents add many details to the story to make it more interesting or comprehensive. But relevant details are the most useful in terms of improving children’s learning. Relevant details are the kind of details that help make the story easier to understand.
For example, one parent said:
The little goat, who was wearing the yellow shirt and was the smallest said: ‘we shouldn’t open the door! How do we know this is our mother? She has just left.’
Here, wearing a yellow shirt is a descriptive detail, but it doesn’t add much to the story.
Another mother said:
The smallest one, who was also the cleverest and very careful, said…
This second parent is clearly adding a detail (that the smaller one is also the cleverest and careful) that makes the story more meaningful and easier to follow.
6. Talk about mental and emotional concepts
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We found parents who not only describe the events of a story but also discuss abstract concepts related to emotions, desires and thoughts tend to have children who are better cognitively skilled. These children develop a better understanding of others’ emotions, better friendship skills, and even improved memory and higher order cognitive skills that are useful in later life. These lead to academic success as well as better skills to build friendships and perform well in social relationships.
Reading to children is beneficial in many ways. Books offer a unique opportunity for children to become familiar with new vocabularies; the type of words not often used in day-to-day conversation. Books also provide a context for developing knowledge of abstract ideas for children. When an adult reads a book to a child, they often label pictures, talk about activities in the book, solve problems together and teach them new words and concepts.
Reading to very young children can have long-lasting benefits for their later school success, not only in literacy but also in mathematics. Adding to this, early shared reading particularly helps children from disadvantaged families defy limitations associated with their socio-economic status. So, if there is only one thing you have time to do with your children, it should be reading to and with them.
Read your way to the top
Parents have long been encouraged to read more to their children. There have been many initiatives, challenges, and programs aiming to increase individual reading time and shared reading time between parents and children. These include the Australian Reading Hour Campaign, the Premier’s Reading Challenge, Let’s Read, and others.
What’s still not clear is which specific skills improve while parents read to their children, and whether the benefit of shared reading is due to other things parents do that help their children thrive at school and beyond.
That is: is it really book reading that’s beneficial or is it because parents who read more to their children also provide a lot of other resources, and engage in a range of other activities with their children?
This was what we looked at in our study. We used data from a large scale nationwide study called the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). It has followed the development of 10,000 children and their families since 2004.
The sample we studied consists of 4,768 children from the cohort that was zero to one year old when the study commenced. During face-to-face interviews with trained LSAC interviewers, parents reported the frequency of them reading to their children at the age of two every week.
The LSAC then followed these children until they were four and eight years old. The good news is the majority of parents reported reading to their children at least three days a week. Specifically, 61.6% of the parents reported reading to their children every day and 21.1% of the parents read to their children between three to five days a week.
Our study showed the benefits of shared reading with children during early childhood at two to three years old is long-lasting. The more frequently parents read to their children when they were two years old, the more likely their children had better knowledge of spoken words and early academic skills such as recognising and copying geometric shapes, and writing letters, words and numbers, two years later when children were four to five years old.
What’s more, frequent early shared reading was linked to better performance in NAPLAN reading, writing, spelling and grammar. More surprisingly it was also linked to mathematics even six years later when children were eight to nine years old in year three.
The most encouraging finding is that children from disadvantaged families benefited more from shared book reading. This suggests increasing the frequency of book reading is a viable way for disadvantaged families to support their children’s vocabulary knowledge and general academic achievement.
To address whether the benefits of shared reading are a product of other factors associated with parents and families, we controlled for the effect of a range of potential confounding factors. These include indicators of children’s intelligence, the number of children’s books at home, and home activities that parents engage with children other than reading. These would include drawing pictures or doing art activities with children, playing music together, playing with toys or games, and exercising together.
Even though we controlled for these other factors, the long-term importance of early shared reading still holds.
Suggestions for parents
Read more to your children and with your children. Whenever you get a chance, even if it’s only ten minutes, engage in shared reading activities.
We also suggest parents make a reading session interactive. For example, parents are encouraged to ask children questions, such as if they know the vocabulary and ask them to guess the story and what the story characters will do. Try to make the reading a learning session.
Finally, not all books are created equal. Parents are encouraged to choose the most suitable books for their child’s age to reap the most benefits of early shared reading.
Ameneh Shahaeian, Research Fellow in Developmental and Educational Psychology, Australian Catholic University and Cen Wang, Research Fellow in Educational and Developmental Psychology, Charles Sturt University
Speaking at the 2018 Hay Festival, His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman said: “To share a bedtime story is one of the greatest experiences of childhood and parenthood.” This couldn’t be more true. Besides helping sleepyheads absorb language through the familiar voices that nurture them, understand the complexities of their world, and the reasons behind their feelings, bedtime stories show how childhood can be the greatest adventure of all.
1. Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson
Age range: two to five years
Even the youngest child can engage with sound, colour and fun, and this book (illustrated by Nick Sharratt) is filled with bright joy and wonderful onomatopoeia. From the sound of flip-flops to the excitement of slurping a drink at the beach and the music made by different instruments, the sounds, then words, are a wonderful introduction to the intricacies of language.
2. Mr Men & Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves
Age range: three years+
Hargreaves’ colourful 2D characters behaving to type are a wonderful way to identify with basic emotions by interpreting colour as a feeling. As journalist and author Lucy Mangan puts it in her memoir Bookworm: “Of course uppitiness is purple. Of course happiness is yellow.” These are no fuss, easy to follow collectables – and bitesize too, so you can gobble through second helpings before turning out the light.
3. The Lorax by Dr Seuss
Age range: three to eight years
No child should grow up without The Lorax. They’ll never be the same when they’ve learned about the Swannee-swans, Humming fish, and Bar-ba-loots bears, their Truffula trees being cut by the mysterious and scruple-free Once-ler. While the environmental message of the book is even more urgent now than it was when The Lorax was first published in 1971, the story is just as entrancing, instructive – without preaching – and, above all, as hopeful as ever. A wonderful wise Lorax speaks for the trees, and for all the world’s children, who want to keep the future green.
4. My Big Shouting Day, by Rebecca Patterson
Age range: two to eight years
A funny picture book for younger readers that will resonate with many parents for its keen perspective on patience. It positively encourages under-fours to shout along with grumpy Bella who gets up on the wrong side of the bed. It shows the child that it’s ok to feel angry – heck, they’ll be a teenager soon enough – but it also gives them permission to express it, and reminds them that tomorrow is always a new day.
5. The Moomin books by Tove Jansson
Age range: three to eight years
The Moomins’ home, Moominvalley, is a place of wonder and fun, populated by fairy-like, round creatures that resemble hippopotamuses, but enjoy human hobbies such as writing memoirs (Moomin papa), making jam (Moomin mama), and playing make-believe (Moomintroll and Snork Maiden). Their adventurous side comes out at all opportunities, stirred by friends Little My and Snufkin, or by mysterious intruders.
First published between 1945 and 1970, in recent years the stories have been tailored for both younger (soft and flap books) and older children (hardback storybooks). The Moomin books tell dream-like stories while tackling questions about love, friendships, encounters with strangers, and so on. An all-round winner.
6. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Age range: four to 11 years
The first true book written for children about children never fails to bewitch and baffle. Young Alice-like readers can explore the topsy-turvey Wonderland, while the grown-ups reading to them will appreciate the metaphorical Mad Hatter and role of the white rabbit as leader in the adventure in a way they wouldn’t have been able to as a child. Carroll’s book is a celebration of a child’s wonder and curiosity, and fears of growing bigger too. It invites you to talk dreams and nightmares, to accept the weird and extraordinary and, best of all, to conjure up your own adventure down the rabbit hole. It’s a rite of passage, ideal for sharing.
7. Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Age range: five to 12 years
In a world where comic book superheroes and heroines reign supreme, these legends can entrance a young mind forever. This selection of Norse myths brings all the gritty dark stuff about trickster Loki together with tales of hammer-wielding Thor, and the machinations of Asgardean king Odin and goddess of love, battle and death, Freyja. It tickles the imagination of the young and challenges the parent too. Fabulous illustrations by Jeffrey Alan Love accompany Crossley-Holland’s delightful retelling, bringing these ancient stories to life in a way that no other anthology has.
8. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Age range: eight to 12 years
This chocolate wonderland is the perfect read-aloud book, thanks to Dahl’s masterful use of the English language. Amid all the magic and invention is a wagging finger providing moral lessons on the perils of being greedy, or a brat or overly competitive – and that goes for the adult reader too. Thank goodness then for Willy Wonka, the man who really never grew up, and his band of oompa-loompahs who punish the bad, reward the good, then provide reason for it all through song.
In truth, there is no right book to share – there are plenty of them available these days – nor should there be any chronological order to how and what we read. These are just some suggestions on ways to make bedtime a little more magical. But never underestimate how marvellous it can be to reread a childhood favourite to the little one you’re now tucking in to bed. It could inspire a passion for reading and spark an interest that lasts a lifetime.
The age ranges used in this article are mostly based on interest and reading level ratings from Book Trust.
A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.
Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.
A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.
Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.
Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.
In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.
Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.
Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.
As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.
When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.
Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.
We need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.
There are many factors that shape the value we place on different languages.
Some languages seem more pleasant to listen to, easier to learn or more logical. These perceptions are generally influenced by our attitudes towards the speakers of a language and the different situations in which the language is spoken.
One reflection of the differential status of languages comes through in bilingual children’s picturebooks. Here I explore how te reo Māori (the indigenous language of New Zealand) is represented and argue that the way languages are displayed in bilingual picturebooks can disrupt the status quo.
As a sociolinguist, I am interested in the representation of languages in bilingual picturebooks. This not only reflects existing attitudes towards languages, but it can also be powerful in shaping future societal attitudes.
As well as telling a story or giving information, the presence of a minority language in a picturebook can serve a symbolic function. The way in which languages are presented in bilingual children’s books may encourage readers to value a language, or perhaps use this language more frequently, thus positively affecting its vitality.
To show the different ways in which minority indigenous languages can be featured in children’s picturebooks, I examine the linguistic landscapes of some Māori-English picturebooks that are disrupting the status quo of language hierarchies.
Linguistic landscape is a term used to describe the (usually visual) presence of different languages in public spaces. In my work with picturebooks I use this term to describe the space occupied by languages within a book. Language hierarchies relate to the idea that in any society some languages have more status than others.
I use these concepts to examine the comparative presentation of different languages in three areas: which language is presented first, which language uses a bigger font, and which language presents more information.
I argue that these three factors are reflections of the relative status of languages in a bilingual picturebook and they subtly indicate to the reader which language is more important.
Overturning existing hierarchies
In Aotearoa/New Zealand the indigenous Māori language (te reo Māori) has official language status, but it is spoken by a minority of the population (3.73% of the total population and 21.3% of the Māori population). However, some bilingual picturebooks have opted to assign primary status to te reo Māori in terms of order and font size.
Children’s picturebooks are often underestimated, but some bilingual picturebooks disrupt the status quo and promote an alternative language hierarchy.
For example, Kākahu – Getting Dressed (Brown & Parkinson, 2015) is a board book in a series self-published purposefully by Reo Pēpi to encourage the use of te reo Māori with young children. On its front cover, the Māori word in the title (Kākahu) is much larger than the English (Getting Dressed). In the body of the book, Māori is privileged in several ways.
Māori is given first on the page, with English underneath; Māori is presented in a much larger font size than English; and Māori is given in a bold typeface, whereas English is given in normal typeface.
Te Wairua o Waitangi, which can be translated as “The Spirit of Waitangi”, is also part of a self-published series, written by Sharon Holt and designed to support teachers to bring te reo Māori into English medium classrooms via song.
This book (and others in the Te Reo Singalong series) features a brightly coloured title in te reo Māori only. It is bigger and more bold than any other writing (in English) on the cover.
The first few pages before the body of the story feature publishing information, a translation of the lyrics, and teaching notes for teachers in English. However, in the body of the book, only te reo Māori is used. At the back of the book, the lyrics for the song are given in Māori only with guitar chords. The picturebook includes a CD recording of the song, which also features a title in Māori and not English.
The power of the picturebook
The many different factors that influence the status of a language are often inter-related, but if a language is not valued, this may lead to people using it in fewer situations, and even to its eventual demise.
The two picturebooks I have discussed illustrate how an often underestimated form of children’s literature can be used to support an indigenous language with a minority of speakers. Children and adults reading and listening to these books will see, albeit subconsciously, which language is being given higher status. In this way, new language attitudes are being formed and this may result in the adjustment of existing language hierarchies.
Reading to your child is one of the most successful ways of instilling a love of reading in them. But in our recent study, more than one-quarter of primary-school-aged respondents claimed they were never read to at home.
Children typically enjoy being read to, and see educational, social and emotional benefits to the practice. But families are busy, and finding time to read aloud can be eaten up by the demands of everyday life.
Not all parents have been read to themselves as children, so may not have experienced a model they can then follow with their own children. And many adult Australians may be struggling readers themselves.
With this in mind, here are five suggestions that can help make the experience of reading to your children fun, relaxing and educational.
1. Give it all your attention
For many people, the best time to read with their children is at night, once the children are in bed. But if you find your child too cranky and disengaged at this time (or if you are feeling tired yourself), you might want to try reading to them earlier in the day.
Whatever the time, it’s important to give the book and your children all of your attention. Phones and other devices with enabled notifications should be switched off. Everyone should be comfortable, and children should associate time spent being read to with enjoyment.
Where possible, we strongly suggest reading to your child becomes part of the daily routine. The more often children are read to, the more substantial the benefits. Reading to children is both an opportunity to model how the written word sounds and a chance for family bonding.
2. Engage with the story
Children don’t typically enjoy having the story stopped every few seconds for comprehension checking, so we suggest you keep interruptions to a minimum.
But recapping is useful when picking up a book again after a break. If parents let their children provide this recap (“So, where are we up to?”) this also enables informal comprehension checking. Opportunities for prediction are also beneficial (“Wow… what do you think might happen next!”).
Sharing your response to a book and encouraging children’s responses stimulates critical thinking. These techniques and others can enhance learning and comprehension, but they shouldn’t upset the fluidity of the reading experience or turn it into a test.
You can share the task of the reading itself with your children if they want to. This is beneficial for a range of reading skills, such as reading comprehension, word recognition and vocabulary building.
3. There’s no age limit
You can start reading to your child from early infancy to support their developing language abilities, so it’s never too early to start. The skills infants and young children develop through shared reading experiences can set them up for literacy achievement in their subsequent schooling years.
We should read to young people for as long as possible. There is no age where the benefits of being read to completely expire.
Very recent research in the UK found struggling adolescent readers can make remarkable gains on their reading comprehension when books are read to them at school. This is perhaps due to the opportunity for students to enjoy books that are too hard for them to read themselves.
4. Pick a book you both enjoy
We suggest you select a book that interests both you and your child. Reading together is a great opportunity to share your passions while broadening your children’s horizons through making diverse book choices.
Don’t be afraid to start reading chapter books to your children while they are still very young. The age to begin this will vary depending on your child’s attention span, but it’s often possible to begin this with pre-schoolers.
As long as the story isn’t too complex, children love to be taken on an enjoyable journey into books that are too hard for them to read independently. This can also help to extend child’s vocabulary, among other benefits.
It’s a good idea to take your children to the library and model how you choose interesting books for shared reading. Research shows many primary and high school children are easily overwhelmed by choice when they attempt to pick what books to read independently, so helping them with this is a valuable skill.
5. Don’t worry about your style
Not all of us are destined to be award-winning voice actors, and that’s OK. It’s great to use expression and adopt different voices for the characters in a book, but not everyone will feel able to do this.
At multiple points in our research, we’ve come across people who have praised the reading efforts of parents who weren’t confident readers, but who prevailed nonetheless. For example, in our recent paper a respondent described being read to by her mother who struggled with dyslexia. This mother, and many other parents, have inspired a love of reading in their children through their persistence.
Being taken into the virtual reality of story is a memorable, pleasurable experience that stays with us forever. Reading aloud provides parents with a valuable opportunity to slow down, relax and share the wonderful world of books with their children.
Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Curtin University; Paul Gardner, Senior Lecturer: Literacy Education, Curtin University; Saiyidi Mat Roni, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University, and Susan F Ledger, Associate Dean Engagement, Murdoch University School of Education, Murdoch University