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Babies brought to book

Share a book with a six-month-old infant and set a pattern for life. Barrie Wade and Maggie Moore's research confirms the value of very early exposure.

Mrs Bellfield and her son Craig sit side by side on their sofa sharing a book. "Where's she going now?" his mother asks. Craig points to the page. "Under there," he replies.

"I wonder what's going to happen to the fox," Mrs Bellfield says. "They'll sting him," replies Craig. He turns the page and laughs.

Parent and child are enjoying a book, and clearly this is not the first time. Craig is only two years old, but he and his mother have shared books since he was about six months old.

Adults are crucial in guiding children's early learning in language. They demonstrate the purposes of using language and provide models through talk and play. They share stories which help children develop the phonological awareness that leads to success in reading and writing.

A national pilot study, Bookstart, conducted in Birmingham in 1993, was designed to investigate and encourage book-sharing with infants aged between six and nine months. A group of inner-city families received a free Bookstart pack which includes a book, poem card and information about book purchase and local libraries.

Two years later, in 1995, using home visits, we investigated a random sample of the original Bookstart families and compared them with another group who had not received the pack (57 families in total). The results of this research are startling.

Of those who had received the Bookstart pack:

* 68 per cent said looking at books was among their child's three most enjoyable activities (compared with 21 per cent) * 43 per cent said they took their child to the library once a month or more (17 per cent comparison) Sharing books also produced divergence. Two thirds of the group who received the pack engaged in book-sharing activity with their child every day; less than half of the comparison group did so.

In order to supplement interview findings we invited all 57 parents to share a book with their child. All used the same book, Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins. We found that all parents drew children's attention to items of interest in the story and asked questions of the child.

However, Bookstart parents used more eye contact and facial expression.

They also

* read the whole text (83 per cent compared with 34 per cent) * talked about the story more (64 per cent compared with 24 per cent) * related the story to children's experience (43 per cent compared with 21 per cent)

* encouraged children to join in (43 per cent compared with 17 per cent)

* encouraged children to predict (68 per cent to 28 per cent)

* traced the direction of print (68 per cent to 10 per cent)

Bookstart children generally:

* showed keen interest (100 per cent to 57 per cent)

* pointed frequently to the text (68 per cent compared with 21 per cent)

* frequently tried to turn pages (54 per cent to 10 per cent)

* joined in with the story (82 per cent to 31 per cent)

* asked questions (61 per cent to 31 per cent)

Results of our follow-up study reveal considerable linguistic and non-verbal differences between groups. The indication is that more children who were introduced to books as babies developed and maintained their enthusiasm for books in their first three years.

However, the Bookstart initiative may be valuable in starting families on the right track, but it is not sufficient in itself. Also, some individual members of the Bookstart group did not develop an engagement with books, while some members of the comparison group did so without Bookstart prompting. But continuing interchange between child, parent and books is crucial.

In summary, two years after the pilot study more parents in the original Bookstart group act in ways which encourage children's enthusiasm for books compared with a similar group who did not receive the pack. Bookstart children also reveal greater interaction with both text and parent. This is a highly encouraging finding which may have significant consequences for the development of literacy.

Barrie Wade is based at the Birmingham University's education department and Maggie Moore is at Newman College, Birmingham.

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