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A family affair

Encouraging children to play schools as part of homework seems far-fetched, but siblings can give each other unique learning support, say Eve Gregory, Ali Asghar and Ann Williams.

Now we're going to do homophones. I'm going to tell you one and then you're going to do some by yourselves. Like 'watch'. One watch is your time watch, like 'What's the time?' watch. And another watch is 'I'm watching you. I can see you'. OK? So, Sayeeda, you wrote some in your book, haven't you? Can you tell me some, please, Sayeeda? Can you only give me three please?

Sayeeda: "I wanted to give five!" "No, Sayeeda, we haven't got enough time. There's another five minutes to assembly. And guess who's going to do assembly? - Miss Kadija!" What sort of class is this? Sayeeda is lucky to receive careful and individualised tuition, but the teacher is not expressing herself very clearly. The slightly odd grammar and dramatic nature of the interaction provide clues. The "teacher" is 11-year old Wahida. Her "student" is her eight-year-old sister and Miss Kadija is Wahida's 11-year-old friend.

The vital role of parents in children's early literacy development is now well known. But another group of "teachers" has been overlooked. Siblings can play a unique role, particularly when parents are unfamiliar with the way literacy is taught in school, or do not speak (or read) English at home. This is the finding of a study which we have recently completed at Goldsmiths College in London. We set out to investigate the scope and range of reading and writing activities taking place between siblings. Do they reflect those of school or are they different? What sort of learning is occurring?

The work took place with 18 nine-to-11-year-olds and their younger siblings attending two adjacent schools in east London, one of which served an almost entirely Bangladeshi British community. We hoped to provide teachers with new insights on siblings as a potentially valuable resource when planning home-school partnerships.

Classroom observations of both siblings were made throughout the year. Older siblings kept diaries and made recordings of literacy activities taking place with younger siblings. We interviewed the siblings, their parents, teachers and head teachers. We also interviewed Bengali cultural and religious teachers and visited their classes.

The study revealed an astonishing scope and range of activities. Significant differences that were found between the two study groups were reflected in the views of the parents and teachers.

Formal v informal

In monolingual English-speaking families, different generations came together to join in literacy play activities. Parents saw their children as individuals and education as part of their individuality, neither a salvation nor an escape from poverty. No expectations were placed on children to teach younger siblings.

Nevertheless, the siblings in this group participated in a wide variety of informal literacy activities at home and in community settings. The children talked about singing nursery rhymes, playing jokes, doing quizzes, games and competitions, reading bed-time stories, and playing school. Many of these activities were initiated and encouraged by the headteacher, who believed that literacy learning should be grounded in wider experiences.

In contrast, for Bangladeshi London parents, education was a weighty matter, an essential part of their Islamic beliefs, seen as both an entry into the new culture and an escape from poverty. Older siblings were crucial as mediators of a new language and as a bridge between the traditional home and the new school culture. These siblings spent considerable time together, participating in formal literacy activities ouside the home - religious, cultural or English homework classes. These took place without parents being present, and were communal rather than individual in nature.

The children in this group generally had older siblings who worked with them, as well as younger siblings with whom they worked and played. They talked about playing school or listening to younger siblings reading a schoolbook. The serious nature of activities that were focused on language, literacy and religious learning was also reflected in the aims and policies of the teachers and the head of their school.

School to home and back

Siblings from British Bangladeshi families all chose to tape quite formal literacy activities. Three listened to younger children read. Five "played school" in play sessions that replicated real lessons in terms of content and language. These activities also closely reproduced those of the Bengali community classes.

In contrast, play activities reflected a wide variety of informal literacy activities in the monolingual children's lives. Even "playing school" revealed a complex intertwining of fantasy play and the use of a number of different voices, some of which openly challenged authority roles, rather than replicating a serious lesson. There was little evidence of the technical vocabulary of lessons being reproduced at home.

Finally, we found that, in both groups, a reciprocal learning that was based on real-life roles, shared experiences, common expectations and a vocabulary of shared memories, was occurring. This went beyond the "scaffolding" between teacher or parent and child. We prefer to see it as a synergy released, whereby both siblings teach as surely as they learn from each other.

Lessons for teachers

The tapes and interviews reveal the importance of school in influencing what goes on at home. Children do not take just their homework home; we saw a school's approach to literacy, teaching style, method and whole chunks of language being played out at home, particularly in classes where large numbers of children spoke English as an additional language. Teachers need not worry that, for these children, there will be a shortage of linguistic role models, or no one to practise talking to. So long as they have siblings close in age, children will have extensive practice of "teacherly" language.

The "work" children do with their siblings is of a very special kind. Although intense, it is nevertheless play, and children are able to make mistakes, go back and practise again in a non-threatening situation.

Finally, what about children who have no siblings close enough in age to play with? The work illustrates clearly the importance of play in school for all children. Through play, they set about practising the new languages, voices and strategies they will need outside school.

Siblings as Mediators of Literacy in Two East London Communities was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. A fuller account can be found in City Literacies: Learning to read across generations and cultures, Routledge (pound;15.99) SISTERS DOING IT FOR THEMSELVES

Jahanara (11) is giving her sister Shahana (8) a lesson in reading comprehension. The story is about a wounded fox that is helped by a little girl's mother. She reads the story first, then asks questions: Jahanara: OK. How did her mother help the fox?

Shahana: (mumbles) Jahanara: Say it again.

Shahana: She banded the fox neck leg.

Jahanara: Banded?

Shahana: The fox leg.

Jahanara: How can she banned the fox leg?

Shahana: Because she was a nurse.

Jahanara: There is no such thing as banned as such. If I was the King, I would have banned the cigarette. You mean bandage or plaster.

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