Lost in translation

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
HOME PAGES: Literacy links for bilingual children. By Charmian Kenner. Trentham Books pound;12.95

Esmat, aged six, was identified as the lowest achieving child in literacy in her class, and so selected for the Reading Recovery programme.

Her school protested - Esmat was virtually ineducable - the programme would be wasted on her.

Sure enough, Esmat lived down to every expectation, until one day she was given a bilingual text in English and Urdu and instantly told her teacher, in English, what it said. When asked how she knew, Esmat ran her finger along the Urdu text, saying the words in English. This "ineducable" child was not only a competent reader in her own tongue, but could make a simultaneous translation into a second language.

If Esmat's teacher had read Home Pages, her first year at school might have been a much happier one. Kenner argues that children's bilingual experience can be a powerful aid to literacy learning and that opportunities to explore different written languages can enhance children's understanding of how language works. The Home Pages of the title are the varied writen texts through which children become familiar with written language in the home. From newspapers to video boxes, calendars to family letters, Kenner shows how these texts can become valuable resources.

Although Kenner is scathing about the place assigned to languages other than English in the National Literacy Strategy, nevertheless she demonstrates how its aims can be achieved in ways which value and capitalise on children's home language experiences. The book is packed with advice to help teachers develop a multilingual environment in their classroom.

The book is about four children, and much is assumed from their behaviours and responses. Kenner writes with the single-mindedness of an enthusiast and there will be cries of "when shall we fit everything else in?". But if we cannot find time to acknowledge and build on what each child brings to school, especially in so fundamental an area as language, we really must question our priorities.

Julia Dou til is trainer and national co-ordinator of the Reading Recovery National Network, Institute of Education, University of London

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