Multilingual answer

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Sunita is a happy but quiet five-year-old who doesn't give much away. Because her mother speaks very little English and her father works long hours, home-school liaison is difficult. If you, as a teacher, can glean little direct information from Sunita or her family, what can you deduce from the little that you know?

If a child such as Sunita is growing up in a home where few, if any, of the family speak English and where one or both parents may not be literate in their own language, you might conclude that she hasn't been particularly encouraged to look at books in the run-up to starting school and that her parents see teaching literacy as a job for teachers. You might also conclude that her parents' expectations of her school career are not high because she is a girl. But beware of preconceptions.

A revelatory research project by Kath Hirst from Sheffield University pours cold water over these assumptions. In her study of 30 Asian families with pre-school children living in an inner-city area, she found a surprisingly mixed "community," even though most of the parents were born in rural areas of Pakistan. While less than a third of the fathers had school qualifications, some had been to university. And although almost half the mothers had never been to school and many spoke little or no English, they had a clear desire for their children to do better than they had.

When it came to speaking and literacy skills, the plot thickened. Just over half the children were acquiring three languages simultaneously and some were exposed to four, all of which were considered of equal importance by most of the parents. Hirst quotes the mother of a three-year-old boy: "All are important: English for here, Urdu for letters to Pakistan, Punjabi for the family to speak altogether and Arabic for the Koran."

In such a multilingual environment, storytelling was a popular activity at home, both when read from books and as made-up stories. More than half were about life in Pakistan, usually about the family past and present, told in Punjabi or Urdu. Siblings told stories too, usually in English.

Worryingly, considering recent research correlating children's reading success with their identifying favourite books, 10 in the survey stated that they had none. But it was not for want of having them around the house. Twenty- seven of the 30 in the survey shared books, magazines, catalogues and newspapers with family members; 50 per cent had their own books or books from the library. And nearly all of them looked at them on their own and pretended to read them, another positive factor in literacy development. The mother of four-year-old Ayaz said: "He pretends to read story of Funny Bones with sounds of story in mixture of English and Punjabi."

Hirst found that the commonly held assumption that girls have lower status among uneducated, rural Asian parents was not borne out. There was "no differentiation due to gender" in parents' encouragement of children's literacy development and in their high aspirations - for many, meaning a university education - for their children.

She also found that parents had a positive attitude towards working with the schools to help their children progress. This is significant, considering the very different, arm's length attitude towards schools that their own parents would have had in Pakistan.

While it can't be denied that Kath Hirst's study is small, it should be heeded for its insights. Insights that, among other things, should remind us that making assumptions about children because of their ethnic group or cultural background cannot only be wrong, but can do those children and their families a disservice. Illiteracy or lack of English in the home in the case of the families she studied did not hamper these pre-schoolers' exposure to written or spoken language, and certainly did not indicate a lack of aspiration on the part of the parents.

Authentic Literacy - home literacy experiences of 30 Asian pre-school children in Britain. By Kath Hirst, Sheffield University

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