Extensive reading is key to developing students’ mother tongue proficiency as it exposes them to new expressions and reinforces what they have learned during lessons. An NIE Research Scientist investigated the reading habits of bilingual children and shares with us what can be done to promote reading in one’s mother tongue.
But if a child lacks proficiency in a language and thus struggles to comprehend stories written in it, would he or she even enjoy reading?
The findings of Baoqi’s start-up grant study, which examined the reading habits of children in English and their respective mother tongue in one primary school, suggest language proficiency is only one of the many factors that contribute to reading enjoyment.
Understanding the Reading Habits of Bilingual Children
As part of her study, Baoqi administered a questionnaire to over 800 students from Primary 3 to Primary 5. “This is a phase where children are transiting from ‘learning-to-read’ (i.e., learning to read and write in a language) to ‘reading-to-learn’ (i.e., using language as a tool to acquire knowledge),” Baoqi explains.
The survey featured questions on students’ reading frequency, reading duration and reading enjoyment in both English and mother tongue, their favourite book genres (e.g., adventure, comedy) as well as the number of English and mother tongue books they have at home. “I’ve also included questions on whether students find reading in English and/or mother tongue challenging and their preferred reasons for reading in English and mother tongue,” shares Baoqi.
Focusing on English-Chinese and English-Malay bilingual students in her analysis of the survey results, Baoqi sought to find out the factors that either promote or discourage reading in English and mother tongue (i.e., Chinese and Malay for her study) to uncover patterns in children’s reading habits.
Role of Language Proficiency
“…decoding competence – the ability to decipher and recognize words in a language and a core element of language proficiency – in English facilitates the reading process and opens the door to reading for pleasure.”
– Baoqi, on the reason why children enjoys reading in English
For many children in Baoqi’s study, reading in English is more enjoyable than reading in their respective mother tongue. “This seems attributable to them being more proficient in English than in mother tongue,” explains Baoqi.
So what is the link between one’s command of a language and reading enjoyment?
According to Baoqi, decoding competence – the ability to decipher and recognize words in a language and a core element of language proficiency – in English facilitates the reading process and opens the door to reading for pleasure.
“Conversely, because many children are less proficient in mother tongue, decoding Chinese or Malay can be a challenge and they may thus not enjoy reading in those languages as much as in English,” explains Baoqi.
Despite the fact that students generally prefer reading in English to mother tongue, Baoqi also notes that more Primary 5 than Primary 3 students report reading enjoyment in mother tongue across levels.
“This could be because by Primary 5, students have higher levels of proficiency in mother tongue and are stronger at decoding, thus paving the way for reading enjoyment,” says Baoqi.
Suitable Reading Materials and Libraries
While reading for pleasure often hinges on possessing a reasonable level of language proficiency, a lack of proficiency in a language need not necessarily preclude reading enjoyment altogether.
In fact, children in the ‘learning-to-read’ phase can still experience enjoyment reading in their respective mother tongue, provided they have access to reading materials appropriate to their level of proficiency.
“When students consume reading materials suitable for their proficiency level, they are more likely to feel engaged in the reading process and this would sustain their interest in reading,” says Baoqi.
Both public and school libraries stock mother tongue books that cater to different levels of language proficiency. Baoqi observes that students, however, generally prefer the mother tongue book collection at their school libraries. “This is likely because the mother tongue books at school libraries are better tailored to suit each student’s level of language competency, and the relative smaller collection in school library is less intimidating for beginner readers,” Baoqi explains.
Whether students visit the school or public library to access mother tongue books or not, there is no denying that libraries play an important role in shaping students’ reading habits.
“When students consume reading materials suitable for their proficiency level, they are more likely to feel engaged in the reading process and this would sustain their interest in reading.”
– Baoqi believes that reading level-appropriate books can help children enjoy the activity better
Bridging English and Mother Tongue Reading Habits
If a child is already keen on reading in English and/or tends to read books from a particular genre, perhaps insights from children’s reading habits in English can inform efforts to promote reading in mother tongue.
In fact, Baoqi’s study reveals that children’s reading enjoyment in English correlates with their mother tongue reading frequency and duration. “So a child who enjoys reading in English is likely to read longer and more frequently in mother tongue, though he or she may not necessarily experience the same level of pleasure while reading in the latter,” Baoqi explains.
Furthermore, a comparison of reading habits in English and mother tongue reveals that students tend to read books of the same genre(s) across two languages. “This means that if a child loves to read a certain genre (e.g., adventure, mystery) in English, he or she is likely to pick up a mother tongue book of the same genre,” shares Baoqi.
From these findings, Baoqi surmises that introducing children to mother tongue versions of their preferred English book genres could be a way to spark their interest in reading mother tongue books. Nevertheless, these books still have to be appropriate for their mother tongue proficiency level in order for them to comprehend the story, not to mention enjoy reading it.
Ultimately, reading habits can be nurtured and Baoqi hopes that children will eventually enjoy reading in mother tongue as much as they enjoy reading in English.