Reading in English can be a challenge for some children, especially for those who come from bilingual homes with a dominant mother tongue. How can we then develop a culture of engaged readers among our bilingual children? And how do we help the weaker students read better? We speak to NIE Associate Professor Viniti Vaish whose research in this area can help answer some of these questions.
The Learning Support Programme (LSP) started in the 1990s for children with difficulty reading in English. Tapping on her interest in helping struggling readers develop more fluency in their reading, Viniti introduced an intervention study in the LSP class, hoping to help them level up their reading competency.
Her project focuses on using a child’s other language to teach the English language. This “other language” – or the child’s Mother Tongue – could be either their first or second language. Part of the project looks at the shared book approach (SBA) and how SBA can help weak readers by harnessing all their linguistic resources.
Shared Book Approach
“What my research does is to implement the shared book approach in the LSP,” shares Viniti. “This approach is a very well-known pedagogical practice that has been used with monolingual children in other countries.”
To apply it in the Singapore context, Viniti uses a bilingual sample in which multiple languages were used to help students learn English vocabulary, grammar and comprehension by tapping on the child’s other language to guide the process.
“The children in the LSP come from diverse backgrounds – some from homes where a substantial amount of English is spoken; others from homes where the parents are immigrants from India or China,” says Viniti. “In these homes with immigrant parents, it is possible that substantial amounts of Mother Tongue are spoken.”
Given the diverse linguistic ecology of homes in Singapore, Viniti feels that situating the shared book approach within the bilingual setting could help struggling readers from these homes read better.
To do this, the teacher will help his or her student to be more conscious of the differences and similarities between English and the child’s other language.
Citing an example of a class she worked with for her study, Viniti shares that the teacher uses Malay language to teach English grammar. This cross-linguistic transfer is a key pedagogy in the field of “trans-languaging” – the use of multiple languages to engage children with reading.
In this example, the teacher shows her student the use of possessives in English grammar. The activity structure is such that the students are divided into bilingual groups. Here, a Malay-English bilingual teacher teaches a group of Malay-English bilingual students. She asks her students to say “Mom’s room” and “Liz’s friend” with an emphasis on the “s”. The teacher then switches to Malay and asks her students to translate these phrases in Malay, to which the students reply: “bilik mak”, and “kawan Liz”.
Through the use of translation, the teacher helps students to notice the differences between Malay and English possessives. “The teacher’s pedagogical goal is to teach possessives in English, but also bringing in Malay to create a cross-linguistic transfer,” explains Viniti.
Students learn – through “trans-languaging” – that the possessive in Malay is not attached to the root word as it is in English and that the word order in Malay is different from that in English.
“The main point of this interaction in reading is to make comparisons – to show similarities and differences – so that children can make a cross-linguistic bridge,” shares Viniti. “The overall engagement level goes up when using the shared book approach in multiple languages.”
Enhancing Students’ Vocabulary Bank
The LSP students often also struggle in reading due to their impoverished vocabulary bank.
For example, when Singaporean children say “last time”, they could be referring to “yesterday”, “the day before yesterday”, or even “last evening”. There are in fact many ways of referring to what has just gone by.
Another example is words that show degree. For example, most children will say “this is bad” and lack the vocabulary for words like “terrible” and “abysmal”, which show a greater degree of “bad”.
“It is a good idea to expand children’s vocabulary bank so that they are more expressive and can express a higher degree of emotions and a variety of ideas,” Viniti explains.
“It is a good idea to expand children’s vocabulary bank so that they are more expressive and can express a higher degree of emotions and a variety of ideas.”
– Viniti Vaish, English Language & Literature Academic Group, NIE
Learn and Improvise
The use of multiple languages in a shared book approach can, however, be quite challenging for the teacher. There is no standard script teachers can follow, making it difficult for them to know when to “switch” between languages.
“The teacher will have to think on his or her feet,” explains Viniti. “When the teacher comes to a ‘choke’ point, he or she will have to improvise and decide to use the mother tongue at that point.” Due to the ad-hoc nature of the improvisations, they are typically excluded from the formal lesson plan.
However, Viniti notes that the teacher does not have to be a linguist to practice “trans-languaging” as a pedagogy in the classroom. “All the teacher has to do is help the students notice the difference in rules between the languages that they speak,” says Viniti.
Of course, it is important for the teacher to share a language other than English with the students. If the teacher is unfamiliar with the student’s other language, she might have to seek help from the Mother Tongue teachers in the school.
But these efforts do not just end in school and with the teachers. Viniti strongly believes that the best platform for these children to pick up good reading habits is actually at home and with their parents.
The Role of Parents (and Media)
Viniti hopes that parents will learn about the shared book approach and practise it with their children at home. She shares that children younger than 5 years of age are influenced by the home more than the school.
“The time given to using the shared book approach at the LSP class is limited to only 30 minutes a day,” shares Viniti. “Whereas something like bedtime reading at home isn’t restricted to time and so, is an excellent platform for parents.”
Even the media serves as a powerful means of engaging children, especially as many children are now doing a lot of their reading on the Internet.
“The goal, at the end of the day, is really to help our children develop into engaged and lifelong readers,” shares Viniti. And with the national goal also geared towards lifelong learning for all, this is certainly an endeavour worthy of pursuit.