Bookstart changes family reading habits

You are never too young to enjoy a good book. This is the basic philosophy behind the Danish Bookstart programme which started in 2009. It is this simple message that children’s librarians from 15 different local authorities convey when visiting families with young children in disadvantaged residential areas and handing out free books. A recent survey from the Danish Centre for Child Language shows that Bookstart has a positive effect on the reading habits of more than half the families taking part.

Danish Agency for Libraries and Media has the overall responsibility for Bookstart in 2009-2012. The programme is one of the initiatives under the Danish Government programme, Equal Opportunities and puts focus on encouraging the linguistic skills of small children. Good spoken language, large vocabulary and the ability to understand phonetic, significant differences must be instilled while the children are quite young. Bookstart plays an important role in trying to provide the very best opportunities for learning to read, and research indicates that good spoken language and good reading skills are closely connected.

In terms of Danish as a language we need anything that will help to sharpen children’s linguistic instincts and enable them to decode what older children and adults are saying. Danish is a relatively indistinct language that contains a large number of vowels. Rhymes and jingles, songs and word games can make children aware of the many nuances of the language and small, but important phonological differences. Bookstart helps to introduce this game with language into everyday family life.

Bookstart – in brief

The librarians visit the families at home when the children are 6 and 12 months old. The families can pick up the third package at their local library, typically in connection with a narrative event or a small concert. The last package is given to the child when joining kindergarten at three years of age. All the children in the kindergarten get the same book gift. Some kindergartens arrange a big, joint three-year birthday party where the book gifts play an important role.

The children’s librarians are welcomed with open arms in the homes and report about hospitable families who are very happy with the colourful bags containing books. By far the majority of the families in the disadvantaged areas are very interested in getting to know how they can use the books to strengthen their children’ language and at the same time enjoy recent children’s literature together.

Apart from picture books the children also get music-CDs, rhymes and jingle books and colouring books. The parents are offered supplementary lists with suggestions as to which children’s books are suitable for different ages. For some families Bookstart can therefore provide the first approach to the local children’s library.

Bookstart and the home-learning environment

Danish Centre for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark carried out a survey in the spring of 2011 of the impact of Bookstart on children’s home-learning environment. The main purpose has therefore been to examine whether participation in Bookstart has changed the reading habits of the families involved and if so – which factors seem to be playing the most important role in relation to the altered reading habits.

Centre for Child Language has based the survey on interviews with 41 families who all come from disadvan- taged socially residential areas in the municipalities of Odense and Sønderborg. About 80 % of the participating families have a non-westerly background. The interviews with parents, who were not sufficiently familiar with the Danish language, have been conducted with the assis- tance of an interpreter. The interviews were centred around the families’ experiences in connection with Bookstart and included questions about the parents’ knowledge about and attitude to their children’s aptitude for languages and which linguistically relevant activities the families engage in from day to day. The parents also answered questions about the child’s use of its mother tongue, and they gave some basic background information about the child and themselves. As the data basis of the survey is fairly limited, only descriptive analyses have been made, which cannot reveal anything about causal relations.

Even so the survey shows some important tendencies, pointing towards the possibilities inherent in Bookstart. Centre for Child Language estimates that Bookstart has great potential in a continued effort to improve children’s early mastering of language. The three most important arguments in favour of the great potential of Bookstart are:

1. Bookstart is based on the idea of supporting children’s language by giving them books and offering good advice about reading to the parents. Reading, and particularly dialogic reading with inclusion of the child, is among the methods which at the present time are widely recog- nized as having a positive effect on children’s language.
2. The parents are embracing the project in a very positive way
3. 58 % of the parents say that their own reading habits have been changed by Bookstart.

One of the most thought-provoking points of the survey is that the children’s librarians’ explicit mediation of good advice about reading has brought great influence to bear on which families  have altered their reading habits. In those families, who have changed their reading habits, 80 % answer that they have been given good advice by the Bookstart facilitator. This is twice as many as in those families who say that they have not altered their reading habits. It has to be said, though, that many of the families who have not changed their reading habits, say that they were already reading to their children regularly.

The potential is great when the children are small

On the basis of the survey Centre for Child Language provides a number of recommendations for the future work in connection with Bookstart. Since the introduction of the programme, annual competence courses have been held for Bookstart facilitators. This effort can be intensified to great advantage. It would also be a good idea to prepare material for children’s librarians, which will help to improve even further their skills in mediating knowledge about language acquisition and give the parents concrete strategies as to how they can support their children’s language via reading.

Various types of material in Danish are already available to parents, which instruct them in reading dialogically with children and give them ideas as to how they can transfer strategies from these reading sessions to other situations in everyday life, for example in connection with cooking and shopping trips. As many of the families in disadvantaged residential areas do not have Danish as their first language, it would be desirable to get this material translated into several languages. In this connection it is not crucial whether the parents speak Danish or another language with their children. It is the focus on language and the way in which to use language in everyday life that is important.

In many of the local authorities where the libraries are introducing Bookstart, collaboration with other professional groups, for example health visitors and pedagogues has been established. Centre for Child Language recommends that Bookstart facilitators cultivate a more systematic collaboration with other professional groups. This in order to provide a more coherent contribution to the lives of both children and parents. In some of the Bookstart families the parents’ reading skills are impaired, for example due to dyslexia or lack of education. However, this should not prevent the parents from introducing their children to the world of books. Parents can talk to their children about the pictures in the book, make up stories themselves – or songs – and put on a narrative show with finger puppets. Centre for Child Language suggests that in many cases these parents will need role models, who can inspire them to other forms of common reading experiences with their children. Here the children’s librarians might well step in and play a part. The library could also via women’s groups in the disadvantaged residential areas or via family networks concentrate on the development of alternative reading role models.

Danish Agency for Libraries and Media will – together with the libraries – continue work in the future on these concrete ideas. Centre for Child Language’s studies provide fuel for the development of Bookstart and for the libraries’ expanding work with the language and reading of pre-school children.

If the libraries in the future will involve themselves to a greater extent in supporting children’s linguistic homelearning environment, many societal advantages could be obtained. The basic philosophy will always be the same: You are never too young to enjoy a good book.

Lisbet Vestergaard
Danish Agency for Libraries and Media
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

Consultant Danish Agency for Libraries and Media