This post reviews Clare Kelly, Eve Gregory, and Ann Williams, “Home to School to Home: Syncretised Literacies in Lingustic Minority Communities” in Ofelia Garcia and Colin Baker, eds., Bilingual Education: An Introductory Reader (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2007).
This essay is one of several chapters in a comprehensive reader on bilingual education. The researchers compare and contrast the way home cultures in monolingual native British and polylingual immigrant families impart literacy to their children. The authors begin by noting two assumptions driving the persistent advice parents get that they should be constantly reading to their children. First, such advice assumes that parents are themselves literate in the dominant language and that all children, whatever their home culture, should engage in the same sort of reading program. Second, encouragement to read to children is always directed at parents–siblings and the broader community are not referenced as part of the literacy program.
The researchers go on to argue that immigrant populations often engage in very different strategies for imparting literacy to their children. Since the parents often do not speak the dominant tongue, older siblings play a crucial role in mediating and modelling the dominant language and costoms of the school to their little brothers and sisters. Such families are also often keen on having their children learn their mother tongue and (in the case of Muslim immigrants studied here) Arabic so as to be able to read the Koran.
Immigrant parents thus do not spend a lot of time reading English books to their own children sitting on their laps on the sofa. Instead, immigrant children spend many hours of the week in after-school classes learning how to read the mother tongue and how to read the Koran. These classes are often run very traditionally–a teacher lectures from the front and students, sometimes as may as 80 per class, sit obediently for hours.
The researchers conducted observations and interviews over a period of two years with 17 immigrant families and 16 native British families. They noted that immigrant children’s play often produces syncretism as siblings craft together a pastiche of home and school culture. This part of the article is by far the most interesting to read, as several extended examples of child banter are provided to illustrate how immigrant children help one another navigate between the demands of their home cultures and of the British school system.
The research team ends with two conclusions. First, they want others to understand the crucial role siblings play in imparting literacy to one another, especially in families whose home language differs from that of the school. Second, they encourage schools to be more attuned to the informal play of children as a means of teaching literacy. Parents reading to children is important, but it is by no means the only way children learn the linguistic tropes that make them literate members of a society.
I have two comments to make about this article. First, to repeat a point I have made in other posts, it reminds us that all families are “home schooling” families even if their children go to school for a few hours of the day. Learning doesn’t stop when school is dismissed.
Second, the points made about Muslim immigrants in Britain would I think resonate with most families with multiple children. As I type this out my seven-year-old is reading a fairy tale to her five-year-old sister as they sit together on the recliner. My 12 year-old and her 10-year-old brother last night were working together on some math problems. It is not only immigrant families who enjoy this sibling-mediated learning. In our case all of this learning is happening in English and blends seamlessly with lots of reading by parents in the traditional way. For the immigrants described in this article, however, the parents are often out of the literacy loop because of their lack of English mastery, and their children must learn to jump nimbly between old-world culture and modern British society. The “double consciousness” such children develop is the raw material for much of the modern world’s great literature. This article reminds us that sibling relationships are often some of the most important sources of the second-generation immigrant self.