Learning to Read: Language and Diversity

Learning to Read: Language and Diversity

Like starting school, learning to read is an important part of all our lives.

Take a moment and think about everything you read each day…It’s ok I’ll wait.

Done? Great!

learning to read Reading is often invisible as we travel through our daily life. Modern society is awash with written language. From road names and food menus, to advertising posters and social media streams. Often we only think of reading when it is active like when we read a book, or the news. For those who are not fluent readers of society’s majority language the world can be a confusing place. This is because a skill they do not have full access to is the same skill they need to navigate mainstream society.

Now imagine this:

You, a perfectly good English reader, writer, and speaker who has arrived in Japan. One of the first things you are going to notice is that the signs and directions are not in English. They will most often not be in the roman characters we associate with English either. Japan has it’s own character set which makes decoding words that much more difficult.

Why am I making you imagine this?

Because this inability to decode and access written language is what every early reader goes through when learning to read.

Learning to Read and EAL

This inability to access modern society is also a barrier which exists for those children and families whose home language is not the same as that of the country they are living, working, and learning in.

For example, London is a majority English speaking city. Yet, a remarkable 100+ languages are spoken in addition to English. Polish, Turkish, Bengali, French, Punjabi, and Tamil, are among the most spoken languages across London’s 32 boroughs. The breadth of languages spoken highlight the diversity of culture, society, and religion that inhabit contemporary London. These languages may be ‘minority’ in nature, yet together 100+ languages make up 22% of language spoken which creates a special lens from which to view London.

Diverse Britain: Diverse Reading

Great British diversity, and in particular diversity in London, means that pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) should be expected in any classroom. Ethnic minority children make up more than one-third of all children in schools. The last twenty years have seen a 35 per cent rise in EAL pupils.

Diversity means that not everyone is able to access English at the same level. Yet this should not stop people being able to access resources, especially when starting school. With this in mind Elevate transition resource kits come in a variety of languages.

There is a connection between families whose home language is not English, and the time spent reading aloud, helping their children to read. From this we can ask two things:

Are there a lack of books in their home language?

Is the teaching emphasis on knowing and learning English?

The translatable skill of reading.

The skills connected to reading are not simply relevant to English. Learning other languages to English does not use different skills. Learning different languages ‘appears’ to involve different skills because the presentation of languages differ from one another. Which is similar to learning different symbols in mathematics. Being able to calculate ii + ii (Roman numerals) is the same skill as 2 + 2 (Arabic/English symbols). The mathematical skills involved are the same, with the difference being how the mathematics is presented. This difference in presentation is the same for reading skills. The skill of reading is the same whether it is reading English or Hindi.

The benefit of bilingualism on childhood development

Even if your home language is English there is no expectation for your child to start school as a fluent reader of English. Therefore, one cannot argue that having children with EAL is of particular difficulty in accessing and understanding the world. For example, one EYFS centre ran an activity called the ‘unknown bear’ in which children were presented with a bear and asked questions about who this bear is. In this activity, those children with EAL excelled. Their knowledge, especially geographic and social surprised the staff, and made them rethink how they saw the children and those children understood and could contribute.

This ‘surprising’ use of knowledge the children had meant that they had to ‘level up’ their English so they could adequately communicate their thoughts and knowledge not just to staff but also to their peers. The skills most educators favour in school transition age children depend more on social and emotional developmental indicators.

Emit & Erica and the language game.

Therefore, Emit and Erica Get Ready for Big School was specifically developed to be available in many community languages popular in Britain. An act to strip away a barrier for families and schools getting ready for Big School. Available in English, Spanish, French, and Igbo (among others) makes sure that children and families can read an important story together even if English is not their home language. In addition to the paper book, Emit&Erica are available in audiobook and videobook, and, I’m sure you sense a theme here, are available in languages other than English. So, Emit&Erica are ideally suited for a modern Early Years Centre.

Language and Diversity in the Early Years

Mary Mayesky recommends that a modern diverse Early Years centre should contain resources from different cultures and in different languages. For example, a box of dolls can contain a range of ethnicities split across genders, in a variety of costumes. Play areas should not be, even implicitly, gendered. Early years  book areas should have books children can read, or have read to them from different languages. Specifically catering to those children with a non-English home language. In that same area staff can include music from different cultures, and play videos which illustrate different societies and cultures. Again Emit&Erica supports such an approach by being available in several different languages in both audio and video form. The importance here is the same story, the same content, is available in different ways for different people.

Finishing Up

Learning to read is an important endeavour requiring patience and support no matter the language you are  learning. This is especially important for children. To fully engage and encourage children who may not speak English as their first/home language, communities and schools can offer resources and books in languages other than English. If we want to encourage children to read at home then English should not the sole language we judge a child’s reading upon.

Learning to read and speak English is the most direct way for a child to interact with life in Britain. Yet, with so many children not having English as a first language it can be easy to knock their confidence and self esteem. Therefore, we should all be looking for ways to diversify, and include more in what we consider reading.


Mary Mayesky, creative activities and curriculum for young children 11th edition.

Safford, Kimberly Reading Differences, Reading Diversity in Graham, Judith and Alison Kelly (eds) Reading Under Control: Teaching reading in Primary School PG 14-25

Map reveals most common second languages in London boroughs

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