One of the recurrent themes of this blog has been my ongoing quest to inspire my bilingual daughter, now 11, to read more frequently in English, her minority language. Although it’s true that her free time is limited, due to long days at our local Japanese elementary school and heavy loads of homework, the deeper challenge is that she simply isn’t, by nature, as hungry a bookworm as her 8-year-old brother.
Still, because I adamantly believe that children who read more develop not only stronger literacy skills but stronger overall language ability, I’ve been determined, all along, to bring out whatever degree of hunger she feels for reading in English. It may be too much to expect that Lulu will become as avid a reader as Roy—and if that’s the case, I accept that—but it’s certainly possible to encourage and elevate this interest in strategic ways.
In previous posts, I’ve described my efforts to promote Lulu’s interest in reading independently, and the amount of time she spends with books and other texts:
- In Big Breakthrough with My Bilingual Daughter?, I share some success in getting her to read non-fiction books and magazines geared for growing girls.
- In How Comic Books Can Give Your Bilingual Kids Super Powers, I describe how graphic novels (comic books) are among the most effective resources for fueling greater interest and independent reading.
- In What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child? and related articles, I discuss my use of this long-running tactic to sustain daily doses of reading practice.
These actions and others (in particular, our daily routines of reading aloud and doing homework in the minority language), have had a productive impact over the years: Lulu’s English level, in all skill areas, is on par with monolingual English children who attend English-speaking schools. (I don’t view this competitively, but since my aim for the minority language is native-like ability, the level of monolingual peers serves as our yardstick.)
Although maintaining this parity may be difficult beyond elementary school, assuming Lulu receives no formal schooling in English through junior high and high school, the fact that she’s now a competent reader is the key to achieving even higher levels of language proficiency. In other words, if I can just keep her reading as much as possible, I expect her English level will continue to grow well, despite the busy teen years in which her days will be devoted mostly to activities in Japanese.
And at the heart of all this is my endless search for “home run books.”
The “home run book”
The “home run book” is a term coined by Jim Trelease, author of the classic The Read-Aloud Handbook, which refers to a book that the child enjoys so much, it sparks greater interest in books and reading more generally. The influential linguist Stephen Krashen subsequently researched this idea in several studies and came to these core conclusions in his book Free Voluntary Reading:
“One positive experience (one ‘home run book’) can create a reader.”
“Home run book experiences vary widely among children.”
Let’s look closely at each of these conclusions, especially in terms of nurturing the minority language of bilingual children.
One positive experience
I think it’s true: If we can just connect our kids with the “right” books, they’ll show more enthusiasm for books and reading, whether or not they happen to be natural bookworms.
Of course, I think all of us—as I stress in the posts Fuel Your Child’s Passions and Proficiency in the Minority Language and POW! How Super Heroes Strengthened My Son’s Bilingual Ability—instinctively seek out books that we imagine our children will enjoy. But the idea of the home run book is bigger than this: it goes well beyond the desire to provide momentary enjoyment by recognizing the fact that these winning books can promote greater and lasting enthusiasm for literacy…and thus stronger progress in the minority language through the childhood years.
In fact, to my mind, the goal is better viewed as a quest to inspire “multiple positive experiences” in our children—not one experience alone—through every stage of literacy in the minority language.
Stage 1: Reading aloud picture books, right from birth
The more home run books that children experience in the first few years of life, the more positively they will come to feel, early on, toward books and reading. It may get tiresome when a small child wants you to read the same favored book over and over, but keep this home run idea in mind and you’ll see the larger value of reading it once again (and again).
Stage 2: Reading aloud chapter books, as the child matures
Chapter books, particularly titles that are part of an appealing series, can be a rich source of winning material which reinforces the child’s positive experiences of picture books. For recommended titles that are effective at this stage, and beyond, see How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books. (Note: I urge you to continue reading aloud to your children at increasingly higher levels, even after they’re capable of reading on their own.)
Stage 3: Independent reading, when the child is ready
Books in a series are useful here, too, because one home run book—the first title in a series—can potentially lead to a whole succession of home run books if the child is captivated by the first one. A similar motivation can be sparked when a child is smitten with a book by a particular author, then wants to read more books by that same person.
It’s no doubt true that a single home run book can propel a child, at any age, to become an active reader. I suggest, though, that the odds of this happening can be made higher when our quest for such books is conscious and continuous, enabling our children to enjoy a series of positive experiences of literacy in the minority language through these three stages of childhood.
Experiences vary widely
Krashen makes the important point that, since it’s hard to predict which book will be a home run book for a particular child, access to a wide variety of reading material is vital. He also advocates allowing children to make their own choices from among a rich assortment of books, which fuels interest and motivation. Summarizing his findings in the paper Another Home Run, he states:
“These child are willing to read and appear to be enthusiastic about reading. We suggest that they would read more, and hence read better, if more reading material were available to them. The minority who do not like to read are simply waiting for the right pitch to hit their home run. They don’t need encouragement, they don’t need incentives. They need books.”
Here, Krashen is discussing disadvantaged English-speaking children in the United States, but, in fact, he could be describing many bilingual kids who read little in the minority language. Generally speaking, I think the same problem applies: there is a lack of positive experiences because there is a lack of books.
At the same time, I recognize that families with bilingual children often face distinct challenges in meeting Krashen’s call for more books and free choice from a range of titles. In many cases (as in mine), families have no access to a well-stocked library of books in the minority language, which could satisfy the goals of both abundance and choice.
Given such circumstances, the only alternative is to be as proactive as possible in building your own library at home, making this a priority in your monthly budget and seeking out suitable books on an ongoing basis. (If your target language is a less common tongue, see What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Books in Your Minority Language for ideas.)
Still, even with a sizable home library, I’ve found that it’s difficult to provide my kids with sufficient choice. Since we lack a school library, public library, or bookstore with thousands of children’s books in our target language, they haven’t had much chance to choose fresh titles on their own. As they get older, I suppose we can approach this online, where they’ll browse freely for the books they want. But so far I’ve made most of the choices myself, ordering books that I think will appeal to them while hoping for the occasional home run.
Fostering positive experiences
Recently, I was fortunate to find a series that seems to have hit a home run with Lulu. Typically, I’ll ask her to read a chapter a day in a book of fiction or non-fiction, as part of her daily homework in the minority language. But with these books—a series called Goddess Girls, which puts a modern spin on classic Greek myths—she not only has been reading the chapter I assign, she often reads ahead on her own. This is a very positive sign, and one that I’ve seldom seen in her. So, of course, I quickly placed an order for a dozen more books in the series, hoping to continue fanning this fire of interest.
Will she read them all, with as much enthusiasm as the first few? Or will she grow weary of them after a while? Of course, I’d be thrilled to see her passion last, and her desire to read independently grow stronger. But even if her interest in this series soon peters out, I’ll continue my tireless search for potential home run books and the positive, productive experiences they produce (while seeking ways for my kids to choose their own books more freely). Because, in the end, as Stephen Krashen argues so persuasively in his book The Power of Reading:
“When children read for pleasure, when they ‘get hooked on books,’ they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called ‘language skills’ many people are so concerned about. They will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.”
In other words, by providing your children with the widest, richest assortment of books you can, and offering as much free choice in their reading material as possible, you will raise the odds of fostering positive experiences through home run books. And, in this way, by fueling keener enthusiasm for literacy in the minority tongue, their overall ability in this language will grow quite naturally, at a strong and steady pace, right through childhood.