Books for Children scheme

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Margaret Cook of the Age writes: The Labor move to provide all babies with books has found widespread support among educators and librarians, writes Margaret Cook.
LEARNING does not begin on a child's first day at school - it begins on the first day of life, according to Labor leader Mark Latham.
Mr Latham, a keen reader to his young sons, Oliver and Isaac, recently promised that a Labor government would give storybooks to all new babies under an $80 million early childhood development scheme. He also wants to establish a program to teach parents "how and what to read" to children, create reading ambassadors by asking celebrities, sports stars and community leaders to read to children, and establish a Read Aloud Week.
But how positive are these proposals?"There is a huge amount of research evidence - not just opinions or anecdotal - to support the value of reading to children in the early years," says the Australian Council for Education Research's chief executive officer, Geoff Masters.
A review of "hundreds of studies" into early reading conducted several years ago in the United States found it was valuable for adults and children, particularly when it encouraged an exploration of language.
"Reading to children helps them understand the relationship between written words and spoken language, and it supports them in vocabulary development," Professor Masters says.
He advises parents to make reading aloud fun rather than a chore and to promote language development through songs, poems and games that manipulate sounds.
The School Library Association of Victoria's executive officer, Mary Manning, says Labor's proposals encourage parents to think about the importance of reading. "Many studies have found that students who have an interest and enjoyment in reading are much more successful in other aspects of learning."
However, Ms Manning warns that the program must be followed up with "properly funded and fully staffed school libraries".
A recent survey found that only 13 per cent of Victoria's state primary school libraries had teacher librarians, with many run by teachers and library technicians.
This is a serious concern, Ms Manning says, because librarians are trained to make the most of resources and match these with the curriculum. They also have particular skills and interests in reading, information literacy and children's books.
The Australian Catholic University's dean of education, Marie Emmitt, applauds Labor's proposals and says many parents want guidance on what and how to read to children.
"However, it must be more than this (early reading), otherwise it's too simplistic," she says. "Literacy is not just reading and it should be linked to everyday life."
For example, homes should have writing and drawing implements and parents should encourage young children to "write", talk about their "writing", look up things together in newspapers, point out signs when driving and so on.
"A concern is the big emphasis on storybooks," adds Professor Emmitt. "They are wonderful, but they are a white, middle-class view of literacy. In some cultures, oral storytelling is very important."
Ideally, Labor's program should include all literacies and cultures, and the storybooks should be in different languages.
The Victorian branch president of the Children's Book Council of Australia, Graham Davey, says it supports any program that encourages reading. "It's never too early to share stories, and there are even schools of thought that recommend reading in utero (to babies before they are born)."
However, he says Labor's program needs to be carefully designed. For example, the free books must be carefully chosen and well written, rather than being publishers' "remainders". It must also be well promoted, with information for parents available in doctors' surgeries, hospitals, infant welfare centres and so on.
"In the debate about reading, we often get caught up in literacy - decoding the squiggles and signs on the page - rather than the pure enjoyment of reading," Mr Davey adds. "This (initiative) is just the first stage in lifelong learning and it shouldn't be in isolation. It's also about developing a love of books."
READING TO CHILDREN
* Relax and enjoy quality time together.
* Make reading an everyday activity.
* Join your local library.
* Books make wonderful presents.
* Children love to have their favourite books read over and over again.
Source: School Library Association of Victoria.