How to give your child an early start


In this monthly discussion we answer questions about language in Papua New Guinea and beyond. This month we are looking at how you can make sure your children speak and read English even if their teachers do not have a good command of the language.
Education is the key to success in the modern world and English is the language of education in PNG. It is therefore not surprising for parents to be worried when they find out their children’s teacher cannot really use English well.
This happens a lot in the current situation where many elementary school teachers were hired to teach in a tok ples curriculum and now have to teach in English, without receiving any extra English training to help them do this.
Many educated parents remember the high levels of English when they were at school and worry when they come across teachers who cannot converse easily in English or communicate effectively in written English.
For some parents the answer is to make financial sacrifices to send their children to a private or international school. But many of us either do not have this kind of income or live in rural areas where that is not an option.
I myself was in this situation, where my daughter had a young teacher in her village school who had been poorly trained and was really not able to communicate in English. I could have gone to the headmistress and tried to get a new teacher for my daughter. But a more lasting solution was to find ways to compensate for what was missing.
The first thing we must remember is that we parents, not the schools, have primary responsibility for our children’s education. Complaining about the school or an individual teacher will only make them defensive.
We as parents and grandparents need to make up for what is missing. Language learning is all about having exposure to the language so we need to provide as much exposure to English as possible.
In some situations one parent can decide to use English at home, while the other parent and relatives continue to use tok ples.  Of course, this must be done in a way that the children still have exposure to their own language so that they have a cultural identity and can comfortably participate in kastom when they are older.
But beyond this, developing a love for reading is probably the greatest educational gift parents can give their children. I remember a professor of mine who said if you can read for yourself, schools and universities are only necessary as places to get pieces of paper and hang out with other young people. If you can read, you don’t actually need a school to get knowledge.
To develop this love of reading, from the time they are still toddlers, children should be holding books and reading them with their parents. In this way they associate books and reading with their parents’ love and as something they want to do, not a boring chore that their teachers make them do.
As they grow older, there should always be a time set aside for them when they can read for themselves and read with their parents. It is not important what they read; even comic books and junk novels teach children language.
Reading with parents is important even as they are older because this is a way of sharing new ideas with their parents and discussing new ideas and concepts. This is true even with parents or grandparents who are illiterate or who do not speak English. Just as Grandmother uses stories to teach tok ples and tell children about their own culture, the children can read to Grandmother about current events or stories from other places.
Books are not always cheap or easy for us to access in PNG. A practical alternative, especially for people in rural areas, is a smart phone or small tablet computer, which can be like having a private library of our own. These can be used to download free e-books and learning software for children.
Interactive reading and storytelling software is an especially good way to improve children’s English vocabulary and knowledge of the world. Today many families in English-speaking countries choose to teach their children at home rather than send them to school.
Computer software programs produced overseas for this kind of homeschooling can augment classroom situations in PNG that are not always intellectually stimulating or to teach subjects not available here. Many of these are available at little or no cost over the internet.
With just a little bit of googling, you can often find children‘s books on the internet that are read out loud. This helps children associate sound with letters naturally and makes it easy for them to imitate native English speakers’ intonation and stress patterns. These programs make use of children’s love to imitate and play with sounds.
By being pro-active and providing their children with books and computer resources, parents can overcome whatever limitations their local schools and teachers have.
If they start when their children are at an early age, parents can instil a deep feeling for reading and learning that their children will always associate with memories of home and family.
It does take effort, but the rewards can be great.
Professor Volker, a linguist living in New Ireland, is an adjunct professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Queensland and visiting professor at the University of Augsburg and University of Bremen, Germany. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at [email protected] Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

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