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Most Anglo parents in Israel know the problem: Your children hear English spoken at home and can understand and perhaps even speak it at a basic level, but when it comes to really expressing themselves well or to reading books in the languageâ€¦ well, the situation is not quite so bright.
How to get our Hebrew-speaking children to increase their literacy in English was the subject of a lecture given in Ra'anana recently by speech pathologist and bilingual specialist Margaret Kohn. About a dozen concerned parents and grandparents, some of them English-speaking immigrants and others native Israelis, turned up on a blustery February evening to hear the lecture, which had been advertised through the Internet.
Kohn, a former New Yorker with a master's degree from Columbia University, emphasized that literacy skills begin early - by the age of five or six. Before they even begin school, children have already absorbed the grammatical structures, sounds and vocabulary of a language.
"Language is what enables you to express your thoughts and make sense of the world around you," Kohn said. "Enriching our children's language is the best thing we can do to help them be better at expressing their thoughts."
Kohn said the most important thing parents with busy schedules can do is read to their offspring.
"If you have only a limited period of time to spend with your children, then read, read, read," she said. "Children who are read to not only develop better language but also develop their imaginations and their ability to think."
Kohn said that the sooner parents begin reading to children the better, especially when it comes to English, which has much more complex grammatical structures than Hebrew.
"Parents ask me when they should begin reading to their babies, and I say, 'Oh, in the first week,'" said Kohn, adding that once the babies turn into toddlers, parents should begin doing fun language activities with them - "and I do emphasize fun because they'll do it so much more willingly and learn so much more if it's fun."
Kohn said one particularly good activity is to create folders with categories such as foods, animals, sports, emotions. The parent and child find and cut out interesting pictures from magazines and advertising brochures and stick these onto a page in the folder, with the appropriate word written or printed above the picture.
"You can go out and buy a book with 'A is for apple' and 'B is for boy' and so on. But your children will get so much more out of these folders because they create them for themselves, so they're personal - and they do this activity with you, so they're having a good time with Mommy or Daddy. They'll go back and look at these folders again and again, and they can add to them when they want to," Kohn said.
Kohn particularly recommends, even for three-year-olds, creating one folder for verbs with pictures of people swimming, skiing, eating and so on because English verbs are complex, difficult to learn and often irregular. For slightly older children, she recommends creating index cards with verbs in different tenses, such as "Give, giving, gave, given."
Another simple but important tool for even the youngest children is to get a large map and look at it together. Very young children can learn about the differences between water and land, hot areas and cold. Older children can learn about the migrations of whales or birds, different countries and different industries.
"Most kids love learning about the world and looking at a map with Mommy or Daddy. Doing something like this not only helps a child develop their language but also develops their minds - and that's what real education is. Real education is teaching a child how to think," Kohn said.
Other fun, educational activities for young children can include saving discarded yogurt and other containers and creating a shopping cart, and saving materials such as foam, cloth or ribbons in a basket. Both activities teach basic vocabulary, not just for the products themselves but for their colors, textures, shapes and manufacturing processes. Kohn said the pre-school years are the ideal time for these kinds of activities, as young children are so open to new experiences and can learn very quickly.
"If you can instill in your young children a love of learning and an excitement for it, that is your gift. The rest will come naturally," she said.
But Kohn acknowledged that with school-aged children, something more than "fun activities" might be needed. If a schoolchild can speak and read basic English but isn't progressing to a richer usage of the language, she said a private tutor might be the only solution.
In answer to one mother who said her son doesn't want to read books at all, in any language, Kohn replied that reading is so important that it cannot be left up to the child's wishes, and if learning difficulties have been ruled out, the mother should simply enforce a 15-minute reading period every day, with certain privileges or activities being withheld unless the boy does his part.
Kohn, a licensed speech pathologist and English teacher with a private practice in Ra'anana, spoke at the Ra'anana clinic of psychologist Sara Silber. Another former New Yorker, Silber specializes in teaching children social and life skills. She has recently begun bringing in other specialists to conduct seminars on specific topics.