As we write this blog we’re coming to the end of Cuilean Craicte’s time contributing to Guthan Gàidhlig, a Twitter account which invites different Gaelic ‘voices’ to take over each week. The idea is to give an insight into the range of different activities, interests, and things going on in the Gaelic world. You can see some of what we got up to in our Storify record of the week.
It’s been an interesting experience, even if at times it’s felt that we’ve been tweeting into the void – we’ve tried to make it fun, but also to use it as an opportunity to play around with some ideas about the realities of the experience of stories and of reading for pleasure in the Gaelic world today, and to reflect on what reading might mean for kids growing up with Gaelic in the twenty-first century.
Because Cuilean Craicte is a dog (the name means Mad Puppy), there was always going to be a doggy sort of flavour to our week, and so we started out, mostly as a game, by collecting up some of the dogs that we’ve loved most and remember most clearly in our own lives as readers. We tweeted dogs from picture books and children’s rhymes, dogs from the classic chapter books of our childhoods and from contemporary favourites, dogs created for young readers and dogs who play a serious role in the plots of more complex literature for young adults – and, too, dogs drawn from the rich traditions of medieval Gaelic literature and Gaelic folklore.
Like any game, there’s a serious side to all this – the process of remembering and revisiting all these dogs, and all these books, gave us an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of a child’s developing relationship with stories, and the range and variety of books that children need to move through as they develop their own lives as readers. We think some of our @Guthan_G followers might have been a bit surprised by how many books in English we drew on, even though we did our best to include as rich a selection of Gaelic examples as we could – but in a way that was part of our point.
To develop as independent readers, and to benefit from all the linguistic, emotional and academic advantages that fluent reading brings, children need access to a huge range, and a huge number, of books. They need to be able to move between picture books, ‘fact’ books and chapter books, to try hard books out and return to comfortable familiar ones, to share loved favourites with their families and to escape quietly to an imagined world in private reading. Most of all, they need to be able to follow their own interests and passions through the books they choose.
At the moment, it’s simply not possible for children to have the full range of these reading experiences in Gaelic. As is the case in any minority language, what’s available in Gaelic is never going to be able to compete with the sheer number and variety of books available in English. There are also some significant gaps in how Gaelic publishing responds to children’s varying needs as they develop as readers. Lots of picture books get produced in Gaelic, but the next stages in children’s reading lives are less well served. Reading schemes get kids reading in Gaelic, but what is actually available for them to read in Gaelic once they can? Recent initiatives have tried to develop a range of young adult titles, but the lack of chapter books and non-fiction available for younger independent readers means that it’s very difficult for children to develop a habit of reading in Gaelic which would lay the foundations for them to try out YA (or adult) literature in Gaelic when they get older.
The other problem for children’s Gaelic reading is simply that they find it more difficult than reading in English. Ease in reading comes from familiarity and practice, and even children who have Gaelic at home are never going to have as deep and wide-ranging an experience of literacy in Gaelic as they do in English. And as we know, most children now in GME don’t have Gaelic speakers in their immediate families who can support them in their Gaelic reading. The very children who would benefit most from reading in Gaelic as a way to develop their vocabulary, linguistic competence, and experience of Gaelic outside the classroom, are the ones who will inevitably find it most challenging. At Cuilean Craicte, we’ve found from talking to parents that once children develop as independent readers in English it gets harder and harder for them to enjoy reading in Gaelic – the kinds of books they like aren’t available, they can find vocab and syntax tricky to understand, and their Gaelic reading experiences become increasingly frustrating and less satisfying in comparison with their reading experiences in English. This can be a real shock for parents who assume that learning the technical aspects of reading in Gaelic should be enough to encourage children to read in Gaelic – but to build a relationship with Gaelic reading, as with reading in any language, requires much more than the ability to decode the words themselves.
A full reading life for a Gaelic-speaking child inevitably includes a lot of reading in English. As parents, teachers, publishers, and professionals with an interest in the future of Gaelic, we must come to terms with this, and work out how to give children the best chances to have satisfying Gaelic reading experiences within their wider world of English books and reading. If we can, reading in Gaelic can open so many doors for them: it can lift some of the linguistic restrictions of their school Gaelic, open up a Gaelic world beyond the school gates that is difficult for many of them to access otherwise, and offer them the tools to build an emotional world for themselves in Gaelic as well as in English. Perhaps most importantly, it can let them have fun in Gaelic, expanding what they think Gaelic can do and giving them the words to do it themselves.
But how to deliver on what Gaelic reading can promise?
- Far more books, of all sorts.
- Teachers, parents, and other professionals to recognise how crucial reading for pleasure in Gaelic is to the process of language learning.
- To understand that reading in Gaelic is harder for children than reading in English, and find ways to help.
- To be aware that we often give children mixed messages; we tell them reading in Gaelic is important but don't have Gaelic books to give them, and don’t or can’t model reading in Gaelic for them ourselves.
- To remember that the needs of readers may not be best served by attention to the needs of writers. Reader development is crucial to any society, and it’s not the same at all as writer development.
Developing readers is about developing equality of opportunity across society. If we’re not doing it in Gaelic, we’re not serving the needs of our children, or of the language itself.
(You can see our Storify record of the week with our thoughts, links and jokes about books, children's reading for pleasure and Gaelic here)