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Keeping your child's language skills alive with English books

Like other bilingual families, each time my family pays a visit to my home country, I fill at least one suitcase with books to bring back to the Czech Republic. Sure, books are heavy, but I can't imagine anything else that helps as much to keep my family's life abroad balanced.

For my children, books in English are a way to stay in touch with their American cultural heritage as well as practice their English language skills. Since they go to Czech elementary schools and speak primarily Czech in their daily lives, I rely on books more than workbooks, extra English classes or computer activities to develop my family's English language skills. When my children were younger, we attended storytelling and Bohemian Bilingual literacy classes led by Class Acts in Prague. With busier schedules, now, it's often difficult even to find the time to sit down for bedtime stories, but we do it. Mostly because my children insist.

Years ago, I made the book selections for them, picking out Easy-to-Read Dr. Seuss stories or Golden Book classics. Curled up together with a book at bedtime, my kids and I read about everything from Curious George's exploits at the zoo to the time-traveling adventures of Jack and Annie in the Magic Tree House chapter book series or the epic journey of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. On our most recent visit home, my mother gave my daughter a fourth-grade Virginia history book from the 1960s, my middle-son chose an animal encyclopedia and the youngest picked a series of simple books about machines and how they work.

My husband joins in the reading time, too. Although we alternate between Czech and English books, I admit that, for me, the best nights are spent sharing a book in English together.

Story time used to mean that I read to my children. However, more often than not, now they read to me, their dad and to each other. The importance of reading aloud to your child daily is touted by education experts. It is particularly important for children being raised in a multilingual environment. Consistent reading aloud to your child and later having your child read to you will do more than any other factor to turn children into lifelong readers, improve literacy skills and enhance the imagination, according to Jim Trelease, reading expert.

In his 1979 best-seller, The Read-Aloud Handbook now in its 7th edition, Trelease makes the case for reading aloud from an early age. He suggests that reading improves other aspects of learning English, such as grammar, writing and spelling – skills where bilingual children, with English as a minority language, often lag behind. His experience as a parent and educator is backed by the US Department of Education's research and case studies.

Stephan Krashen, a leading spokesperson for bilingual education describes the “home run” experience theory, in which it only takes getting hooked on one book in order for a child to make a significant improvement in his education overall.

Whether your child is an avid reader or a reluctant one, studies show that having a good quantity of varied books around the house for children to explore at their own leisure is one of the most important ways parents can facilitate their children's education. Children read by example. Having parents who read at home in front of their children reinforces the validity of the child's own reading habit. Being taken to the library and being read to daily are other important factors in developing a child's interest in books.

Luckily, my children see reading as a treat. Keeping our home library expanding requires finding good books in English year-round in the Czech Republic. Here are a few tips to keep your bookshelves stocked with English books and your bilingual child reading through the winter months.


Libraries

The Prague Public Library System at the Korunni Branch in Vinohrady (Prague 2) has collected more than 1500 children's books in English through the Storybridge Project. Read a description of the “Learner's Den” where regular storytelling events take place. Although the branch will be closed for renovation from July 27 through December 2015, books from the library's catalog can be reserved to be picked-up at another branch library. Other branch libraries have small English language collections.

Children can obtain a library card from age 6. The Prague Public Transportation Open Card can also double as a library card.

The Prague Christian Library in Žižkov (Prague 3) has more than 2000 children’s books in English. They are open Monday through Thursday and two Saturdays a month. Children 3-7 are invited to attend an English language story hour plus crafts, songs, and goodies on the second Saturday starting at 10:00. For older children there is a similar program on the 4th Saturday of each month. An annual family membership costs 500 CZK and other options are available for 3-6 month memberships.


Bookstores

Amadito & Friends This children’s bookstore located in Smichov (Prague 5) offers titles in English, French and German and was the first to focus on new foreign-language children’s books. Amadito also has an e-shop and offers book ordering services. They have a reading area in the back of the store and offer activities for children. They also rent an event space for parties or group events. Open Tue - Fri 9:00 – 17:30 & Sat 10:00 – 13:00.

Brown Box Books has brought used children's books to Prague in mass at affordable prices. The BBB e-shop offers more than 3000 used children’s books in English ranging from board books to chapter books at thrifty prices. Expect to see BBB at Náplavka, Bleší trh and other local markets with their pop-up shop of children's favorites. When my children first heard Jeffery Zamoff of BBB do a storytelling, my son demanded to visit the BBB stand afterward so we could purchase the book Jeffery had read. BBB holds Friday afternoon art activities in Czech and English for children at their recently opened activity center Vykladni skrin in Vršovice (Prague 10). During the event, the bookshop is open with 10-20% discount on books featured in the monthly theme.

The Globe was founded in 1993 as Prague's first English language book store. When I arrived in 2002, the Globe was the place to go for weekend brunch, book readings and to check email. The Globe offers some children's books and will special order on request. On Sundays during brunch, they run an English language story time with crafts.

Oxford Bookshop in Prague 1 (just off Wenceslas Square) offers a wide selection of English language learning teaching materials with some English books for children. While they have reasonable prices for workbooks, their prices for paperback books and board books are high.

Neo Luxor (main location at Václavské náměstí, Praha 1 ) Neo Luxor is a chain bookstore that offers a selection of children's books in English. It's a good source for British authors that are hard to find in the US. I once splurged and bought a hardcover series set of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven detective stories at Neo Luxor. My kids were too scared to read the stories by themselves, but they made for suspenseful read-aloud material.


Second-Hand Czech Book Stores

If you're up for a treasure hunt, some Czech antikvariáty (second-hand book stores) will have children’s books in English. I've picked up Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and other classics for just a few crowns.

Have a look at the Class Acts website for other resources for direct marketing and online book sales.

If there's a bookshop or source for English books for children that we've missed, please let us know.

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