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EL European Union: The Not-So-Little Library

Matt Salusbury comes across a small-scale project providing books in English that’s having a big impact in the Netherlands

The Little English Library, based in the city of Breda in the south of the Netherlands, was originally set up for English-speaking expatriate families, but after there was ‘suddenly a lot of interest from Dutch friends’, according to founder Tatia Greunbaum, it now also serves Dutch families, primary schools and their teachers.

The library is based at a primary school in Breda, with an open-door policy on children and families coming to use the collection of children’s books – currently around 2,000 plus some audio material. It runs Swap 20 schemes – free English book lending for teachers and teacher trainees.  There’s also 123 Lists, an off-the-shelf library system to help primary schools with English books.

The Little English Library also donates books to learning centres for trainee teachers and runs workshops for teachers on using children’s books in the EFL classroom. The library won an innovation award from the (UK) Schools Library Association last year and was shortlisted for this year’s British Council ELTons awards.

How did Tatia get the idea? ‘I arrived from England with two little children and my husband,’ and at the International Women’s Club there was discussion about the difficulty of accessing English children’s books and ‘maintaining literacy’ in English.

Tatia and other expatriates also missed the social activities for children that libraries put on in the UK. The initial plan was for a box of books that could be carried round to weekly events, but Tatia realised that ‘somewhere where you could just go’ was needed.

It was at this point that she noticed great general ‘interest from parents to support their children with English language’ – not just among expats. So with ‘no funds, nothing’ the Little English Library became ‘something for the native speaker, for expatriates, but also for the English language learner’. As luck would have it, the local state primary school was redesigning its library, and ‘gave me library space and shelving. They gave me open access – mums with their toddlers can roll in at any time, any child from any school can borrow.’ After the next few months spent ‘knocking on any possible door’, the library opened in April 2014.

“Children really do still appreciate paper-based books. Parents also enjoy the bedtime reading out loud”

Even in this age of ebooks, ‘children really do still appreciate paper-based books. Parents also enjoy the bedtime reading out loud.’ In today’s Dutch primary schools, ‘early English is the big thing’, so  Tatia has ‘tried to shift my focus to support teachers’ of English.

Most primary schools in the Netherlands start some kind of – often informal – English activities as early as the first two years. Formal English language classes only become compulsory for the last two years of primary, but ‘many parents find that way too late’. The school where the library is based starts formal English roughly a year earlier, but many schools are ‘bringing it forward – some are jumping in much earlier’. The Dutch government’s vision is that by 2032 English will be taught right from the start of primary school.

There are eighty schools nationally with a bilingual primary school stream (English and Dutch) as well as international schools and a lot of international pre-school day-care centres opening locally. As well as English-speaking expats, there is the increasing phenomenon of returned Dutch-national ‘inpats’ who’ve worked abroad with Shell or other multinationals, and whose children will have been to English-medium international schools (usually in Dubai or Hong Kong). Combine this with the presence of ‘kids who play a lot of computer games, so their English is good’, and the result is that ‘school teachers face a very mixed-ability English class’.

Dutch primary school teachers often struggle anyway with what to do with students and how to use English books inside and outside the classroom. For primary school teachers, says Tatia, ‘Teacher training doesn’t focus a lot on English. Many teachers [feel] a bit insecure.’ They don’t get much in the way of specific EFL teaching skills and are ‘often a bit concerned about their own language skills’. English books serve as an addition to textbooks that help teachers ‘address the mixed abilities in their classroom that they have identified as a big challenge’. The 123 Lists include teaching tips for craft activities for the younger children, links to school subjects for the older children, for example.

‘Donations? Always (via info@littlelibrary.nl)!’ They don’t take money, but English books for children aged three to twelve is what the Little English Library is looking for. There’s a lot of interest from ‘other cities with a vibrant expat community to start Swap 20 book-lending programmes for primary school teachers’. Particularly welcome are any books with ‘shapes, colours and animals, and picture books especially on dinosaurs, pirates, bears, princesses, early readers, factual books or anything from the Dork Diaries, Wendy Quill or Diary of a WimpyKid series’.