Boekenpret (Fun with Books): The Dutch approach on
improving language and reading skills from children 0 – 6
years of age
Public Libraries in the Netherlands have a long standing tradition of
providing services and programmes, in addition to the formal learning
and reading curriculum. Elaborated programmes, targeted on various age
groups, with different skills and interests are offered to different types of
My focus today is on one of the special programmes :Boekenpret (Fun
with Books ) which addresses young children (0-6 years of age), their
parents,( especially those with a low social and/or literacy background)
and all the professionals surrounding those families.
The programme was developed in the 90’s when the Dutch government
was shocked by the outcome of an international survey on reading skills
of nine year old children. The Ministry of Education ordered to develop a
programme in collaboration with public libraries to increase the reading
performances of young children. As everybody knows now a days, you
cannot start to young. So we developed a programme in which parents
and their babies/toddlers could participate for 6 years
The key-words are:
• structural attention on reading
• teaching parents and professionals the importance of reading to
young children (even babies)
• teaching parents the importance of reading routines
• let parents experience the fun you can share with your child when
you are reading a book together.
• Improve thru (interactive) reading to a child the language skills
The 3 main targets are:
• To increase the pleasure in reading of young children and their
• To stimulate language skills and preventing to fall behind in
• To improve the connection to reading education in primary schools
The program focuses on families (foreign and originally Dutch) with little
attention for reading and low reading skills but also on the professionals
as a skill improving program. A lot of the professionals THINK they are
performing quite well but in reality they are not.
The cooperation between libraries, healthcare centres, pre-schools and
primary schools may take different form in the different municipalities
and also address multicultural issues.
Families with children in the age group 0-2 are selected in the healtcare
centres. Target group parents are asked to join the program. The brochure
that explains the program is translated in several languages. We feel it as
very important to adress the parents in their own mothertongue if
possible, espacially when explaning the ideas and backgrounds of the
programme. Because of financial issues it is not yet possible to have all
families in a municipality participating. Material costs per baby in the
first 2 years are €70.
If the parents agree in starting the program, they receive a hardboard
poster on which they can keep several special books for babies (cloth,
hardboard, plastic etc). During that first year the parents join for a
monthly coffee break and receive every time a new book or other material
with explanation on how to use it. The books need to be a gift because, as
we all know babies chew on them, so you can’t use them for others.
The useful tips on talking to a baby, reading and how to use the books are
put together in Tippenboekje (Book with Ideas, things to remember). It is
available in Dutch, Arabic and Turkish.
Usually the meeting is facilitated by a librarian and a healthcare worker
so the parents can exchange information about their baby and its reading
skills but also on upbringing issues (how to deal with sleeping problems,
nutrition etc). The materials for that first year are books without texts so
parents from every language can use the material with their baby. They
get instructions (in Dutch but several municipalities have an interpreter
as well) on how to use it in their own language, specially when their own
language skills in Dutch are not very well.. Nationwide we have an
agreement (healthcare workers, teachers and librarians) on the way
parents should deal with choosing a language. Parents are advised to talk
to their child in their own mother tongue during the first years. First learn
a language well and then you can start to learn the translations. If you
don’t know the word for a cup how on earth can you learn this word in
When the baby is 1 year of age the parents start to lend material from the
library in order to train them in the habit of going to the library on a
regular base. The coffee break are less in number, 4 times a year.
At the age of 2 most children attend preschool in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately children from foreign families and children from
agricultural areas NOT always attend preschool. The Dutch government
wants those groups to join this pre-school education in order to prevent
further delay in the language and social development of the children.
Usually the children of parents who start with Boekenpret as a baby,
attend preschool as well. One of the items on the coffee break is on the
advantages of pre-school. When parents are able to visit a pre-school and
to learn more about what it is all about they want to participate in pre-
school. Since every parent wants the best for his/her child.
In preschool and the first two years of primary school all children
attending those schools and preschools and therefore all families are
participating because the program is part of the curriculum
The program in the preschool and first two years of primary school
consists of several items:
• Lend a book once a week (and take it home so the parents can read
to their child)
• 3 times a year pre-school works with a central picture book and its
accompanying discover book.
• Stay a night over bear
• Everyday the children are read to in an interactive structure
• Library visit
• parent participation
In the preschool there is a (library)collection of picture books available
from which the children lend a book once a week. Of course the parents
read to their child and return the book a week later. If everything goes
well, that is. Parents with no or small reading skills or parents that lack
reading/library tradition are very worried on what might happen if you
read a book with a small child. Therefore they keep it sometimes high on
a shelf and take it back to pre-school, unharmed but unread as well. Good
explanations on how to use a book together and that we rather see that is
book is read to peaces then to have it untouched back in the collection.
The volunteers who help the children selecting their book and take care of
administration are trained to have a small conversation with the children
when they return their book. By this small talk the volunteer knows very
quickly if the child has been read to or not. When a child never or almost
never has been read to, the volunteer tells the teacher. The teacher will
ask the parent what is going on, lack of time, or lack of reading skills in
order to support the parent in their activities at home. A very positive
attitude from the teacher is essential in this. Everything is on how to
support and not on controling the parents.
The Stay a night over bear is used to support parents in their reading
routine at home. In the programme parents are trained to start a daily
routine on reading with their child. This bear helps them on actually
The bear can’t sleep unless being read too. If the bear stays over for 3
nights, the bedroom cabinet contains 3 books. The child removes (after
the story) the book from the closet into a bag. When the cabinet is empty
and the bag is full, the bear goes back to the pre-school or classroom. The
child tells something about the sleepover and another child gets the bear
to stay the night over.
Children love to take responsibility for this little bear and push their
parents to tell a story, at least during the time of the sleep-over. I call it “
my blackmailing bear.
Three times a year the teacher works with The central picture book and
accompanying discover book. This book is introduced in the group and
after that every child receives the book and a discover book to take home
for one or two weeks. Parents will read to their child from this particular
book and make some of the assignments from the discover book. The
picture book goes back to school after those two weeks but the discover
book stays at home. It has been used to draw pictures, make a puzzle and
other activities that parents and children can do together. The discover
book and its pictures is based on the central picture book with permission
of the publisher of course.
Those central picturebook collections (35 times the same title) are
circulating between participating schools and preschools to cut costs.
At the age of 4 children attend primary school in the Netherlands and the
program is the same as in preschool but of course the books are suitable
for this age group.
By combining all these activities at the child centres, the library and
activities at home we make the connection and influence the parents.
Multicultural challenges we face because of very different background:
1,5 million functional illiterates (0,5 originally Dutch, 1 million foreign)
The biggest challenge in this all is how to work with parents from many
different cultures and backgrounds. For instance: in one of the
municipalities the local government wanted to focus on people from
Turkey. The healthcare centre introduced a special morning just for those
mothers in order to have enough time for explaining everything of the
Boekenpret program, but no results. The mothers just did not show up.
So the librarian and the healthcare worker went to the mosque and talked
to the imam about the importance of this language/reading skills program.
From that point on it went ok, the imam told the fathers it was very good
for their wives and children if the mothers could visit the coffee break.
In another city we had to deal with minorities from the Molukken ( a
former Dutch colony), a large group from Morocco and a large group
from Turkey but divided in two subgroups. There we organized not 1
coffee break but 4. In the two Turkish group existed a big differences in
religious background and therefore they couldn’t / wouldn’t work
together in one Turkish group, let alone make a mix of all those groups.
The only way to deal with this is accept that not everything can be done
the way you would wanted it. Be open and clear with one another and
make a challenge out of something that seems like a mission impossible.
Another issue is the book selection. Not only do we have a very
multicultural population in the Netherlands, we also have to deal with
some strict religious groups. And that means difficulties in selecting
books for the program. In my small country we have a so called Bible
belt, it is an area just across the Netherlands. Because of their very strict,
Christian religious background books about girls wearing pants,
celebrating a birthday on a Sunday, all possible curses or almost curses
are not accepted. No books about pigs (Islamic and Jewish people) no
witchcraft, no fairytales, nothing on magic or make believe by Christians.
My experience in this is be as open as can be, ask what is acceptable and
what is not. Make a selection of good children books and let the school or
pre-school decide if the selected books can be approved or not. It is
impossible to satisfy them all and not every school is as strict as the other.
Investigation and evaluation
One of the big questions is always:
• Does it work?
The Boekenpret program knows 2 types of evaluation: participation (facts
and numbers) and effect measuring.
Every activity in the program can be evaluated in numbers, how many
parents participated, how many books were lend, how many children
visited the library etc. Those facts and figures are very important to the
The effect measuring is more difficult and takes more time.
Not al municipalities want to invest time, energy and money in
evaluations. Therefor I cannot present a nationwide evaluation or
We use questionaires for parents and professionals, when starting the
program. Parents fill in this inquiry which is repeated several times in
order to follow the changes in attitude and reading routines in the
An investigation by drs. Helma van Lierop van Tilburg University shows
that even 6 years after the parents succeded the programme (when their
child reaches the age of 6), the reading routines in the families still exist.
After following the program:
• parents show a change in their reading capacities
Observations make this clear.
• they have provided reading routines in their families (and kept
them even several years after leaving the program)
• children show a bigger concentration level (this was one of the
outcomes in an investigation by drs. Saskia Tellegen from
University from Amsterdam, that we didn’t count on but was
• Reading skills of the children improved in comparing them with
children from the same school but from another year group who
did not participate in Boekenpret. Some schools take language tests
when the children go to the 3d grade and they can compare the
results very easily.
At this moment we are working on a large, national investigation on the
effects of working with this intervention program by comparing a group
of participating parents with a group of non-participating parents with
children in the age group 0-2. The parents will be chosen at random so
different cultures, languages and backgrounds will take part. Several
municipalities and specially the healthcare centres and libraries will be
asked to participate in this inquiry.
Hopefully in a few years we can present the results of this.