A local independent publishing house has released a new collection of bilingual learn-to-read books geared toward Pacific Islander native speakers in an attempt to build literacy among kids and promote multilingualism in the islands.

The books are the latest in the “Island Readers” series, which was first published by Bess Press in 2016. The collection was expanded in mid-October to include bilingual readers in Marshallese, Chuukese and the Hawaiian language.

Interest in the illustrated books upon launch ran high among Hawaii teachers because of their strong place-based themes that resonated with students.

The series was grouped into collections like fruits found in Hawaii or items found at the farmer’s market, in tidal pools, on the sand or even at a luau. The idea was to build literacy among Hawaii’s youth by tying the books to subjects with which they could connect.

But the text was only in English. The new bilingual collection includes corresponding phrases in Marshallese, Chuukese and Olelo Hawaiian, along with a pronunciation guide for those languages.

The Springdale, Arkansas, school system has a large number of Marshallese students. It’s also one of the areas that has reached out to Bess Press to purchase the new bilingual Island Readers series. Fred McClure/Civil Beat

English-language instructors say the brightly illustrated depictions of everyday scenes in Hawaii help their students, especially those hailing from the greater Pacific Island region, grasp the language of their new home.

The books are now increasingly being used in Hawaii public school classrooms as a supplementary resource for English-language learners.

“It’s something they can at least engage with that’s not way over their heads,” said Jeremiah Brown, the English-language coordinator at Waipahu High School, where 16% of the student body is designated as “English learners.” Statewide, approximately 10% of the public schools’ 170,000 students are considered English learners.

The most commonly spoken languages among students at Waipahu are Ilocano, followed by Tagalog, Marshallese, Chuukese and Samoan. Hawaii is one of just five states in the U.S. where Spanish isn’t the predominant language spoken by non-native English speakers.

Ilocano, one of the main languages in the Philippines, is the most heavily spoken in the islands. But Hawaii has seen numbers rise fast among the Pacific Island languages as students from the Marshall Islands and other regions of Micronesia increasingly enter the statewide school system.

However, few learning materials are available to help Pacific Islanders speak English because of the lack of bilingual texts. That’s why the new “Island Readers” series is seen as a valuable resource, especially among English as a Second Language teachers.

“Marshallese is one of the more verbal, communicative languages, so it’s fascinating to see the kids sound it out phonetically and the words make sense to them,” said Melissa Burr, the ESL coordinator at Kahakai Elementary in Kona. The Hawaii island school has seen a rising number of Marshallese, Kosraean and Spanish speakers in recent years.

Burr has been using the “Island Readers” in her classroom. “They are helping preserve a verbal language in print, so future generations will be able to use it as cultural preservation,” she said.

Pacific Resources for Education and Learning had a few dual language Chuukese books that were distributed recently to Waianae Elementary. PREL staff have also handed out laminated cards with a list of greetings and short phrases that teachers could use with students, said CEO and president Paul Hadik.

The only other text in Chuukese available to students in Hawaii is a book called “Tales from the Chuuk Islands,” published by Palama Settlement several years ago. Waipahu High owns roughly eight copies but due to their popularity, sometimes these books don’t come back.

“They’re so popular. Students borrow them, take them home, share with younger siblings,” said Brown.

Embracing Multilingualism

Hawaii’s school system has made a push toward embracing multilingualism in recent years. The DOE now awards a Seal of Biliteracy to students who demonstrate proficiency in both English and Olelo Hawaii, or one of those languages and at least one other language. The DOE was the recipient of a $50 million federal grant to promote literacy among children.

Those funds enabled schools to purchase additional curricula, make hires and boost multi-language opportunities.

In a July 2019 Hawaii guidance manual, former Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, who speaks English and Spanish, underscored the importance of preserving students’ native language while they learn English.

Amy Pruong stands inside the Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile with books on shelves.
Hawaii received a $50 million five-year federal grant to promote literacy among children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“It’s important we tell our children that their home language is just as important as English,” said Greg Uchishiba, the Leeward District English Learner educational specialist. “We want them to retain their home languages. We know that when children are truly bilingual, they tend to do well in school.”

A May 2004 paper authored by several English language teachers in Massachusetts pointed out that “when teachers support students’ primary language in meaningful ways, students feel recognized and validated in the mainstream classroom, which results in a strong sense of self.”

Hawaii is not the only beneficiary as Pacific Islanders have made other states their homes.

School systems in Arkansas, Kansas, Oregon and Oklahoma have contacted Bess Press about purchasing the bilingual books, according to David DeLuca, the company’s director of publishing and chief operating officer.

These books “provide one stepping stone for language acquisition and early reading,” he said. “They are not rote, but rather an easy teaching resource that allows teachers to be flexible with using them among students with different readability levels.”

DeLuca said the company plans to next expand the series into the languages of Ilocano, Pohnpeian, Palauan, Chamoru — also spelled Chamorro — and Kosraean.

“The next sets of readers in all these languages is currently in production,” he said.

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