Book donation project for children turns into research for clinician

Tamara Vineberg - 02 September 2021

Mona Zhang reads a book with a patient and his mother.

When Mona Zhang began a children’s book donation campaign for immigrant families, she didn’t anticipate that this initiative would lead to her first research project as a clinician. Zhang, a member of the Department of Pediatrics who practices out of the Northeast Community Health Centre, heard stories from her patient families about the obstacles they faced around shared reading. It intimidated them to not have a solid grasp of English and thought they were required to read books to their children in this unfamiliar language.

As Zhang began collecting book donations for these families, a colleague suggested she start a research project to evaluate how these books were having an impact. The project has developed to examine what barriers new Canadian families have with shared reading when English is not the first language spoken at home.

Since she did not have prior research experience, Zhang received support from Lola Baydala, a professor, and Marghalara Rashid, a qualitative educational researcher, who both work in the Department of Pediatrics. “It was really helpful for me to pair up with them. Marghalara helped to let us know how to apply for ethics and grants. I don’t think I would have gotten this far without her help because (until she partnered with me), it already has been a couple of years since we first came up with the idea,” she says.

The project, Exploring barriers to joint reading in immigrant families, secured a grant from the Alberta Medical Association Section of Pediatrics. Getting the grant and completing the steps to complete her research has Zhang on a huge learning curve. “It’s my very first grant and I understand that, once you receive the grant, there is a process of checking in with your funding organization. I have learned about the entire research process, including how important a literature review is. Research takes patience,” says Zhang.

The next step is to recruit participants for focus groups. Zhang plans to hire translators to help design recruitment packages in different languages. The focus groups will involve live translation so they can ask the participants questions and respond in their own language. Once the analysis is complete, she hopes to convey how simple shared reading can form a positive impact on their child’s future literacy in new Canadian families.

Zhang shares her patients’ experiences because she immigrated to Canada when she was a child. Learning to read English and overcoming literacy challenges made a huge impact on her life. “I came to Canada at a school age, not knowing English, and spent a lot of time at the library. That’s how we got our books. A lot of new Canadians aren’t aware that the public library is free and there are books not only in English. Even if they reach their kids in their native language, that still promotes literacy,” she says.

Although she doesn’t have the results from her research yet, Zhang still responds to parents’ questions about literacy during clinical appointments. And she does get asked often about this topic. “When I give them a book, I always say you don’t have to read the English words. You can point at the pictures and describe what you see. You can fill in the story in your own language,” she says.

Zhang is still accepting donations of gently used or new board books. You can contact her by email to make a donation.