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English libraries give kids access to learning

Parents turn to reading programs, wide range of books for their children

Korean parents are famously passionate aboard their children’s education. Unsurprisingly, they view English as an important subject for their kids and invest heavily in them learning the language, often pushing even toddlers to read English books.

But there are not many English libraries for Korean children. Among 83 public libraries for children nationwide, only a few facilities specialize in English books. There are two English libraries for children in Yongsan-gu of northern Seoul, two in Mapo-gu, and one in Yangcheon-gu.

These libraries are luring Korean parents with their apparent advantages. For parents seeking a cheaper alternative to expensive private education, public libraries provide access to all sorts of English books for a small annual fee, as well as reading programs for 20,000 won-30,000 won a month. 

Children participate in a storytelling program with their parents at the Mapo English Literacy Center in western Seoul. (Mapo English Literacy Center)
Children participate in a storytelling program with their parents at the Mapo English Literacy Center in western Seoul. (Mapo English Literacy Center)
Such programs are popular among parents, who believe their children can develop a habit of reading books written in English from childhood.

English libraries operated by provincial governments, in other words, help to narrow the gap in educational opportunities between different income brackets in Korea, where poor families find it increasingly hard to send their kids to prestigious universities.

The Mapo English Literacy Center, located in the middle of a large residential area near Gongdeok Station, holds about 15,000 English books. The center, which sports a toy rental shop downstairs and translated versions of English books upstairs, has seen its membership expand in recent years.

“Reading English books may not translate into higher English scores right away,” said Cha Su-jin, the library director of the center, in an interview. “But it will help young readers to understand better and increase their ability to read between the lines.”

Cha said parents should play a greater role: “The time spent guiding their children in what to read and reading aloud together is also important for emotional bonding.”

The emotional factor, if ignored, can backfire for children. Many visitors to English libraries are aged 4 to 13, meaning they need more time and careful supervision to get used to browsing books in a foreign language.

“Anxious that my children were not getting enough English resources, I sent my children to private tutoring institutes,” said Cha Seon-woo, a patron of the English library with her two children. But since 2009, when the library was set up, she has been frequenting the facility and the results have been positive: Her children have developed a habit of reading books.

The books at the center are sorted by subject and author in a way that makes it easy for young readers to find a similar books of interest, instead of sorting by the level of English according to the commonly used “lexile” scoring system.

Mapo library director Cha Su-jin said parents should allow their children to choose whatever books they like. The two most popular choices of pre-schoolers are books authored by Anthony Brown and Eric Carle, she said. For elementary school-level readers, fictional stories of children pulling off brave acts such as the “Harry Potter” series rank on top.

Programs also matter. The Mapo library offers 26 programs for various age groups ranging from basic courses for toddlers to nonfiction reading and a book club for mothers interested in guiding their children.

Under a joint program between Sogang University and the Mapo-gu Office, a group of Korean studies majors visits the library every week to offer reading sessions of traditional Korean tales in English.

Other English libraries for children in Korea are trying to introduce various reading programs. Kim Young-wook, team manager of Yangcheon Kids Public English Library and English Activity Center, said that libraries should identify and meet the specific need of users, such as getting children to read more English books in a natural setting. “Offering extracurricular programs is necessary because they help guide young readers, many of whom are starting from scratch,” Kim said.

By Yoon Ha-youn (