When Preschoolers want to learn to read, should parents teach them or should they wait and leave it to the experts? Do teachers still know best? Deborah Maby reports.
For Roy Blatchford, there is one thing that stands out in his memories of his first day at school in the 1950s. His mother, who had herself left school at 13, mentioned to his teacher that Roy could read. ‘Oh, another clever clogs comes along,’ she replied, wearily. Understandably, this woman thereby fell somewhat in Roy’s mother’s estimation and the possibility of a good parent-teacher relationship in that first year at school was irretrievably lost.
But could such a thing happen today? Blatchford, who now spearheads an organisation called Reading Is Fundamental, based at The Literacy Trust, believes that the vestiges of such attitudes still, sadly, remain. ‘I was recently astonished to come across a Collins guide for parents published last year in which the question was posed, “Should I try to teach my child to read before he or she starts school?” and the answer given was, “… no. It isn’t necessary for parents to teach their children to read. That’s what your child’s teacher is trained to do.” And, unbelievably, there is still a school of thought that says you shouldn’t even read to your child until they can do so for themselves.’
Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that an early interest in books and reading would be frowned upon by schools today. Indeed there is now a vast body of opinion that recognises that the majority of learning opportunities actually take place outsideformal schooling and that the years between birth and three or four are the time of maximum educational opportunity for a child.
Rosie Roberts of PEEP, an early years project based in Oxford, firmly believes that ‘parents are their children’s first and most important educators’ and that ‘all parents want to help their children and are the first people to notice when they make progress’.
This attitude is mirrored in other early years centres across the country, such as The Help Project in Leeds, which provides guidance for parents of children aged 0 to 3. Simon Cusworth, an educational psychologist who became involved at the beginning, stresses that, ‘An essential part of the process of acquiring reading skills is to stimulate a child’s interest and enjoyment in communicating – and language and communication develop within the relationship between children and their parents.’ Roy Blatchford could not agree more: ‘The thing to remember,’ he says, ‘is that the die is cast very young. The early work you do on the knee, counting cups into the sink or whatever, is the key cornerstone to the beginning of reading.’
For Roberts and others, therefore, the reading process cannot start early enough. So what can we as parents do to set the process in train? ‘The whole ethos of PEEP,’ says Roberts, ‘is based on the idea that talking and listening lie at the heart of the development of literacy. There is a direct link between the voice in your head and the voice coming to you off the page.’
‘Reading,’ agrees Cusworth, ‘is all about communication – a story, or information, being communicated to you through language, which has been transcribed on to a page. So it stands to reason that if children don’t enjoy communicating, they won’t enjoy reading and if they don’t enjoy reading they won’t be able to do it.’
This communication, it is widely accepted, lies at the heart of the parent-child relationship from birth onwards. ‘If you think about how a baby responds to sounds made by an adult with facial expressions, which then prompt the adult to make more sounds,’ Cusworth goes on, ‘then you see that what you are doing is stimulating a child’s natural need to communicate.’
The crucial thing, therefore, is to talk to and listen to your child, as much as possible from the moment they are born. This may seem axiomatic to many of us, even if the link between language and communication and reading has not been fully appreciated.
There are other areas, however, of which we may not be already so aware. ‘We all recognise,’ says Roberts, ‘that when babies babble, this is an early form of speech. What we are less able to recognise is that when a baby spills yoghurt all over the tray of its high-chair and then traces through it with his fingers, this is the beginning of mark-making – a very early form of writing, if you like. So to say, “Tut-tut, what a mess,” and wipe it quickly away is not hugely helpful. Much better to say something like, “Oh, look what you’ve drawn., what a lovely pattern,” – and then wipe it away.’
Language and communication, therefore, are fundamental to reading but at what point do we introduce books? PEEP operates in four age groups, starting with Baby PEEP for those aged 0 to 12 months. ‘Babies who joined PEEP soon after they were born 16 months ago are now showing remarkable interest and competence in relation to books,’ says Roberts, and PEEP four-year-olds are becoming accustomed to discussing the relative merits of books they have borrowed. For Blatchford, the important thing is to ‘use books with children as an integral part of contented living’.
‘Share a book with your child every day,’ is what the PEEP leaflet says and Roberts stresses that ‘sharing high-quality books with children regularly from birth onwards is one of the most powerful strategies for parents’. Blatchford believes that any material is OK, so long as it is not actually offensive – even bath books, rag books and those very tactile board books without any words at all. ‘It is also important,’ says Roberts, ‘to remember that what we do is far more important than what we say. It’s all very well to say, “That’s a veryinteresting book,” and then put it aside; but if you then go on to read it from cover to cover that is what drives the message home.’
For Blatchford, nine-tenths of it all is about possession – hence the primary aim of Reading Is Fundamental, which is to give books to children – and encourage them to choose them for themselves. Reading Is Fundamental was started 30 years ago in the US where it now has a turnover of $18 million, all of it ploughed into providing books for children – completely free. PEEP places great emphasis on doing things together with your young child, rather than them simply tagging along as you go about your daily chores. Talk to them constantly about what you are doing and draw their attention to the written word in everyday life in the form of shopping lists, labels on packaging, signs, television listings – even football results.
So, you talk to your child, you listen to your child, you share books with your child but should you actually try to teach your child to read, using those well-thumbed schemes such as the Oxford Reading Tree or, heaven forbid, the Janet and John books or the Ladybird Peter and Jane series? Many parents I spoke to said they did indeed try to do so in the belief that in state schools nowadays teachers simply do not have the time to systematically teach every child to read. The policy pack from my own children’s primary school in north London is unequivocal on the subject. ‘We have learnt,’ it says firmly, ‘that strategies like hearing children read a few sentences from a reading-scheme book even on a daily basis DO NOT encourage children to become fluent, lifelong readers and may indeed have an adverse effect on their developing writing skills. In general we do not invest your child’s valuable learning time in deciphering text in this rather limited way …’ – and presumably they would discourage parents from doing so too. Somewhat crushed, I canvassed Simon Cusworth on his opinion and he agreed. ‘Parents who push their children to learn how to read in a structured, decoding sort of way are really missing the point and end up producing children who can read but for whom it has little real meaning or enjoyment,’ he said.
This view was backed up by Rosie Roberts. ‘One of the crucial things about early literacy is that it is not so much about the mechanics of reading and writing – these can come relatively late in the day and are more the icing on the cake, so to speak. What matters is wanting to read and it stands to reason that you will only want to read if you have found books exciting and enjoyable. It is all very well being able to read and write but if you get no enjoyment from it, you will not continue to read in later life.’ To support this theory, Roberts points to a study conducted in Oxfordshire in the 1980s among children in middle to early-upper schools that showed that a staggering 80 per cent of them fell into the category ‘Can read but don’t want to’. ‘The important thing,’ says Roberts, ‘and this was the whole purpose for which PEEP came into being in the first place, is to trigger off a new generation of children who both can read and want to read.’
Reading Is Fundamental, proclaims Roy Blatchford, has ‘long-term designs on the UK as a reading – not just a viewing – nation’. Schools, he believes, can only do so much – authors, publishers, booksellers and, not least, parents have a crucial role to play. During the recent press panic about the nation’s morals it was for him the words of the award-winning author Philip Pullman which stood out. ‘He observed simply that while “Thou shalt not” may reach the head, it takes “Once upon a time” to reach the heart. What better way could there be to put it?’
‘My children can’t tell the difference between being loved and cuddled and being read a story’, says Amandla Smith, 35, mother of Nompi, 9, Ashar, 6, Themba, 4.
‘I strongly believe that talking and listening is the first stage of literacy, so I’ve always spent a lot of time on that. I’ve learned this skill of reflective listening, where you repeat what the child says without making a judgement. If, for example, a child says a giraffe is a dog you don’t contradict them, you say, “You think that’s a dog,” and the child will say something like, “Yes, look, it’s got four legs and a tail,” and you continue the conversation, waiting for the right moment before saying, “I think it’s a giraffe.”
‘It’s a way of respecting children. Once they feel listened to and respected they’ll want to read. A lot of people can’t get down to a child’s level and I think problems occur when a child has been simply instructed, rather than listened to.
‘I always did whatever worked and tried lots of different things out. I make sure it’s a pleasure – we’ve always had a bedtime reading routine and we’ve always done things like make books together about our lives and our holidays and kept diaries with the children. My children can’t tell the difference between being loved and cuddled and being read a story. There are times when we say, sorry it’s too late, there’s no time for a story tonight, and for them it’s like saying, sorry, there isn’t time to love you. And we’ve always had a Saturday morning library routine, and I’ve always taken them to the one o’clock and two o’clock clubs, where they always have lots of books.
‘I really believe that it’s between the ages of 0 and 4 that your subconscious is made. You’re absolutely open during those years. If someone says, “You’re wonderful,” you believe it. From the start I always told my children how good they were at reading, even if they couldn’t, technically speaking, read. But as soon as you can pick up a book and look through it, you can read, I think. And if they’re reading from memory or guessing what the words say by looking at the pictures it doesn’t matter, you should tell them how brilliantly they read.
‘The other thing is that you have to work on their interests. Ashar’s passion when he was younger was dinosaurs and he was incredibly articulate in this one particular area. There’s a dinosaur called a hypsilophodon which fascinated him because it was only the size of a chicken but it could run away from a tyrannosaurus. So he learned how to spell its name and loved doing it. If I’d got him to spell “orange” or something instead he wouldn’t have been remotely interested.
‘I also think you can’t underestimate the effect of songs, poems and rhymes, which exploit the hypnotic effect of words, in the reading process. Nompi used to jump on her bed when she was little making up poems that synchronised with her jumps, like “I love my granny, she makes me happy,” and Themba now is always coming out with silly rhymes like, “I’m Themba the Bemba and I come from Semba”. I think poetry comes out of children naturally because they don’t know how else to express things. The other thing we’ve always done is go to plays and poetry readings.
‘Because I come from Africa I’ve always been aware of how crucial literacy is and how it accesses you. For example, I’ve learned a lot about being a mother through reading about it. People in countries like Ireland or Zimbabwe realise that literacy is, basically, about survival, which is why on independence in Zimbabwe you had women demonstrating in the streets with banners saying “Give us Books” and “Let’s Get Literate”.
‘The other important thing is that what you do at home is backed up in the community. I don’t think Nompi would be as literate as she is without the teachers she’s had, who have always had high expectations of her. And we’ve read stories at home which they have then acted out at school or at the library. Themba is the one of my three who has been least interested in books but now he’s started school and he sees what a high status reading is given there he’s become really enthusiastic. In his first week, I think he memorised about six books.’
‘The first time I realised that Rebecca could follow instructions was when I said, “Turn the page over” and she did so. That was when she was about nine months old,’ says Nicolette Jones, 37, mother of Rebecca, 4, and Laura, 18 months.
‘I’ve always been very inconsistent and read to the children whatever came into my hands, really. But I have always read to them, right from the beginning and from very early on I would follow the words with my finger. I talk to Rebecca a lot but then she has always been very verbal so I was running with the ball a bit. Laura is less so and of course she doesn’t get my undivided attention as Rebecca did.
‘The first time I realised that Rebecca could follow instructions was when I said, “Turn the page over” and she did so. That was when she was about nine months old. About the same time she learned to anticipate things. We had two books called Let’s Go and Let’s Pretend and she would start to laugh when she knew we were getting to the page with “Let’s go tickle, tickle,” on it.
‘I’ve played I-Spy with her a lot since she was about three and she cottoned on quite quickly. What she has now grasped is rhymes. I’ll say to her, “What rhymes with speak?” and she’ll make something up like “neak”.
‘When she was three she joined a playgroup where the children had name cards over their coat pegs and I noticed that they could all find their own pegs within a couple of days. At toast time they would put chairs out with their names on them so the children got to recognise other people’s names, too, because they wanted to know who they were sitting next to. And as a result of that I noticed Rebecca could read book dedications – “For Felix” or “For Laura” or whatever. When Rebecca was about two I remember being in the doctor’s surgery and she started picking out the letters on the spine of an encyclopedia on his shelf. She could recognise O and S very early on because they were like pictures for her – she had, basically, a name for a circle and a name for a snake.
‘I read with her from before she was one and by 18 months she could definitely follow quite a complicated story. I concentrate on it because reading and language are the one thing I know I can do. I mean I couldn’t teach her to play the violin or how to hold a tennis racquet but with language I can give her the backup.’
Top ten picture books for parents to enjoy sharing with their preschoolers, chosen by Rosie Roberts, Roy Blatchford and Deborah Maby.
Chatting by Shirley Hughes, Walker, 0 7445 3654 5, £3.50 pbk
Told in the first person, the young heroine of this delightful picture book tells us how much she likes chatting – to the cat, to friends, to dad at bedtime and so on. Meanwhile the baby likes to chat on his toy telephone. An intimate observer of domestic life and childhood experience, Hughes’ warm and distinctive illustrations are well integrated with her simple, large typeface, single line of text.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Puffin, 0 14 050087 1, £4.99 pbk
A very small and very hungry caterpillar munches his way through the pages of this now classic picture book. With its emphasis on food and the days of the week and with its satisfying text full of repetition, humour and information, this bright, boldly illustrated book is not to be missed. Now also available as a board book (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 00300 8, £4.99).
Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, ill. Helen Oxenbury, Walker, 0 7445 3660 X, £4.50 pbk
Young readers will be outraged at the unfairness of the situation in this freshly and wittily illustrated picture book which tells of a lazy old farmer who stays in bed while the duck does all the work on the farm. How the tables are turned is amusingly told and there are plenty of opportunities for the young reader to interact with the confident, humorous text in large typeface with its satisfying repetitions.
So Much by Trish Cook, ill. Helen Oxenbury, Walker, 0 7445 4396 7, £5.99 pbk
As one member of this Afro-Caribbean family arrives after another for daddy’s surprise birthday party, the baby is squeezed and kissed and played with because everyone’s loves him ‘so much’. Tenderly and exuberantly illustrated, this large format picture book also has a beautiful written text with the cadences of Afro-Caribbean English, a large typeface and a satisfyingly repetitive structure.
Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne, Walker, 0 7445 3634 0, £4.99 pbk
Set in Kenya, this brightly illustrated picture book with its glowing colours tells how a little girl, Handa, sets off with seven delicious fruits as a surprise present for her friend. Along the way, various animals help themselves unbeknownst to Handa but when she arrives her basket is again mysteriously full. Young readers will enjoy the visual jokes and the clearly paced text.
Noah’s Ark by Jane Ray, Orchard, 1 85213 947 1, £4.99 pbk
Children in the past often learnt to read by reading the only book available – the bible – and this dazzlingly beautiful large format picture book with its decorative illustrations uses extracts from the King James bible for its text to illustrate the story of Noah and the Ark. The beauty and power of the language (‘The windows of heaven were opened; and the ark went upon the face of the waters’) will communicate with and inspire young readers as poetry does with a special magic.
My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie, ill. Rosemary Wells, Walker, 0 7445 4400 9, £14.99 hbk
Opie comments in her foreword to this stunning large format picture book Mother Goose collection that ‘the words one first meets in nursery rhymes will always have a special magic; all the stronger for being mysterious and incomprehensible’ and with its large typeface and wonderfully entertaining illustrative interpretations by Wells, this beautiful book is a great incentive to new young readers.
Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Puffin, 0 14 050919 4, £4.99 pbk
A beautifully thought out, well executed picture book game of ‘I spy’ which wittily uses characters from nursery tales and keeps young readers turning the pages for the next surprise. Told in verse, with sunny illustrations and a large, clear typeface.
Mr Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham, Puffin, 0 14 050254 8, £4.99 pbk
A cumulative picture book story illustrated with contrasting pale crayon tints and vivid colour washes in which Mr Gumpy is joined by more and more passengers on his boat trip with disastrous results. Large typeface and endearing charaterisations of the animals make this an appealing book for new young readers.
Through My Window by Tony Bradman, ill. Eileen Browne, Mammoth, 0 7497 0161 7, £3.99 pbk
When Jo (from a mixed race family) is poorly, she stays at home with dad while mum goes off to work. A succession of people come to the door (the postman, the window cleaner, etc.) before mum’s eventual return. A lively story with repetitive elements and a strong, simple line of text.
Reading Is Fundamental
59 Buckingham Gate
London SW1E 6AJ
Sandy Lane West
Deborah Maby is a mother of two, a journalist and a children’s book reviewer.