Hal is now six and four months and is reading whole books by himself! His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
For a period of a month or so recently I haven’t been able to do much reading with Hal at night. I’ve been working late rather more than I usually do and it has worked out that Jo has been doing the bed-time read almost all of the time. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was able to take up book at bedtime duties again. ‘We are doing it differently now,’ Jo told me. ‘Hal has to read to us before we read to him.’ This was different indeed. Recently when I had got Hal to read he had been able to pick out some words here and there, but he had almost never read a whole sentence and I couldn’t see how that was likely to have changed.
As I quickly realised however, it all depends what kind of book you are trying to read. The sort of thing I had been reading with Hal – say Roald Dahl stories or the Horrid Henry series, were too tricky for someone who has just turned six and understandably Hal couldn’t make much headway with them. But since I had last been on reading detail Jo had begun to take starter reader books like the Biff and Chip series out of the library. These offer a sentence or two per page with a lot of repetition to help word recognition along. Hal picked out a Biff and Chip book the first evening I returned to reading with him and he read the whole thing. I had to help him out perhaps three or four times. It was a fantastic moment. The first time Hal has ever read a book to me!
But Hal’s new literacy wasn’t just down to the book. There has clearly been a minor revolution in his reading skills as well. Reading with him, I began to realise that a number of things have changed in how he tackles his reading. Firstly Hal is now much better at working out words from their constituent sounds. A few months ago a word like ‘FIND’ would have been confusing for him because he would have sounded the ‘IND’ as in ‘India’ and it wouldn’t have clicked that the ‘I’ could also sound like the ‘I’ in ‘I am’. Now he seems to be mentally flicking through sound possibilities of a letter to come up with a word that makes sense. Typically he might sound out ‘FIND’ wrong at first and then a moment later get it right.
Related to this is another skill that is now much better developed. In the past Hal used to see words as isolated things whose meaning had to be worked out. He didn’t see so much that they hang together in sentences and that meaning comes from the whole sentence. Now there is a shift. He seems to be interested now in what the whole sentence is going to mean, and that you can use the bits of the sentence or small paragraph that you do understand to grasp the meaning of difficult words that you can’t get. Using pictures to work out what words are likely to be is another way in which context can come to the rescue and here again Hal has become much more adept than he used to be.
The third big development is that the vocabulary of words that he knows by sight is now much larger than it was a few months ago. I used to think, naively, that reading was all about being able to work out what words were from constituent sounds. But of course it isn’t. I don’t spell out component sounds to work out a word when I read. I just recognise it. Hal is beginning to do this now. When he reads, some words he has to sound out, some he just gets instantly because he knows them.
These three skills lie at the heart of this leap forward in Hal’s reading improvement and it feels as if his literacy is really launched now. A thirst for reading, he has not. He still very much prefers the path of least resistance which is getting someone to read to him. But he’s got tools now that he never had before. And he can actually say, ‘I read a book today’.
Roald Dahl titles are published by Penguin; Horrid Henry titles by Francesca Simon are published by Orion; Biff and Chip titles are part of the ‘Oxford Reading Tree’ series published by Oxford University Press.