Chatter, Books and Phonics: How best to guarantee your child becoming truly literate.

When I had my first child (of four children) over 30 years ago, yes – my life changed beyond all recognition. I knew nothing whatsoever about having children in terms of maternity, or nurturing or educating – nothing! Thankfully, I was in raptures from the moment my firstborn and I stared into one another’s eyes. I didn’t believe folk when they told me a newborn does not see well as mother and child were so absolutely transfixed.

Number one child did not need to be consciously taught anything. I speculate that this child may have had many lives on this earth already. This child never ran or skipped as a toddler – and by some strange miracle, one day I discovered this child reading storybooks fluently by the age of four. This child could also draw and write as if born with a pencil in the ‘tripod grip’ position. I can take no credit for any miraculous parenting – I was no ‘Tiger-Mother’ nor a ‘Pushy Teacher-Parent’ – although I was a qualified primary teacher. I suppose you could say this child picked up reading ‘at mother’s knee’ with no real effort on the part of either mother or child. There was plenty of chatter, lots of books around, and lots of bedtime reading. That was enough – for this child.

With three more children following at roughly four year intervals, for a while it suited me well to do supply-teaching and tutoring rather than a fulltime teaching post. During these years I noticed commonalities in the many schools in which I taught – one being that they all had dedicated, hard-working and amazing teachers – another being that quite a few children reached the juniors with shockingly low levels of literacy (reading, writing, spelling) despite being sparky, bright and communicative and despite the efforts and practices of their magnificent teachers.

These pupils commonly used avoidance tactics at the point of being asked to write their fantastic ideas – girls would frantically start sharpening pencils and boys would often ‘kick-off’ with dreadful behaviour and they thought nothing of being ejected from the classroom – anything in preference to putting pencil to paper. It was so perplexing, worrying and, worst of all, dangerously led to the labelling of children by their levels of literacy and their levels of behaviour. Their difficulties were invariably attributed (unjustly) to the children themselves and their precarious home lives. But was this really the cause?

In marking some ‘non-verbal reasoning tests’ (tests about general intelligence), I discovered that a number of the children in the ‘special needs’ groups had notably high ability – so why couldn’t they read and write well?

There were various indicators along the way as to the missing ingredients in the schools. I tutored some very bright children who did not fare well in their respective schools, and when I asked them to do something as simple as ‘write the alphabet’, I found that none of them could actually write it from beginning to end – regardless of their age. This lack of ‘basic’ stuff began to form a pattern amongst many children.

Further, when I tutored younger children with the ‘look and say’ type of books used in schools in those days, they simply could not recall the common words they were seeing over and again. Sadly, I did not know any better at that point – about different methods for teaching reading  – and I was unaware of the large-scale abandonment in the teaching profession of the teaching of the alphabetic code and phonics which has come in and out of fashion over the decades. So – I knew nothing about phonics in those days, nor was I trained in reading and spelling instruction despite being a teacher. Thankfully, my journey into phonics began when I encountered the Jolly Phonics programme – a pioneering programme which is used around the world to great effect. It not only teaches the children, it educates their parents and their teachers.

Luckily, here in England there are now a number of high-quality systematic phonics programmes. Professional development in phonics for the teachers is high priority in most schools as the government promotes the need for Systematic Synthetic Phonics. My life’s journey led me to writing two systematic synthetic phonics programmes – strange how one thing leads to another!

I won’t elaborate on the fierce debate that takes place around the world about reading instruction, but I will tell you there is plenty of research and leading-edge practice to show that teachers should teach the English alphabetic code (the links between speech sounds and letters and letter groups) and the skills of decoding for reading, and encoding for spelling, very systematically and explicitly. Children must not be left to ‘ferret out’ the alphabetic code for themselves like many of us had to as children.  [‘Ferret out’ are the words of Sir Jim Rose who conducted a landmark independent national review of how to teach reading in 2005-6.]

I have discovered that hardly any teachers can remember how they learnt to read but rarely did they experience systematic synthetic phonics themselves as children. Can you remember how you learnt to read? Whatever the latest fad, fashion or philosophy, most of us probably learnt through a book-by-book-by-book experience picking up the words along the way – and we were terribly advantaged if we had lots of books in the home. Phonics application for reading and spelling new words is the technique of most literate adults – although many adults don’t even realise this as they weren’t actually taught with systematic phonics and they apply phonics so subconsciously!

There are many children who have enjoyed lots of ‘at mother’s knee’ experience – both chatter and books – but who haven’t been as lucky as my firstborn in making sense of these experiences. Often the parents of the children who struggle are relieved to be told their child is ‘dyslexic’. But I have known bi-lingual children apparently ‘dyslexic’ in the English language and yet perfectly literate in their other language which has a simpler alphabetic code than English. A lot of literacy problems are caused by our very complex English alphabetic code and the failure of teaching our children the code well enough or at all. Research on language and reading has shown us many things – much of which may seem obvious – but, sadly, not if your mindset has different beliefs from the conclusions!

Here are the three most important factors when it comes to helping children become good readers and writers:

1. You cannot talk too much with your child! Your child needs masses and masses of chatter. The more articulate your child, the more words your child knows, and the more ‘knowledge and understanding of the world’ that your child acquires, the more likely that your child will become literate and succeed in the world.

2. Your child will hugely benefit from being steeped in a book culture at home – surrounded by books, and engaging in that ‘chatter’ about the books – how books are designed (fiction, non-fiction), what they bring to us socially and culturally. They increase our knowledge and understanding, they inspire us and fire our imaginations and they help us to be intellectual and caring people. Chatter and books will increase your child’s vocabulary hugely as many new words are acquired from literature – and this will underpin your child’s capacity to become an independent reader.

3. Finally, you cannot leave your child’s literacy to chance. Teachers across the world still use different methods and philosophies in their schools to teach reading and spelling but many children do not fare well without explicit phonics teaching. You will benefit from being knowledgeable about the English alphabetic code and its three main complexities, and the phonics skills for reading and spelling, so that you can support your child accordingly.

Nowadays you may well have heard many references to ‘phonics‘ in the shops, in the media and via the internet and via schools and pre-schools, but your child will benefit massively if you yourself have a good grasp of what this means and about the skills of decoding for reading and encoding for spelling. To support parents in this, I provide many free resources including a range of Alphabetic Code Charts, videos to ‘hear the sounds’ and other free information and guidance. See the link below.

You also need to be aware that many teachers have been misguidedly trained to tell children to ‘guess’ unknown words on the page from picture clues, sentence clues and clues from the first letters. This is not a good idea as it distracts children away from looking at the new words and decoding them and leaves children with a guessing habit that can stand in the way of good reading in the long term. It is better to tell your child any words that are too challenging to read by himself or herself rather than telling your child to guess the word. The pictures and the context, however, help your child’s language comprehension – that is the understanding of the content.

By the way to finish my personal story… although my firstborn picked up reading so easily – my other children did not and yet they all had the same kind of ‘at mother’s knee‘ experience. Sadly, their (lovely) teachers did not know how to teach them reading and spelling well enough – and it took me a long time to learn what I know now about reading and spelling instruction. So – two of my own children slipped through the net both at home and at school. You know what people often say with great regret, ‘If only I knew then what I know now

I have put together an extensive package of free videos and downloadable phonics and handwriting resources which you can access here.

You are welcome to contact me with any questions via My Baba or direct at

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE FRSA
Phonics consultant and teacher-trainer
Advisor to the UK Reading Reform Foundation
Author of the online Phonics International programme for all ages
Phonics Consultant for the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters programme for infants