Most parents of children starting school are concerned about reading. And rightly so. Even in a modern multimedia world, where we can get entertainment and information at the flick of a switch, reading is still the bedrock of education. Your child needs literacy skills to succeed, first at school, and later on in every aspect of daily life.
But it’s not just a question of learning skills and passing a test. If your child is to be truly literate, reading has to come as naturally as talking. This takes practice – lots and lots of it – and for that, your child must want to pick up a book (or a magazine, or a comic… there are lots of ways to practise reading). So learning to read is not just about gaining skills, it’s about learning to enjoy reading.
The pay-off is worth it. True literacy increases brain power in many ways – improving language, developing thinking skills and pushing up IQ. According to one leading neuroscientist, becoming a reader ‘changes the architecture of the brain’, making it easier for children to concentrate, plan, organise their thoughts and relate to other people.
How do children learn to read?
Experts have argued about the best way to teach reading for nearly two hundred years. Some put their faith in phonics (knowing how letters stand for sounds, e.g. c-a-t makes cat, sh-ee-p makes sheep, so the reader can ‘decode’ the words on the page). Others claimed comprehension was more important, i.e. understanding what the words mean.
Towards the end of the last century, when experts were emphasising the importance of enjoyment and practice, there was a period when teaching reading went out of fashion altogether. Teachers were told to leave children with a lovely picture book and they’d work it out for themselves. This was, of course, nonsense and damaged both the children concerned and many adults’ confidence in the school system.
Fortunately, common sense now prevails, and it’s generally agreed that literacy skills need careful teaching. What’s more, today’s experts agree that both phonics and comprehension are important. But they also recognise that there are important skills underpinning phonics and comprehension that – for many children – don’t come as naturally as they once did.
What are the skills underlying reading?
One key skill is the ability to recognise and remember sounds (for phonics) and sequences of sound (for comprehension). Throughout the preschool years, children need lots of music, songs and rhymes to develop their ear for sound and their memory for sound patterns. If they learn to tune into visual images at a very early age, these skills may not develop as well as they should. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screen-time at all for children under two, and no more than an hour or two a day thereafter.
Another skill is the ability to sit still, concentrate and control eye- and hand-movements in order to read and write. Strangely enough, children develop attention skills through moving about, and children in a television age are often less active than they were in the past. Outdoor play, PE and moving to music helps them develop physical coordination and control. This particularly applies to boys, who tend to be less mature than girls and need more opportunities to run about before they’ll be able to sit still.
The main skill underlying comprehension for reading is skill with language. To develop this, children need plenty of opportunities to talk (during day-to-day interactions with their parents and play with other children) and to listen, particularly to stories and picture books. Watching TV isn’t a good preparation for reading – children learn language through first-hand experiences and real-life listening. Listening to stories also helps develop their interest in reading – if they enjoy hearing picture books read aloud, they’ll want to read them for themselves.
How can parents help?
- Share nursery rhymes and songs from books like Mother Goose Remembers. Let your child choose a new rhyme for you both to learn every week and practise it in the car, at the bus stop, in the bath… whenever you’ve a spare minute. As your repertoire grows, have regular ‘song and rhyme’ sessions to exercise auditory memory.
- Put up an alphabet chart and teach your child an alphabet song. Don’t bother trying to teach phonics – it’ll be covered systematically at school, and if you push it too much at home there’s a chance of boring your child and turning him/her off reading.
- Make sure your child gets plenty of opportunities to play creatively with other children – especially outdoors where they can run, climb, tumble, crawl and explore. Play develops language, self-confidence and self-control.
- Encourage your child to ‘help’ you with shopping, cleaning, cooking and so on (being very patient when s/he’s not helping at all!), and chat about what you’re doing, what’s going on around you, memories of the past and plans for the future… anything at all.
- Don’t let your child watch more than an hour or two’s TV per day, and don’t put TV (or any other electronic equipment) in the bedroom – there is masses of research linking bedroom TV to learning problems.
Turning your child into a reader
Parents are the best people to turn their children on to the joy of reading and give them a ‘reading habit’. Children love to snuggle up and share favourite books. So read aloud to your child every day, even after they’ve started reading for themselves. Go to the library to choose new books every week, and buy some favourite ones to share again and again. These can become your ‘RA-RA-RA books'(Read Aloud, Read Along, Read Alone):
- Read Aloud: read the book to your child, lots of times.
- Read Along: encourage your child to join in, reading along with repeated or favourite lines.
- Read Alone: with lots of enjoyable repetitions, your child can learn more and more of the book until s/he gradually starts ‘reading’ it alone. When this happens give lots and lots of praise!
Of course, to begin with this is just reciting from memory (very good for developing memory skills!). But over time children begin to associate the shapes on the page with the words they’re saying, especially once phonics teaching starts at school.
When your child starts bringing home reading books from school, make sharing these as enjoyable as possible too, and give lots of praise for your child’s reading. Don’t turn it into a lesson – encourage your child to try ‘decoding’ words with phonics, but if s/he finds it hard, just give the word and carry on. If your child is struggling with the books s/he brings home, let the teacher know straight away.
And don’t see learning to read as some sort of race! Children learn at different speeds, so comparison with others is pointless. And rushing through a reading scheme as though it’s a competition doesn’t usually encourage a love of reading – indeed, it often causes children to switch off. Take it easy – and keep on sharing library books and RA-RA-RA books, for the sheer joy of reading together.
Some books to share with your reception child
Mother Goose Remembers by Clare Beaton (Barefoot Books)
This is a book to keep forever – a beautifully illustrated collection of nursery rhymes and songs to share with your child. And in case you don’t know the tunes yourself, there’s a sing-along CD to help you learn them. The rhyme, rhythm, repetition and silliness appeal to infant minds, so children are happy to learn and repeat them over and over again. The perfect way to introduce the sounds of the English language – and plenty to talk about too.
Pat the Cat (and other books) by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins (Pat and Pals)
Pat the Cat and his friends Jen the Hen, Mig the Pig, Tog the Dog and Zug the Bug, have been around for quite a while, but this is a new edition complete with interactive website (www.patandpals.com). The silly rhymes, funny pictures and speech bubbles make Pat and his pals great fun to share (and perfect for RA-RA-RA – see above), while the clever use of split pages demonstrates the patterns that underlie our writing system. Terrific for introducing phonics without actually teaching it!
Slinky Malinki’s Christmas Crackers by Lynley Dodd (Picture Puffin)
A rhyming story from Lynley Dodd about a naughty cat causing chaos at Christmas time. All Dodd’s books about Slinky and her doggy counterpart, Hairy McLary, are full of fun and humour, and the rhyming text is highly memorable. They also introduce some really interesting vocabulary, and there’s tons to talk about in the pictures.
I wanted to include an ABC book, a non-fiction book, and one that would appeal to boys – and this book ticks all the boxes. Many boys prefer fact to fiction, and will pore for hours over picture books about dinosaurs, space, transport or other mechanical topics. They also often prefer photographs to other artwork. If we’re going to turn boys on to books, we have to find the sort of book that’ll fire their interests.
Oscar and the frog – a book about growing by Geoff Waring (Walker Books)
How long does it take to grow up? asks Oscar, and his friend the frog replies that it all depends. A flower is full-grown in a few days while a young tree won’t be tall until Oscar is a very old cat. This prize-winning non-fiction storybook includes lots of information about growth and living things that will appeal to both boys and girls (and it’s got an index, so you can demonstrate another reading skill!).
Sue Palmer is a former head teacher who is a nationally recognised expert in literacy and author of Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children…and what we can do about it (Orion Books).