Teach My Child to Read

The Boy with a Book

I love to read.  I have always loved reading.  To my mind there is little better than curling up somewhere, anywhere, and losing myself in a good story.  I don’t actually remember not being able to read.  I know this state of being must have been mine at some stage because I have a vague memory of being somewhat jealous of my friend Amy because she could read before she came to school.  I don’t remember the point at which the squiggles coalesced into words, but I do remember voraciously consuming every book I could get my hands on.

You’d think, given my teaching credentials and my passion for stories I would have been one of those parents who enthusiastically taught their own children to read, but no.  Not being an infant teacher, I was more than happy to leave that particular task to someone else.  Mind you, given that it got to well into the summer term of Sam’s reception year and he still hadn’t brought a book home from school I thought I had better take matters into my own hands.

At the time, I really didn’t know anything about phonics, except that ‘Jolly Phonics’ were the In Thing.  In his pre-school year we had attended a speech therapy group where the flash cards were used.  I was pleased at the way he readily learned the symbols, and how they helped him to control the sounds that came out of his mouth, but when we came to try and put them together: no siree.  So, accustomed as I am to when one method of getting Sam to do something doesn’t work, I had a think about finding a different way around the problem.

It’s at this point that I want to tell you how lovely my mum is.  She, like me, was a teacher before she had her own children.  She, unlike me, underwent a completely different kind of training.  As an infant teacher trained in the sixties, she knew far more about teaching a child to read from scratch than I.  Ever a child of the digital age, I had done some googling, which had persuaded me that there was nothing to prevent my boy, extra chromosomes or not, from learning to read.  The phonics weren’t working, so, with her encouragement, I made him a set of flashcards of whole words instead.

I was astonished at how quickly he picked it up.  Before long, I had made him a set of interchangeable cards that made sentences, and enjoyed showing him how they fitted together.  With a new baby in the house it was more than I could manage to completely write my own reading scheme, no matter how dedicated I was, so I sent them into school and expected that on with reading we would get.  But no.

I didn’t know that there was a debate about the teaching of reading.  I didn’t know that there were two opposing sides, never the twain shall meet.  I didn’t know that teaching Sam to read would cause me almost the biggest heartache of his primary school career.  We endured together years of the dullest, phonically plausible books possible.  I went into school time and time again to beg for something different, something we could enjoy together.  Something that had words that were more different to each other than bat and cat and sat, or box and fox.

I didn’t know that Sam would find himself stuck on the wrong side of the debate.  I didn’t know that he would go through what felt like a string of teachers who insisted, despite the way his brain processes information more slowly than an ordinary child, that a phonic approach would work, that if they kept on banging his head against the brick wall of unattached letters and sounds he would eventually ‘get’ it.  I wasn’t going to accept any more the battering that his self-esteem was taking at his continual confusion, and my increasing frustration.

I’m not denying that phonics doesn’t work as an excellent way to teach children to read. I use it myself.  But if Sam has taught me anything, it’s that there is always an exception to the rule.  And just because he is an exception doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve a creative teacher who is willing to break a few rules in order to give him the best gift a teacher can give a child: the ability to enter a different world, to follow their own interests, to look at the world through eyes other than their own.  Thank heavens he found one.


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8 thoughts on “Teach My Child to Read

  1. My little boy is a sight learner. He doesn’t struggle with phonics too much, however he almost has a photographic memory and when he learns his spellings he learns by seeing and reciting them. He can read massively long & complex words but can sometimes struggle with simple words which he technically should be able to phonetically build. It shocks me sometimes. I worry he will “fail” the phonics test in June because alien words make no sense to him. If he doesn’t recognise it as a plausible word he shrugs. He tries but his phonics are not strong enough. I agree phonics is good but i think we need a far more rounded approach to reading. Like you, I am not infant trained and feel I don’t know the best way to teach him to read. Luckily, he is doing fine and this maybe comes from the fact we share books daily and he just seems interested in reading everything around him but I don’t believe it’s much to do with phonics from what I see at home. I think the point you make about your mum being trained in how to teach children to read is a good one. I’m not sure if this is done well enough anymore. It’s something we seem to have lost.

    I teach phonics to year 2. I had a lad in my (top) set last year who purely read by sight. He was in my phonics set but phonics meant diddly squat to him. Luckily by that stage I was teaching them how to spell! 🙂

    1. I think you have identified a problem for many children who take to reading like a duck to water. Mind you, having said that, my daughter ‘failed’ the phonics check, and she’s still not very taken by reading. Somehow, she got the impression that she had to tackle each word afresh, and it was all very tiring for her!
      And don’t let’s look at her speeeeling.
      So much of it depends on the teacher. There is no easy, one size fits all answer, I think.

  2. Thanks for this Nancy, it is a really interesting discussion and one we definitely need to have given that a specific system has been mandated for all children in schools. We have to cater for the majority but we should never lose sight of those who do not fit within that majority. That, after all, is what teaching is about! 🙂

    1. Absolutely. After all, it is the minority who do not reach the ‘required standard’ that bring the most ire upon teachers’ heads, iykwim!
      The other thing that bothers me with all the prescription, is whether we are training a generation if teachers who can be creative in the first place.

  3. Great post as ever Nancy. We have certainly found a mixed approach of Jolly Phonics, whole word recognitiona and the superb Read Write Inc have been necessary for Natty. Have you come across the lovely teacher Mum created PoPs (plenty of potential) scheme as well? Stories about a boy with DS and very visual with games for kinesthetic learners. Super.
    H x

    1. I think you highlight here an important point. There are many children who find the application of a purely synthetic phonic approach to the teaching of reading too difficult when they are very young. Sam, at 13, is now getting on fantastically with his reading – let’s face it, he is still very slow, but progress is progress – but during the primary years he just couldn’t decode the individual sounds, blend them and then make them into a word that held meaning combined with other words. I teach lots of children like this who have no added chromosome, and, it seems to me, that it is not fair of us teachers to keep on insisting they try again and again and again at the same old approaches. What are we doing to their self esteem when we do that?
      We can afford to give these children another ‘in’ to reading, in my view, and we should do, while we wait and watch for the moment when they are ready to handle the tools to attack any word.

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