Tag Archives: teaching reading

Reading to Babies

I do my best, these days, to persuade people that I am not completely mad. Occasionally the mask slips (I sang a snatch of Everything Is Awesone in a staff meeting the other day – I tried not to, but it sort of slipped out), but most of the time I reckon I get away with it alright.  I have to admit, though, that I struggle to hide it from those who know me well.

My mum, for instance, thought I was bonkers to make almost the first thing I did post-baby, a visit to the local bookshop, and then to the library to get Baby Sam his membership.  At the time, we were a little strapped for cash, having gone down one wage and up a new house, so, given my behaviour in bookshops up to that point (never leave without a straining carrier bag), I decided that the library card was a safer bet.

That said, I still thought it was important to own a few classics, so off to the bookshop I did trot and into my eager hands fell several board books, a fabric one with squeaky and crinkly bits and lots of different textures and little bits of string and ribbon to grasp and a plastic squashy one that went in the bath.

Down’s syndrome aside, I could tell that she thought that me buying books for a baby was an act of severe bonkersness.  What did babies need with books?  Shouldn’t they have a rattle, or stacking cups (he had these too, and an excellent little triangular wedge with a plastic mirror velcroed to it – I used to prop him up on his eblows and watch him gaze and coo to himself for ages) or something else more accessible, more suitable? Why was I wasting my time and money at such an early age, when there was no way on this earth that he would be able to read them? Thankfully she loves me, and she adores Sam, so she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I think it had something to do with Teacher Me. Learning to read, leaving aside the decoding print bit, is partly about knowing what to do with a book;  which way is up, the way the pages work and how to turn them, that sort of thing. Seeing as reading has always been a joy to me (although not, it has to be said, to R, who mainly reads to find out how to make things), and seeing as I knew Sam had a learning difficulty, I reasoned that he may as well start young.  (Nothing to do with me wanting to buy books, not at all.) I didn’t want him missing out.

Over the years, with the addition of two more babies to the family, the collection of stories grew. We had our favourites; Peepo (a good strong board book with a hole for loose little fingers to grasp, a baby who looked remarkably like Sam and a natural rhythm to the poem that encouraged us to drop out words for him to fill in), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (where little three-year-old Sam, still unable to call me ‘mummy’, would manage to ‘woo woo’ as we struggled through the blizzard), The Blue Balloon (fantastic for mouth control), Brown Bear, Brown Bear (the book I used to persuade his Reception teacher that it was worth while teaching him to read) and The Elephant and the Bad Baby (we liked the Tweeny Clock Cake). As I continue on my mission to sort out the house, I look at them all, their covers and pages dog eared and tatty now, and I cannot bear to throw them out.

Was it to teach them to decode that I shared these stories? To be honest, no. They were for me (or daddy, or grandma) to read to them.  Like Shakespeare’s plays performed in an age when, despite England’s relatively literate population, proportionally, not that many people could read – and fewer could write – it was never about literacy.  It was about access to story and rhyme, to an experience; an opportunity to enter in to a shared imaginative world, if you like.

I suppose I could have bought them more audio books (they are really rather fond of Pants, and used to have a very jolly time jumping on the beds to Lenny Henry’s various different versions, the ones that go too fast for you to turn the pages in time and still appreciate the humour in the pictures, or discuss which pants they like the best); I could have bought more films (although, I hate that feeling you get when the actors don’t look the way you had imagined the characters, and I can see, by the way A and L dismiss the Percy Jackson films as Not Right At All, that they feel the same way too).  I suppose I could insist that L reads Anne of Green Gables by herself, even though our copy was old when I first had it, the print is small and it is falling apart. But to me, that would be missing the point.

You don’t need to be able to read it yourself to enjoy a good story, well told, pictures and everything.  It’s about literature, not literacy, and access to it, and that, it seems to me, is an entirely different thing.


Baby Sam playing the piano before he could read music too.

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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