This year I am proud to say that I will tip the thousand mark on the number of children that I have helped to learn how to read.
As a primary school librarian I have made reader development my focus and have taken this experience outside the school in my role as a reader development consultant, but the real joy is in working with children and seeing them hit that epiphany moment when printed words suddenly makes sense and they begin to grow as readers.
Sadly this is exactly when a large number of parents think that their job is done – “my child can read, they’ve finished the set reading scheme, and so that’s my part over and now it’s all up to the school”.
Argh!!! This is only the beginning of the adventure, don’t quit now, the fun is just starting!
Firstly – talk to your children. This sounds like a simple thing but it is a fact that children are largely spoken to using what is known as Business Talk. These are simplistic low-level functional sentences designed to instruct. “Eat your dinner” “Put on your shoes” “Pick up your bag” “Have you found your pencil?” These form the bulk of conversations with children and are fine as they need clear instructions to perform such actions with success. However, we also need to be exposing our children to higher level and more ambitious vocabulary so that they can learn higher level linguistic structure through inference and contextualisation. “look at the silvery moon, how perfectly round it is.” They don’t know that they are learning punctuation and ambitious vocabulary; they just enjoy being spoken to like this.
As soon as they hit infant school, drop the baby talk and make sure that they are saying all of the letters in a word – it is very difficult for a child to visualise the structure of a word if they are not saying them. For example, if a child constantly says “nuffink” how can we expect them to be able to understand how to spell it? This has nothing (nuffink!) to do with accents, regional or otherwise; I have seen children rocket with their reading once they are reminded to pronounce all of the sounded letters and consonant blends in a word, and they still have their charming accents at the end of the process!
Next, let’s choose a book. Allow your child to be drawn to something that they like. In your public library ask what categorising system they use; do they have spine labels to help your child choose from the right section for their ability? I teach the children my Five Finger Rule, and it’s so simple. Find a page with good amount of writing on and have a try. Put down one finger for each word you really can’t get and if you get to five fingers on one page, then it’s not the book for you YET. I tell them to make a little note of the book so that they can come back to it in a little while, a couple of months or so. When they come back to the book and can read it fluently it allows them to see for themselves just how much they are improving – self-belief is a powerful tool in reader progression.
Ok, so we’ve chosen a book that suits us, now what?
There are three strategies to use when turning your child from a first reader, to a successful and free reader.
- Read with your child. Guide them through the text, don’t be afraid to correct words that they stumble on but make sure you explain the meaning too. Why not take the opportunity to look it up together so that they can also understand how a simple dictionary works? Try to encourage them to read with flow and expression. I usually tell them that punctuation feels sad and lonely if it’s ignored, that seems to work.
- Let your child read alone. No correction, no restraints, no cares about time or how much they get wrong, it really doesn’t matter as long as they are enjoying the process. Let a favourite aunt or uncle give them a reading light so that they can sneakily read. Litter the house with nice library books casually left around so that they will randomly pick them up.
- Read to your child. This is one of the most commonly dropped strategies, which completely baffles me as it’s the most fun! I am stunned that so many parents feel that their child is too old to be read to, and too old for bedtime stories. Listening to stories with higher level and more ambitious vocabulary allows your child to acquire new vocabulary through contextualisation and improves their own reading flow and comprehension. These are vital elements that not only improve their abilities as readers, but these represent transferable skills that have an impact on their writing too.
You can’t just cherry-pick one or two of these strategies; the most successful readers are the ones whose parents or carers are using all three of these on a regular basis. You don’t need to do them every single day, but they should form a part of your weekly life and lack of time is no excuse. Ditch a soap opera, switch off the tv, make time – this is important stuff we are doing here people!! The only acceptable reasons for not doing this are a) lack of money for books (for which we have public libraries- use them or lose them folks!) and b) low-level parental literacy.
That last one is a terrible shame - but those of us who can help, should help. Schools can do their part to support the children of low-level literacy parents but they can only do so much as there are only so many teaching hours available in the day. Public libraries provide storytime sessions for pre-school and infant children, but why not offer to start up a 7 – 9 storytime after school? Why not start one up yourself somewhere? You would genuinely be making a difference to both their reading and writing ability and (speaking as someone who daily reads aloud to 7 – 11 year olds) it is the most wonderful and rewarding thing to do.
Trust me on this, once you’ve looked out onto a room full of ten year olds who are open-mouthed and hanging on your every word as you roll out a story full of thrills and adventure you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it!
Dawn Finch is a children’s librarian and reader development consultant based in Hertfordshire. She has been working in libraries for over twenty-three years and has specialised in children’s books and reading for almost a decade. Dawn is a member of the London and South-East committee for the School Libraries Group and is an avid library supporter. She is a published children’s author and her first book, Brotherhood of Shades, is a spooky story for 9+ readers which is now available to download from Harper Collins or by using this Amazon link.
If you have any questions for Dawn you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org