Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Teaching your child to read

I know plenty of parents in England, but I haven't met anyone who has taught their child to read. Parents believe that school is the place where children should learn to read; it requires specialist training and resources; worst of all, they can screw up their kids if they get it wrong. I don't know where these ideas came from, but they are widespread and also completely untrue.

Many children don't learn to read at school, and never recover. Nearly half the prisoners in England's jails are illiterate: given a passage of a few short sentences, they can't understand its meaning.

Over half the adult population of England read at a level below that required for a good GCSE pass at age 16: they can't enjoy reading a novel because of the effort it takes.

Dyslexia is on the rise. This is where bright children have reading difficulties, which usually leads to academic failure in secondary school, where much of the curriculum relies on a minimum literacy level. It seems particularly tragic when bright children are robbed of their intelligence in this way.

It's natural for a parent to want the best education for their child, and it's relatively straightforward to guarantee they can read to a high level. Just follow these three steps: turn off the TV; read and talk to your child; teach your child to read. Simple.

Turn off the TV

For many years, researchers have seen a link between the amount of television children watch and their literacy. The cheapest and easiest method of improving your child's reading is to turn off the TV. If you put a television into a child's bedroom, it will reduce their intelligence - your children's teachers should tell you this, but they don't want to hurt your feelings. The same goes for video games and computers, I'm afraid.

When not watching television, your child is running round the house shouting; playing with dolls; annoying you in the kitchen; whining for chocolate biscuits; pretending to be a Dalek; spending half an hour washing their hands while muttering a Disney tune over and over and over again. Almost all of this infuriating nonsense involves some form of communication with other people or with themselves, which television doesn't.

TV is sedation and it makes kids stupid. If you want your child to read well, they need limits on the amount of TV they watch, because reading relies on good language skills which children hone through practice.

Older children when given the choice between reading a book, watching TV, surfing the web, or playing a video game will choose anything but the book. If you want your child to read well, don't give them the option. Reading requires practice.

I lie to my children that the TV is broken and I don't know how to fix it. It's the easiest way.

Read and talk to your child

University-educated mothers have children who do better at school. It turns out that bright mums read to their children and don't stop talking. Those kids from an early age have their heads filled with words, and know that books are wonderful collections of princesses, aliens, dinosaurs, pirates, monsters, and children just like them.

You don't have to have a great education to copy this trick, it's just that well-educated mothers find it more fun than those who don't often read books. If you don't like reading, force yourself: after a few weeks it becomes a habit. Just set aside an hour each night for bedtime stories. At the weekend, instead of watching a video, read a book.

Join a library and take out the maximum number of books, week after week, until your children have favourite books that they request. Buy a book of children's book recommendations. The Rough Guide to Children's Books has a great list of new and old children's stories, but appears to be out of print. The Read-Aloud Handbook is extremely good, even if it was obviously written for an American audience. Buy one, and make your own list of books you'd like to read.

Talking to your children also helps. We all think we talk to our children, but it turns out that some people talk more than others. Try to keep up a running commentary while you're at the shops: "We're in the salad aisle now, and we need to find tomatoes for lunch. Can you see the tomatoes? What colour are they? Yes, they're red. And what are these called? They're cucumbers, but we don't need any cucumbers; we need bananas. Can you find the bananas? Who are the bananas for?"

You'll feel like a complete nutcase the first few times you do this in public, but this is what highly educated mums do all the time. Practice and habit make it seem less ridiculous. Trust me, it will make your kids brighter. Those hundreds of thousands of words they hear from you will help to build the groundwork for reading.

Teach your child to read

It takes around 100 hours to teach reading from scratch, and this is spread over about nine months. You have a huge advantage over school teachers in that you can give your sole attention to a single child, for as long as it takes to make them into a great reader. Much of the art of the reception-class teacher is focused on the mastery of a classroom and detailed record-keeping that are necessary to teach 20 children at once. You need none of that, which is nice.

Most people can't remember how they learned to read, and so feel inadequately equipped to teach their children. It's all pretty straightforward. You teach the sounds of the letters in some way that the child can easily remember such as a rhyme: "B stands for /b/ in /b/, /b/, bat. C stands for /c/ in /c/, /c/, cat..." Then you begin to blend the letter sounds together to make words: "/b/, /a/, /t/... baaat... bat". This is known as synthetic phonics, and it's the way all children in England are now taught to read. Once simple blends are mastered, you move onto special combinations of letters like 'th', 'sh', 'ph', etc. Eventually, multi-syllabic words are introduced and English words that follow no sensible rules (so-called "sight words", that just have to be memorised by sight).

The main problem for a parent is finding a way of doing this that doesn't involve training to be a primary school teacher. One of the systems used in English schools is called Jolly Phonics, which is a huge collection of teaching resources and training guides that schools can buy. I found it totally useless to someone who doesn't know how to plan a lesson or who doesn't have the time.

Fortunately, there is one system that is aimed specifically at parents. It is called The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading, and at less than £20 it's a small fraction of the cost of Jolly Phonics. Lessons are fully planned, starting with a 10-minute lesson each day learning the sound of a letter, leading nine months later to half-hour lessons on sight words and uncommon word-endings.

All you have to do is read through the lesson so you know what's happening, perform the lesson from a script in the book, and follow up later in the day with a game. It really is that simple. You don't need any special equipment: just the book, a marker pen and some card.

One final point

I've suggested three simple ways that you can use to ensure your child will read. All three require consistency. Making TV rules is worthless unless you and your children follow those rules; reading bedtime stories for a week then stopping is a good idea that has failed; teaching your child the sounds of almost all the letters, then giving up at the first tantrum will not help.

Good luck.

1 comment:

  1. I could not agree more. From the work I have done in English classrooms there is a direct correlation between the children who tell me they "hate reading" and can't get past the first page and those who have not been read to as kids. I still read to my oldest daughter, and I can't really see that stopping until she asks me to - we read, we talk about subjects we might never discuss otherwise, and we make sense of themes and central ideas of big texts just by chatting. As a result she has a wide vocabulary and even though is extrememly shy is totally capbable of articulating her feelings when she needs to. So many children I meet in schools just can't express themselves like this and it will put them at a real disadvantage...