Once a week we send two “reading books” home from the school where I teach.We also send a library book, English and Maths homework from year 2 onwards; requests for help with projects like family trees, local history or holiday diaries; pleas for junk modelling materials and Sainsbury’s vouchers; payment demands (technically optional) for school outings/ visiting performers/ tuition in musical instruments, sports or drama; slips to be returned with appointments for parents evenings and curriculum information sessions; reminders to bring in PE kit /suncream /rainwear / asthma pump /no cuddly toys in in case they cause arguments; occasional instructions for special clothing, eg red for Red Nose day, jeans on Jeans for Genes Day, superheroes on – you get the picture – or once, crazy hair (can’t remember why)… Then there’s a newsletter containing information about everything else, except what’s forgotten and has to be disseminated via separate letters, and what is officially copied from Important Sources such as Ofsted or the Government. Most of this is on the website too. Simples.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that reading with your child can seem a bit of a chore, let alone recording their progress in the diary that arrives with the book. Here’s a little bit of context, and some ideas to help resolve the problem.
When I first started teaching infants two decades ago after switching from secondary, most children had no computers at home, there was very little other homework, and the parents took the reading book very seriously. An unfortunate few took it too seriously in fact: they sussed within days that the bookshelves numbered 1-9 along the long central corridor reflected their child’s reading level. We overheard playground conversations: “My son’s on bookcase 4.” “Oh is that all? Shahzad’s on bookcase 7!” Cue first parent to teacher: “Why isn’t Deepak on shelf 7 like Shahzad?” We had children told to fetch books from shelves they couldn’t yet cope with, parents surreptitiously swapping books or rejecting those with large print/ few words/ bright pictures in favour of “chapter books” that their bemused child couldn’t make head or tail of, and what had started with just a few parents had become a worry for everyone.
So we jumbled them up, chucking out the existing reading scheme which was about some deeply boring people with the unlikely names of Roger Red Hat and somebody Yellow Hat who lived in the anodyne Village with Three Corners among badly drawn cottages and unrecognisable jalopy style cars, the text only marginally less boring than Janet and John but with cheaper pictures. We sorted our stock into four wide ability bands, a set each for each class. Parents and children both took longer to work out who was “winning”, and the unpleasant competitive pressure on the children diminished. We added new books and from various schemes, mostly from the Oxford Reading Tree. Aside from more characters with stupid names (Biff? Chip? Kipper, why?) ORT books are much more attractive and children still love them now. We included “real” books (remember that debate? We thought there was a place for both.)
Up to recently, the system worked well because almost all the children read their books regularly at home. Many now don’t. They complain of too much homework or tuition, busy parents who don’t have time, or just shrug that they “forgot”. The parents rarely write in the reading diaries, but they do request more maths homework or ask how they can help their children through SATs. So it’s not that the parents don’t care, but something isn’t working in terms of finding reading at home a valuable, educational, enjoyable activity. Yet all the research agrees that parents who regularly appreciate sharing books with their sons and daughters produce happier, more mentally healthy, socially adaptable, empathetic and higher achieving children than parents who don’t. Especially if they don’t wait for school days to make a start!
So how can we make it easier for parents (and please for parents also read carers, childminders, family friends, grandparents…)? Here are some practical ideas that have worked well in school, and there’s no reason not to try them at home. Not everything will work for every different family – the last thing I want to provide here is yet another compulsory checklist for how to be a good parent, but I hope everyone finds at least something here helpful. Often just 10 minutes a day will do!
- Have fun with the text. Read in different voices, silly voices, ham up the expression with exaggerated snoring or weeping or evil chuckles. Try regional and foreign accents. Try singing it or rapping it.
- If it’s hard going, the parent could read alternate pages. The child may choose the page with least text and read that and parent takes the bigger chunks. (Always swap at the end of a sentence if it runs across two pages.)
- Play “full stop police”. Full stops are the equivalent of red traffic lights! Police officer (child or parent) claps or blows a whistle at each full stop to make the reader halt. (This helps children become aware of phrasing and punctuation.) Or bounce a ball for each full stop.
- “Be the teacher”, reading the book to dolls or teddies and ask the teddies comprehension questions, or a younger sibling. They need to listen carefully so you must read clearly and make sure they can see the pictures!
- Deliberate mistakes – insert a non existent character, change an ending, replace every seventh word with “bath plug” and see if your child notices (I’m getting a bit subversive here, but the point is to have fun).
- Choose a character each and only read the sentences with that character’s name in it.
- The parent reads dialogue, and the child reads narration, or vice versa. Over time, this helps children to distinguish between the two.
- Act out scenes or stories. Behave as though you’re one of the characters for the day, or just during supper.
- Your child may bring home a book that’s in two languages. Whether you know the other language or not, discuss why this might be and how the text differs from English.
- Finish one book before starting another (unless you’re hating it – see below). Make sure you and your child know what has gone before – eg the Magic Key adventures start when the key glows, the children shrink and go through a magic doll’s house into an adventure; Narnia is accessed via a wardrobe (in the most famous story). You’d be surprised how many children don’t notice they’ve picked up book 2 before book 1.
- If your child brings home a book of poetry, try learning one each and recite them to each other with lots of expression and body language. Choose a favourite and stick to that if you don’t want to read everything in the collection.
- Read in a comfy place you both like. A favourite sofa, or with cushions on a rug in the garden. Not while you’re driving with the child on the back seat (which may suit you) or under the kitchen table (which may be your child’s choice). If you can’t manage it this week, ask someone else to listen instead, and present it as a treat for both.
- Encourage slow, clear reading. Tell them it isn’t an Olympic race – there’s no gold medal for reaching the end first. Demonstrate – breathlessly – how silly manic reading can sound!
- Enjoy the rhythms of the text – The Cat in the Hat or The Gruffalo are great for this.
- Mouth the words on a page silently to your child and see if the child can lipread them. Then swap.
- Tell the child to miss out a word or line or page at random and you’ll see if you can spot it – do this again the other way round.
- Use a favourite birthday card as a bookmark, or make one for or with your child with a favourite character or picture.
- “Improve” a very old battered copy with sellotape (please). Schools try to weed these out but money is tight! Talk about any older children or grown ups you know who may have brought home the very same book (it’s worth checking the publication date in the small print to see how long this book may have been going back and forth).
- Accept your child’s choice 80% of the time, even if you’re fed up with endless books about football or star wars or princesses.
- Retell the story in your own mother tongue, if you were raised speaking a different language. That way grandparents who maybe don’t speak English can join in.
- Talk about things that come up that are clearly out of date, and why. A child will have no idea what putting a film in a camera means, for example and if they don’t get an explanation it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to read without understanding.
- “Doing the reading book” should be neither punishment or reward – a good read should be its own reward. But see below*
- Avoid putting pressure on children to “go to the next level” (give it time, then see the teacher if you’re really worried they’ve plateaued).
- There’s no need to finish a “chapter book” in a week. But if you’re reading the book bit by bit, stop reading at logical points – paragraph or chapter ends, or just when the action changes.
- Relate the pictures or story to real life. Have you visited these settings? Have you had a similar misunderstanding/ family event/ special day? Peace at Last is good for this.
- You may have to point out or explain jokes in pictures or text – young children love humour but they can find it hard to spot.
- Who might the author be? Do you think they’re a funny person like Allan Ahlberg or perhaps a bit grouchy (Roald Dahl comes to mind!)
- Can you spot Floppy (the ORT dog) in real life? Could your child be a character in this story? What would their role be? What magic key adventure could your family go on? Why is the Gran so crazy? Or whatever your school’s reading scheme involves…
- Keep discussing the pictures even when they move on to more complex texts. They’re there for a reason. Do they match the text? Are they any good – children’s book illustrators range from absolutely wonderful to dire.Could you or your child draw better pictures? These are family favourites of ours:
- If your child has friends whose parents don’t speak English could you offer your help over coffee to go through some of the reading books with them? That way their English improves and you may even find things in the books you didn’t realise were there.
Maybe your child prefers non fiction- some children do. Ask them to teach you things you didn’t know, picking out the most important/interesting/serious/silly things. Let your child read their own book instead – (just let the teacher know that’s what you’re doing).
*Don’t stop at the first yawn, but stop at the second. Reading is worth making an effort with, but not worth turning into a chore. You can give yourself a reward after the child’s in bed – I used to find a glass of white wine and my own choice of book worked well. (Does your child see you read? That would help them know you think it’s worthwhile.)
A couple more don’ts:
Don’t go on and on about phonics and sounding out. If your child points out a sound, praise and encourage them, but the overall meaning is always, always more important (whatever the government says!) They get enough phonics at school, and sounds and words almost always have to combine into phrases and sentences before they mean anything. (But you could find ones that don’t: “Fire!” “Pudding!” “Naughty!”)
Don’t assume because your child can read a text correctly or even with apparent fluency, that means they’ve necessarily understood what’s going on. Most adult readers can, technically, read a page of Italian, or a Physics textbook, and sound more or less right, without understanding a word of the content. Clues include your child ignoring punctuation or making mistakes without noticing, reading without any expression, and not being able to remember where they were up to, or what’s happened so far.
If you or your child really don’t like a book, stop reading it. Very briefly note why you didn’t like it in the diary. You’re allowed not to like a book (and to disagree with each other), just as you may dislike certain clothes, pictures or music. There are enough good books in the world for everyone not to waste time on ones they aren’t appreciating.
And one final do: When your child leaves, if you can afford it please donate one of the books he/she liked best to the school library (if there still is one!) or reading boxes, with a message inside from them saying when they were at the school and that this was their favourite book. Years down the line, it may be that very message or that very book that kickstarts another child’s love of reading.
© Jessica Norrie 2016