Last weekend I experienced deja vu, I was with my five and seven year old grandsons and was given the task of listening to them read. Their school uses the Oxford Reading Tree and the experience was equivalent to pulling teeth. They had to be persuaded, cajoled, bribed and threatened to complete the task. The books were unremittingly boring, the characters unrealistic, the plot contrived. I noticed that 7 year-old Ciaran had been on the same book for two weeks and the message to parents in his reading book was to ensure he ‘read it again without mistakes’. He did make mistakes, but none of them spoiled the sense of the book. He showed me that he was a real reader, predicting what would come, not reading every word – we know that no one does that – but because he had made mistakes he had to continue with the book until he was word perfect. He was so frustrated! What was he learning? That the teacher valued his ability to accurately decode the words, not his ability to predict words which more accurately demonstrated his reading skills. I’m afraid I wrote in his book that he had read the book without error and hope they would give him a new book on Monday.
I then showed him a book I had recently bought. It is a picture book that is written as a dialogue between animals. I invited Ciaran to read it with me and take the main part. His initial reluctance “not reading again, Nana”, turned to enthusiasm as he realised that this was a real book with a real story with issues that needed thinking about. Over the next 30 minutes Ciaran had read this book to his mum, his dad, his Grandpa, his baby brother and his 5 year-old brother. Each reading demonstrated his capacity for reading with expression and even 1 year old Max was engaged by his telling – what a contrast to the dull, unexpressive, boring way he had read The Oxford Reading Tree. Five year old Lucas, an extremely reluctant reader – we had not yet managed to get him to read his reading book – also wanted to read the book and they decided to read it together taking the different parts in the book. The book had plenty of repetition for the beginning reader and Lucas was soon able to read the book independently and was enthusiastically reading it to his dad. Not because he wanted to demonstrate his success in reading, but because he wanted to share a good story.
So what about my feeling of deja vu? This whole experience reminded me of the distress experienced by my own daughter, now 36 who had to work her way through an equally dull reading scheme – The Village with Three Corners. The characters of Jennifer Yellow Hat and Roger Red Hat are indelibly embedded in my mind. Each day she would bring home flash cards – she had to know her flash cards before she was given a book. She kept getting ‘was’ and ‘saw’ mixed up and the more we tried the more she got it wrong, leading to fear of even looking at the cards. Every evening after school was ruined with the daily battle to read the words. I remember her screaming, “I just can’t do it!” I didn’t know then that she was dyslexic and would struggle with reading all through school – yet she loved books and loved being read to. This month she has just achieved her PhD but it has been a long journey to overcome her loss of self-esteem because she couldn't do what the teachers expected, to believe in herself as a competent and highly intelligent person. Her upset when she wasn’t allowed a new reading book because she couldn’t read all the flash cards broke my heart. It had nothing to do with her intelligence – she had a learning difficulty that unfortunately schools in those days didn’t recognize. My other two children had no difficulty learning to read – immersed in books from babyhood they just learnt to read by being read to, by being exposed to books that they loved, books that were real, not the artificial creation of a reading scheme. My son was three when we moved to Wales and his school used Ladybird Readers. Despite the fact that by five he could already read, the teacher insisted he worked his way through the reading scheme. I remember one page of the book asked, “Where is Janet?” – he threw the book across the room shouting, “I don’t care!” Of course he didn’t care – I couldn’t understand why was he being forced to work his way through these dull stories when he could be reading real books. Fortunately we had lots of books at home and he is still an avid reader.
So why in Wales do we have 30% of adults functionally illiterate when all this time and effort is put into teaching reading? Why do we have children who are reluctant to read? Why is reading a source of conflict in homes up and down the country as children are sent home with their reading books? The answer is that the reading schemes are boring! They do not engage children. They are seen as a chore, or a competition to get onto the next book. They are a way to rank children into good and poor readers – when in fact all children can learn to read. What children need is immersion in story – every child loves story. But when those stories are specially written to teach reading they do not appeal to the children and in my experience children learn to read in spite of them, not because of them.
My fervent wish is that all my grandsons could move to Wales and attend a lovely Primary School that I know well. Here I see children who love stories, who are immersed in stories everyday, who are seen as writers of stories, who love reading and love writing. I visited the reception class last week to tell them a story and they sat enraptured. They didn’t want just one story – I had to tell two. Then they showed me the stories they had dictated to their teacher – wonderful stories, which showed that these four-year old children already know what stories are about. All the stories had characters and setting and plot and they sat and were fully engaged as I read all 25 stories to the class. The stories the children write become part of their reading material and the children experience what it is like to be an author. When I asked them if they liked stories every child said, “Yes!” When I asked who liked writing stories, all of them put their hands up. The majority of these children will have no problem learning to read, they don’t need a reading scheme, they need real stories and real books to feed their imaginations and expand their vocabulary. And for those like my daughter who experience difficulties, the school will put in the support necessary so they can make progress.
What can parents do? Share stories with your children, go to the library and borrow books, buy whatever you can, tell them traditional fairy tales, encourage them to tell you stories and write them down for them and read them back to them. Let them act out their stories – give free rein to their imaginations – and you will be rewarded with children who will gain a lifelong love of books and learning – the greatest gift we can give them. I feel so sad when I think of the battle that goes on in my grandchildren’s home every week as the children have to be forced to sit down and read their reading books – that is not what reading should be about – it is stressful for children and parents. Imagine how much happier everyone would feel if every evening the whole family shared a wonderful story instead. It makes sense.