The Whisperings of Books

A previous version of this article first appeared in The Mother Magazine (August/September 2014, issue 65) and is reprinted with permission. This version has been updated.

To get our children to love books, there’s only one thing we really have to do and that is love books ourselves and to let a child come to the task of reading when they are developmentally ready.

I know, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Reading is one of the big childhood milestones, like learning to walk or talk, it is hard to go against the grain and have faith that the wonders of reading will come, when the child is ready. Trying to teach a child whose brain is not developed yet for the task of reading, is harmful. It is harmful to the child’s self-esteem; it is harmful to their future feelings about books and it is harmful to our relationship with them.

‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel’ – Carl W.Buechner

The topic of learning to read is something I feel very strongly about. It is one of the reasons why we initially chose to home educate. I believe passionately in a play-based early childhood, not one which pushes young minds into an academic style of learning.

Young children are concrete learners in their earliest years, learning by doing. A symbolic style of learning (which phonics falls into) comes later. Naturally, most children start to read using a whole word approach, because our brain’s right hemisphere is developed for reading first. The left hemisphere, which will enable the child to decipher longer words using phonics, comes later; in some children, particularly boys, a lot later. Children cannot read effectively until both hemispheres are developed for reading and are working together. This is known as ‘bilateral integration’.

Of course, when a child’s brain is developed sufficiently for symbolic learning is varied, some ‘hyperlexic’ children learn to read at 3, whilst others are not ready till they are 10 or so. Hyperlexia is unusual though, and true hyperlexia is not the same as being taught to read early, instead a hyperlexic child will simply learn to read by a kind of osmosis.

If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn’ – Ignacio Estrada

Sadly, in my years of teaching, I saw many children (mostly boys) who were made to learn to read when they were not ready. What happens in school with a child who falls behind with reading in those precious early years is this: they are given more of the same. Sounds good doesn’t it? More instruction, often in a small group or 1 to 1. Unfortunately more of the same kind of reading instruction which in schools usually means more phonic tuition simply compounds the problem. It’s a vicious cycle: a child cannot read (because they are not ready to); s/he gets further reading instruction; s/he begins to believe they are stupid; s/he starts to dislike reading and avoids it whenever possible; s/he continues to fall further behind in reading……which impacts their skills and motivation in writing….

Is it shocking to know that young children with years of reading instruction in school leave school without being able to read or write? What tends to happen is that eventually teachers and schools give up on those children, and worse still those children give up on themselves.

I realise I am not talking about the majority of school children here, but I care about the minority, even one child leaving school believing deep in their soul that they are worthless is one child too many. No-one is worthless, every child has strengths, but if you can’t read or write in school you quickly sink.

‘Children are made readers in the laps of their parents’ – Emilie Buchwald

That wasn’t going to happen to my children, not if I could help it. I wanted their early years to be filled with love, laughter, endless play, nature, creativity, imagination and yes, books. I felt strongly, there was a different (and better) way to enter the magical world of books and so we didn’t send them to school. Instead I read to them from babyhood and as they grew into toddlers we visited the library every week with armfuls of books and read on the sofa, cuddled up for hours on end.

This simply continued as they grew, until one day at 7 and a half my daughter said she wanted to know how to read and could I help her? She had discovered Peter & Jane books and we read up to level 4, whilst also reading Harry Potter together at bedtime. I also taught her to maximise her visual strength to help her learn some high frequency words she was having trouble with. She did lots of guessing at words at this stage, which I let pass, concentrating on flow and the guessing eventually, quite naturally began to be replaced with accurate decoding. We dabbled with phonics, but to her it just didn’t make sense and had nothing much to do with actually reading and enjoying a book.

She began to get impatient with my slow reading of Harry Potter and so she would take it to bed to try to read ahead herself. Other things she did was listen to lots of story CD’s and also to song lyrics, Nirvana and One Direction mostly! She would listen and try to write the lyrics out. One month before turning 8 she collected a heap of chapter books from the library during our weekly visit and read one of them in the park on the way home.

That was it for her, she could suddenly read anything she picked up. It was like a very clever magic trick.

She is just about to turn 10 next week and it would not be an exaggeration to say that she has been reading pretty much solidly for the last 2 years. We still visit the library every week and she still collects armfuls of books. I try to expand her repertoire with books I think she will enjoy or will stretch her. She has a kindle and she has a vast collection of books on there, mostly her choice but also some I have downloaded as suggestions.

She is a lover of books, maybe she always would have been, but all the hours of listening to quality literature undoubtedly helped attune her to patterns of words, which I suspect made reading easier.

My son loves books too, but his journey has been quite different. It has been more gradual, little bit by little bit. Just as for his sister I have tried to concentrate on loving books, because if you love books then the reading will come at some point, with the right kind of support.

We still read together most evenings and also mornings and afternoons……….I make suggestions or he will pick up something from the library. Currently we are reading ‘My Family and Other Animals’ and we have ‘James and the Giant Peach’ on his list next.

He also reads himself of course, he loves David Walliams but it’s quite a challenge for him so he reads it in bits. The other day I found him reading a paragraph and then acting it out. He was dive bombing on my bed in a fantastical WW2 spitfire. It made my heart fill with love and pride. He was reading, but doing it his way.

There is no substitute for observing our children. They will instinctively know what methods of learning suit them best, and will actively seek out ways to help themselves progress when the time is right. We can watch, learn and use these clues to guide the kind of activities we might offer them.

‘Everyone is a reader – some just haven’t found their favourite book yet’ – Anon

I am my children’s book whisperer, that’s how I tend to see my role in their reading journey. I don’t teach as such, but questions of phonics just come up as we’re reading together or they are reading themselves. Mainly I am there to support them in whatever way they need. I make book suggestions, introduce them to poetry, plays and non-fiction. I read a lot myself and share my thoughts on what I am reading. We discuss books over the breakfast table sometimes, or paint scenes from classics, or visit the places the books are set. We tell each other stories too, on walks for example. Books and stories are simply interwoven into our everyday lives and therefore learning to read becomes a natural and organic process.

Both L and T enjoy magazines too, particularly The Beano. With that in mind I recently bought some back issues of The Pheonix for them, which they enjoyed.

Each child will no doubt travel their own reading journey. They may learn easily early on, or perhaps it will take until they are a lot older to decode fluently. There are no rights or wrongs, as long as the journey is an enriching one, where their self-esteem remains healthy. Some children may need more support, (particularly children with Specific Learning Differences), others little, but we should ensure a child is ready and willing for any help we may give.

We should aim for joy and wonder when opening the magical door of books for our children, because reading is a skill we want them to practise for their whole lives.

‘Put that in your wand & cast it!’ – Harry Potter

N.B. My daughter tried school for 5 months in year 6 (ages 10/11 in UK) having never been to school previously and was immediately tested having never previously sat any kind of test before. She had the second highest reading age in the class.

To me, this is meaningless, but it does help people to understand that learning to read is pretty natural if children have plenty of access to books and are allowed the time and space to do it when they are ready and in ways that feel right to them.

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