It’s an exciting day for many parents when their little one brings their first reading book home from school. Finally – some real learning. No more of this ‘playing in a sand-pit pretending it’s maths nonsense. And of course, you can read, so you have something to bring to the party here. You’ll sit down with your little one every day and read together. It will be glorious. Oh, how you’ll bond.
But no, that doesn’t happen. Well – it might happen for the first week, but before you know it the appearance of the reading book is the catalyst for an almighty stand-off.
MUM Hey Dave (named after his Grandfather), shall we read your reading book.
MUM Oh, now, come on! It will be fun.
DAVE Don’t want to.
MUM Dave, you need to read it. Mrs Teacher sent it home.
DAVE Don’t care. Playing.
MUM Dave, sit down and let’s look at it together. I’ll help you.
MUM I’ll give you chocolate.
DAVE ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh OK.
MUM What’s this word.
DAVE d o g. Gravy!
MUM No. What’s the first letter?
MUM No, look at the first letter
DAVE Fire Extinguisher
MUM Well now you’re just being silly
DAVE I hate reading
MUM So do I!
Familiar? Or perhaps you’d like to avoid this scenario all together! Then read on my lovelies.
TIP 1 – no means no!
If someone were to say to you “Do you want to go to the gym?” and you said “No” how would you feel if you were then dragged down to the gym and forced to work-out anyway? “But it’s good for you” yells a steroid-crazed pumped up instructor, whilst you slowly seeth inside. Next time that lunatic comes near the house, you’ll be hiding your gym stuff so that you don’t have to go.
This is how your child feels when you force them to read.
The following week, the steroid-crazed instructor arrives at your house to see you’ve hidden all clothing containing lycra. Instead of dragging you to the gym, he suggests that perhaps you start with a gentle walk around the park. You agree because the task seems much less daunting. Turns out, at the end of the walk, you quite enjoyed yourself. Of course, you’re not going to tell the instructor that in case he makes you run next time!
Your child is unique. Figure out how they get to walk around the park instead of dragging them to the gym.
TIP 2 – It’s a story – not a decoding exercise
There are 2 sides to reading. Firstly, there is decoding the meaning of each word. But more importantly, there is understanding what those words, put together, are trying to tell you. Reading books, especially the early ones, tend to lack plot and depth of character. In fairness to the writers, it’s hard to create much depth when you only have 6 letters to work with.
Getting the story is more important than getting the words right.
That might sound counterintuitive, but I promise you now, from the bottom of my great big heart, that if you put story above the accuracy of reading, your child will fly.
Imagine you’re at the gym and your instructor has popped you into a step class. It’s your first time – you’re a bit unsure of what you’re doing. The thin, lycra clad woman at the front is showing you what to do. You go wrong – and steroid man is there, in your ear, telling you “you’re doing it wrong”. And not just once. Literally, every time you ‘step’ wrong that man is there, criticising. Just bog off you crazy lycra loony! By the end of the class, you have come to the conclusion that step is rubbish. You don’t like it. You don’t want to go there again.
However, the week after, steroid lycra loony is stuck at home with a ruptured ligament, so you give step another go. You go wrong, but this week it doesn’t matter, and actually, when you manage to get a rhythm going you start to understand the flow of the moves. Your fitibit celebrates that you’ve spent 40 minutes in fat burn. Life is good. Maybe you’ll stick with step classes. You’re getting there, and with a bit more practise you’ll be a whizz.
Find the story and celebrate it. Don’t worry too much about the words unless they get them so wrong that you can’t figure out what the story is! If your child starts to see reading book time as ‘story time’ they will be way more motivated than if they see it as ‘time for my parents to have a go at me!’ Be the fitbit – not the lycra loony!
Tip 3 – Don’t just read the school reading books
Go to the library! Childen who go to the library are way more literate than those who don’t – science has proven this time and time again. Make the time to sit in the library when you have little ones and read there. Take books out of the library yourself. If you have a dedicated kids library, take kids books out of the library for yourself. If you haven’t read them already, the Percy Jackson books are way too good for kids. Give them a go!
Read in bookshops.
Read signs on doors
Read the cards in Cluedo
Words are everywhere. Make it fun. Reward reading.
Tip 4 – The long-term goal is a child who reads for pleasure
Ultimately a child who becomes a reader for pleasure tends to get better grades when they take their GCSEs. Whole grades better. There is a tonne of science to prove this. Your goal here should be to create and submerge your child in an environment where reading for pleasure is the norm.
If your child isn’t having any fun with stories, they won’t want to read them for themselves. It’s that simple.
By that logic, if your child doesn’t want to read stories, it’s because they not having any fun when they do.
It’s not the child. It’s you! You’re being boring. Stop it!
Make the reading book experience more fun. If that involves chocolate, so be it! But make the experience of reading bigger than just the reading book. Bedtime stories are scientifically proven to help children learn to read. Stories at any time are proven to help children learn to read for themselves. Do as you would have them do, not as you say, because they don’t listen to you but they will copy you!
Of course, the biggest and most valuable tip is ‘start from the day that they are born.’ Bring them up to ‘know’ that reading is pleasurable because you’ve been doing it from the start.
But if you missed that boat, it’s not too late to start.
Tip 5 – If none of these tips work
Reading is a part of learning the English language. It’s interlinked with talking – a good talker is normally a good reader. It’s not a stand-alone skill. Don’t think of it that way.
If your child really won’t read, then work on the other areas of their language instead. Keep talking to them. Introduce them to bigger longer words. Sit and watch a film with them and talk to them about the story. Actively seek out good stories.
Find books that are all about their interests. If your child is interested in Peppa Pig, read Peppa Pig books to them. If they only want to know about dinosaurs, buy them a dinosaur book. There is more to reading than reading!
Kids develop at different rates. In the UK, we start teaching our kids to read a whole year earlier than most other nations. There is a compelling argument that we start them too young. For some kids, it’s fine. For others, they’re just not ready.
You don’t have a problem unless your child reaches 7 and they still aren’t reading. Only then should you panic. Don’t get your child a tutor, aged 4, because you’ve discovered that one of the other kids in the class is blending and your child isn’t. That actually happened at my daughters’ school. My child was the one blending! I still carry the guilt with me to this day.
Onwards and upwards everybody. Remember, if it’s not fun, stop doing it and figure out a way to make it fun.
And above all, avoid lycra loonies at the gym!
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SARAH CANTRILL is a woman on a mission to inspire every young child to become a reader for pleasure. She is the Artistic Director & Founder of STORY STORKS, a social enterprise that delivers interactive story workshops to early years children and their grown-ups, that help kids to fall in love with stories and develop their early language skills meaning that they have an easier time of learning to read when the time is right. She is also passionate about helping and supporting parents through the early years and lobbying for a better understanding of them and the issues they present. Occasionally she also speaks up for the kids too!