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My son Kieran, aged five, is the proud possessor of the ability to read one hundred and eighteen words. I know because his teacher told me last week. Hoppety skippety jump! I feel rather smug – he hasn't even finished his first term in Year One yet. Two more in the bag and I'll join him up at ciao - expect him to hog the front page between four and five on weekdays! Like most five-year-olds these days he has vast consumer experience and could certainly comment on a wide range of products. From "Ed, Edd and Eddy" through "Walking With Dinosaurs" (both five stars I believe) to the merits of variously themed sets of Lego I'm sure his thoughts would be at least "helpful". He needs just two more words.
The thing is I know he knows a lot more than two more. Let me see, "Scooby" and "Doo", "Star"and ‘Wars", "Jimmy" and "Hasselbaink" and "sniper" to name but a few. However, all joking aside you should realise that those one hundred and eighteen words are from, I believe, the Key Stage One list; you know, the National Curriculum. I'm not that keen on it to be honest. Why does he have to be judged on his knowledge of only certain words? Why is phonics the latest thing? Why do I have to force my children into a particular way of learning that may, but may not, suit them? I know, I know; there are thirty children in the class and only the one teacher and I'm not saying phonics is not a valid way of teaching children to read, I'm just saying it’s not the only one. And I'm not really complaining – I'm getting an education for them after all and actually I like the school Kieran attends; it's small, friendly and generally a happy place to be. It simply seems to me that the recent cries over declining standards in the literacy of school leavers have provoked a rather knee jerk reaction from the system. It worries me a little; where is all the fun going?
Literacy is vital; we all know that. It’s vital for a full life in work, rest AND play. Surely though it should be a vital joy, not a vital chore. The move back toward rigidity and regimentation in the school timetable worries me in that it may have an opposite effect to that intended. Ho hum, I suppose it will produce a capable workforce, a generation of capable little taxpayers-to-be, and that is clearly important for a lot of other things. I just hope some emphasis on nurturing a love of reading for the "rest" and "play" parts will remain in addition to the drive to produce adults fit for the workplace, that's all. So, at home, I'm busily trying to make literacy come with some fun attached and really I suppose that’s the best thing we parents can do. This fun lark is not necessarily easy. You can't just spend your time reading the papers or chatting on the phone when you've children around. Jeez, sometimes you even have to wait until they're in bed before you can get online and log into ciao! This is without mentioning the daily grind of work and running a house. It takes up your precious time, fun – you have to be creative. It's easy to put a video on for them to watch while you quickly cook the dinner, do the dusting or any of those other necessary things but it's not going to get you far.
I know I'm wandering but the point I'm really trying to make is that you can't expect your children to show imagination, or curiosity, or a thirst for learning if you don't show those things yourself. They won't feel enthusiasm for words and their rhythms, meanings and endless possibilities if you don't feel enthusiasm for these things yourself. Motivation is what it's all about. So what can you do? Well of course it's incredibly important to read to them while they're young and I think most of us have a bedtime story routine – the longer the better - but you can encourage literacy in all sorts of other, perhaps even more important ways, especially while they think they’re playing. Catch them unawares!
There are a couple of things we do just now that both my children seem to enjoy – so I can give you one or two ideas. Boys will be boys (I started out a PC parent but things just don't seem to have turned out in a PC way, heehee) and we have a lot of cops and robber style games most days. So we make "WANTED" posters and ransom notes - drawing pictures and cutting out letters from old newspapers and magazines and sticking them on. They love to deface pictures of anyone they know scanned and printed on low resolution. I shan't mention some of the crimes of which I currently stand accused!
We also, fresh from the recent purchase of an Edward Lear book, make up limericks, again about each other. Clearly at seven and five, neither of them can compose a limerick for themselves but they'll certainly supply ideas to work with and, as usual, take particular pleasure in the rather risque (to them at least) game of poking fun at people they know. Needless to say more often than not it's me who is the butt of their jokes. Once one is ready they'll recite it over and over again feeling the rhythm of simple verse that is all the better for being fresh to them. They call them their "brand new poems".
Conor and Kieran both use the internet, and they both have an email address of their own. They've been emailing indulgent grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family since they were just the tiniest of toddlers. They've also spent time talking on Instant Messenger programs (tailored to accept messages only from lists of people we know and trust) for ages now. Why? Because children love to communicate, they also love technology. And while they've been having fun, feeling grown up using the computer, I know they've been practising their literacy skills by reading what's sent to them and trying to reply. (Here, thanks should go to my pal Keith, aka Alkaliguru, who's spent endless hours playing Instant Messenger guessing games when I'm sure he's had lots of other things he could be doing). What they write or say doesn't really matter, as long as they're using the written [typed] word to communicate. Kieran, for example, spent months and months emailing "hello nanny 127ebfuw4ldyer love kieran" but what does that matter? He was enjoying himself, his besotted grandparents thought it was super, and now he's just starting to want to give some real news in the emails he sends. Using the plethora of e-cards available online, both to send to them and for them to send, is another super idea. We use the ones found on the CBeebies and the Care2 sites especially.
Oh, there are so many other things to try. Make the library a weekly destination. Go to www.myhomelibrary.org and print off some bookplates encouraging them to see books as precious, personal items. Show them www.youngabctales.com and www.cool-reads.co.uk and get them writing reviews of the books they've read and seeing them published on the internet. Play the silly old game of Consequences and let them write rude things. Ask them to help you find the right items in the supermarket by reading the labels. Read books yourself! Tell them all about what you read and why you liked it or didn't like it. Buy the audiobook of the bedtime story you've just read and play it in the car on journeys while they follow along with the book on their lap. Point out articles in the newspapers that you think might be of interest to them (the latest gossip on, sigh, Popstars, for instance). Kieran was really interested in the recent talk of asteroid strikes, for example, so we found and read together, all the articles on that.
But, above everything else, make it all FUN. I rarely set limits for either of my children on such things as the amount of time spent watching television or playing on the Playstation. What's the point? Unfortunately the various shows on Cartoon Network, Pokemon, Buffy the Boring Vampire Slayer and all those other things are the talk of the playground. I don’t want my children to be excluded from that so they watch their share and play their share. But Conor and Kieran, like all children, are naturally curious. Rather than stop them I tempt them away. I try to busy myself with something that looks interesting. I pick up one of their books maybe and start reading it aloud to myself – usually within minutes I find them next to me, listening. Or I get some old newspapers and magazines out and start cutting out letters to make one of those ransom notes. They soon rush off to find their scissors. Why abandon them to the evils of playground pressure by banning these things? Work, rest AND play remember? It's all got its place.
You'll forgive the rather colloquial and very unliterary tone this opinion about literacy has taken. I'm hoping that you'll realise a love of words is not stuffy. It's not something that you only take notice of in serious and studious moments. It's not just an aid to passing exams and getting a decent job, although that's certainly important. It isn't a ho-hum-isn't-that-interesting kind of experience; it's exciting, exhilarating. As I said before literacy may be a vital chore but it’s also a vital joy – one well worth passing on to your children. I may trust the school to teach my children HOW to read but I think I hope to teach them how to CARE about reading.
Oh, and if you think of any bright ideas for other things to try do let me know. Answers on a postcard please!
Great review. I quite like the phonics system of learning. James picked this up by himself when he was 3, and was reading stage 5 at the age of 4. Having said that, word recognition is also very important, and many words are not phonically spelled, so I have to agree with you on that one. I also like computer games for the kids, and love the starting school scheme. Sam xxx
teacherofhooch 16.02.2004 14:21
I know your article is old but I found it interesting and felt I wanted to comment. Do hope you read the comment. It is a great op and the ideas and tips you give are still currently relevant for reading. I particulary wanted to comment on the Literacy in schools. When first using the Literacy Strategy in school it was like a straight jacket.
Like you I encouraged and played games with my children at home. I was horrified with the new school scheme. However like all school schemes we manage to get around them and now thankfully, many of the ideas you suggested are actually put into our planning (This does though depend on the teachers!)Children need to be interested to learn.
By the way I don't know if you have heard about this as not many people have but the government realised that the creative side of schooling is lacking! (Why didn't they ask us?)They want us to teach 7 1/2 hrs of literacy a week , 5 hours of Numeracy and the other subjects as well as expressive arts, drama and art are lacking we also have to fit that in . So the only way is to fit it all in with literacy /history etc. The old cross curricular approach. I know we are going round in circles.