When my son was less than 6 months old, we were given a cloth bag full of books by the health visitor. Bookstart had a parent guide explaining how important it was to read to your baby and so we diligently started – even though he couldn’t sit up yet and we had to hold the books away from him so he didn’t take a chunk out of a tasty corner. Everywhere we went we were surrounded with books and told how important reading was. The local Surestart centre hosted playgroups where they went to great effort to recreate books like Dear Zoo and the Hungry Caterpillar with puppets and toys, and of course every session ended with a story, read from a book. Princess Charlotte (aged 2) had just started an exclusive nursery who boast that with them ‘children embark on the first stages of learning to read, write and to understand simple numbers with the minimum of pressure’.
The message couldn’t be clearer. It’s never too young to start introducing literacy. Fun, tactile and chewable though the books may be, reading them rather than eating them or ripping them up is an adult agenda which it’s unlikely many pre-verbal babies would seek out for themselves. We are obsessed with getting children to decode text – you can buy flash cards for your baby and books on how to teach them to read before they can use the potty. When I looked around schools for my son (who was three at the time), a focus for all of them was their reading strategy, they had phonics groups in reception, parent volunteers listening to reading every day and colour coded books to bring home each night. We were given lists of key words which the children should have learnt to read in the summer before they started reception (when my son was still 3), and told how crucially important our eager participation in this great project of learning to read would be. It is as if, as a society, we are all terrified of the prospect of a child who does not learn to read – and in order to avoid this we resort to intensive coaching in literacy, right from the start. No one appears to question the mantra that earlier is better, both for reading to a child, and a child learning to read themselves.
So when we decided to turn down the place in the excellent local primary school where my son would have started ‘a gentle phonics’ group at the age of 4 years 7 weeks, in favour of self-directed learning and home education, it was hard not to feel worried about reading. So much so, in fact, that I recently found a book buried at the back of our bookcase, ordered in a frenzy of anxiety as we turned down the school place – Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.
I never did teach him.
The year when he was four instead passed playing in the bath, visiting Legoland, doing drama and storytelling, running round the park, playing Plants vs Zombies, learning to swim (also without lessons) and doing whatever else we felt like doing. The year when he was five passed in much the same way. And six. And seven. And there was still no sign of any interest at all in learning to read. In fact he didn’t even want me to read to him. I worried a bit, that he would never see the point in learning to read. By this point the majority of schooled children we knew were reading. A few had already moved onto Harry Potter and chapter books. Other parents raised an eyebrow when they realised he couldn’t read at all. They seemed to be in a different world to us, we were still playing with Duplo and play dough if the fancy took us, and our days meandered and flowed, filled with play, more play, and long baths which soaked the bathroom. Sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t even read his name, he didn’t recognise those pre-reception key words like ‘and’ or ‘the’. He started playing Minecraft, where every block is labelled with its type, but he didn’t read any of the words.
Then one day we were in the car and he looked out the window. ‘Does that say Zombie?’, he asked? It was a sign and it said Zone. From that moment on he started reading words around him. Stop. No. Tesco. Car Park. Way Out. Exit. M&S. Way In. Go. I got quite excited. I ordered some Dr Seuss books and he was able to read Hop on Pop, almost entirely by himself. He got quite excited.
Then he seemed to get tired of all this reading and certainly of the excitement and backed off. He didn’t want to read any more books and he stopped reading words when we were out. I backed off too. A few months passed. Then he saw some books in a charity shop and asked to buy them – they were level 1 of a Ladybird Reading Scheme. They had level 2 and 3 as well, and one level 4. We went home and he read all the levels 1 and 2 and 3, and then 4. We had finished the reading scheme. He seems to work out the words from the start and end and a bit of guessing, rather than using phonics. I downloaded some Learn to Read apps, he played them about twice.
What happened next? We didn’t read every day or buy more progressively difficult books. We had lots of books around. We sometimes pointed things out, like that ‘ph’ makes a sound like ‘f’. He started reading more complicated signs when we were out. ‘Please don’t walk on the Grass’, ‘Children under 8 must be supervised at all times’, ‘Emergency Door release’, ‘A different kind of January blue ”,‘First Train from Platform 2’. I pointed out words to him sometimes, and sometimes he pointed them out to me. The world was suddenly full of things he could read.
Advances came in leaps, suddenly he seemed to be able to read longer words. He picked up picture books at home and read them aloud to all of us. He read the instructions on packages of food. One day he could read enough to cook brownies from a packet, following the recipe on the back and measuring out the oil and water. He got interested in the Beano comic and found he could read it himself. He read trivia questions and board game instructions. He would read words by dividing them into pieces and identifying the parts he knew, ‘that’s like the start of ‘bread’’ he would say when trying to decipher ‘breakable’, ‘and then the end of ‘table’.
The whole process so far has taken about a year. He’s still learning to read. Last week he said to me that he could work out new words from the others around them and that he knew an unfamiliar word must say ‘daughter’ because of the sentence it was in. He reads silently now. He can read paragraphs, sentences and instructions.
It wasn’t magic and it didn’t happen overnight. The process was him piecing together information that he had and making new connections, then pulling in new information and resources from the world around him when he needed it. He has never read for the sake of learning to read, or because someone has set him a task of reading – he reads because he wants to, or because he needs to find out what information is in the text. So for him, reading has always had purpose and meaning. He has always read with expression and vigour, even when he could only read a very few words. He has no experience of the monotonous drone of the child completing their required pages of reading homework.
It has been a magical process to watch, however, and for me the most important part of it is that he has felt good about his reading ability throughout. He was 8 before he learnt to read at all and 9 before he had any degree of reading fluency, but he had no concept of himself as a ‘late reader’ because in his world there is no such thing. We said that children read earlier, some read later, just as some learn to swim or ride a bike earlier and some later. Learning to read has been truly joyous and self directed process of exploration and figuring things out, as he wanted to and needed to.