The importance of early literacy
“From the day our children are born (yes), to the day they tell us to stop, we should read to them,” says Michael Rosen (pg.39 Good Ideas How to Be Your Child’s and Your Own Best Teacher).
Research backs him up. We know that access to lots of good quality early reading experiences can aid a child’s brain development and set them up for a successful life - not just in their chosen profession, but in their personal life too. It has also been proven that having good reading skills has more of an effect on a child’s school career than their socio-economic status.
Early reading - the evidence
“Parents and the home environment are essential to the early teaching of reading and fostering a love of reading; children are more likely to continue to be readers in homes where books and reading are valued.” (Clark and Rumbold, 2006).
So what counts as a high-quality early reading experience for a child who is too young to read?
The fact is that there are several stages for any child on their journey to becoming a fluent reader, and at least two of them do not involve any actual reading!
Babies and small children can be described as being ‘pre-readers’, and for them the important thing is to enjoy being read to, and to begin to show reader-like behaviour - picking up books on their own and turning the pages, pointing out pictures and perhaps, when they are able to speak, starting to describe them.
The main way to support a pre-reader in your family (and this phase lasts from the day that they are born until well into their nursery years) is to make reading part of a nurturing and fun routine. Children learn to love reading because it is an activity where they feel safe, loved, and engaged. You might encourage this by having storytime as part of a ‘calming down’ ritual before bedtime - and this can be done from the very earliest days; even the smallest babies will understand the feeling that hearing a parent/carer’s calming, loving voice produces.
Of course, reading should be encouraged at all times of the day, not just as part of a bedtime routine. Another way to encourage your pre-reader to learn to love books is to show that reading is an activity you yourself value and love - when they bring you a book, make a point of stopping what you are doing to share it with them! You can also let your child see you reading for pleasure - this way they start to understand that reading isn’t just for children but for anyone.
The next stage on the reading journey is known as being an emerging reader, and most children will begin to show signs of this transition around their third year. At this time, if they have been read to regularly, they start to show an awareness that the text on the page and the words that they hear are somehow linked. Children may start to point to words, mimicking what adults do. They may even start to link some letters to a sound - most particularly the first sound in their name - they might recognise an ‘R’ and know that it is ‘/r/ for Rosie’, for example. As they move through this phase (probably more towards their fourth or fifth year) they will begin to understand that words are made up of sounds, and that those sounds can be represented on the page by using letters, or groups of letters. They begin to decode simple words by ‘sounding them out’.
A lot of parents at this stage make the mistake of beginning to phase out time where they read to their child, especially once a child begins to learn to decode - this is not recommended. The decoding process is a huge and tiring thing to learn, and practicing it is wearying. Children need to be reminded that the point of learning to decode is so that they can access those wonderful stories which they share with their parents - so keep on reading them!
Of course, there are also ways that parents can help their children to practice the decoding process which takes such a long time to perfect. With younger children you may decide to choose a letter which you will look out for when you read a book together - who can spot the most letter ‘t’s’? Make it a competition!
You can encourage a young reader to begin to make connections between text and spoken word by pointing at the words as you read them, and perhaps pointing out very simple words like ‘a’, ‘I’ or even ‘the’ and looking out for them as you read.
As your child begins to learn to decode in school they will start to bring home the dreaded school reading books. Ah, the delights of Biff, Chip and Kipper! (There are some fantastically funny websites dedicated to parents' joy (!) at having to read these tales). Once these books start to make their way home, it’s a great idea to get into the routine of reading them with your child for 5-10 minutes every...single...day. Often the best way to achieve this is to do it the instant you get back from school, before TV’s and tablets are switched on. The only way to become fluent as a reader is to practise the skill little and often. Even then it takes years to get it right. The absolute best thing you can do for your child is to practise their reading skills with them as often as you can.
There are so many ways in which you can foster a love of reading in your child, and all the evidence suggests that the most important gift you can give a child is an enjoyment of reading for pleasure; it is a predictor of success in many different ways in later life.
Some things that might help:
Don’t forget libraries! They may be underfunded and many are being closed, but if you are lucky enough to have one nearby, do make use of it. May run clubs for children in the day-time and after school, and of course, you can save a lot of money by allowing your child to borrow books rather than buying them!
Audio books count too. It’s not ideal - a lot of the pleasure children take from reading is the interaction with a loved one, but audio books are a massive industry, and there are some very high-quality ones available. While they can’t substitute for you sharing a book with your small person, it's a great added extra. It’s also worth noting that audio books can be an invaluable resource for dyslexic children (though of course early readers would not be diagnosed as such for a long time yet). Dyslexic readers have to work twice as hard at decoding and understanding, and having a voice to read along to can make an enormous difference.
Remember, small people like to move. It can feel a bit weird, trying to read a story to a small person who is somersaulting all over the room, but small children find sitting still for extended periods of time nearly impossible, and often it isn’t fair to ask - so let them enjoy the books while exploring the room - they will be listening, we guarantee it!
Try to find a male role model. It is a fact that boys are statistically less likely to enjoy reading than girls, and a lot of this can come down to the fact that reading can be seen as a very ‘feminine’ activity during the early years. Babies and toddlers seem to end up reading more often with their mums than their dads, and of course primary education has many more women than men. If possible, let boys and young men see male role models who read for pleasure, and read with them too. It will make a difference.
Oxford Owls website has some FANTASTIC free eBooks, and are well worth a look. They also have lots of advice and information about learning to read with phonics - great if you’ve never encountered this way of learning to read before.
If you are worried about your child’s progress in reading, don’t hesitate to contact us at My Primary Tutor. We can give your child an assessment, find out where the gaps lie and create a bespoke learning plan to get them up to speed - and we can help you as parents too with plenty of resources and tips that will help you to support your child in whatever way is most needed.