All the things I wish I’d known about children learning to read before I had to go through it….

I’ve written (extensively) about small children and reading before but you know, I’m an English teacher, and we’re all obsessed with reading. Actually obsessed. Not with reading ourselves (although most of us lose whole nights of sleep engrossed in our favourite books) but with encouraging/ helping/ making chidlren read. Many’s the parents’ evening appointment where I’ve bored children to death with the necessity to read; their parents generally nod along with me and I can see them saying silently to their children, ‘you see? You SEE? You see how all those hours I’ve spent nagging you to read are actually important?’ while the children are doubtless just thinking, ‘please shut up now Miss. It was fine for you and my parents, back in the dark ages when you had nothing to do but read books (not true; I had Neighbours and Home and Away) but I need to get back to GTA now.’ When I said to my new year 7 class in September that I’d rather give up all forms of media (and I am genuinely a bit addicted to Facebook and varioius other apps) than give up books, I was greeted by a stunned silence. I could see them thinking I was actually mental, and really quite sad, in that order. And probably by today’s teen standards, I am. But books are a huge part of my life. And I’ve done everything possible, so far, to instil this passion into my children. 

Which is why this week marked a point of great pride for me. Child 2 wasn’t a great reader in reception, and Child 1 has followed this path – well, to the letter. They have both, for large sections of the year, found phonics fairly incomprehensible. They could both tell you absolutely all the phonics sounds and Child 2 recites them happily but the poster or any of her books, but understanding that those actually translate into words? That was a foreign language for quite some time. This meant, in a school system that is entirely obsessed by and fully convinced of the benefits of phonics, that they weren’t great readers. Child 1, in particular, was bloody good at word recognition and he got by on that for nearly the whole of the first year. Meanwhile, I became obsessed by phonics, convinced that he’d never get it and never be able to read. Chlid 2, meanwhile, isn’t even that good at word recognition, so I was even more obsessed, and we slowly dragged our feet through the first levels of the Oxford Reading Tree with her guessing and me wondering when this hell was going to end. 

Somewhere during the course of year 1, Child 1 understood phonics. As a result, he could suddenly read. And it seemed to be just like that. One week he was plodding his way through terrible non-stories about squirrels and buses and dogs, and the next he was racing his way through retold fairytales (the Usborne Young Readers series are AMAZING) and various Star Wars books. Meanwhile, Child 2 has finally also understood how phonics works, and has read more books in the last fortnight than in the whole of the previous year. This doesn’t mean she’s suddenly reading War and Peace, but it does mean I can see that one day she’ll be a good and fluent reader. So I feel we’ve reached a better place. But I genuinely haven’t enjoyed the journey. 

And this is what I learned along the way:

1. You will always compare. No matter how much the teachers, your mum, and the internet tell you that all children learn to read at different speeds, you will still spend your time wondering why little Jimmy can read Biff and Chip level 5 and your child still has book with no pictures.

2. My children’s school is in the middle of the middle class capital of the world, which means that a middling child here would often be a high achieving child somewhere else. The national averages are worth looking up to comfort yourself in the dark times when you think they’ll never learn to read. But don’t go on internet parenting website threads – as soon as you post anything about reading a lot of insecure – or possibly just unashamedly boastful – parents can’t wait to tell you how their child was reading Oxford Reading Tree level 8 in reception but you know, it’s not easy having a genius, and they worry about him socially. 

3. Don’t compare at the school gates unless it’s a parent that you really know well, and never compare in groups of parents. There will always be one smug one who sympathises whole-heartedly with you over your child’s stupidity with phonics while managing to slip in that her child is so clever that the teacher has run out of books for them, and presumably thinking, thank God my child isn’t thick like that. 

4. You will always, no matter what level they bring home, think its too easy and wonder if the teachers have actually ever heard your child read. They have. It’s just that your child, at home with only you to worry about/ impress/ help greatly, probably reads at a higher level than they have demonstrated at school. They will eventually show this at school, but you’ll go mad in the meantime. 

5. Before they start school, you will assume they are a genius, because they’re your child, and you have no idea what other children can do. You dismiss any tales of other children reading Enid Blyton to themselves before they even start school as some kind of Roald Dahl inspired urban myth. Mine went to a Montessori nursery that didn’t do phonics; I assumed that given the obviously superior genes of my children, they’d catch up in no time. They didn’t. There’s nothing like having a child in the bottom phonics group and one in a middling phonics group for making you realise their lack of genius. Well, at least as far as school is concerned. I now console myself with the fact that my children are quite nice, and the teachers seem to like them. 

6. There’s a lightbulb moment; this happened to both my children and was both obvious and truly wonderful. One day they didn’t get it and the next day they did. One day I was thinking this torture would never end, and the next they were breezing their way through their respective levels and books and feeling very proud. One day they had to be bribed to read and the next they begged to read more.

7.  Children (or at least mine) love Biff and Chip. So while you’d rather gouge out your own eyes with a fork than see that bloody dog again, those writers knew what they were at. Songbirds just doesn’t cut it when they could be reading about how Mum left her bag on a bus and Chip lost his backpack. 

8. Dorling Kindersley do an amazing series of books that child 1 loves. These were the first books I couldn’t pry out of his hands and had to stop him reading at 10pm. They do loads of different ones; child 2 loves all the Lego tie-ins, and has steadily read his way through nearly all of the Star Wars series. He couldn’t read level 1 or 2 fluently until he’d got to about level 6 Biff and Chip though, so be warned- they don’t match up.

9. If you have an older child, exploit them. Child 1 enjoys the feeling of superiority listening to Child 2 read and is more patient than I am. Plus he likes revisiting Biff and Chip – they’re like old friends. They read over breakfast, leaving me free to waste time on facebook reading about how I should be listening to my children read. 

10. Enjoy the fact that reading at bedtime has become a joy and not a chore. Child 1 now begs me to listen to him at bedtime. But keep in mind that they then want to do it for hours, and about subjects in which you have next to no interest. (Endless books about Jedis and Yoda, anyone?) At this point, manufacture a sudden urgent work appointment, and tell them that their soft toys definitely need a bedtime story, or several. Then close the door on them and listen briefly to the little voice reading confidently and fluently, and remember a time you thought they’d never be able to read. And wonder if you’ve ever loved them more. 


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