My Children Eat Books

My two children eat books and can spit knowledge at you like it is going out of fashion. Between them, they can tell you everything you could ever care to know about space, planets, dinosaurs, birds, sharks, growing vegetables, the Earth, World War 2, The Great Fire of London, the Romans, why it’s a good idea to eat your own bogeys, and much much more besides. (If you wanted them to spit facts about Churchill, or whoever was on your ‘vital knowledge’ list, you’d just need to give them a good book about it and leave them well enough alone.)

My two children cost me a fortune in books: we have the equivalent of our own private library. (Yes, I know I can borrow books from a library for free, and we sometimes do. But as someone who grew up in a poor single parent family there is something very special for me about being able to own my own books.) I have even gone so far as to write and publish a book for (and with) my children.

Given that we are all getting so exercised at the moment about those children who don’t learn to read, and who cannot regurgitate knowledge when asked, I got to wondering why it might be that my own children can. I didn’t teach them before they started school. Perhaps that was remiss of me, especially given that I trained to teach that age group. But they just didn’t seem to be ready, and I knew it was something that a great teacher would do for and with them anyway. We were too busy getting muddy and covered in paint and going swimming or playing with friends – you know, all the important stuff you do when you are four years old.

Anyway, I came up with the following thoughts as to why my children eat books …

1. They have been brought up in a house where reading is the ‘norm’, and where they hear a wide and varied use of language. Since birth, we have read to them daily, they have seen both their parents reading every single day, and we have talked with them using a rich diet of words.

2. They have been brought up in a house where they are surrounded by reading material (not just books – newspapers and magazines as well). As soon as one of them expressed even the slightest interest in a subject (tractors, sharks, fairies), they were showered with beautiful books on that area.

3. They had a brilliant Reception class teacher, who used a sensible mixture of phonics and real books to help them develop both the skill for and the love of reading. As soon as she realised they were ‘getting it’, she sent them home with real books and not those dull reading scheme ones (not that there was ever any shortage of real books at home).

4. Because they went to a small school (our local state primary), they were lucky enough to be taught in a class of only about 20 children. The class was mixed age (R/Y1/Y2), so there were only a small number of children learning to read at any one time. Since they began to read, they have had further teachers who encouraged and developed their love of reading at the appropriate moments.

5. We have always boosted their love of reading, skills and knowledge through giving them access to a wide range of experiences. The Natural History Museum supported a love of dinosaurs; watching combine harvesters work in the fields supported a love of farm machinery; Art Attack magazine and a visit to the Damien Hirst exhibition supported a love of painting; this summer a visit to the Tank Museum will support a growing love of WW2.

6. We … Nope, that’s it.

So, that’s my blueprint for creating a generation of children who eat books and who can spit knowledge at you. Of the 5 vital ingredients, 3 should be supplied by the parents. For those children who do not have parents who do this, schools and teachers have to try to fill the gap (and I’m not underestimating what a massive gap it is to fill). Of my list of 5 suggestions, I suspect that the crucial one is number 4. Where parents haven’t or won’t do their bit, then a small class size allows the teacher to make up for some of the missing time input.

Because (severe special needs apart) you can teach anyone to read. You can write a list of ‘facts you must know’ on a bit of paper somewhere, and shove those facts down a child’s throat, and teach them short term memory tricks so they can pass exams.

But encouraging them to want to read, and building a life long love of learning, is the tricky part. And that’s the bit that really matters.

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4 Responses to My Children Eat Books

  1. blueink21 says:

    Hi Sue
    It would be interesting to know if your children’s voraciousness for reading is in order to learn stuff or just for the love of reading. My own son loved to find stuff out when he was younger and enjoyed non fiction picture books especially but now aged 13 he has so far not become a huge consumer of books despite having in place many of the experiences you have described here. At high school there is more of a focus on reading novels – non fiction is frowned upon for English reading lessons- and it is a rare novel that he will read cover to cover. I’m not sure that even having all the encouragement and books you can think of will necessarily create avid teenage readers.
    I think when we speak of a ‘love of reading’ it is mainly in reference to fiction books and I do think that this is similar to loving to play football, or loving to draw – they are personal choices that can be encouraged by creating opportunities but are not necessarily a given even with the start you have outlined.

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  2. suecowley says:

    That’s a really interesting question. I think it tends to split by gender a bit: my son loves non fiction, just like yours, although he also loves fiction and there it’s about following his interests. My daughter is more into stories, but she was slower to come to the eating of books (it took an inspirational teacher this year to really set the urge free for her). She also loves Sudoku and books that ask her to do something. They both adore magazines as well – we really shouldn’t be worried about where the words are when we are trying to create a love of language. They are still young so who knows what will happen when they reach their teens? I could be eating my words!

    I guess children come to knowledge in different ways, and that is where the skill of a great teacher comes in. By asking how do I engage this particular child? I also think what is vital is that early and relaxed first experience of reading that my children were lucky enough to encounter. I’m totally convinced the small class size and the great teacher made a difference for them, totally convinced of it. I’m not so sure that synthetic phonics was so important because I think is needed more for those who struggle with reading. I like to remind them that words are pictures/wholes as well as bits. An engagement with stories is key: the preschool and primary use the ‘Story Making Project’ which is a brilliant way to help children connect with story structures.

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  3. A mother says:

    Here is my child’s story. Comparing it to the stories above makes me think that a lot of the discussion about learning to read conflates what my son has found to be different things – engagement with the stories and facts in books, decoding a word to get clues about what it sounds like, and understanding the meaning of a word from its context.

    A lot of what you (Sue) describe about your family fits mine. My eldest (7) drinks in knowledge and spits it out. He has always been fascinated by everything around him. He loves the stories and facts in books. He has an astonishing vocabulary and level of general knowledge. And reading is the norm in our house. It is full of books and my husband and I both read voraciously, my husband is an author, we have always read, a lot, every day, to our children. Being read to is one of my children’s favorite parts of the day, and they love trips to the library to choose new books.

    But my eldest son has never ever read a book for pleasure. Ever. He struggles to read and it makes him very sad. He wants to read. He dutifully sits with us and practices reading most evenings. Every now and then he gathers up his resolve and sits himself down for extra reading on his own for a few days, determined that this time he will read and the process will be, if not enjoyable in itself, then at least not so difficult that he can’t enjoy what is in the book. And every time he finds it hard and gives up after a few days, confirmed in his belief that a page with lots of words on it is a daunting, not a wonderful, thing.

    He is actually reading almost on grade level, but watching him I see that he has managed to do this by learning some words by sight and then guessing the rest from context. He’s a smart guy and he knows a lot of words and context – he is pretty good at guessing. But not good enough that reading is fun or easy and not good enough that he can reliably understand what he is reading.

    I am becoming convinced that reading is hard for him because he gets almost no useful information from the word itself. He never ‘got’ the idea that written words give lots of clues about what they sound like – that long daunting words can be broken down into a sequence of smaller bits that he can sound out and string back together and that doing this can help him work out what the word is. If I ask him to sound out a word and blend the sounds he finds it slow and very difficult – like he has a theoretical understanding of what he is supposed to do but no practical experience.

    School is talking about an intervention to spend some time (re)teaching him phonics. I am optimistic. But very regretful about the many many hours I (and others) spent reading with him and NOT focusing on explicit reinforcement of how to break a word into manageable parts, thinking i was helping by spending all our reading time on the content, encouraging him to look at the word, its context, and guess, when what i was probably doing was entrenching an approach to reading that we may now need to work to unlearn.

    So back to my comment about mixing up different things – my son loves what is in books and he is very good at grasping the meaning of words from their context (and indeed will guess what a word is from clues about what it means). But he doesn’t read. He doesn’t use the information about what the word sounds like contained in the way it is written to help him, and I am sure that this is why he has never read for pleasure.

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  4. suecowley says:

    Thank you for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment and to share your story. I have a few thoughts that might possibly help …

    Are you based in the US? In the UK a child of this age would already have been through a synthetic phonics program in both Reception and Year 1. This would have taught him the skill you talk about of chunking words down. If your son has been in a large class up to now, perhaps he needs more one to one attention? I would certainly pursue his school about this.

    Also, I wonder if at age 7 your son simply hasn’t ‘come to’ pleasure in reading yet? My daughter is a similar age and it was only last year when her teacher at school found the key to motivating her that she began to choose to read every evening for pleasure. (They key for her turned out to be very simple – give her one sticker for every 7 nights of reading signed off by a parent!)

    I also wonder whether there could be a special need going on in the background here? I wouldn’t want to say just from a comment on a blog post, but some children who struggle in this way are later found out to have actually had dyslexia so it could be worth pursuing that angle, especially as you say he has a very good vocabulary and that he is in a house full of books/readers. Sometimes there is a phonological issue, where the child finds it almost impossible to match the speech sounds he hears with the words on the page. (Sometimes it even turns out to be a hearing issue.) I certainly think it would be worth getting all angles checked by a specialist SEN teacher.

    In terms of maintaining the pleasure in reading, how about getting hold of lots of lovely children’s picture books, with very few words and lots of lovely images, to reinspire him around the joy of stories without the effort of reading that seems so hard to him?

    I do hope that helps.

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