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.