Tag Archives: literacy

Forget writing and arithmetic – Reading is the one and only core skill

boyreadingReading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master.

I used to worry about repeating myself but, when writing stories for very young readers, I love repeating words and phrases, twisting them gently to create new, surprising meanings with the same jumble of words and letters. It helps increase word recognition and the decoding of meaning.

Repetition is the essence of learning, making strong connections and pathways that form the foundations on which new connections are built. Repetition in physical activity is a given – press-ups, shooting at goal, exercises at the barre.

Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master. But somehow, we have come to underestimate the difficulty and assume that it’s the job of schools to sort it out. But schools can’t cope with all they are asked to do, especially the way the curriculum continues to be fiddled about with.

Every time there is a crisis, the same voices wail in the media, “Schools should be teaching this!” And so more gets dumped on schools and they are expected to cope.

Schoolchildren now work at conceptual levels that are so much higher than they were in my childhood. Don’t believe the dumbing down stories. Children these days have to learn a breadth of information and life skills that hardly existed for my generation.

Once, Literacy meant the ability to read and write. Now it seems to have been redefined as the ability to write and decode text. And yet, for all the expense and effort, reading and writing levels fail to improve – arguably they have decreased.

I’ll repeat myself:

Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master.

Phonics are great as a help when children are learning to read, but that is not the end of it. They need books, and most importantly they need stories. Stories with a beginning and a middle and a satisfying end, not an extract full of adverbs.

Children need to read bucket loads of books, and to get them to read books they need great stories. Children are hard-wired to listen to and learn from stories. Once they know that between the covers of a book lie multiple, parallel universes in which they can reside and become the heroes and heroines, they become addicted and want more. But they need to know those stories are there in the first place.

If there is no time for reading at school, how will they find it at home, where they are barraged by the cheap, unsatisfying pulp of the TV, internet, games and texting? If reading is not promoted or cherished at school or at home why should they bother? If they are never read to, how do they know what lies between the covers and why should they care? Why should they be bothered to read the books when they can wait and watch it on DVD?

If you want to improve your children’s writing skills it’s easy… let them read books – lot and lots of them. How are they ever supposed to learn the skill if they never practice? Want to be a great footballer? Watch Beckham or Ronaldo. Want to make great movies? Go watch a lot of movies. Want to be a Blue Peter presenter? Try watching Blue Peter!

How can children possibly hope to learn to write and improve their writing skills if they rarely see it being done and have no idea what it is they are trying to achieve?

Want to be able to write, understand particle physics or just do well in SATS? Then learn to read. All human knowledge is wrapped up in books. To be able to access that knowledge you need to be a fluent reader, and to become a fluent reader you need to do the work and read a lot of books.

Repetition, reading the words again and again, in new combinations until you can read anything with out thinking, allows the brain to get on with the business of learning what it is that the words have to say.

We all know how repetition is boring – doing the same press-ups every day, we soon give up and go flabby.

But the wonder of stories is that the repetition is wrapped up and served differently every time. Each new story somehow leads to another. Stories make the hard work of learning to read a pleasure. Stories should be at the core of education, cherished and repeated. Every school day should end with story-time, yes – even in secondary school. Stories – read aloud, just for the joy of it.

Not everything in life needs to have a measurable outcome. But reading stories, just for the joy of it, reading lots of stories, again and again, has the most immeasurable outcome of all: Literacy – the ability to read and find out independently, to understand, add to and pass on the learned knowledge.

This all comes from the core skill – reading. I hope you won’t mind if I repeat myself again.

Reading is the the most difficult skill most of us will ever set out to master.
If you want to improve your children’s writing skills it’s easy… let them read books – lot and lots of them.

The first book that I read on my own

blackberry farm booksI love it when parents tell me that the first book their child read all on their own was one of mine. Often the book they mention is the Ginger Ninja. They tell me how reluctant the children were to read but, for some reason, this was the one that grabbed their attention.

I remember very well the first book I read on my own. Because my parents were in the army, I went to boarding school when I was five years old. I was the only full boarder in the school. There were one or two weekly boarders and kids who stayed while their parents were away.

On Sunday mornings I would wake on my own in a four bed dormitory in a beautiful Queen Anne mansion, and wait until I was told it was time to get up. The owners of the school were pillars of local society and often out late on Saturday night, so Sunday morning lie-ins could be quite extended!

I was desperate to learn how to read. I knew those book things were filled with wonderful stories. There was nothing I like better as a child, than listening to stories. I realised that if I could work out the trick of reading, I’d be able to have stories on tap.

I remember badgering my class teacher to do extra reading in break times and after-school. The Head Master or his wife would tuck me up in bed at night and do some more reading practice.

I don’t know why, but my father bought me stories from the Blackberry Farm series by Jane Pilgrim. Small Square books that were just right for small hands, they were maybe well marketed at the time and easily available where he went shopping. They had just the right amount of text on each page and lovely pictures of all the animals that I got to know and love. Walter Duck was my particular favourite in his rakish college scarf!

It was a sunny Sunday morning and, as usual, I looked through my little collection of books, telling the stories to myself by looking at the pictures.

I opened Christmas at Blackberry Farm, a warm and cosy tale in which Mr and Mrs Smiles, the perfect middle-class English couple, invite their animals in for a wonderful Christmas meal and presents.

I can remember to this day how a feeling come over me, and how I heard a little voice I’m my head saying, “you can read this – you can do it on your own!”

And I did, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until I reached the end of the book. I can also still remember the amazing feeling of success. I had done it! I had read a whole book all on my own – I had to do it again there and then! And so I did. I read another Blackberry Farm Book and another.

And that is how children get to be good readers and that’s why series of books, with strong characters and short, sharp, snappy stories, are so important at this stage of reading, when children have just learned the trick of reading all by themselves.

They need piles of books that they can recognise as being similar to the one they just managed to read all on their own. They need characters whom they get to know and love, characters that become friends and help them on their reading journey.

That Christmas my sister and brother hung up a sheet for a curtain in the sitting room and we put on an entertainment for my parents. I read Christmas at Blackberry Farm, all on my own, from beginning to end. I still remember that too, another wonderful staging post in my learning to read adventure.

What was the first book that you read? Which series helped you gain confidence reading on your own? Which characters helped you on your reading journey?

The Summer Reading Challenge

Original Summer Reading Badge

The Summer is here and that means that over the next few months hundreds of thousands of children will be visiting libraries up and down the land, borrowing books, reading them and getting small prizes for their effort. I remember the long summer holidays going on for ever. By the time I got back to school, I’d forgotten everything I’d learned the year before. The Summer reading challenge helps to keep up the habit of reading – the most important skill and person can learn in this world. Not analysis of text – reading – that means books and stories that make you laugh or cry or hyperventilate with fear.

I’m very proud to have been a part of the start of the Summer reading challenge. Andrea Reece was a brilliant Marketing Director at Hodder Children’s Books, whom I’d worked with previously, when she worked at Harper Collins. She came up with the idea of selling a “Leap into Reading” summer reading scheme to bookshop. He idea inadvertently pioneered the format of the Summer Reading Challenge we have all come to know and love. Dump Bins full of early readers were sold to bookshops. With each dump bin full of books came pencils, badges, posters and erasers, which were prizes for reading a book each week of the holidays. There was a passport that had to filled in to gain the next prize. Some libraries spotted the possibilities and bought the bins too. They started their own, individual summer reading schemes.

Original “Leaping Ginger Ninja”

What were they to do the next year – well somewhere along over the next year, the Summer Reading Challenge got started and has carried on ever since.

I remember all this because my character, The Ginger Ninja, was leaping over the top of the dump bin and all the gifts had his smiling face all over them.

My readers will know that the Ginger Ninja has moved onto the 21st century, gracing the iPad with a built in video drawing lesson!and you can get a free story by joining my mailing list.

Good luck to all involved in the Summer Reading Challenge – I know it’s a lot of hard work, but I know that many Librarians look forward to those happy, smiling faces coming for the next book each week through the summer – and in many areas it has a quite profound effect in inspiring and maintaining reading proficiency through the long, long holiday.