I remember their beaming smiles, the excitement of becoming ‘big girls’. An initiation into a world until then mysterious and unknown. Books. Learning to read. A key milestone in education.
Where one of my daughters had excelled in her first academic year, it all came crashing down in the following one. She developed an aversion to reading that shocked and worried me. It extended as far as being generally unhappy and not wanting to go to school at all. Which for a 5 year old seemed quite extreme.
Unfortunately it took a while for me to realise that this wasn’t ‘normal’ and the school themselves were less than helpful, despite it being obvious that a child had changed quite so dramatically in their attitude to learning. My other daughter, her twin sister, also struggled and had the same emotional response towards school, although to a lesser extent.
I have loved reading for as long as I can remember.
For me it is an escape into another world. A way to relax at the end of the day and forget about all that is happening in my life. When I’m reading a good book, I am an addict looking for the next free moment to slip away and read a few pages, I prop my eyelids open well past my bedtime. So it broke my heart that they didn’t want to read.
But more than this. Reading is essential for learning. Without being able to read, knowledge is restricted to what can be exchanged verbally. And it is less easy to become an independent, self-directed learner, to follow passions. It’s no small surprise that literacy improvements is one of the biggest policies trying to be implemented to encourage development globally.
But I didn’t want to force them to do something that they obviously weren’t enjoying or getting anything out of. Equally though, I didn’t want them to fall further behind their peers and become more demoralised that way.
For a long time we stuck reading in the back seat, forgoing the awful array of reading scheme books that were on offer, and instead read to them and used story CDs to maintain their literacy. But progress drifted and drifted. So we had to face the problem head on.
To find a way to bring back the joy in reading.
Our first proactive step was changing their school (The whole story is quite frankly another post, but their reading progress was a major factor in this decision). Up until then all our responses were reactive to the problem. We hadn’t been able to enlist help from the school because our daughters were supposedly ‘meeting targets’.
Nothing about looking at the child holistically. Where was the child who had had so much confidence and happiness initially? Why it was necessary to peel my daughters away from me at the start of the day. What was happening in the classrooms during the day to make this the case.
Once we realised that this wasn’t the way it should be and looked for an alternative, as parents we were in charge. They have been far happier bar a few days near the start for adjustment to the change. I also think that it sent the message to them that we believed in them, that their difficulties in making progress wasn’t down to them but to the approach of the school.
Despite this they have found it hard going to catch up. But at least now they feel empowered in their learning which pushes them on. Spellings are a constant challenge, and both girls often still miss basic grammar. But now they are improving at a rate that I could only have dreamed of.
And slowly, slowly, their appetite for reading has increased. Reading stories to their little sister. Things they came across around the house or in the street. Choosing reading over watching TV. Going into their classroom in the mornings to sit straight down and read. Yay!
The next step has been to find the right books.
Books that are engaging for them and yet use language that is at the right level for their reading age. The challenge has been that books they were attracted to either didn’t match up with an engaging story on the inside or the language wasn’t right.
My girls like adventure stories, but it’s been hard to find these. The fairy/ballerina/animal stories that predominate the book market draw them in but haven’t held their attention. Maybe it’s a case of style over substance. There are the old favourites such as Enid Blyton, but often their cultural references and language are way out of date.
A box set of retold Shakespeare stories proved a hit. The girls already knew some of the stories, like Romeo and Juliet (from the film Gnomeo and Juliet), and then wanted to read the others. And then I bought a copy of ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Underpants’. A book written by one of my writing friends, Nikki Young, and illustrated by another, Maddy Bennett . With that title I knew it had a good chance with my girls.
But the joy for me came when they started reading; my girls lay at either end of the sofa, and stayed there. For a long time. Occasionally there would be guffaws of laughter, and running to me to tell me about a funny bit in it. They loved the mix of mystery and humour that is pitched just right for this age (I read the book after them and I can see exactly why they loved it).
I’ve since received a request for another book from my reluctant reader, and now I have a job on my hands to make sure I provide something that is fun and engaging enough for her.
The corner is well and truly turned.
I’d be most grateful for any engaging book recommendations for my nearly 8 year old girls, and I can certainly recommend ‘Underpants’ in return. You can purchase it directly from Nikki Young’s website (and there is no backhander in it for me either!).
In the end when we have problems with our children there is never an easy answer. It generally takes a lot of soul searching, thinking outside the box and patience to solve. After the last three years we finally seem to be reaching a positive place with reading.