Diana Hinds finds a new series gives parents valuable tips on how to read with their children
With World Book Day falling yesterday and the National Year of Reading fast approaching, it is no surprise that Walker Books has decided to capitalise on the vogue for children's literacy, with a new series called Reading Together.
This is a series that targets parents and children in equal measure. The contribution parents make to children learning to read is increasingly under the spotlight, with literary specialists now raising the question of what parents actually do when they sit down to read with their child.
A recent study by researchers at Exeter University, for example, has demonstrated that, compared with teachers, parents are more concerned with helping children decode words on the page, and spend less time talking about the book.
The reading process is perhaps best managed through close and clear collaboration between home and school. But parents, all too often, fail to get the detailed support and guidance from the school that they need, and the Reading Together series makes a brave attempt to plug that gap.
Published in conjunction with the Centre for Language in Primary Education, the series consists of 24 titles, divided into batches of six for children from two to five years, and with a range of stories, folktales, poems and rhymes. Some are re-issues of well-known titles, such as The Grumpalump by Sarah Hayes and Barbara Firth, and Handa's Surprise by Eileen Browne, while others, such as the delightful Give Me My Yam by Jan Blake and Peter Melnyczuk, are new commissions.
What is novel is that each book also contains notes for parents at the beginning, about how to approach the text, and ideas at the end for follow-up activities, such as writing games, acting-out stories and making tapes.
It would be impossible to disguise totally the fact that these are instructions to parents, but as instructions go they are gentle and friendly. The inclusion on these pages of pictures by the book's illustrator helps to confirm them as non-threatening and integral to the book.
The guidance they contain is sensible, without being technical; pointing out, for instance, how re-reading rhymes helps children to notice word patterns, encouraging children to show you words they know, and always stressing the need to back off when the child seems anxious or tired.
"The trick is in sensing when to give the child information and how much to provide," says the parents' handbook that accompanies the series, thereby encapsulating what many teachers spend years mastering.
Myra Barrs, at the CLPE, acknowledges that this "trick" may not always be easy for parents, but argues that it is also something that is "made difficult for them, in that, because of an anxiety about reading and not being in control of learning, they lose the normal common sense that they used successfully up until then with their children".
Reading Together aims to restore some of this parental common sense to the reading process. Usefully, too, it lays great emphasis on the importance of parents talking to their children about what they are reading, "which parents may not realise is a valuable thing to be doing," Barrs says.
The books are attractively produced, although the series format gives them something of the feel of a reading scheme, and one or two of the collections of rhymes are a bit cramped. But at pound;12.99 for a pack of six, they are undeniably good value, and Barrs reports early interest from teachers, too.
Wisely, Reading Together does not make any promises that these books will turn children into readers. But to aid that process, the child needs to find favourites to which he or she, encouraged by parents, will want to return to again and again. My own children, aged five and three, fell on the books when they found them piled up beside my desk. Already they have some firm favourites, including Dinosaur's Day Out by Nick Sharratt, packed with maps and signs, and Once Upon a Time by John Prater, a simple text that belies the wealth of fairy tale-inspired activity in the pictures. Certainly plenty to talk about there