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Letting literacy take root

Reading time for the five and six-year-olds. They are very eager, so eager that you can feel them strain for words as they sit beside you.

Fenella, who last year was so disconnected from school that she refused to answer her name in the register for a whole term, sits down. "I know this book," she announces proudly.

It is a book for "emergent readers" - or, as I would say, children who know what a book is for, but who have not connected words with sounds yet.

Fenella has worked this out and is eager to prove that she is no longer in this category. Judging from the accompanying sheet, Mum has worked this out, too.

"I know what the words mean," she declares. As we progress through, it becomes apparent that this is sort of true: she knows that printed words mean something and she can recognise at least one word: "cat", as in in "the cat is in the basket" - or, as Fenella puts it, "the cat is in the oh what do you call that thing".

Some of the other houses for animals - "stable" and "sty", for instance - make me wonder what are we doing teaching all this farm stuff to young urban children who scarcely know where ham comes from let alone where a pig lives. Not surprising if Fenella can't remember the word if the thing is so remote.

Her lustrous black eyes fix me as I tick her reading sheet. "Can I have a proper book now? Can I have one of the red ones? Can I?" We ask Mrs Peach. "Well, if she wants one." We show Mrs Peach how Fenella knows "cat" and she is duly impressed but I can see the question in her eyes. OK, so Fenella knows this occurrence of "cat" but will she recognise our feline friend on any other page? She gives her easy smile. "Try one of the red books."

With great excitement, Fenella fetches it down. We enter it on the sheet and look at it together. It consists of repetitions of the word "look" as more and more circus people climb into and on to a car. Its simplicity is a shock to Fenella.

"Same word?" she queries, hazily. "But a very important word," I encourage. "And it is a red book." This clinches it. She trots off and Darren takes her place.

Darren is another story. A "nice middle-class boy", he is slower to read than his conversation might suggest.

But he knows his book (level 2) very well, has clearly read it with a parent and wants to tell me more about it - which is fine, except that he confuses that with our task of matching print to sounds.

Perhaps these actual printed words are too simple for his understanding, but suitable for his deciphering skills. He is disappointed to get another level 2 book but scrambles away philosophically.

Along comes Anna. She is an extremely good little girl who can read well with few pauses and lots of expression. There are only two more level 4 books for her to read and she makes a grand show out of looking for them. I wonder about the next level, but a couple of errors suggest that consolidation would do no harm.

In any case, it is ever so clear from Mum's comments on the sheet that Anna is doing reading at home and that this is not going to be a child who is not, in that tortuous term, "stretched".

The last one is Perry. A real snuggler, she wants me to read her a story so she can go dreamy. The other way round is less fun. Heaving herself reluctantly through the text she stumbles quite often on her level 2 book although I know from her conversation that she is a bright little thing with her own ideas about everything.

But she does have two older siblings, very close in age. Maybe they tease her. Anyhow, her confidence is weak, because when I help her choose another book she is aghast. "It's too long."

"Well, you can take two days to read it." Forlorn shake of the head. "We have to bring it back each day." "It's not too long for you, Perry, go on."

Firm shake of the head. "It is." "Shall we ask Mrs Peach?" Dismal shake of the head. "Well, try it and see?" I offer a consoling hug aorund the shoulders. The hug does it. She returns it with a huge squeeze and runs off, all smiles.

When as an adult I read, with absolute confidence and security, I never think of those torrents of infant emotion and imagination in which literacy takes root. Here are the teachers, like tropical farmworkers plunging rice seeds into turbid waters.

And here are the green shoots, springing out from the pages of Ginn 360.

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