Four and five-year-olds in my reception classes have impressed me with their knowledge of language. So when the mother of a five-year-old boy told me, "You won't believe this, but my son has been writing a novel", I answered honestly, "Oh yes, I do believe it."
Children who arrive at school already have a history as readers and writers, so when I began working as a reception teacher, I was keen to make my classroom open to their out-of-school literacy experiences.
There were two problems. First, I found most children were reluctant to write independently at the "work table" in spite of their confidence in doing so in play areas. Second, I could not see a practical way to receive detailed information from parents about their children's writing and reading activities at home.
In 1991 I conducted, through Sheffield University, a study into the literacy experiences of 18 children making the transition from home to full-time schooling at a school in the north of England. I met children whose home literacy activities demonstrated highly personal blends of independence, real-life activities and social interaction. Their parents were interested and involved in helping them learn to read and write, but seldom by direct teaching. Instead, they read to their children, provided paper, pencils and crayons and gave them the chance to participate in real,everyday literacy events such as making shopping lists, going to the library to choose books, or writing a birthday card.
These vignettes were collected in the months before the children started reception class:
u Rachel, aged four years and five months, routinely woke up early and fetched her 18-month-old sister's bottle before returning to bed in their shared room. There she would "teach Harriet to read" by sharing picture books and having Harriet point to the words. Using their alphabet chart, the girls would practise one letter at a time, with Harriet repeating after Rachel.
u Danny, aged four years and four months, got a new desk for Christmas. His father suggested he write a list of places he would like to visit in the holiday. Danny listed four places with his father's help, and over the next few days he returned to his desk to extend the list on his own.
u Tom, aged four years and five months, was crazy about the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. He made a Turtles board game with five small cards on which he wrote Tom, D, L, R, and M (the turtles' initials). He then played the game with his parents according to his rules.
When the children went to school, teacher-directed activities seldom allowed them to use their personal literacy strategies, though they continued to develop them at home. These strategies included dictating to an adult (the main option at school), but also copying writing from parents, siblings, friends and print in the environment (toys, clothes, books, cereal boxes); making marks or pretend writing; writing their name or letters from it; writing letter and number shapes; "collecting" favourite words; and invented spellings (guessing at phonetic approximations of words). I learned of these achievements by asking parents to make notes about their children's literacy experiences and to save drawings and writings to share with me on fortnightly home visits.