Out of pyjamas and into a world of text
Staggering under the weight of two large bags loaded with carefully chosen books, Play-dough and writing materials, the unexpected greeting from the small pyjama-clad figure peering out from between his mum's legs as she opened the front door was more than a little disconcerting. "Go away!" said Steven. "I don't want you!"
Working with the Sheffield Raising Early Achievement in Literacy project, I was funded to spend one day every fortnight for 18 months with eight families.
I focused mainly on home visits, but also held group workshops for adults and special events for adults and children.
This long-term, low-intensity and essentially practical work was intended to support adult family members in activities to promote literacy in very young children.
Steven's reaction to my arrival at his front door was not typical. But perhaps he expressed the anxiety that others - parents and children - felt to some degree. The families had all agreed to take part in the project without really knowing what it would involve.
I think much the same applied to the project teachers. I well remember the training day when, after intense discussions about theory and philosophy, someone was bold enough to ask, "But what exactly are we going to do?" In fact, the work was linked to strands of early literacy development, including books, early writing, oracy and the "environmental print" children see all around them in shops, adverts and road signs.
Each home visit or group activity would focus on one aspect. Books were key, and choosing one or two to borrow became a feature of each home visit.
I found that only one of the families used the local library regularly, and there were very few books for young children other than well-chewed board "baby books" in evidence.
In most homes, I did not see newspapers or other adult reading matter either, although there were often comics and annuals for the older siblings. Even so, the mums - and one grandma - who joined in the visits responded enthusiastically, and many of the earlier visits focused on looking through the books and responding to the children's eager comments:
"Read it now!" or, "Read another one."
Steven did let me through the door, but for several weeks his visits consisted of reading a story, having a drink and a biscuit, and choosing a book to borrow. Then he would say: "You can go now."
In group meetings, adults talked about what makes a good book, shared ideas for linking pictures to text and encouraging prediction and recall.
We were welcomed at the local library and at Christmas the project funded a book token for each child. So, off we went to Waterstone's. It was a first-time visit to a bookshop for all but one family.
"Can they get the books out? Won't they mind?" asked some.
No, they didn't mind. Indeed, the staff respected the children as customers and showered them with balloons and bookmarks.
Searching out environmental print also provided lots of fun for all the family. On home visits and group outings, emptying kitchen cupboards or walking to and from the shopping centre, revealed unexpected print awareness.
Adults were frequently astonished at the children's ability to identify logos on breakfast-cereal packaging or the shop signs of fast-food outlets.
Mums and children made scrapbooks and card games of labels and logos they recognised. Some included football emblems, and one child collected the letterheads of the companies his parents worked for.
On another occasion we all spent a happy summer's day at a farm, following a photographic trail to "find the signs". And our Christmas bookshop visit included following some rhyming clues to find the signs along the way.
Setting up these activities was time-consuming but extremely worthwhile, as they enabled adults and children to work collaboratively in a relaxed setting.
Many of the children's early writing experiences took place on home visits.
These centred on providing opportunities - materials, space and time - as well as the recognition of the stages of writing development, the modelling of writing by adults, and children and adults working together.
But letters between the project teacher and the children were the most powerful tool for bringing the children to an awareness of the reasons for writing.
Spotty Dog, a toy which I took with me on home visits, wrote to the children and got a wide range of replies. He always included a stamped envelope with his letters.
Holiday postcards and diaries were also motivating. Adults became increasingly confident in encouraging and then scribing the children's spoken language.
With the help of this variety of approaches, the programme of work developed over 18 months until the children were ready to start in reception class. This was low-intensity work, but it became part of all our lives.
Perhaps the culmination of the project came when three of the project mums received accreditation from the Open College for portfolios of work with their children. And all the parents and children received certificates and congratulations from David Blunkett, who was then the education secretary.
The children I worked with on the Real project are now in Year 5. I have been privileged to be able to follow their progress and maintain contact with their families through the years, and I am humbled by the openness, trust and commitment they showed.
I am convinced that the ways of working with families developed in the project, particularly the building of supportive and non-judgmental relationships, can and should be the basis of educational practice in the foundation stage and beyond.
Judith Butler is a nursery teacher and foundation-stage leader at Rainbow Forge primary school in Sheffield