Reading with mother
Rosie wanted to read. Reciting her way through books she had memorised, she would pause at a forgotten page and move her lips, sounding out the letters. She was three-and-a-half and had learnt her alphabet over a year before. Friends with grown-up children said her primary school would be hostile to the idea of my teaching her before school. One recalled being told by her son's reception class teacher: "It would have been more helpful if you'd taught him how to tie his shoe laces instead." They've invented Velcro now, and they've changed their views on pre-school literacy, though the two may not be connected. What's been going on?
The National Union of Teachers' view is simply that the pushy parent ("over-anxious" was the word), who could turn a child off reading by forcing it on her, sends her to a nursery school these days, thus reducing parental pressure and creating less of a problem in reception class.
But, according to Margaret Lochrie, chief executive officer of the Pre-School Learning Alliance which represents 20,000 pre-schools and playgroups in England, attitudes have been changed by research, too. "There's a lot of independent studies which suggest that parental involvement is vital. Parents can draw children into the world of printed matter through books, shopping lists, even TV listings. In pre-schools they will have stories, meet rhythm and rhyme, and perhaps learn their letters and write their own name."
The importance of parental involvement was confirmed by the success of the Basic Skills Agency's family literacy programmes in 1994 and 1995. The 12-week courses were run in four deprived areas for children aged three to six and their parents. They encouraged families to work together on vocabulary, reading and writing. The results published earlier this year showed that the proportion of children whose low reading level would leave them struggling in school fell from 67 to 35 per cent.
Rosie Roberts, of the PEEP (Peers Early Education Partnership) scheme in Oxford, works on pre-school literacy with children and parents. She says: "It's entirely appropriate for children to begin to develop literacy from the moment they are born. Parents have a crucial role to play. Children who have been read to an enormous amount are enthusiastic about reading. Playing games with them about letters and sounds can work extremely well. Parents must set an example - and be seen reading and enthusing about a book."
But Rosie Roberts also says that inappropriate intervention can lead to "helpless learners": children who learn not for themselves or because they want to find out what's in the book, but simply for the approval of whoever is teaching them. They might turn into children who don't read by choice.
Sue Palmer, writer and teacher, and editor of the Longman Book Project, is an admirer of "Read aloud, read along, read alone", the slogan used by children's book publishers Dorling Kindersley. She says: "For generations children have learnt to read at their mother's knee. The child wants to hear the story lots of times. The child knows the story and joins in. The mother is pointing out the alphabet and showing the children that letters have sounds. A child with an average visual or auditory memory will probably start doing it as well. As for coming into school with different reading abilities, it's up to the teacher to sort it out. If a pre-school child wants to read, it will make her unhappy not to help her. But if she doesn't, don't push her."
Michael Weller, English advisor to East Sussex Education Authority, believes schools are more willing to work with parents these days. "The old concern was because we met a number of children who were already hung up about reading because of the pressure to get it right," he says. "I hope we have moved away from the idea that schools and teachers know best and that 'You shouldn't do anything until they come here or you'll get it wrong'. The majority of our primary schools give out a policies pack telling you how you can help with reading.
"It's quite interesting that traditional nursery rhymes tune children's ears to sound. But because some parents are so busy, some children are not getting that stage of critical listening. Rhyme is very interesting and very important. All the research indicates now that children can pick up spelling and letter combinations through rhyme. Will the bright reading child be bored at school? With a good teacher, no. With a bad one, yes. That's the honest answer. "
So what do you do if your child is ready to read? Understandably, our local primary school doesn't want lots of children turning up already bored with their chosen reading scheme. So I looked for other things for my four-year-old. The Oxford Reading Tree scheme (Oxford Univerity Press) had the word Dagenham on the first page, which was rather daunting, and my daughter didn't seem to relate to children called Chip and Biff.
I bought flashcards, but Rosie found them rather flat, and there's little incentive to go on to the next word if you've just got one wrong. So I reverted to my childhood and found Janet and John (Nisbet). A sensible political correctness has liberated Janet from the kitchen sink, though she still wears those knicker-flashing 1950s clothes. It seems to work and Rosie feels hugely rewarded by getting it right.
But it has to be said that Janet and John is not exciting. Dr Seuss is. There is rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and wonderfully weird storylines and illustrations in The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and all the rest (Collins). The words always rhyme visually, too, which helps no end. So we swap about, probably proceeding more slowly than we would if we were more single-minded, but neither of us gets bored. And we both do nursery rhymes with my younger two.
Jill Parkin was a Daily Express columnist for four years and is author of two books on motherhood.
What the Experts Say
Sue Palmer (editor of the Longman Book Project): 'Each Peach Pear Plum is marvellous, so is Dr Seuss. If I were a 1990s child I would find Janet and John very stuffy. I wouldn't want to use a scheme at home at all. The reason for reading schemes is that you're trying to teach 30 kids at once and it's essential to cover everything. Nursery rhymes are great.' Rosie Roberts (Peers Early Education Partnership): 'Flashcards cannot be fascinating for their own sake. Because phonics was sometimes taken to extremes the baby was thrown out with the bathwater and many people now won't touch phonics with a barge pole. Yet children do need to know about letters and sounds to be effective readers. '
Michael Weller (English advisor to East Sussex Education Authority): 'There's nothing wrong with Janet and John at an early stage. But the narrative level is so simple the stories get boring. Children can discriminate for themselves between good and bad narratives. I think Dr Seuss is smashing. But children won't develop their vocabulary unless you talk to them and read them books with more sophisticated narrative and vocabulary. Don't make the child feel tested all the time. Don't project your anxiety and desire for success.'