Reading ability

In January my daughter Niamh starts school. So today people from the school came round for a home visit. Basically it’s done so they can ask her questions: they asked her to count, to recognise some written numbers, to write her name, to draw a picture of herself, that sort of thing. I assume that they also wanted to take a quick glance around the house to ensure that we weren’t keeping her in horrendous squalor, which we aren’t, much as my mum might like to think that we don’t tidy up enough. What I want to talk about, though, is reading ability.
You see, we’ve been teaching her to read. It’s going pretty slowly, as you can imagine, but she can sound out letters and, given a bit of prompting, put them together into words. This is phonics, a dirty word in the argot of teaching children things, but it’s what both Sam and I know. I’m quite prepared to believe that the “whole language” sort of method might be good, but I don’t know how to teach it. Now, the nursery that Niamh currently attends write a Record of Achievement (or some such named thing) which is a summary of her academic progress to date. Apparently it would seem that the school completely ignore this and start teaching everything right from the beginning, leaving one to wonder whether the nursery might as well have just let her play with toys solidly for two years: the school have given her a couple of books with pictures. No words, just pictures. She graduated from picture-books to books with words in (which she has read to her, and reads along to some extent) some considerable time ago.
Even that, though, is not the main point here. Dm comments, over on Crooked Timber (first comment after tha main article) that “the teaching technique used was far less important than whether or not students arrived at school knowing what books were and how they worked“. You might think that that’s a ridiculous statement, but it isn’t. Three years ago, a woman from Sainsbury’s visited the toddlers’ group that Niamh attended with news of a great special offer: Sainsbury’s were, in an effort to help literacy, giving away free children’s books! All you had to do was go to the store and pick them up; you didn’t even need to buy anything. Needless to say, we went, and got a rather nice cloth bag with five or six books for very young children in it. No problem, right? Except that, without fail, all the mothers who turned up with children in tow to get the free books were in nice middle-class families and really didn’t need them.We’re just the same. We have loads of books. Niamh has loads of books. The people who this kind of thing is aimed at, those who don’t have books in the house, wouldn’t dream of buying any, don’t visit libraries: they didn’t turn up. And why? Because they don’t care about books. That’s why they don’t have any, and so if they feel like that why would they ever want to turn up somewhere and get some? So it didn’t work at all, despite being done with the best of intentions. The real horror, for me, was the reasoning behind the need for the scheme, and something to which dm alludes in the comment linked above: apparently, there are now a non-insubstantial proportion of kids turning up to school at the age of five who do not know what a book is. Not “are unable to read”—they’ve quite possibly never even seen a book, and don’t know what to do with it. They’ll pick it up and shake it, or chew it, or wave it around. I find it almost impossible to conceive of a five-year-old child who doesn’t know what a book is. They might not be able to read it, but they should know that reading is what you do with it when you’ve got it. I was horrified; really, seriously horrified at this.
Obviously, Niamh is not one of these children.

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