Reading to children is not enough!

“If every parent, or carer …read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to children in their care, we could eliminate illiteracy within one generation.”

This is one of Mem Fox’s favourite bylines. Every time she is interviewed she likes to declare how she is going to solve illiteracy. Unfortunately she is wrong!

The first time I saw this quote was on a poster in our school library. My daughter had just been diagnosed with Dyslexia. I was already filled with enough parental guilt for not intervening in her schooling earlier. I really didn’t at that point to need any more guilt. It made me so sad and so angry. For a few years I had been asking teachers questions. They would answer …”she seems so bright!” “We don’t know why!” “Don’t worry she will get it.” “Do you read to her?”

Now I know better. I know I did do all the right things to give my daughter the best chance to read. But my daughter has Dyslexia and she did not receive the instruction she needed in school to teach her to read. I know that reading to your child is foundational to learning to read. But I also know that for most children it is not enough and they need to be taught explicitly how to read.

Yes I did read to my daughter more than any parent I know. She was my first child. I left my job as a teacher and spent all my energy playing with my child, talking to my child, singing to my child and reading to her.

From the moment she was born we read to her. We knew her favourite books off by heart. I remember her screaming in the car once so from the front I recited the entire “Each Peach Pear Plum” which was a definite favourite. Books were always how we settled her before every sleep, calmed her when upset and comforted when she was ill.

I remember being part of a government survey when she was a toddler and one question asked whether I read to my daughter 10 minutes a day. I laughed. The lady must have thought I was crazy as I was thinking it was more like hours. It was the thing she wanted to do most. Even before she could walk she would crawl over and grab books out of her book box for us to read. She never seemed to have enough.

I thought that once she learnt to walk she would not want to be read to so much. Instead she would toddle behind me demanding to be read to! One of her first sentences etched in my mind was “Read dis book yep!” All her grandparents, Aunties and Uncles read to her enthusiastically too. They include doctors, teachers a lawyer and even an author.

We owned about 6 or more Mem Fox books. I could recite to you “Time for bed” even now a decade after I read it to my child over and over every night before bed. My husband’s favourite was “Where is the green sheep?” He used to make up silly names for all the characters and would ask my daughter to point out the “Carmen Miranda sheep” and the “Ned Kelly sheep”.

Before school she spent 2 1/2 years at the local preschool. The year before school she had the most amazing preschool teacher 3 days a week who used to teach kindergarten. She read books to the children, did amazing activities, sang songs, played with rhymes.

So my daughter went to school primed to learn to read. She couldn’t have had a better foundation of oral language. In fact her preschool teachers commented about how good her vocabulary was. In her assessments later, when we were looking for answers, she was shown to have verbal comprehension and vocabulary well above average. She loved a complex story early.

In kindergarten we started reading her Harry Potter. Sometimes she’d be wriggling and I would accuse her of not listening. She would then recite to me the last line or tell me what the story line was for the last 10 minutes. At the same age her sister was still enjoying picture books being read to her.

So when she didn’t learn to read we were shocked. She so looked forward to learning to read books because she had always loved books so much. She struggled, she cried and threw predictive readers across the room. She began to hate and fear school. Eventually in year 3 we found out she had Dyslexia and at the age 8 1/2 she had a spelling age of less than 5 and a reading age of 7. After we employed a structured literacy tutor and she spent many hours with me at home reinforcing explicit phonics lessons she learnt to read. But that’s another story.

I know Mem Fox is a passionate advocate of whole language. A methodology of teaching that has been proven time and time again to be not an effective strategy to teach children to read. Her views are from a position of power but are based on significant ignorance. With power and influence comes a great responsibility because the myths you are spreading are doing damage. Kids are being left behind and families are being blamed for their children’s failure.

My understanding is not only supported by research evidence but by the thousands of parent stories I have heard in Dyslexia Support Australia. Parents over and over again tell how they were blamed for their child struggling to learn to read. They discuss in great detail how they always read to their child from day one, yet they did not learn to read. We have teachers in our support group who join when their own child struggles to learn to read. We have parents with multiple children but only one struggled.

I’m not discounting the importance of reading to children in the early development of oral language. It is an essential foundation for later reading acquisition. But well trained teachers can bridge the gap that some children bring to school with them. My child had no oral language gap. My child had no disadvantage other than a disability that could have been overcome without the heartbreak through early evidenced based intervention. Reading 3 books a day to children will not eradicate illiteracy. Training our teachers in systematic and explicit phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension will.

The cutie in the photos is my daughter being read to!

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