Every summer, libraries do their Summer Reading Challenge to encourage children to read more books. I think it’s a really good idea but this year I had decided we wouldn’t participate*. We do alright on reading here, I really can’t complain. Big Bear will be getting some new books for his birthday and I know he will read them during the holidays, now that he has discovered the pleasure of reading for fun. Little Bear has a well-stocked book shelf, having inherited Big Bear’s picture books as well as acquiring a good collection of his own. He loves reading and we religiously read three books each night, as well as Little Bear reading to me (I have invested in a pack of Oxford Reading Tree books of the right level from The Book People to keep practise up over the hols).
I’m not complacent about reading and I definitely place a high value on it, it’s just that I have already given it a whole heap of my attention and I think we can afford to shift our focus elsewhere now, leaving reading ticking along nicely in the background.
I suppose I have always felt fairly confident in how to support and develop reading at home. Being a speech and language therapist, knowing about phonological awareness (the awareness of the sound structure of words) and how to teach it, is crucial. Phonological awareness underpins speech processing and development but it also underpins literacy. Therefore my career has armed me really, with the tools to help my children learn to read.
Irrespective of teaching the mechanics of reading, I have always believed that it is crucial for a child to feel successful at something and to truly believe they can do it in order for them to develop a confidence in their skills. When it comes to reading, that lightbulb moment often happens when children go out and about and realise they can read signs and labels and text they just happen upon in their environment. It is important to practise reading in a school book but I think children need more than that to truly develop a love and desire for reading. Where possible, at each stage, I have tried to pick books from Little Bear’s shelf that I knew he could read. He often didn’t believe he could because they weren’t colour-banded school books, but once I’d persuaded him to try, the fact that he really could was powerful for him. As was being able to read made up stories we hand wrote on a piece of paper or bits of a cereal packet or words on the TV.
Obviously Little Bear is not yet reading War and Peace but he has the foundation skills in place and is making good progress. As yet, the same cannot be said for writing.
I have to admit that I have been somewhat neglectful of Little Bear’s writing development. There are a few reasons why. Firstly, I do think reading is more important to start with and writing is a skill that can follow. That’s just my opinion: I’m not a teacher, so I may well be going against some sort of law of teaching or other. Secondly, I don’t have the same confidence to support Little Bear’s writing development. What on earth do I know about teaching writing?
As we have now got to the point where Little Bear is pretty happy and confident to read but frequently says he hates writing and that he’s rubbish at it and might sabotage his written work and is what school would term “a reluctant writer” I can no longer hide behind my excuses. The Eureka moment we have all been hoping for has not materialised.
I think what I mean to say is that the Eureka moment has not happened through school input alone. Now, I absolutely do not believe that my ability to teach Little Bear is better than schools. We have already established that I have zero knowledge of teaching writing and I love the Bears’ school and think they do an amazing job. The problem, and I think there is one, is with the curriculum and the pressure on our children to meet all sorts of crazy standards. I haven’t the energy for politics but all I know is that if I were a ‘reluctant writer’ and I found within me the effort to put pencil to paper and immediately as I did, were told my starting letter should have been a capital and that my ‘S’ was incorrectly formed, I probably couldn’t be arsed to try again either.
In considering a way to give Little Bear his Eureka moment, I had a little one of my own. I am no teacher but I am a writer. I don’t profess to ‘know my craft’ as I’m pretty new to it really and am certainly still developing my skills, but I do love it. I had a little think about what I love about it and the answer I came up with definitely wasn’t punctuation or grammar. Whilst I do understand punctuation and I think use it appropriately it really doesn’t excite me and despite studying Linguistic modules at degree level, the more I consider how to craft a piece of writing, the more I fear I know nothing about grammar. Grammar is starting to scare me, but that’s another story. I concluded that my love of writing comes from the fundamental concept that it allows me to take ideas from my brain and put them on a piece of paper. It allows me to express myself. I can say whatever I like. Anything, in the whole world.
That freedom is what I want to gift to Little Bear. I want him to write. I don’t care what he writes, how he forms his letters, if it’s massive or tiny, if it’s in pencil or biro, if he adheres to the rules of grammar or not. I don’t think it is possible, for a child lacking in self-esteem, who struggles so much with rules, to learn to love writing when there are just so many constraints placed upon how he can do it. I know that he will need to go on to learn the rules, of course he will, but it feels like there should be a stage before that in which he can experiment and figure out the whole raison d’etre of writing.
On Friday, the day school ended for summer, I got a couple of little things for the boys to keep them entertained in the holidays. I got them each a notepad and pens and I set them a writing challenge. When I did this I wasn’t too sure whether it might be one of those things Mum comes up with which she thinks is a fabulous idea but actually the children can’t believe what I’m doing to them. I did make my purchases as appealing as possible because every writer needs good stationery and I needed as much help as possible with marketing my idea. Little Bear has a notebook with sequins on it that can be brushed backwards or forwards which he LOVES and Big Bear has a green furry one that smells of apples and who could need anything else? I also provided new pens, in a delectable range of colours.
I set the challenge: to write every day for the whole holiday. Effort and commitment will be rewarded at the end of the holiday. If you don’t write, your chances of reward dwindle. The rules? There are no rules. You can write anything; a story, a list, a diary entry, a song.
I didn’t say this part out loud but I made a deal with myself that anything that got written would not get corrected and would not have to be copied out again. At school they do this ‘purple polishing’ thing which is about checking your work and drafting and re-drafting to achieve the best version of the work you can. I get it, obviously in my writing life I draft and edit and tweak and tinker until the cows come home, but I’m a grown up and I’m trying to get published and if I were a child I would be BORED. Like Little Bear, I would also be disgruntled that I had already tried my best and I simply didn’t have the energy left to do it all again.
On Saturday, after tea, the boys dutifully sat down to write in their books. Big Bear wrote a diary entry in lumo-green. Little Bear began making up a story, every few lines changing colour so it looked like a rainbow. Little Bear wrote a whole paragraph without any sort of encouragement which was more than I’d ever observed him write. We made a big fuss of how well he had done and he was made up when the other three of us each trooped over to read his words aloud.
I feared that my hands-off approach would hamper progress and development but I was heartened to hear Little Bear sounding his words out as he went and applying some of his phonic knowledge. When he got to bigger words he asked for help and I either helped or encouraged as necessary.
On Sunday, when I got up, Little Bear, ever the early bird, was already up and seated at the kitchen table. Apparently he fancied carrying on his story and had covered another page and a half in rainbow writing. It doesn’t make total sense. Some words are missing and I can’t decipher some of it but I am absolutely over the moon at his enthusiasm.
Later on, Big Bear chose to play a computer game and Little Bear chose to write some more.
After tea, Big Bear sat down to do his writing and I told Little Bear he didn’t have to as he had already written plenty, yet down he sat and more story appeared.
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today, Little Bear picked up his sequined notebook at random points in the day and he wrote. I have not reminded him to do so on any occasion.
I don’t know whether this is his Eureka moment but he has never hitherto shown this level of interest, so I’m feeling optimistic. The curriculum feels quite restrictive to me at times. Why do we need to push our children into complex grammatical structures at such a young age? As if to prove my point, we have homework about extended noun phrases. The power of creativity feels massively undervalued in today’s schooling. Little Bear has a wild imagination. He could be a fabulous writer, but only if we can inspire him.
Having Developmental Language Disorder makes all aspects of literacy harder for Little Bear. He is already pushing a boulder up a hill before he picks up his pencil. I know he can achieve a good level of literacy despite this, but does he?
The whole point of the writing challenge is to ignite his self-belief because, unfortunately, his formal education doesn’t seem able to.
*When we popped to the library the boys decided they did want to do the Reading Challenge after all so we have challenges come out of our ears!