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Parents, pressure and setting children up for failure

Children reading with an adult

We’ve had a whirlwind year at Barrington Stoke, travelling all over the UK and further afield to talk books and accessibility with parents, teachers, librarians and more. One of the themes that has arisen again and again in Q&A sessions is the multitude of ways in which we, as adults, can inadvertently set children up for failure. Here are five recurring themes and our responses. As ever, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

1. ”˜The books my child gets are too easy’
This is an old chestnut and bears some scrutiny. We’re not going to deny that some children take to reading like ducks to water and are desperate to race ahead in school. It may indeed be true that these children experience some frustration if they perceive their progress to be hampered by strict progression through a reading scheme.

On the other hand, reading is not just about school. Any parent can supplement school reading with a rich reading culture at home. Borrow or buy them books they want to read themselves, or stories they want you to read to them.

It’s important, too, to remember that ”˜reading’ is about much more than looking at printed words on a page. A teacher at an event in Cheltenham told us that she received complaints from parents when she used wordless picture books with her class ”“ these parents didn’t understand that visual literacy is important, or sequencing skills, or indeed that a wordless book gives the chance to drink in a story in a very different way.

2. ”˜We’ve done the whole of the Oxford Reading Tree at home’
Do you know that many studies have shown that children entering school with a good grasp of narrative and confidence in storytelling regress in these areas when they meet a reading scheme? The theory goes that the reading scheme introduces the idea that the most important thing is the words; children’s processing power is diverted there and their grasp and feel for story suffers. This may be compounded by a poorer story offering in the books themselves, since the rationale underpinning the content prioritises vocabulary and structure over story. The rigid definitions of progression to which reading schemes lend themselves can also result in a lack of confidence when it comes to text that does not fall into the structure ”“ some children will literally define themselves as ”˜not a free reader’ and perceive that they may not read books outside the level to which they have progressed in the scheme.

Don’t invest in reading schemes for use at home. Keep home reading about pleasure. Don’t be afraid of books that are ”˜too young’ ”“ there’s great comfort in revisiting old favourites and children learn by repetition, becoming familiar with structures and freeing processing power to consider other aspects of the work. Don’t be tempted either only to share books that are at the level at which your child is reading. Keep on exploring all the wonderful books out there and the places they can take you.

3. ”˜My child doesn’t get enough homework’
Homework is always a thorny issue and it can be even thornier when we’re thinking about kids who struggle at school for specific reasons, such as dyslexia. To borrow an image from Frank Cottrell Boyce, some kids’ experience of school is akin to spending their days walking up an escalator going downwards. The school day is more tiring for them than their peers, but since they may progress more slowly in particular areas, the temptation to ask them to do more work at home is greater. At one of our events this year a mother told us that she was at the end of her tether trying to get her dyslexic son through his homework every night ”“ perhaps an hour’s worth of homework was resulting in many hours of frustration and arguments.

In this boy’s case, our panel and the audience were pretty much in agreement ”“ his mum should speak to school about cutting back on the homework that is causing her whole family such massive stress. Will her son’s education suffer? Probably not ”“ there is very little evidence to show that homework improves children’s attainment in school, particularly at primary level. There is also some suggestion that it can add to stress, limit family and play time and even affect sleep. We have heard an argument that we shouldn’t be too quick to let children play ”˜the dyslexic card’ and get off with things but our response to that is that if a child is already working much harder all day, every day, we should acknowledge that fact and plan for recovery and downtime accordingly.

Interestingly, a number of teachers at our event at Cheltenham said that they set homework because parents expect it. Perhaps, as parents, we might think about work/life balance and how we educate our children on what a good one might look like?

4. ”˜My child is eight but he has a reading age of 15 and there aren’t any books for him’
Some children do read early and easily and eat up books, and there has been a drive recently to offer the opposite of Barrington Stoke’s model ”“ books with longer word-lengths but age-appropriate content to challenge these children. We (sorry) think this is a bit depressing ”“ it simply reinforces the idea that reading is about words and progression. By this rationale a big book is better than a short one, so, for example, the last book of the Twilight Saga would beat The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde hands down.

There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of books out there for children of all ages, and the simple key to getting hold of a lot of them for no cost is a library card. There are classics from earlier eras with more challenging vocabulary if you are desperate to challenge a child. In our experience, no child has ever asked for challenging vocabulary off his or her own bat ”“ this is another adult fixation. If what you need is activities to challenge ”“ this may relate to the fact that ”˜hyperlexia’ often co-occurs with autism and that reading fiction may not be the child’s strength ”“ that’s fine. But why does this have to be bound up with progression obsession? What about all the great non-fiction out there?

5. ”˜My child has dyslexia but (s)he won’t read your (=Barrington Stoke) books because (s)he is sensitive to ”˜difference’’
This is an issue we’ve written about at length before and we won’t repeat our points, except to say that a solution to the ”˜stigma’ of reading a short, accessible book is to make more short, accessible books available for everyone.

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