Maureen Hunt

Biscuits or Banquets?

Maureen Hunt Achievement for All Friday 21 July 2017

Becoming a lifetime reader is dependent on developing a love of reading[1] and few would argue against the fact that the ability and motivation to read impacts on the life chances of all children.

For this reason, a significant amount resource is put into primary schools in the teaching of reading and the system of teaching synthetic phonics is almost universally adopted as being the most effective approach. However, some children are not making the progress they should be and there are stark inequalities in attainment[2]. Boys, and those children on free school meals are less likely to reach the expected levels than their peers across all modules of communication and language.[3]

Every teacher recognises the children that come in to school ready to read. They speak fluently, listen attentively and engage and respond. They sit still, do well at phonics and build up a good sight vocabulary of tricky words, generally they make good, steady progress.  They usually have smart book bags that come back and forwards every day and reading records that are filled in by parents that show an interest; these children become good readers almost naturally.

‘They know about books, they understand the structure of sentences, the flow of a story and appreciate the wonder that books hold.’

Those children that are finding reading easy are usually the ones that have been talked to and read to since their earliest days and this has laid the foundations. They know about books, they understand the structure of sentences, the flow of a story and appreciate the wonder that books hold. They love the special bond that develops between adult and child when books are shared and understand that they are a great joy. In short, they have been exposed to a rich reading environment-  they are ready to read.

Not all children are so lucky; some come from homes where reading is low priority and some where there are no books at all. These children are not ready, the foundations have not been laid and they are at a huge disadvantage from the start.  We then put them through a system where their success seems to rely heavily on the support they get at home, which further compounds their disadvantage.  Some parents have poor literacy skills and struggled themselves at school and we expect them to support their child’s reading, fill in the reading record and become an active partner in the whole process.  These children are often fed a diet of uninspiring texts that are simplistic in their structure and lack the wonder and inspiration of beautiful, well written books.  They quickly work out that ‘reading books’ are levelled and they are on a lower level than their peers. This leads to a lack of confidence as generally speaking your skills in reading are highly visible at home and in school. Teachers then target the children who are not doing so well with extra phonics and more practice texts, which causes frustration and boredom with the whole process.

What if that is all you get? What if you never really get to be exposed to the wonders of books? Suppose reading is just a chore to you and you just don’t get the point? No chef ever got inspired to learn to cook by being exposed to a daily diet of dry biscuits, and endless tests about which spoon to use; it’s the sights, smells and flavours of the banquet that makes them say ‘I want to do that.’

Children need to know the joy and pleasure reading will bring and why it is important to learn. They need to understand that they can find out about things that interest them through books and what a delightful experience reading is. Just as a chef needs the skills to cook, but also the vision and lure of the banquet.

Why would you practice scales on an instrument and play the same tune over and over again if you hadn’t experienced the sound of an orchestra? Why would you work so hard in a kitchen just to be able to name all the equipment and bake biscuits over and over again for no particular reason until they were perfect?

Its time to make beautiful books central to all early years practice to ensure all children find reading irresistible. Lets’ make reading into a banquet for our children and not just biscuits.

 References:

[1] Sanacore, J. (2002). Struggling literacy learners benefit from lifetime literacy efforts. Reading Psychology, 23, 67-86.

[2] Save the Children, (2015)  Ready to Read, Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child can read well

[3] National Literacy Trust, (2015), State of the Nation and Impact Report


Maureen Hunt is the Early Years Lead for Achievement for All where she is responsible for the design and the delivery of their early years programme; “Achieving Early”. Her vision is to ensure that Early Years settings are able to access high quality professional development opportunities to support them to be able to improve outcomes for our most vulnerable children. The programme has won the Nursery World Award for Inclusive Practice in 2015 and was highly commended in 2016.

Maureen’s background is in Early Years and Infant education in Southampton, where she taught for over 22 years in four nursery and Infant schools. She subsequently worked for Action for Children as a project leader for Cornwall Children’s Fund, developing new and innovative services in Cornwall to improve children’s engagement in school. Maureen worked for Cornwall LA children’s services, where she was responsible for leading a multiagency team in family services and developed six Children’s centres in South East Cornwall.