Reading in Early Years very quickly seems to become a race through book bands. In fact the pursuit of the next colour code often becomes an obsession for parents, school leadership and even teachers.
The more I think about Early Years, the more I realise just how arbitrary it all is and how so quickly Education becomes more about a system rather than an individual. The system-heads accuse the child developmentalists of lacking expectation or rigour but the reality is that the benchmarking folder and the book band box are symbols of one-size-fits-all, top-down view of children, through which children become a standardised commodity all ensconced in the vague notion of ‘social mobility’.
‘Readiness’ has become something that the adult world believes can be engineered. Cue phonics interventions, 1:1 seasons, parental anxiety, despair and in amongst it all, the child shrinking before us under the weight of frustration and pressure.
Yes, reading is a vital skill in our culture but when we have a system that acts like a train departing at a certain time whether the passengers are ready or not, then children will inevitably ‘fail’.
There’s so much more to reading than a book from the book band box. Reading requires a huge amount of skill, confidence, past experience and vocabulary. Above all, it needs joy. Without this critical component then we are not shaping real readers - instead we’re creating children who are performing for adults for the sake of the adult world system.
So how to create joy?
Joy really comes about in the years preceding school. It’s borne out of the shared experience of reading with and being read to by parents/carers; of regular library visits which immerse children in the world of words; of chit-chat back and forth; of questioning and dialogue; of bedtimes curled up with warmth and a favourite story; of trips to bookshops to be surrounded by new book smell and the universe of book spines, each one offering a new adventure.
All lovely and all fine. Yet we have children who don’t experience the above, whose access to these things is limited, who perhaps spend more time in silent screen glow or whose language skills are underdeveloped. It is these children who we somehow need to switch on to reading and the joy of imagination. And how?
The joy of reading comes alive for a host of reasons but one vital component is a sense that it is fun to do. Fun however is what’s is missing from pretty much every single book band book I’ve ever come across. I can’t think of one that gives children a real thrill to read. They are dull and they have to be because the canon of available words is so limited. They are inherently ‘robot’ texts - building through repetition and rehearsal. Great if you’ve come to school with a sense that reading is special, if you have bookish-ness... if you don’t, then it’s a different picture. Reading can often feel that it's being imposed on these children because they have to get to a book band level before a certain date. It’s devoid of thrill. And if it’s devoid of thrill then reading becomes a chore.
Most schools want book band books. They are what schools do. But there is a way to try to supplement them, to try to unearth joy and at least create the conditions for engagement and book buzz...
They’re called secret sentences. They can appear at any time. They can say anything. They are based around messages: from the adults, from story characters, from imaginary beasts, from the ether of childhood. Reading, to have thrill, has to have a purpose. And a message has a purpose, an intention, an unfolding of a secret that can ignite a child, make them laugh, make them see that reading is an integral part of the world and isn’t just about a precarious journey through pink, red, yellow and blue and on to ‘Free reading’. Free reading should be the principle that underpins everything right from the start. Children shouldn’t need to work towards it. The very phrase implies that any reading experience that preceded it was chained and enslaved.
Secret sentences unshackle children. You can write them anytime, anywhere, and about anything. The funnier the better. Sentences about dog poo are a big hit. Children begin to see that being given a secret sentence is a reward somehow (yes, really - they ask for them!). Secret sentences open up reading. They can be left as a trick, as a surprise, as an invitation, as a warning... They can be written on children’s creations, be found in lunch boxes, be unearthed outdoors, be left under the carpet, even be sent out to home for children to read. All the time, it’s about bringing reading to life.
Reading is challenging enough for young children. Many would say it’s developmentally inappropriate for 4 year olds to be expected to read and be valued through the lens of letter sounds.
But that is what we have. And while we have it, why not explore how secret sentences can impact on your children’s reading engagement?
This week think about your children’s interests, things that make them laugh, things that peek their curiosity. Reading ‘The Robin’s Egg’ isn’t going to make them buzz, buzz, buzz , but maybe just maybe, sentences about flying to the moon on a plate of cheese just might.
You’ll never know unless you try :)
Can I Go Play Now..? is committed to widening the understanding of the magic of children's play as an educational tool. Child-centred, play-based learning is where it's truly at....