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Conversation is the key to unlocking your child’s reading potential

As teachers, we’re taught that the foundation of any child’s learning starts with reading. So, from as early as possible, your child is taught phonics.

Whilst this is important, to engage in these lessons, your child needs to have sound and competent oracy skills. The importance of conversation has been highlighted by cognitive psychologist, Stephen Pinker:

“Children are wired for sound, but print is an optional accessory that must be painstakingly bolted on.”

Pinker, S., & McGuiness, D. (1998). Why Children can’t read and what we can do about it. London: Penguin, p.ix

Many mums I’ve spoken to have often remarked that from the second their tummy in any way resembles more than just a pasta bloat, everyone is desperate to pass on their ‘pearls of wisdom’. I recently asked one of my very pregnant friends (8 days overdue) if any of these comments related to her child’s potential intelligence. She said, “Music. Everyone has told me to play music to the bump.”

This is often one you see in TV and film too, isn’t it? A couple splayed lovingly on the sofa whilst listening to the dulcet sounds of Mozart.

The evidence suggests that in actual fact, we’re better off talking to our bumps and babies from as early as possible. Not using a ‘baby’ voice or swapping words for simplified or entirely made up ones (e.g. call a ‘car’ a ‘car’, not a ‘zoom zoom’). Even though your child may not be able to pronounce or even say these words, modelling the correct ones consistently is extremely impactful on their speech and language development.

 

A picture can say a thousand words (literally)

 

During a study of preschoolers (age 3-5), children spent 20 times longer looking at the pictures in the storybook than they did the words

Ann Evans, M., & Saint-Aubin, J. (2005) What children are looking at during shared storybook reading: Evidence from eye-movement monitoring, Psychological Science, 16 (11), 913-920, https??doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01636.x.

So, when reading with your toddlers and younger children, spend time focussing and discussing the pictures. Point out things your child may have missed and ask for them to say what they can see. What’s that animal? How does this person feel? What’s happening here? All of this conversation will enable your child to digest the story in a way that makes sense to them and also allow them to develop their own views and opinions. All of which is hugely beneficial to their overall literacy and language skills.

How to create a ‘talking environment’ at home

Most parents can relate to the struggle: your child has kicked off their school shoes, dives on the sofa and reaches for the remote or iDevice. You’re stood over them eager to hear all about their day, when all you get is “It was fine.”

This is not the time to try and open up life’s deep discussions but here’s some other ideas:

  1. Timing is everything – make sure you’re all relaxed, happy and in a comfortable place. Rushed conversation can lead to stressed conversation which is the opposite of what you want to achieve. Equally, your child may want to ask some of the ‘big questions’ just before bedtime, in this instance just say you’re going to pick it up over breakfast. Make a note of it and honour your word the next day.
  2. Offer topics that are relevant to your child – save the ‘adult talk’ for after bedtime and focus on things that excite your child. From holiday destinations to WWII, anything that inspires their imagination will get them talking.
  3. Don’t shut down conversation – children are brilliant at asking the wrong questions at the wrong times. And it can be easy to just say it’s not appropriate or ignore it entirely. If possible, explain to your child why that question could be problematic so they have at least had a response that quenches their inquisition, but you’ve not been put on the spot (hopefully).
  4. Share a story – if you have children of varying ages, this can be a tough one but there are plenty of family friendly stories that you can share together. A great way to do this is with an audiobook on a long journey!
  5. Be honest – when your child asks those difficult questions or brings up a topic from school and you’re unsure, tell them you don’t know. This is a chance for them to ‘show off’ and teach you about it. They’ll get a confidence boost and you also learn something new! Win, win!
  6. Model listening and engaging – everyone gets those days when they’re ‘just not in the mood’ and need a bit of space (your children included). In this instance, model with another sibling, relative or partner how to have good conversations. Show the importance of listening (not just waiting for your turn to speak), responding (to what has been said and not just your point of view) and engaging (making eye contact and displaying good body language). 

“Children’s wellbeing, identity, sense of agency and capacity to make friends is connected to the development of communication skills, and strongly linked to their capacity to express feelings and thoughts, and to be understood.” VEYLDF (2016)

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