How your cat can help your child learn to read

Last time I left you with a question: What’s the difference between teaching a child to read and getting a cat down from a tree?

The answer (of course) is that there is no difference. Take the cat. Stuck up a tree, with you at the bottom. How do you get it down? Well, you might whisper ‘Here kitty kitty!’ and make encouraging noises. You might put out a saucer of milk. You might rustle the branches of the tree. You might try climbing the tree (you might: I wouldn’t). You might even ring the fire brigade. But I’ll bet you two things: one, the cat will get down from the tree. And two: you won’t know which of your multiple strategies – if any – actually succeeded in getting it to come down.

Well, teaching kids to read is very similar. As a teacher, you start with a bunch of kids who can’t read, and you end up with a bunch of kids – most of whom can read. And how did they get from A to B? Was it your spirited work with magnetic letters? Was it the excellent (but terribly expensive) phonics programme that your school follows? Was it the nurturing home environment? Parents reading to their children every evening? Or was it the extra hours your teaching assistant put in on one-to-one reading with the children?

Just as with the cat, who knows? In fact, one view is that, pretty much whatever you do, those kids will just learn to read, as surely as a nail rusts in a bucket of water.

Of course, even if that view is correct, it’s no argument for poor teaching. For three reasons.

First, if all teaching facilitates, good teaching will facilitate faster and better: it will do it more efficiently and more effectively. The bottom line is that that saves money (bottom lines always appeal to men in suits). The spiritual bottom line is that kids are better fulfilled.

Second, learning to read is hard work. It’s boring and it’s a chore. Like moving house and (so I’m told) childbirth, learning to read is one of those seriously painful things that we dismiss from our minds as soon as we’ve been through it. Trust me, learning to read is hard work. Why make this hard chore even more difficult, when in fact we can just make it easier?

But here’s the most compelling argument for better literacy teaching: a not inconsiderable minority of children are growing up with serious reading difficulties (‘struggling readers’) or just not disposed to read at all (‘reluctant readers’). These are the ones still stuck up (or, if you’re still with me, still stuck halfway up) the tree. Waving sticks, putting out saucers of milk and throwing salt over your shoulder (is it the right or left shoulder?) might be an OK way to get cats down from trees, but it is not an acceptable way to teach children to read. Or rather, to fail to teach children to read.

So, you ask, why not decide on the basket of rituals that will get the cat down from the tree – sorry, will gets kids reading - and just implement it country-wide? Fair comment.

There are two answers, really. First of all, nobody can decide on what should go in the basket. Analytical phonics? Synthetic phonics? Graphemes? Phonemes? Onset and rime? Whole word recognition? (Initial Teaching Alphabet, anybody?) Each has its supporters and critics.

And second of all – here’s the rub – just as all cats are different, children are different too. And it’s not just hair colour, general levels of scruffiness and noise levels that differentiate children: different children learn in different ways. So what works very well for one child may not work at all for another.

So we have a basket of teaching techniques and approaches, and we have a basket of children with different learning styles. Surely, it can’t be too hard to find the right course for the right horse?

No, I wouldn’t have thought so either.

Stephen Rickard is Creative Director of Ransom Publishing Ltd. He regularly writes and presents on issues surrounding literacy and reluctant/struggling readers.