How to raise successful kids: throw the book at them
“At our beach,” he reads slowly, falteringly. “At our magic beach, we rock in the t … tan … tange.”
“Good sounding out,” I tell him, as we sit outside his classroom. “Keep trying.”
“We rock in the tang-er-rine boat.” His brown eyes seek approval. “Fantastic. Tangerine – do you know what that means?” He bows his head, embarrassed; at eight he’s already self-diagnosed himself as stupid.
“It’s a fruit, like an orange. The author, Alison Lester, thought tangerine sounded cooler than orange.” He laughs and we brainstorm a fruit bowl of boats: strawberry boats, cherry boats, banana boats. “I’ve been on one of those,” he shouts, face illuminated, words tumbling as he tells me about it.
Reading – the core of all learning; the source of so much pleasure. Yet we’re failing at it. A whole generation – and, therefore, generations to follow – unnourished by the words on which our world turns. The results are shameful: we limp in at 27th out of 42 countries in an international benchmark of reading; the PM predicts 150,000 kids will fail to meet minimum standards by 2025.
So what do the educators do? They argue about it. State and federal governments are in a war of words. Our funding model is better than yours, says Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. Na-nana-naa-nahh, joins in Queensland’s Campbell Newman and, whoosh, there go our children’s futures in a puff of political posturing. Meanwhile, Gonski is being implemented slower than a nine-year-old attempting to sound out “consequences”.
The Prime Minister’s vote-friendly $1 million reading blitz sounds promising but, as Baillieu points out, “blitzes” are not a replacement for long-term evidence-based education reforms.
So what to do? Honestly, if you have a child, a grandchild, a kid you give a damn about then YOU have to foster a love of reading, rather than wait for the pollies to finish their playground squabbles. Finger-wagging is not normally my style, but I’ve been into the classrooms; reading is not slipping, it’s plummeting. But before you dismiss me as the goody-two-shoes suck-up know this - I’m educated, mum is a teacher but, still, I stuffed up with my second child.
With my first I read Where’s Spot 4876 times. When the next came along I was done with Spot. The stupid dog could go and play in the traffic. Or get neutered. Or be set upon by Hercules Morse, that monster mastiff in the Hairy McClary series.
As for Mem Fox’s Where is the Green Sheep? He’s asleep! Whether you’ve read it once or a million times, the bloody sheep is always asleep. And that’s the problem with kid’s books: they’re one-dimensional. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not a salutary tale about obesity, The Cat in the Hat is not about home invasion – though that’s clearly what it is – and Olivia, the pig who dresses up and goes to the beach is not a multi-volume meme on the perils of anthropomorphism. Guess what the kids find in We’re Going on A Bear Hunt? Yep, a bear.
I know, I know. None of us have time. The computer keeps them out of your hair. But even if you have to sink a double vodka to muster some enthusiasm, you’ve got to get behind books. Reading is feeding.
Some tips (learned through trial and, oh, so much error):
1. Don’t judge the books your child chooses. Mine loved the Rainbow Magic series boasting the two most pathetic heroines ever to grace a page and more freakin’ fairies than there are climaxes in Fifty Shades Of Grey.
2. Don’t tell them how wonderful a book is and how it changed your life. Instead, tell them it’s too old for them and contains swear words. Then write “bugger” in very small letters inside the back cover because no kid likes a liar.
3. Nursery rhymes are not old hat. The rhyme and repetition give a sense of accomplishment and they’ll also learn life skills: do not sit on a wall if you are an egg; lambs make needy pets.
4. “Reading one book is like eating one potato chip,” writes Diane Duane in So You Want to Be a Wizard. Embrace books as if they’re a tube of Pringles.
5. Use the library – just beware the proliferation of picture books about bereavement, divorce and – in similarly earnest tones – the arrival of a sibling.
6. Make up stories. Mine couldn’t give a monkey’s about The Famous Five but they’re intrigued that mummy is a long-lost member of The Famous Six (with a friend called Milly Molly Mandy who no one else liked because of her daft name).
7. Guinness World Records is ace.
8. Put every theatrical cell in your body into reading aloud. Don’t worry if your Scottish accent comes over a little Jamaican.
9. Edit. Beatrix Potter, bless her, was a verbose old bat.
10. Books are the dowdy Milk Arrowroots to the tantalising Tim Tams of technology. So ration the chocolate.
11. Listen to their school readers because that’s what you signed up for when you decided not to use contraception. If they’re struggling, ask the school for help.
12. Finally, be a role model and read yourself. Because as technology eats our attention spans we will need, more than ever, the restorative powers of a good story.
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