The Power of Reading – St Wystan’s

Getting your little one ready for a lifetime of books! By Mrs Catherine Ralph

Mrs Catherine Ralph is Deputy Head and Head of English, at St Wystan’s School. St Wystan’s is a small independent school offering a warm family, nurturing feel and is situated in the heart of Repton village.
Recently, I took a flight to Marrakech. There is, of course, an enormous amount of waiting around when travelling: airport lounges, airport coffee shops, queues for passport control and that is all before you have even boarded the plane. Being a nervous flyer, three and a half hours in the air is a long time to distract oneself! If you find yourself in a queue for passport control and take a look around you, those who have chosen to spend the time reading a book are, by far, the calmest and most patient. They are the ones who have transported themselves to somewhere else, while everyone else is clock-watching and tutting at the people taking too long to find their boarding passes. These readers have gifted themselves a moment of escapism in what could otherwise be a boring and stressful situation.
When looking back at human history, reading is a relatively new phenomenon. Scientists believe that speech developed around 100,000 years ago. The last 100,000 years is plenty enough time for natural selection to take place, thus resulting in human brains, which are pre-wired to learn speech. We don’t teach our babies to speak; it is something they pick up by themselves, as their brains develop in infancy. Reading, on the other hand, is taught. We are not born with the pathways needed for us to be able to read symbols or letters on a page and pathways need to be formed in the brain. Scientists believe the Ancient Egyptians were the first writers and therefore the first readers, starting a relatively recent 5,000 years ago. But, of course, reading was not a pastime of the many until about 150 years ago, when going to school was something all children experienced, rather than just the wealthy.
The neural connections needed to allow our brains to interpret symbols on a page are complex and studies looking ‘inside the brain’ have discovered that it is like a muscle, which benefits from a constant workout and lots of practice! 
My daughter entered Reception class in September. It came with the usual parental anxiety concerning how far behind her peers, my child’s reading ability might be. She could not read on the 1st September, but now, nine months later, with expert teaching, gentle guidance and constant support, my daughter can quite happily read my emails over my shoulder. She is a fully-fledged little reader, who is now communicating in a whole new way.
At St Wystan’s School, we are very lucky to have small class sizes. This means that our pupils have the opportunity to start reading from their very first day at School. We use a book-based phonics scheme, so books are at the very heart of our early years’ curriculum. Most of all, we celebrate books – they are a joyous resource, allowing our pupils to experience different people, places and events – ones they might not otherwise ever have a chance to see.
Despite having been a specialist English teacher for the last fifteen years, I had the same worries as every parent with a little one starting school. At St Wystan’s, we are often asked, how do I get my child ready to start reading in Reception? But the bigger question should be: how do we develop a lifelong love of reading that starts in infancy?
This prospect can seem extremely daunting, and I am sure many parents are anxious about giving their child the very best start. But the answer is very simple. Before children begin School, all they need to have experienced is a love of books and the magic around reading.
Here are my top tips for parents, who would like to begin nurturing their child’s love of reading from an early age:
• Read from infancy.
Children do not need to understand a plot, characters or any meaning to enjoy books. For a baby, books are an exciting sensory experience, and nothing is better than hearing the safe and soothing sound of a parent or sibling voice reading to them.
• Ensure books are in an easily accessible place.
The easier the access to books, the more likely children are to pick them up and explore them when younger. This gives them the confidence to continue exploring books when they are older.
• Don’t believe in ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
If your child is not enjoying a book, put it aside. When children are growing up, their concentration is still developing. They will be able to concentrate far better if they are engaged – allow them to explore their interests. Put a book away if your child is not enjoying it but give it a go first!
• Regular library trips.
Libraries are the book lover’s best friend. Due to excellent funding, libraries are able to get hold of more books than the average parent and they constantly receive new stock. Librarians are experts and are always keen to give a recommendation or to help you find books to suit your child.
• Create a family ‘reading time’.
Most houses, like my own, are busy and reading can sometimes take a back foot. By dedicating ten minutes of family reading time a day, you demonstrate to your child that reading is important and pleasurable. Make sure your children see you reading and enjoying it – you are modelling a skill and a happy pastime – children invariably copy their parents! Don’t forget to encourage conversation about the books you are reading – tell your child why you are enjoying the story or which character you relate to most!
• Read to your children.
My eldest child has just turned twelve and still begs me to read to him. If he will let me, I will read to him for as long as I can. Children and adults are never too old to be read to and often the experience of being read to, allows a child to access literature, which may be too complex for them to read on their own.
• Listen to literature.
Some bookworm fanatics can be a little down on listening to books. I always recommend to parents that, if you have a reluctant reader, let them listen to books. It is a different experience, but one that is no less magical and one that still exposes children to words, characters, settings and, usually an entertaining narrator!
• Bookbag for trips and travel.
And a final practical tip! We never go anywhere without a book bag! This is a dedicated bag for each of my children, which they control the contents of. Before we go away, they pack two or three books, which they wish to travel with. This ownership and build up of excitement results in at least half an hour’s peace as they explore their bags!
At St Wystan’s, I am known for my book recommendations, so it seems appropriate to finish with my favourite books for babies and toddlers.
Mrs Ralph’s book recommendations for pre-scholars and early readers
1. Best for sing-song rhyme and rhythm Commotion in the Ocean by Giles Andreae and David Wojtowycz Bumpus Jumpus Dinosaurumpus by Tony Mitton
2. Best for relatability My Big Shouting Day by Rebecca Patterson
King Jack and the Dragon by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury If All the World were… by Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys Smelly Louie by Catherine Rayner
3. Best for simple storylines Lunchtime by Rebecca Cobb The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle
4. Best to read again and again Black Dog by Levi Pinfold Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson
5. Best for challenging stereotypes Juilan is a Mermaid by Jessica Love The Girls by Lauren Ace
6. Best non-fiction Just Ducks! by Nicola Davies
7. Best for adult engagement I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen


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