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Diana Watkins, Headteacher, discusses how, with the little time available to us, we can positively help our children develop the skills necessary for reading and spelling; giving them the best start in life

We are told in Iona and Peter Opie’s book of Classic Fairy Tales that the King and Queen, in the story Sleeping Beauty, chose for their little princess, godmothers from all the fairies that they could find in the Kingdom so that she could be the most ‘beautiful person in the world’, ‘have the wit of an angel’, ‘admirable grace in everything she did’, ‘dance perfectly well’, ‘sing like a nightingale’ and ‘play upon all kinds of music to the utmost perfection’.

They would probably be labelled pushy parents today but the story remains just as relevant, it being a natural wish of all intelligent, loving parents that their children be given the best start in life.

Unfortunately, not many of us have friends that can bestow such gifts so easily and the rest of the story only serves to remind us what happens to the best laid plans.

Our children grow up in spite of us! They are their own people, not extensions of ourselves. Yet this puts parents in a difficult situation.

We have an in–built biological need to nurture and help our children to be, as Margaret Goldthorpe* advocates, ‘the best they can be’.

Professor Amanda Kirby* urges us to remember that children develop at different rates and that just because one 3 year old child is able to catch and throw a ball, it is quite common for another to still be at the stage where he is content to look on watching, not sure of what to do: “Each child may develop along a different route but not necessarily have difficulties.”

Parents keen to help should be encouraged, not thwarted

Whilst there is so much written about what not to do, parents often feel de–skilled and nervous about what they can do. Sue Palmer*, in her book Toxic Childhood, sums up the problem that faces so many of us. She relates to the feelings of panic that new parents suffer: “There’s a lot to learn so the sooner they get on with it the better” or “if some children can start reading at the age of four we can expect them all to manage it.” Like Professor Kirby, she warns that “all children are different and develop at different rates, and the younger they are the more significant these differences are.”

There are many ways that we, as parents, can help without waving a wand, giving our children magic pills, or toting them round extra classes. One way round this is to stop worrying and find something that we can do that will make a positive difference whilst taking on board the advice of the professionals.

Jill Mitchell, teacher and advisor to the ISC*, suggests that parents keen to help should be encouraged, not thwarted. One way parents can really help their children is by giving them the prerequisite skills for reading and spelling.

These skills include discrimination and sequential memory. Children have to learn to use both the visual and auditory channels needed to become competent in written language. Spot the difference pictures, jigsaw puzzles and shape sorters all help to build the visual discrimination skills necessary to differentiate letter shapes – n from u, and b from d are tricky to master for a young child.

One letter following another and one word linking to the next are sequential concepts that have to be learned, just as a baby, when he first picks up a book, does not understand which way up it is.

For example, making mosaics and listening to nursery rhymes develop an awareness of the visual and auditory patterns necessary to spell correctly. Listening to a story whilst watching an adult’s finger tracing the words develops sound/symbol correspondence; the linking between sight and sound when processing written language. It also strengthens the left to right orientation necessary to read.

To help develop Auditory Skills:

Game One
- Clap a simple sequence.
- Can your child copy it?
- Extend the sequence as appropriate.

Game Two
- Whistle, hum or play a sequence on a musical instrument.
- Ask your child to reproduce the sequence from memory without him seeing you play the notes.

Game Three
- Read out a sequence of numbers.
- Ask your child to reproduce it. Start with a short sequence and extend as appropriate.
- Ask your child to repeat it backwards.

Physical activities such as threading little beads, playing ‘pick up sticks’ and cutting out develop the fine motor skills necessary to make the small controlled movements of handwriting.

A lot of children start school with the muscles on their hands so underdeveloped that they physically cannot control a pencil to write. This can be remediated very easily by giving children a stress ball to kneed.

Physical activities develop fine motor skills to make controlled movements of handwriting

Jill Mitchell suggests that these ideas can all be adapted to suit the age, interest and aptitude of the child. Just ten minutes a day on a fun activity will make all the difference.

She stresses, however, the need to start with an activity that can be completed successfully, gradually increasing the challenge but always finishing with the child doing well: “The result of this will be to give them a real sense of achievement and boost their self confidence – which is what it is all about!”

To help develop Visual Skills:

Game One
- Find 2 packs of cards.
- Take a series of playing cards from your pack and place in a line (start easy: one suit only, 3–4 cards).
- Let your child study the sequence for up to 30 seconds then ask him to reproduce the sequence from his own pack.
- This challenge can be developed by adding more cards and mixed suits.

Game Two
- Use a simple noughts and crosses grid.
- Draw a pattern of noughts and crosses.
- Ask your child to recreate your pattern from memory.

Game Three
- Place lots of objects on a tray.
- Ask your child to take one minute to study the tray.
- Take the tray away.
- In secret, remove one object.
- Bring the tray back.
- Which one is missing?

Game Four
- Buy some coloured counters or use Smarties.
- Ask your child to look away whilst you swap some around or pretend to swap.
- Ask what is changed or is it the same?

*Margaret Goldthorpe is an author and expert trainer for the promotion of self–discipline in children’s learning and behaviour.

*Sue Palmer, writer broadcaster and consultant, is the author of Toxic Childhood on the effect of modern life on our children.

*Professor Amanda Kirby is the medical director of the Dyscovery Centre, Newport, which helps children with living and learning difficulties.

*Jill Mitchell is Deputy Head of an IAPS Preparatory School and on the Special Educational Needs (SEN) advisory committee for the Independent School Council (ISC).

*Diana Watkins is Headteacher and Chairman–Elect of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).