Grandad’s Island

Grandad’s Island is a book about loss and death, and yet most of it is about happiness.

Syd pops round to his Grandad’s house all the time, but one day when he goes  over he can’t find him anywhere. Eventually he tracks him down in the attic.  Grandad opens a heavy metal door and invites Syd through, and suddenly they are both on the deck of a ship.

They sail it across the ocean to a beautiful tropical island where they explore and play together, and see many wonders.

Eventually Syd thinks it’s time to go home, but Grandad announces he is going to stay.  Reluctantly Syd sails back across the ocean without him.  Next time he goes to Grandad’s house, neither Grandad, nor the mysterious metal door, are there.

This is a classic book in the making.  There are so many beautiful touches.  When they reach the island, Grandad says he doesn’t feel he needs his stick any more. As he sails home, a dark cloud and grey weather give a sombre mood to Syd’s trip.  There is intelligence behind every decision in the book, whether textual or artistic.  The illustrations are exquisite, and every page feels like an art print.  In addition, there are many things for children to spot throughout the book.  The island is populated with plants and animals that can be seen in Grandad’s house at the beginning of the story (in this, the island is a dreamlike echo of real-life in much the same way as the land of the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are reflects Max’s bedroom) which have vanished from the house at the end.  I also like the fact that while Grandad’s cat travels with him to the island, he too must return with Syd.

Grandad’s house feels empty without him; Benji Davies makes it clear that he is missed by Syd and that his absence is keenly felt, but the message here is that Grandad has gone to a better place, where he feels young and happy and is surrounded by animal friends.  Death is another country, a distant and tropical isle.

I cannot imagine how this book would not be helpful for a child suffering the loss of a grandparent. I think it’s beautiful, subtle and poignant, and uses its analogy incredibly well.  It’s a fully-realised, sophisticated gem of a picture book, and I do not think it could be better.

Buy it and read it now, or keep a copy to one side.  I sincerely hope it won’t be needed, but I feel more confident about the prospect of dealing with a family death knowing I have it to hand.  It’s a superb achievement, and one of which Benji Davies can be justly proud.


There’s a Lion in my Cornflakes

One of those books that immediately catches your eye, we picked this up in the library last week, attracted by the intriguing title and the bright orange colour.

A small boy warns us to ignore anything on a cereal packet that offers a free lion in exchange for 100 coupons.  He goes on to explain why, telling us the story of how he and his brother collected 100 tokens, but by the time they had eaten all the cereal, everyone else had also already applied for their free lion.  When eventually the cereal company gets round to their application there are no more lions left, so instead they send a bear.

This does not go down well with the little boy and his brother.  A bear cannot do any of the things they expected their lion to be able to help with.  So they complain to the cereal company, who apologise and instead send a crocodile.  And then a gorilla.

As you can imagine, the house gets crazier and crazier and no lion ever appears. In the end however, the two boys realise there are advantages to what they have and that just about everyone has a lion; it’s not exciting any more.

There’s a chatty, colloquial style to this book that works well given it’s set up as a recount.  Moments like “how unfair is that?!” have an authentic ring of normal speech and make it easy to read aloud effectively as well as appealing to young independent readers. I think it’s probably a little too long and the pacing feels off at times but overall the story hangs together well and there’s a comic coherence to what’s going on.  The illustrations by Jim Field are very successful, if occasionally a little too busy on some pages, but there are some great double page spreads such as the one where the park is filled with 19 lions and their owners.

The message of the book is to accept what you have, even when that’s a bear, a crocodile and a gorilla instead of the lion you wanted, but it makes the point to look at the uses and opportunities you already have in a fun and creative way.

Overall a light-hearted and entertaining book with a core of meaning.


Oh No, George!

Image result for oh no george

Oh No, George! is the second book (published 2012) from Chris Haughton, author of A Little Bit Lost.  It’s a bright, cheery looking story, and our version is a board book – unusually a matt finish board book, which although very beautiful does suffer more than usual from wear at the corners and spine.

George is the dopey looking hound on the front cover, and his friend/owner/companion is the longsuffering Harris.  The story in a nutshell is this: Harris goes out, George tries and fails to resist temptation and Harris returns to find the house a mess.  However, George feels shame for his impulsive actions and the second time he faces a choice he may make the right one.

There are two elements to this story that work well for me.  One is the acknowledgement of the temptation to do wrong.  My young toddler loves this book and has done for a while, and I think that’s because on some level, despite her obvious lack of experience with language, she understands what it feels like to want to do something so badly you can’t stop yourself even when you know it’s wrong. Particularly if that something is to eat a whole chocolate cake.

The other is the repetition of “Oh no, George!”. It’s hilarious.  I don’t think I realised it was hilarious until I read it out loud, but cram all the syllables you can muster into those three words and it’s very funny indeed.

Haughton has done a great job with George’s expressions, and despite the ostensible simplicity of the graphic design there is a degree of complexity to what you can see going through his head.

The best didactic children’s books address the issue of making mistakes and accepting imperfection without suggesting you should stop striving to be better.  Oh No, George! does this very well, particularly as it leaves poor George (and us) hanging at the end.  He’s far from perfect, but he’s trying to get better, as we all are and all should be.  That Harris accepts him as he is and is kind is a good lesson for any frustrated parent too.

Well worth getting hold of and reading.


Preparing the Ground for Independent Reading, part 2 (addendum)

After writing part 2 I realised I’d left off a key part of the reason why The Alphablocks works well to teach children the alphabet, and another example of something that does the same thing.


Each of the Alphablocks has a different character and a ‘look’, beyond just the fact that they have a different letter in their transparent bubble.   The colour and the character give children a clearer and more distinctive reference point to remember than just a black squiggle.  This is particularly helpful for similarly shaped letters like p,g,y, h,b,d, o,a etc.

The same is true for Letterland.  It’s fallen out of favour now in schools, but back in the eighties it was really common to find it in primaries as the main way of teaching letters and sounds.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it yourself if you feel so inclined, indeed, there are new editions and workbooks that follow modern phonics teaching and would be a perfectly suitable accompaniment to early years’ teaching.  However, if you are reading this, the book you are most likely to remember is the Letterland ABC below.

Again it’s all based on characters.  Letterland is populated by Annie Apple, Bouncing Ben Bunny, Clever Cat and 23 other alliterative letters, each with its own description and story.  The ABC is particularly good because the descriptions use a lot of alliteration to emphasise the appropriate sounds – for example Fireman Fred, one Friday afternoon, put out fifteen fires in five minutes.  In addition, key details about the letter’s behaviour is given, such as the fact that Harry the Hairy Hat Man always has bare feet and barely makes a sound.  The vowel name sounds are explained via Mr A the Apron Man, Mr I the Ice-cream man, and friends, in addition to the basic letters.  And unlike The Alphablocks, Letterland really tackles the issue of uppercase letters, showing how the capitals are formed with alternative pictures of the characters.

Whether it’s The Alphablocks or Letterland or a similar technique, the use of colour and picture, but particularly narrative and character, really helps to fix the letters in a child’s mind.



Preparing the Ground for Independent Reading, part 2

One of the first things you will find yourself teaching your child is the alphabet.  This may come about in a number of different ways.  Some children will start demanding what on earth those funny squiggles are meant to be as early as 18 months or so.  Others may get to four and show no interest, prompting concerned parents to start deliberately teaching letter recognition so as to prepare them for school.   To be honest, although technically there is no need for a child to know the alphabet before they start school, I would be inclined to encourage them to learn that in advance as it can only be an advantage for them.  Certainly they should at least know how to recognise the letters in their own name.

Good ways of teaching/introducing the alphabet:

Puzzles.  Wooden puzzles where you have to put a shaped letter peg into a hole.  These are good because the focus is on a single letter each time, and although the layout can be in alphabetical order the child can put in their most familiar letters first, helping to expand their knowledge bit by bit.

Wooden letter blocks.  An attractive traditional toy.  These can be nice, especially when well done.  The best have the lowercase letter and the uppercase letter on opposite sides, as well as examples of things that begin with that letter.

Letter frames.  Again, these can be manipulated one letter at a time but the letter can be seen within the alphabet as a whole.  Usually these have an object on the other side of the tile and spin to reveal it (in a similar way some puzzles have an object underneath the relevant letter).

Sticky bath letters.  Foam letters that float in the bath.  They have a flat side that when wet sticks to the side of the bath.  They are very cheap and widely available, and if you are brave enough to throw in the whole lot then the bath becomes entertainingly like alphabet soup.  Each letter can be picked up and fully handled to appreciate its shape, and the different colours help with initial recognition.  Spelling names around the side of the bath is fun, and my four-year-old has been known to label herself with them (arm down one arm, leg, etc)  As they progress, you can use them for bath spelling and letter games as well.

Megasketcher or similar.  A good letter game with slightly older children is to draw a letter and have them say which it is.  My eldest daughter enjoyed this from about 18 months but she was unusually fixated on letters; I think in general whenever you think they have a good grasp of a majority of letters is a good time to see if this is popular.  Obviously you can do this on paper, but erasing the letter and drawing a new one for some reason makes it more fun…

Playdough or plasticene.  Making letters out of dough is good fun and a good physical way of learning.  Letters like c , e, and o are particularly easy and it’s a good way of cementing that i and j have dots.

Letter frieze.  Lots of parents put up posters or friezes in their child’s room with the alphabet on.  This is a good thing in the sense that it increases familiarity with letters but unless you regularly refer to it then otherwise it’s very passive, and can just blend into the background. ‘Interactive’ methods are likely to be much more effective, and more fun.

Games.  Again for slightly older children, between two and a half and three, there are lots of good alphabet-based games out there that can help.   Orchard Toys have excellent products including an alphabet lotto and a floor puzzle.

Key things to note:

You want to teach your child lowercase letters first.  Capitals are more complicated and far less useful for reading.  Get the lowercase alphabet secure first, then go for the uppercase ones that are different.

Look closely at the examples given, if objects are linked to each letter.  You want something that connects accurately to the sound of each letter.  If A is Apple and E, Elephant – why would I be for Ice-cream?  C is another one – cat, cot, both fine – circus less helpful.

It is absolutely up to you whether you teach the letter names (A, B, C – Ay, Bee, Sea) or letter sounds first.  But if you do teach the sounds, you need to teach them properly, and that leads us on to


These days in schools most children are taught to read via synthetic phonics.  You can find a basic introduction to that concept here at the Jolly Phonics site (although there are plenty of similar ones) but the general idea is that children learn the sounds of the English language, and how to blend them into words.  This is more than just the alphabet sounds, it includes digraphs such as ‘ch’ and ‘sh’.  There is a huge  and acrimonious debate about phonics teaching in UK schools but I don’t really wish to get into that at this point.  Where phonics is taught well and properly the vast majority of research suggests it is the most efficient, effective way of teaching children to read and builds the decoding and spelling skills on which literacy is based.   (In part 3 I will try and enter into an explanation of the relative relevance of phonics and word recognition to the emergent reader, as I do think the distinction is important and personally believe in encouraging the co-existence of those skills, so if interested pop back for that.)

However, phonics is about sound.  As I said above, it doesn’t matter if you chose to teach letter names or sounds first, but at some point they need to know both.  And they need to know the right sounds.

(For the sake of simplicity, if you see a capital letter (M) in what follows, read it using the letter name (Em).  If you see a lowercase letter (m), read the sound (mmm))

There is a tendency amongst parents, taught to read during the 80s, to sound out letters like this: ah. buh. cuh. duh.  But these are not the sounds the letters make if you put them into words.  M for example is not pronounced ‘muh’.  L is not ‘luh’.  If you sound out the letters of the word ‘bell’ like that you hear ‘buh. eh. luh. luh’.  Not bell – but bella.  The sound you need to make is the sound you hear the letter make in a word.  So M is ‘mmm’.  L is ‘(u)l’ or ‘ll’.  Try saying the sound for D.  First, say it as ‘duh’.  You will probably find your jaw drops slightly to fill out the sound.  Now try saying d – keep your jaw still and use your tongue to keep the sound clipped.  You can probably hear the difference, even though it is subtle.  Of course this is extremely difficult to explain in writing, so I would suggest visiting a site like Jolly Phonics or similar to listen to their examples, or looking at this excellent clip from the BBC’s Alphablocks programme which takes you through the sounds of each letter of the alphabet.

The Alphablocks goes further than merely familiarising children with the alphabet however (effective as it is for that purpose) as it also introduces the idea of reading and spelling basic words.  As such, a more detailed description of it can be found in Part 3 where we will look at the process of starting to blend words together and reading simple words.

To recap: if you are looking to introduce your child to the alphabet before school, choose a variety of fun methods to familiarise them with the letters.

  • Don’t push it.
  • Don’t teach them by rote (the alphabet song, whilst cute to hear, is of very little use to a child who has no idea what the sounds they are singing refer to).
  • Don’t drill them.
  • Make the letters available to them and follow their lead.
  • Make it fun.
  • Stick to lowercase letters before you even start to think about capitals.
  • If you are doing the letter sounds, get to know the right sounds and teach them properly.

Notice that there is no age guidance on here beyond the suggestion that learning the alphabet before school is an advantage, if not an necessity.  Otherwise if your child is interested, however young, support and encourage them, but let them dictate the pace.   And don’t be surprised if they show an interest, learn their alphabet and later forget it – let them come back to it in their own time.

Also see the addendum, here…

In Part 3: blending, reading first words, and where to go next.


Preparing the ground for independent reading, part 1.

Round about the time children enter their final year at Pre-School or nursery, concerned parents start surreptitiously comparing notes in the playground on what their children know.  And one of the things they gravitate to is letters, writing and reading.  Do they know their alphabet? Can they write it? Can they recognise their name? Can they write their name? Can they read? At all? A bit? Whole novels?  If you are involved in one of these conversations rest assured that there is a huge range of ‘normal’ at this point, and what your child does or doesn’t know does not have any bearing on their likely level of achievement in the future.

Children don’t need to learn to read before they go to school.  That is, after all, what school is for!  However, some will learn, whether from natural interest and desire, an ability to quickly learn to recognise words, or because their parents make an effort to teach them.   When they learn to read varies, but what helps children in the early years of school is being able to pick up this fundamental skill as quickly and easily as possible.  The aim of this post is to give you a sense of what learning to read involves, and what you can do as a parent to prepare the ground in the best possible way – without putting pressure on or trying to force the child into something they are not ready for.

Years ago a friend of my Mum’s, a specialist teaching assistant, described a child she was teaching who had been labelled as having additional needs.  After some time spent with her it was clear that her life experience was so limited that she had no idea what a picnic was, nor had she seen the sea.  Once given attention, and one on one time to improve her speech and knowledge of language, she improved quickly and dramatically.  Later, in a seminar I attended, a Speech and Language Therapist made a point that struck the same chord with me – that when children start school it is their speech and language that matters and must be worked on before they can reasonably be expected to read and write.

If you think about this it becomes obvious.  If you are trying to read a word you have never heard, where is the lightbulb moment of recognition going to come from?  Often when reading children will start to sound out words and then make a link to something they know – if their vocabulary is bigger and wider they will find it much easier to read, and read quickly.

So reading really starts with speaking, listening and communicating.  All of those things that you probably do already are fundamental to getting your child ready for reading.  Talking to them.  Expanding their vocabulary.  Singing to them.  Doing nursery rhymes until the cows come home – or jump over the moon.  Reading to them as much as possible and slowly and gently increasing the complexity of the language in those books.  Asking them questions and encouraging them to answer.  Letting them talk to you and listening, feeding back, developing their own responses.

More controversially, it is worth considering how you speak when you talk to your children.   If you really want to make learning to read easier for them, work on your own pronunciation.  Now I don’t mean you have to flatten  your natural regional accent, or start practising talking in cut-glass received pronunciation, but you do need to consider how well you enunciate your own words.  If you habitually say ‘yeah’, and ‘gonna’ and ‘bin’, why would your child recognise those in ‘yes’, ‘going to’ and ‘been?  And why would they write them?  If you don’t sound the beginnings and ends of words clearly, how will your child know the sounds that begin and end those words?  The first stages of learning to read are all about connecting the phonic sounds of simple three letter words, and that is far easier for a child who is used to hearing language that is clear and well enunciated.  Again, it isn’t really about accent, as within a local accent the sounds are consistent, but it is about sounding out consonant sounds effectively and differentiating phonically between different words.

To recap: before you start thinking about letters and phonics, the most important first steps are talking, reading and building up your child’s language skills.  Nothing else will make such a difference as to how well they succeed when they eventually get to school.  It is their breadth of language knowledge that will give them a secure basis on which to start exploring the world of independent reading.

This is Part 1 of ‘Preparing the Ground for Independent Reading’.  In Part 2, we’ll look at introducing the alphabet, basic phonics, and what you can do with keen Pre-Schoolers that supports their reading development without causing issues when they begin formal learning.