Category Archives: reading

The Elephant and the Bad Baby: Why Toddlers Like Repetitive Books

All 3 of my girls had the same favourite book at the age of 2. I didn’t encourage it, but somehow ‘The Elephant and the Bad Baby’  by Elfrida Vipoint hit the spot for all of them.
The story is highly repetitive, so much so that it drove my husband insane every time he read it. It is also quite long.
So why would it be so popular?

The repetitive text is most likely what they love the most.

Repetition is important for young children as it helps them to remember and learn. Knowing what comes next is comforting in a generally unpredictable world. Small children love repetition, it means that they can join in and demonstrate how much they know. As they hear the story language time and again, they come to anticipate words and phrases and will insert the vocabulary if the reader pauses at key points, as seen in the video clip.  They will even correct you if you get it wrong (as I did).   Children, as they become older, memorise repetitive books and can be seen to be ‘reading’  them to themselves, before they can actually read the text.  This is a very important starting point for learning to read.

Other repetitive books:

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – Michael Rosen

The Very Busy Spider – Eric Carle

Peepo – Allan Ahlberg

Hairy Maclary – Lynley Dodd

Farmer Duck – Martin Waddell

A Squash and a Squeeze – Julia Donaldson

The Little Red Hen

Dear Zoo – Rod Campbell

Bark George – Jules Feiffer

Goals, Early Literacy and What is Really Important?

alphabetOne of the biggest parental concerns when children start school is how easily their child will learn to read.  This eagerness to give children the best start is driving academic instruction at an early age.  I recently heard of a school that had under 2’s learn flashcards, before they could move into the 2’s classroom. This anxiety about children reaching goals is often well-intentioned but it is a little like teaching a child to walk before they can stand.

Research suggests that there is a strong correlation between a child’s vocabulary and how easily they will learn to read.

Years of research has  told us that language is the foundation for literacy. Children arriving at school with lower levels of oral language proficiency, for whatever reason, are therefore at a distinct disadvantage for learning.

explain Professor Courtenay Norbury and Debbie Gooch in their article “Too much too soon? What should we be teaching 4-year-olds?” They recommend that the first year of school, is focused on developing these oral skills.

In Finland, children are only taught to read in kindergarten if they are able and interested. A far cry from the expectation that children will read in the US and UK systems. If the academic benefits aren’t convincing enough, then recent research from Stanford University suggests delaying kindergarten and prolonging play are also beneficial to a child’s mental health.

What about those children who already have the foundational skills for reading?  Would they be left behind if a play based curriculum without direct reading instruction was introduced? My belief is that most children who have developed an interest in reading and have the foundational skills, will read quickly and easily. Children who are ready to read, will have individual attention and not have to complete easy worksheets with the rest of the class,  in a school system that is released from the constraints of ensuring all children will learn to read in their first year. The teacher will be able to support those children to develop their literacy in a meaningful way.

If we want our children to be interested and skilled in literacy what are the most important factors? My article for Parentmap ‘What’s really important in early literacy?’ explores this further.

I sometimes wonder what parents aspirations are for their children.  If we constantly drive them towards academic goals and achievements, to extra credits, advanced classes and better colleges so that they can have careers that demand long working hours but good pay, what message are we giving children? That working hard, earning money and being successful are important at the expense of life experience, family life, fun and hobbies?  I wish it were easier to stop worrying about what our children will achieve and think more about what sort of people they will be.

British Children Learning to Read and Write in the US.


I knew my youngest children would learn to read and write in the US and as a result I would have to accept that they would spell differently and use American phrases and grammar.  There are some unexpected differences however that I hadn’t considered.

A few days ago my 4-year-old remarked,

“Mummy, all the other children at preschool don’t write t’s properly”

“Really! Can you show me”

It is a bit like an x, like this……


My youngest is 4, I taught her to write her name but it never crossed my mind that letter formation might be different here.

I asked my kindergartener

” Do you write a curly bit on the bottom of the letter t at school?”

“No we do it like a cross”

I checked with the teacher and she explained that they use the ball and stick method where  letters such as t, w and y use straight lines rather than curves as they feel it is easier for the young children to master. It is one of many differences that I hadn’t anticipated.

alphabet ball and stick

I always believed the transition would be most difficult for my eldest, who went  to school in England until she was 8, so learned to read, spell and write ‘the English way’. The first thing she noticed, was that punctuation had different names; full stops were periods and brackets became parentheses.  We were really keen that she wouldn’t lose her knowledge of British spelling, so school agreed that she could learn both.  As an avid reader and proficient speller this wasn’t really difficult.

Choosing books wasn’t simple either. Most books by British authors are rewritten for an American audience.  When we borrow books by British authors from the library or buy books here, they are American versions.  My daughter is really eager to maintain her ‘Britishness’, so we often order books from the UK. This way she can still read books with British spelling and vocabulary and is able to read literature from both cultures. Tonight we read an American translation of Pippi Longstocking. This was my daughter’s favourite book for many years, so she knew much of the text by heart.  Every time she spotted a difference, she would quote the British text. In the end we got her old battered copy down to compare. I was surprised that though the meaning remained the same, the texts were very different. The monkeys name was different and the language in the British version was more detailed and poetic (although I am sure that the original Swedish is even more rich).

“A remarkable child” said one of the sailors, wiping a tear from his eye when Pippi disappeared from view. (British translation)

” A remarkable child” said one of the sailors as Pippi disappeared in the distance (American translation)

My daughter’s desire to maintain her British identity isn’t without its pitfalls.  Once she was marked down in a piece of writing because she referred to a ladybird rather than a ladybug (which I felt was a little harsh).

I thought things would be simpler for the younger ones because they started school here but they have been faced with different challenges:

1. The alphabet ends with zee (my daughter has decided that it makes more sense the American way because the song rhymes).

2.  What sound does a short ‘o’  make? To us it is o as in fox, box and top but American pronunciation is different, instead it makes the sound a as in fax, bax or tap. Confusing but also a little amusing to the girls who still have perfect English accents. I think I was fortunate that my daughter was beginning to read when she went to school and had already learned basic phonics so this wasn’t too much of an issue.

3. School reading books have American phrases which to a Brit’s ears sound totally wrong and often make me shudder. An examples from today’s reading book is :

Let’s go find Leo.

The omission of “ly’ at the end of adverbs is common as in ‘We need to be real quick’. I suppose one positive is that the girls generally notice and remark that it sounds different.  When my daughter reads a word that we don’t use, she substitutes it for the British word “I’m just going to say mum not mom”.

4. Sometimes they complete worksheets where they have to circle pictures that begin with particular letters. This can be confusing if the British word is different from the American or if it is something traditionally American like baseball equipment.

On the whole I think the girls awareness of the differences gives them a far richer experience of the written word.  It certainly gives us a lot to talk about.


Pirate Phonics

pirate 2

What is a Pirate’s favourite shop?


What is a Pirate’s favourite animal?

An aarrrdvarrrk

What does a Pirate spread on his toast?

Marrrmite or marrrmalade.

We have had hours of fun with the endless possibilities of pirate jokes around the dinner table.  My youngest daughter’s recent addition is

What is a Pirate’s favourite fruit?

An arrrringe.

Pirate jokes are a great way to practice oral phonics and rhyme.

My middle daughter is beginning to learn to read and write so I decided to use International Talk Like a Pirate day to introduce the ‘ar’ sound.

What Sound does a Pirate make?


What sound does the letter ‘r’ make?

rrr like rrrabbit and rrred.

So even though it is called an ‘r’ it doesn’t make an ‘ar’ sound. We need more than just a letter ‘r’ to make a pirate sound.  We make a pirate sound with a and r together.

I gave her a magnetic ‘a’ and ‘r’ on a board along with a number of consonants. We used the magnetic letters to make as many word with ‘ar’ in them as we could exaggerating the ‘arrrrr’ sound in a pirate voice.

My daughter moved letters around to make different words and blended the sounds to read them out.

I wrote down the words for her in a list













She then dictated a story using the words and I underlined the ‘ar’ words for her to read .

Once upon a time there was a pirate called Martin.  He loved to eat a jar of pickles. He also loved to go to the scarecrow farm which was far away. He also like to do art. He had a pet wolf called Martha. One night there were lots of stars. He went out in the car to see his cheeky friend.  He always called his girlfriends funny names. Martin threw a bottle of tar on his friend’s arm. So he ate a Mars Bar.

As we read the story we said all the ‘ar’ words in a pirate voice.

As we were walking around the museum at the weekend she said

Mummy, I’ve thought of another pirate word ‘guitarrrr’

I wonder how many more she will come up with.

Ideas for Teaching Literacy through Play – Painting with Feathers

painting with feathersOn the way home from school we were talking about quills. My Harry Potter obsessed 9-year- old had made a quill by putting a biro refill into a feather.

My four-year old asked

Do we have any ink?

No but we can use paint.

We painted with feathers when I was little didn’t we?

We can do that tomorrow if you like. We could use the Peacock feathers we collected at Remlinger Farm.

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I set the paints up with a few feathers.

My 2-year-old suddenly declared

I wrote the word ‘buh’

Buh for bat.

She has been playing a Sesame Street alphabet game on the iPad and is beginning to talk about letters and letter sounds.

Her 4-year old sister asked

How do you spell bat?

How do you think you spell it? What does it begin with?


That’s right and what other sounds are in bat?

Bat….    t

Yes, so what is the middle letter?

Bat…b…a…t…..    a.     B..a..t spells bat.

After a little bit of impromptu literacy I had a brain wave. The girls are really interested in pirates at the moment and I thought we might be able to do some writing with feathers, make a pirate map or maybe we could make a wizard’s spell.

I stained paper with coffeemaking paper look old

When it was dry I singed the edges to make it look like an old scroll.


I asked the girls what they would like to do. They decided on a Wizard’s spell.

It will be funny because we don’t even know how to read and write……………. Maybe Wizards write differently to people.


writing with a quill

I think this would be a great way to encourage boys in their mark making.

  • Set up a desk in a role play pirate ship with ink and quills
  • Make a spell book for children to add their own spells
  • Add a few feathers and a small pot of paint to your mark making area
  • Make treasure maps and encourage the children to mark the treasure with an X.

Literacy for under 5’s shouldn’t be about sitting at a table learning letters, tracing over letters or using flashcards. It can be brought into any aspect of play and when children are ready and interested in letters and sounds they will talk about it, ask questions and experiment. Make it fun, make it relevant and they will learn.

Juice Recipes for Kids: Inspired by ‘The Hungry Caterpillar.’

juice for kidsIn a bid to get more healthy we recently invested in a juicer.  I now start every day with a healthy mean green as featured in the film ‘Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead’. It looks pretty grim but I assure you it’s delicious.  It contains

1 cucumber

4 celery sticks 

2 apples

A small amount of ginger

A small bunch of kale

Half a lemon 

I sometimes add a carrot for good measure.

The kids are not so keen on this one but they love the fruity ones.

For Hungry Caterpillar Day we tried an experimental Hungry Caterpillar Juice. No Caterpillar’s were harmed I assure you. Head across to Really Kid Friendly to see my Guest Post on how we made it.

Try some, it’s delicious and would be great for a Hungry Caterpillar themed party.

The Changing Face of Literacy

As an Early Years teacher I have always capitalised on opportunities for literacy in everyday life. Making children aware and involving them in these things is often key to children viewing reading and writing as fun. Traditionally these would have been things like writing shopping lists, reading road and shop signs, mark making in diaries and calendars or following recipes.

However literacy in the real world is changing. Children these days are just as likely to see you read or write on your phone or laptop as they are to see you write a list or note.

This really hit home with me when I watched my 3 year old playing on my iPad a few weeks ago.  She asked if she could download an app called Dad book, designed for dads to record stories for their children.

But mummy it’s not doing anything

she said once it was downloaded.

No, someone has to tell the story and record it.

I replied.

I asked her 7 year old sister to record the story for her, they sat together as my 7 year old narrated the story.  When she was finished my 3 year old listened and then repeated the words as she had seen done with another app Pat the Cat .

What a great opportunity for playing with literacy for both children.  This made me think about all the other literacy activities my children tap into on the iPad.

My 3 year old is learning about the alphabet and phonic sounds using the wonderful Elmo loves ABC’s app.  This has loads of different levels of games all based around learning letter names and sounds and includes lots of  memorable Sesame Street clips.

Another favourite is Me Books a children’s picture book reader for classic Ladybird books.  Both my children enjoy following the stories and adding in their own sound effects. This is simple for the children to do and another great way of getting different aged siblings to share reading.

The Ladybird Touch and Say books are also a great way for my 2 year old to learn to read simple words and even my one year old loves the Baby Touch app.

My 7 year old loves creating her own stories and animations using Toontastic or Puppetpals and these are also simple for pre-schoolers to use with adult guidance.

We have even discovered new songs and rhymes through English Songs and Chants. My 3 year old loves this one and can be heard walking around the house reciting the chants and singing the songs.  The chants are excellent for teaching rhythm and steady beat, a concept I usually teach using Ros Bayley’s Beat Baby.  I wonder whether Ros has considered creating a Beat Baby app?

There are a number of things that I really appreciate about the way my children use technology to play and learn about literacy.

  • The children freely choose the literacy apps and never feel like they are learning literacy skills.  Everything they choose to play is fun and interactive.
  • The apps are an added dimension to their experience of literacy. They still love books and choose to read traditional books more often than  e-books, still love to write, tell and listen to stories.

Current touch screen technology is still a little small to offer good mark making experiences for the youngest children but the drawing apps are good fun for when they get a bit older and are able to work on a smaller scale.  I look forward to a time when I can roll out a big screen onto the floor and let the youngest children explore markmaking on a large scale.

I also think Kinect holds great possibilities for literacy. My children talk to their dad via video Kinect when he is not at home. There would be great potential for speaking and listening activities if they connected with other children from around the world and shared experiences about their life and culture.

My girls are avid readers, I’m not afraid that new technology will distract them from traditional literacy, but that it adds a richness to their lives and new possibilities for exciting literacy experiences.