West au­thors call for ‘grandads army’ to im­prove child lit­er­acy

Western Morning News (Saturday) - - In Conversation -

Two West­coun­try grand­fa­thers are call­ing for the de­ploy­ment of a “Grandads Army” to fight against the grow­ing prob­lem of poor child lit­er­acy by read­ing to their grand­chil­dren, now that ex­perts say that a child should be read to from birth.

They want grandads to mark 2019 by sign­ing up as a new line of de­fence against il­lit­er­acy.

Ge­off Baker and David Austin, Lyme Regis-based au­thors of a new se­ries of books spe­cially cre­ated to be read to grand­chil­dren, are urg­ing grandads of the “baby boomer” gen­er­a­tion to vol­un­teer to re­in­force busy par­ents who do not have the time to read fre­quently enough to their chil­dren.

The call for the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of grand­fa­thers to act as an ex­tra re­source to help chil­dren learn to read comes af­ter Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Damian Hinds launched a na­tion­wide drive in Au­gust, to ur­gently find new ways to boost alarm­ing rates of poor child lit­er­acy. Mr Hinds an­nounced a cam­paign for new tech­nol­ogy to spear­head a class­room read­ing revo­lu­tion af­ter re­veal­ing “right now, 28 per cent of chil­dren fin­ish their re­cep­tion year with­out the early com­mu­ni­ca­tion and read­ing skills that they need to thrive”. He added: “It is a per­sis­tent scan­dal that we have chil­dren start­ing school and strug­gling to com­mu­ni­cate, to speak in full sen­tences. When you’re be­hind from the start you rarely catch up, the gap just widens and this has a huge im­pact on so­cial mo­bil­ity. Chil­dren with a poor vo­cab­u­lary at age five are more than twice as likely to be un­em­ployed when they are aged 34. But our re­search found out that in those first few years you can have the big­gest im­pact in chang­ing some­one’s fu­ture path.”

The min­is­ter’s pro­posed so­lu­tion to boost child lit­er­acy was to launch a com­pe­ti­tion to dis­cover the best high-tech apps that can be used to help chil­dren with read­ing. He said: “If our phones and apps can help us bank, shop, diet, ex­er­cise and fig­ure out where we are, why not also help us with help­ing our chil­dren de­velop their com­mu­ni­ca­tion and read­ing? That is why the Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion will be launch­ing a com­pe­ti­tion to iden­tify high quality apps, with the aim of mak­ing these free and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble.”

How­ever, grandad au­thors Ge­off and David, both aged 62, ar­gue that ad­vanced re­search from the USA in­di­cates that old, low-tech ways of help­ing a child learn to read would be more ben­e­fi­cial than re­ly­ing on a phone to teach them, and that grand­par­ents, es­pe­cially grand­fa­thers, should start read­ing to ba­bies from the day they are born.

“We be­lieve that the Sec­re­tary of State is wrong and mis­guided in sug­gest­ing that an app can be a sub­sti­tute for the tra­di­tional, tried-and-tested method of a fam­ily mem­ber read­ing to a child,” said Ge­off, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and one-time PR to

Paul McCartney, who teamed up to cre­ate the grand­par­ent books with joiner and cabi­net-maker David af­ter the life­long friends first be­came grand­fa­thers four years ago.

“At a time when in­creas­ing num­bers of par­ents, let alone grand­par­ents, be­lieve that chil­dren are spend­ing too much time on phones al­ready, I don’t think it’s the smartest idea to en­cour­age more use. Anal­y­sis in the States by Read­ing Rock­ets, a US re­search-based na­tional lit­er­acy ini­tia­tive, has con­cluded that read­ing to grand­chil­dren is one of the most im­por­tant roles for a grand­par­ent and that this should start as soon as they en­ter the world.

“Read­ing to chil­dren also en­cour­ages bond­ing, the stim­u­la­tion of the brain and the de­vel­op­ment of rea­son. Apps may well ad­vance knowl­edge, but do they ex­er­cise the de­vel­op­ment of the abil­ity for orig­i­nal thought and do they as­sist bond­ing?

“Cham­pi­oning apps as a sub­sti­tute for re­la­tion­ship-build­ing read­ing risks the loss of bond­ing and its long-es­tab­lished emo­tional ad­van­tages.”

Read­ing Rock­ets said: “Start read­ing to your grand­child when he or she is a baby. This may sound silly, but ba­bies will en­joy hear­ing the sound of your voice. Use a pleas­ant, sing-song voice, let a baby play with books that are sturdy and drool-proof, make read­ing more fun by read­ing slowly and us­ing dif­fer­ent voices for dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters. That child will be hooked on books be­fore she is out of di­a­pers.”

Other Amer­i­can child ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts agree. Dr John Hut­ton, a pae­di­a­tri­cian and clin­i­cal re­searcher at the Cincin­nati Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal Read­ing and Lit­er­acy Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter, ad­vises that in­fants should be read to for at least 15 min­utes ev­ery day.

“In the younger phase it’s mostly about cre­at­ing that healthy rou­tine, spend­ing time to­gether. That child is go­ing to ben­e­fit from feel­ing nur­tured and loved and hear­ing the par­ent’s voice and start­ing to build those early lan­guage skills and that sense of con­nec­tion.”

Ge­off, who also cites re­search by Ox­ford Univer­sity and the Amer­i­can Grand­par­ents As­so­ci­a­tion, added: “The re­search is clear: as in­creas­ing num­bers of par­ents are both work­ing and left with lit­tle time to read to their chil­dren, grand­par­ents must now take on more of this vi­tal role – es­pe­cially grand­fa­thers. In pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, grand­fa­thers took lit­tle part in their grand­chil­dren’s de­vel­op­ment – if any­one read to the child it was Grandma. But when we men of the ‘baby boomer’ gen­er­a­tion be­came fa­thers we were more in­volved with nur­tur­ing our chil­dren than our fa­thers or grand­fa­thers were, and now that those baby boomers are be­com­ing grand­fa­thers we are more be­com­ing hands-on with help­ing our grand­chil­dren too.

“Grandads are tra­di­tion­ally of­ten re­garded as a bit silly, which is why David Austin and I have cre­ated Silly Grandad Books – books that are play­ful and hu­mor­ous and which are de­signed to be read by grandads or grand­mas for about 15 min­utes each, with lots of scope for silly voices.”

The first pub­lished se­ries of these books are the Sandy the Won­der Pig sto­ries, six tales set in Lyme Regis of the ad­ven­tures of a guinea pig and his an­i­mal mates. These were in­spired by the an­tics of a real guinea pig, a blind one which Ge­off adopted a few years ago.

“I’ve writ­ten an­other six Sill y Grandad sto­ries and Dave is busy il­lus­trat­ing them now,” he said. “We aim to have the sev­enth Sandy book pub­lished for Christ­mas.

“Be­sides be­ing a bless­ing, it’s an im­por­tant role to be a grandad, not least as we can help our grand­chil­dren do bet­ter in life.

For 2019 we’d like to see grandads ev­ery­where make a New Year res­o­lu­tion to sign up to help to be an at-home guard for a brighter fu­ture for our grand­chil­dren, by join­ing the Grandads Army for this read­ing drive.”

Co­in­ci­den­tally, Ge­off ’s for­mer boss, Sir Paul McCartney, is also about to pub­lish his own chil­dren’s book for grand­fa­thers to read to their grand­chil­dren. His first book, Hey Gran­dude, will be pub­lished next year.

“I’m not sur­prised that Paul is get­ting into the grandads’ read­ing idea, we of­ten did think alike,” said Ge­off.

“I’m hop­ing that his mas­sive celebrity will bring more at­ten­tion to this im­por­tant cause.”

Ge­off and David have set up a Grandads Army Face­book group and their Sandy the Won­der Pig books, priced £3 to £4.50, are avail­able from Serendip book­shop in Lyme Regis or di­rect from sil­ly­grandad­books.co.uk

Read­ing to grand­chil­dren should start as soon as they en­ter the world

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