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