TWO Dorset 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.
Geoff Baker and David Austin, Lyme Regis-based authors of a new series of books especially 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.
Ahead of National Grandparents Day next month (October 7) they want grandads to mark the day by signing up as a new line of defence against illiteracy.
The call for the mobilisation of grandfathers to act as an extra resource to help children learn to read – and to give them the start needed to avoid becoming jobless adults – comes one month after Education Minister Damian Hinds launched a nationwide drive to urgently find new ways to boost alarming rates of poor child literacy.
In August, 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 is to launch a competition this autumn 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.”
‘Low-tech teaching more beneficial’
But the two grandad authors argue that advanced research from the USA indicates that 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 in suggesting that an app can be a substitute for the old-fashioned, tried-and-tested method of a family member reading to a child,” said Geoff Baker.
“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 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 & Literacy Discovery Center, advises that infants should be read to for at least 15 minutes every day.
Dr Hutton is the spokesman for Read Aloud, a national campaign to increase child reading, starting at birth.
He said research from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that reading to a child in early infancy can boost vocabulary and reading skills before school.
“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,” said Dr Hutton.
‘Most important thing parents can do’
A Read Aloud spokesman added: “Research shows that reading aloud to young children from the day they are born is the single most important thing parents can do to prepare their kids for learning and reading on their own.
“It helps develop a child’s vocabulary, phonics, storytelling and comprehension, and simply a familiarity and appreciation for the written word. It also fosters empathy and encourages social and emotional bonding.”
But research by Oxford University discovered that many too-busy parents do not read to their children when they are at primary school, with 44 per cent of 1,000 parents of 6-to-11-year-olds polled saying they rarely or never read with their child after their seventh birthday.
And this, says the American Grandparents Association, is where grandparents can step in.
A spokesman for the association said: “We live in a digital age with an increasingly accelerating pace. We instant-message; we text; we email and make cell phone calls; we post on Facebook; and we read our books, magazines, and newspapers or Kindles or iPads.
“This is the world our grandchildren live in, and they’ve embraced it. In this fast-paced, digital era, is there still a place for the old-fashioned idea of reading out loud to a child, and sharing quiet, uninterrupted moments? Yes – more than ever!
“Expert studies consistently find that reading to children, and with them, is a critical part of developing literacy. No matter our technological advances, the basic skills of reading and writing are as important as ever.
“And that’s only a small portion of the benefits. According to the Family Literacy Foundation, the experience of reading together is equally important. When a parent, grandparent, or other caring adult reads aloud to a child, it builds their self-esteem and boosts communication between family members.
“Children love the sound of language long before they grasp the meaning of the words on the page. Reading aloud bridges the gap between the language they hear and the words that convey it. Children also learn positive behaviour patterns and positive attitudes about themselves and others through reading. They learn about the world around them, and develop imagination, empathy, and creativity.
“Most parents today, however, would admit that reading aloud to a child, every night, can be a strain on an already overcrowded family schedule. That’s where grandparents come in. A grandparent can step in and provide a child with the warmth and closeness of the reading experience.”
‘Grandparents must take on vital role’
Mr Baker 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 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 series of these books are the Sandy the Wonder Pig stories, six tales from Lyme Regis of the adventures of a guinea pig and his animal mates. I’ve written another six Silly Grandad stories and Dave is busy illustrating them now.
“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. As Grandparents Day is marked on October 7 I’d like to see grandads everywhere make that the day when they sign up to help to be an at-home guard for a brighter future for our grandchildren.”
Sandy the Wonder Pig books, priced £3 to £4.50, are available from Serendip bookshop in Lyme Regis and from Amazon.