Ingredients: Paper and pen and/or computer programme with ‘Wingdings’ typeface.

The Big Sell: We must create a new code language so the baddies can’t intercept our messages!

Strategy:        In the UK, there is a high level of concern about boys’ enthusiasm and abilities in literacy. My two have grown up in a household which is full of books, with a quantity of children’s books that would rival the local library, and faithfully read at least 3 books every night since they were 3 months old. But STILL my eldest, despite loving being read to, has resisted learning to read. I have struggled to work out why this is – perhaps as he is quite proud about learning he feels embarrassed when he gets words wrong? Perhaps he has a low concentration span and gets frustrated that the slow pace of his reading prevents him from getting into the story? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to think of creative ways to keep his enthusiasm buoyant in each of his three first years at school when it’s started to wane.  

My essential 3 golden rules are:

1)      Don’t get stressed about it yourself. If they don’t want to read a story, create a word game, like Word Bingo, instead until they get over the stubborn phase. (I have to repeat this mantra to myself as I must admit it really gets to me when he’s resistant as I love books so much!)

2)      Don’t stop reading to them. Even when it’s gets frustrating that you feel you are doing all the work, seek out books that they will love and keep their passion burning for story-telling. Or get them to make their own books if they are artistic like mine, which they can then read to others.

3)      Even if you feel like they have more than sufficient books at home, keep up frequent library visits so that they feel the printed word is infinite and all-encompassing, framing their play and accessible within their community.

I also want to share a game I created which, although not directly a reading activity, underpins the idea of the importance and excitement of communication. My sons love playing secret spies and by employing some ‘danger’ in our literacy games they suddenly become fun.

We invent our own ciphers either using ‘Wingdings’ on Microsoft Office Word to assign a symbol to each letter of the alphabet, or drawing our own symbols (e.g. a cat face for c, a house for h, etc…).

We can then use our ciphers to write a short message and post or hand to each other. A nice aspect of this game is the child and adult are at level pegging – it’s equally hard to extrapolate meaning which gives the child back some power, whilst also reinforcing how crucial it is to find a way to communicate effectively. You can introduce some time limits, for instance “We must crack this code before the bomb explodes!” if needed.

The Verdict: This doesn’t work every time, if the child is tired or overly stressed about reading. However, used at the right time it can reintroduce a sense of challenge in a slightly subversive way.  For a teacher, it could be a way to get a group of children to work together to encourage reading by leaving secret messages to each other – perhaps to crack a series of clues to locate a prize? It can also tie in to historical messages about communication – how did MI5 use codes to win World War 2? How did other cultures use smoke signals or pigeon carriers to carry information?

Catchphrase: S.O.S!

Left wanting more?

  • Read ‘Why?’ by Lindsay Camp, published by Andersen. It not only helps kids empathise with how they often use language to wind up their parents, but an alien species descends with their own code language supplied at the end of the book.
  • If you have an i-phone there’s a brilliant app with Grover from Sesame Street called ‘There’s a Monster at the End of this Book’. It encourages the same interactive approach towards reading as above, in which the process of storytelling can come alive for the reader. Loved equally by our 6 and 2 year olds.
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