Letters: We must boost children's self-esteem

READING MATTERS

Bethan Marshall's article ("Children are not helped by reading too early", Comment, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 6 December) has told us nothing new. I took my son to Norway when he was four, 17 years ago, and the Norwegian psychologist who assessed him was astounded by the work he was expected to do at school. As a result of attitudes in this country towards education, and the fact that my son is dyslexic, I trained as a teacher for dyslexia.

However, I would question some of Bethan Marshall's findings. I agree that we expect too much too young, but it is the fact that these children develop low self-esteem because they cannot keep up with their peers that is the most damaging. If we didn't teach children formally until six or seven they would be in a much better position to absorb the intricacies of language and be emotionally more able to cope.

I was taught the alphabet at school as a matter of course. I am 60 years old and that was the method of teaching in those days. However, I can remember failing at school work around the age of seven when formal education really kicked in. Because I too was dyslexic, the system even then was beginning to "fail" me.

As a teacher with the Dyslexia Institute, I would advocate the following. We need to ensure that children keep up with their peers, thus reducing the chance of developing low self- esteem. We need to revert to learning through play, until much later. We must teach alphabet and phonological awareness. The whole class could be included in this.

We should abandon some of the unnecessary targets of the national curriculum. How can you teach children elements of science if they haven't acquired the basic skills of reading, spelling, recording and handwriting? We must boost children's self-esteem by giving them control over their learning, and build on success. And praise, praise, praise.

Sandra Young, by email

Some children may not be helped by being made to start learning to read early, as Bethan Marshall believes. But the majority of good adult readers began to learn before starting school. Because most teachers are among them, they have difficulty remembering how they learnt, or understanding why quite a few children find it so hard.

Learning to read English is exceptionally difficult and time-consuming. The average English-speaking child needs roughly three times longer than other Europeans to achieve basic competence in it. This is firstly because we often spell identical sounds in different ways, such as "train, lane, tray" or "sneak, peek, shriek". Therefore our children have to learn the sounds for roughly 90 basic spellings, while other orthographies have only half as many, or even fewer.

What makes learning to read English even slower and uniquely difficult is that, apart from having different spellings for identical sounds, it also has different pronunciations for identical spellings: bone, done, gone; so, do; leave, heaven; machine, define, engine.

In addition to creating a greater learning burden, these complications also make learning to read and write English less reversible than in other languages. If the "ee" sound was always spelt with "ee", children would learn what sound those letters make and would always be able to spell that sound that way.

Starting to tackle this learning burden in an informal way, from as young an age as possible, before reasoning ability has fully developed, gives children the best chance of coping with it. Unfortunately, this requires that children's language development begins to be nurtured from birth onwards, and that they are read to and helped to love books from early infancy. It leaves the children of parents who don't know any nursery rhymes, can't read well, don't buy books or visit libraries, at a severe disadvantage.

The surest way of helping them would be to improve our spelling system.

Masha Bell, Wareham, Dorset

POVERTY AND TALENT

Lord Adonis wants to ensure that every child has the opportunity to make the most of their potential, but focusing on talented children will not do that. However talented a child or good the school, the development of potential is severely restricted by the parents' inability to afford an adequate diet; the home computer with internet so essential to modern education; the clothes to prevent humiliation in the playground; the educational school trip; a decent holiday; or the move to a home that is not overcrowded and damp.

All of this is exacerbated by the exorbitant interest charged on loans to impoverished parents struggling to do the best for their children, or the disproportionate fines for poverty-related truancy. Meanwhile, the prices of food and utilities are due to rise.

Unless the politicians act, the inequalities in health and education between rich and poor will continue to grow, and the potential of the poorest children will be suppressed.

Rev Paul Nicolson, Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, London SW1

FUN AND GAMES

I read Richard Garner's article with great interest ("Primary schools 'have lost their sense of fun and play'", The Independent, 13 December, 2007. The National Association of Head Teachers is right to be concerned at the rapidly decreasing amount of time given over in the school day for play and physical activity in primary schools.

This is a vital time in a child's physical development, and the point when they are learning lifestyle habits that they will take with them into adolescence and adulthood. This lack of activity, both timetabled and extracurricular, is in part responsible for the rise in childhood obesity, which, as we all know, will put great strain on the NHS if it is not curbed.

At '"Fit For Sport", we have been running activity programmes for children for 14 years, helping schools to supplement their existing teaching, and running after-school and school-holiday clubs. We believe that children need to be given achievable goals to reach in order to make a real long-lasting difference to their physical fitness. By making a series of small changes over a period of time, children learn habits that they can sustain into adulthood.

We all know the pressure that children are under to perform well academically, but studies have shown that children who are physically active are better able to concentrate in class, perform better in tests, and are better behaved. The Government would do well to remember this when implementing its new plans for schools.

Dean Horridge, MD, Fit For Sport, London W14

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