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Ines, fairy tales and reading

Reading with Daddy

Today’s guest post is by Carolyn Howitt, on sharing stories with her daughter Ines.

My father taught me to read when I was tiny using a ‘Teach Your Baby to Read’ scheme, getting me to crawl to the appropriate word. I used to be very proud of this when I was a child, I felt that it demonstrated a) my undisputed love of books and b) my superior intelligence. How wrong I was – it was only during my time as a primary school teacher that I realised that you can learn to read at any age. And that it doesn’t matter if you learn at 2 or 12, what matters is that it remains a joy – and this will only happen as long as you are not made to feel a failure during the process.

Which brings me to our daughter. Ines is 10 years’ old and has Down’s Syndrome. She has  a severe learning disability (SLD), and a limited and emerging vocabulary: she uses Makaton signs to support her speech. She is still in nappies. She makes loud dinosaur noises, eats with her hands and likes to spin around on the spot. She is relentlessly cheerful, hyperactive (officially ADHD), affectionate and demanding – everyone has to have a ‘big cuddle’ about once an hour (this can lead to embarrassment if we are spending time with people we don’t know that well). She can be violent when unable to express her needs. She is frequently in peals of laughter, when asked why just says ‘It funny’. As well as being firmly glued to her iPad she absolutely loves stories, in particular fairy tales. And the relationship between this love, her emerging speech and her first steps in reading is a close one.

Bedtime is story time and Ines adores this. The ritual has to be the same every night. Her father and I take it in turns to read to her but her favourite thing is when we are both there; one reading, the other one joining in as part of the audience. It is absolutely crucial that she feels ownership of this time and that she is in control. She places us in the correct part of the room. She personally and carefully selects each story from the small pool of about 12 books (this can take a while). If we suggest a story it is usually dismissed and she goes back to pondering afresh, so we have to sit there with our mouths firmly shut. Introducing new books is extremely tricky, we often have to sneak them in and then wait for her to be feeling particularly adventurous. And the books that she does like have been read literally hundreds of times: we are on our second copy of Nosy Crow’s Jack and the Beanstalk. She has a bookcase of lovely stories which she will not look at, but we don’t mind this as we have time on our side – we will get round to them all eventually. Current favourite books include Green Eggs & Ham, Hairy McClairy and Mr Underbed, plus a number of Tweenies stories (Ines loves the Tweenies),  and of course Frozen.

While we read she concentrates hard and joins in enthusiastically, especially enjoying the funny bits and any rhymes. She cackles and shouts, does all the actions (and Makaton signs) and sings. Some of her favourite bits are rather inexplicable. The word ‘goosery’ in Jack and the Beanstalk, for some bizarre reason, is said with relish every time. More understandably she loves the giant’s rhyming couplets and will join in on the final word  ‘Winner’…’DINNER’! And when Cinderella’s stepsisters shriek ‘Fetch my tiara!’ she is quite literally falling about with mirth. All stories conclude with a satisfied ‘THE END’.

Ines’ development is in many ways a mystery to me. I find myself staring at her wondering what exactly is going on in her head (it’s probably just ‘Chips!’ or ‘Big cuddle!’). Whatever it is, there is no doubt that language is power, and the more she can express herself verbally, the fewer behavioural problems we have from her. Then other achievements follow as she learns along her own path. So Ines’ love of story must be cherished as it will lead to everything else for her, it will literally make her life unfold. I do not believe this to be an understatement.

I first learned about the link between reading and language development when I took Ines to  specialist speech therapy sessions, which she attended weekly between the ages of 4 to 7. These are run around the UK by the organisation SYMBOL, and are aimed specifically at children with Down’s Syndrome. They are absolutely brilliant. Based on the premise that DS children are visual and sensory learners and find phonics tricky, words are matched with pictures, their shapes are memorised, their pattern is clapped and a useful core vocabulary is built up. Reading is THE starting point: the gateway to speech. The core vocabulary chosen is always of personal interest to the child. Watching my daughter in these sessions was a revelation – first attending as a hyperactive non-verbal child, she became able to sit and concentrate, she learned and delighted in it. Her language gradually increased alongside her reading and comprehension.

Recently I have been trying to continue the Symbol approach at home. For this to be effective I select words that Ines wants to learn and mix these up with a useful basic core vocabulary. For example, photos of our family are teamed with ‘and’, the characters from Frozen are teamed with ‘I’ and see’ and the characters from Red Riding Hood with ‘in’ and ‘the’. Ines is making slow but rather wonderful progress. Have a look at the film clip below to see this in action:

Ines also likes to sit and leaf through a book, often ‘reading’ to herself some memorised words, or just making them up. This is quite interesting as she loves the process of reading even when not really understanding the story. I had always assumed that young children are captivated only by story, but this is apparently not all of the enjoyment. She glances at the illustrations but it is not these that reel her in either – it seems to be an innate love of the language, the actual words themselves:  she particularly enjoys rhyming couplets, words with rhythm, onomatopoeia. Maybe this is partly why she enjoys classic fairy tales so much – their words resonate; ‘Fee, fie, foe fum’, ‘What big teeth you have’, ‘Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.’

Reading up on why fairy tales have such timeless appeal, I have come across a number of scholarly theories around their universal themes of impossible adversary, life/death, rags to riches, longing/desire etc. But Ines won’t understand any of these. She lives utterly in the present and has no understanding of money or death, for example. So I’m still at a slight loss to explain this. It could just be down to their simplicity – clear heroine, big problem, nasty adversary, happy ending. That ebb and flow of the key aspects of what makes a good story will ring through, even if you do not understand the finer workings of the plot.

For Ines in particular, the humour is a pull. Some fairytales are actually pretty dark but humour is highlighted in the Nosy Crow reworkings of the fairy tales and this may explain why these are her favourites. And then the apps reinforce the stories and allow the stories to be explored independently. Ines is a modern tech-savvy child, able to easily navigate an ipad, and the apps have her screeching out loud with laughter. Not always at the parts you would expect (or even want) – she loves the crying Snow White baby, for example, which can be hard to listen to for half an hour. The part that she finds the funniest is when Jack has to try and get the bats out of the castle, she literally shouts BATS and is wiping her eyes. What is it exactly? Who knows but it is wonderful.

Despite her SLD she is extremely independent, often doing exactly the opposite of what is requested purely for the fun of it. This can be awkward but it is a secret relief to me that no-one will ever make Ines do anything that she doesn’t want to do. However it can make teaching her impossible as if she is not in the mood as she will totally refuse to co-operate. For this reason it is important to only ask Ines to read when Ines wants to do it. Sometimes this means waiting weeks between sessions but she always comes back to it without fail. If we push this then she won’t want to come back and we will have lost her. And after all, what’s the hurry? There’s too much at stake.

So this brings me back to the start. The main thing, more important than the mechanical act of reading itself, is that Ines retains her love of story and is able to always get enjoyment from books. For its own sake, but also as the first milestone towards other communication and progress more generally.  If we crushed this then I would never forgive myself.

So here’s the challenge: we have to keep the out loud reading fresh each day, despite the repetition. I never would have thought I had the patience for this, but it’s worth the instant reward of the expression on Ines’ face. So – who’s for Cinderella for the thousandth time?

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